From The Word of the Speechless: Selected Stories
For some writers, the boundary between fiction and memoir is permeable. Philip Roth regularly mined his own life and experiences for his fiction, as did Norman Mailer (who all but obliterated the line between fiction and autobiography in works like The Armies of the Night).
“I firmly believe that in order to be a truly good artist, you need to link your art to your life,” writes David Shields in his 2010 collage/memoir/manifesto hybrid Reality Hunger. Shields argues for a literary art that inhabits the interstices between genres – neither fiction nor memoir, but incorporating elements of both. Memoir, Shields argues, is in any case part fabrication: all memoirists, not just James Frey, embellish incidents in their lives and fill in gaps in memory where no written transcript is available.
“A memoir is a tale taken from life – that is, from actual, not imagined, occurrences – related by a first-person narrator who is undeniably the writer,” Shields states. “Beyond these bare requirements, it has the same responsibility as the novel or the short story: to shape a piece of experience so that it moves from a tale of private interest to one with meaning for the disinterested reader.”
This would seem to describe “For Smokers Only,” a semi-autobiographical piece by the late Peruvian writer Julio Ramón Ribeyro. The story is narrated in the first person by a Peruvian writer who spends time abroad in Europe and has published a volume titled Featherless Vultures. All of these facts fit Ribeyro; the association between author and narrator is not just implied, but invited. Ribeyro was also a committed smoker and in this story he provides both his own history (or, if you prefer, “his own” history) with cigarettes and a lyrical justification for why smokers persist in the habit.
This is no small thing. Smokers are one of the few groups it is permissible to discriminate against and the demonstrated health risks that accrue to the habit have made committed smokers close to pariahs in modern developed societies. When Ribeyro writes in a letter that his stories focus on “the marginalized, the forgotten, those condemned to an existence without harmony and without voice,” he is speaking of social and political outcasts, but he could as easily be talking about smokers.
In his introduction to the New York Review Books edition of Ribeyro’s selected stories, Alejandro Zambra includes “For Smokers Only” among the “liberating library for smokers,” and he suggests – correctly – that while non-smokers may find much of its material exaggerated, smokers will relate to it as a work of unvarnished naturalism. Zambra quotes Rocco Alesina on the metaphysical association smokers like Ribeyro have with their vice: “smoke doesn’t kill, it keeps you company until you die.”
This is a fairly good distillation of the way Ribeyro’s narrator characterizes his relationship with cigarettes, a relationship he describes alternately in terms of addiction, habit, and ritual. “Like all habits, it had become attached to my nature until it had become an integral part of that nature, whereby removing it would be the equivalent of a mutilation,” Ribeyro writes. “[A]nd like all rituals, it was subjected to strict protocols, sanctioned by the execution of precise actions and the use of occult objects that were irreplaceable.” Any current or reformed smoker will feel a pang of recognition at this notion of totemic, almost mystical actions and paraphernalia that accompany the apparently simple action of lighting a cigarette and taking a drag.
The other reason Ribeyro’s narrator gives for persisting as a smoker is his vocation: he is a writer, and writers, he informs us, smoke. He refers to André Gide, who wrote in his journal, “Writing for me is an act that complements the pleasure of smoking.” When he secures a job in Paris with Agence France-Presse, he finds camaraderie among his fellow journalists who could be found at any time of the day or night “desperately typing on their typewriters, sucking nonstop on cigars, pipes, and cigarettes of every brand, and surrounded by a thick nicotine haze, to the point that I often wondered if they were gathered there to write the news or to smoke.”
Given the close association between writers and smoking, the narrator also notes a strange discrepancy: “Writers, for the most part, have been and are great smokers. Though curiously, they haven’t written as many books about the life of cigarettes as they have about gambling, drugs, or alcohol. Where’s the Dostoevsky, the De Quincey, or the Malcolm Lowery of cigarettes?” He does note a reference to tobacco in Molière’s Don Juan and a more extensive reference to smoking in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. And he refers to Italo Svevo’s novel Zeno’s Conscience as the only fictional work to have “dealt extensively with the subject of cigarettes, and with unsurpassed incisiveness and humour.” It is perhaps to redress this perceived imbalance that Ribeyro wrote his own paean to the vice.
And his story forms a cogent and convincing explanation for why, beyond mere physical addiction, smokers remain so devoted to the habit, to the extent that it becomes, at times, an all-consuming focus or obsession. The narrator informs us in passing that “in the meantime, apart from smoking, I had married and had a child,” clearly delineating the order of significance in this context. Nor does he disavow the adverse health consequences of the addiction, describing repeated trips to hospital, including one that entailed surgery to remove “part of my duodenum, almost all of my stomach, and a big chunk of my esophagus.”
Convalescing in hospital in the Pierre Cardin pyjamas his wife brought for him (“If you have to die, it might as well be in Pierre Cardin pyjamas”), the narrator witnesses a group of construction workers smoking and determines to get out so that he might resume something of a normal life (meaning, have a cigarette). He is informed that he will not be released until he can put on some weight. This leads to an increasingly desperate series of manoeuvres to try to trick the nurses at weigh-in: he fills his pockets with heavy coins and silverware, eventually sewing fish forks into his underwear to try to add pounds when he stands on the scale.
This illustrates another aspect of Ribeyro’s story that might risk getting lost in a reader’s moral upset with the subject matter: “For Smokers Only” is blisteringly, eye-wateringly funny. The narrator’s misadventures in the pursuit of cigarettes are plentiful and outrageous. His German landlord provides him with tobacco and rolling papers when he cannot afford to purchase cigarettes himself; he puts out a fire in their apartment but simultaneously almost causes a catastrophic flood. He falls in with an undersized Peruvian criminal who introduces him to king size cigarettes: “It was during this period that I met Panchito and was able, for a stretch, to enjoy the longest cigarettes I had ever seen in my life, thanks to the smallest friend I ever had.” He jumps out of an upper-story window to retrieve a pack of smokes he’d previously tossed in an effort to quit cold turkey. And he tries to fool his wife by going out for a run in the mornings and heading to a nearby beach where he has buried several packs of cigarettes in the sand.
How much of this is autobiography and how much is embellished is ultimately not important. “For Smokers Only” has a buoyant, picaresque structure and an engaging narrative voice that combines colourful incident with philosophical and literary rumination on the pleasures of smoking and the metaphysical relationship between a smoker and his cigarettes. It is a thoroughly enjoyable story from one of Peru’s finest and most underappreciated practitioners of the short form.