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Photograph by Paul Schraub

Victor Perera, 1934-2003

Novelist, teacher, journalist Victor Perera nurtured idealism in his readers and students

By Dan Pulcrano

VICTOR PERERA linked us to a mystical world of ancient tales, tribes, sea monsters, curses and spirits that he imported to a busy modern world because he was convinced humanity's future depended on the lessons they could impart. The sacking of whales, rain forests, Central American Indian culture and other ancient traditions, the author of six books believed, foretold the destruction of human civilization. Yet he conveyed these insights with grace and beauty and optimism.

A calm and gentle soul with an easy smile, one of the only times I ever saw him get angry was when, as a student in one of his university classes, I described myself as cynical. For someone who had dedicated much of his professional life to nurturing idealism, cynicism in youth was unforgivable.

Perera, who taught at UC-Santa Cruz and Berkeley and contributed to Metro Santa Cruz and other publications, saw things others missed. One time, he and I hiked to Natural Bridges State Park, and he asked me if I saw the butterflies. I didn't spot any until Perera mentioned the black clumps in the eucalyptus trees overhead, hanging pods of monarchs so dense they rendered themselves invisible. The ongoing waste-laying to ancestral and natural tradition was an equally obvious black hole that formed an underlying theme of the body of writing that Perera left behind when he died on June 14 at the age of 69.

To Perera, his subjects were not pop-culture icons. He sported a whale pendant in the '70s not because it was fashionable in a bumper-sticker way to "Save the Whales," but as a personal bond that extended to his practice of interspecies communication with the marine mammals. He wrote the definitive book about the Indians of southern Mexico, The Last Lords of Palenque, a decade before Subcomandante Marcos became a T-shirt hero.

While politics hung as a backdrop to the social tumults he chronicled, Perera's writing was always literary and intensely personal, a natural result of his family's roots in Central America, where the writer was born, and his heritage in the Sephardic Jewish traditions of medieval Spain that wended their way with his forebears through Portugal, Greece and Jerusalem.

An immigrant who had lived in Brooklyn and in the Bay Area, Perera spoke without an accent and wrote in his adopted language, English, with rare mastery and fluidity. In a piece published in Metro a month before a 1995 stroke ended his writing career, Perera shared a story about a healer who served him stew in a piece about colleague Isabel Allende's book Aphrodite.

"One dark, rainy evening a heavy-browed, thick-waisted curandera rid me of a chill with a peasant curanto that has stuck as durably to my memory as it predictably did to my ribs," Perera wrote. "Lying in bed late that night, under layers of quilts and ponchos, my dreams abounded in wild trysts with she-goblins, tree-nymphs and fanciful sea-monsters that found fertile soil in my fevered imagination, and never let go."

In another review of a fictionalized account of a South American dictator, he described the anti-hero as so "twisted by vengefulness and paranoid distrust that his enslavement of an entire nation did not begin to assuage his bloodlust."

His books were passionately received though not bestsellers. And though he was revered by students and influenced many an emerging writer, he was never granted a professorship by the University of California, where he taught literary journalism for decades.

Maybe he didn't quite fit the contemporary formulas for security in mainstream academia or publishing. Being a Latino Jew of Sephardic pedigree in the United States is minority tripled. (Non-Eastern European Jews are a minority within Judaism.) "To be a Sephardi, I discovered, is to see the world as mystery, so that even ordinary events are infused with the sense of otherness," Perera wrote in the late '90s. "Sephardim are prone to be polyglot and multicultural from infancy, as they crisscross religious and ethnic boundaries with deceptive ease."

Perera published The Cross and the Pear Tree: A Sephardic Journey in 1995, which made him something of an icon in the Sephardic community. Always generous in lending support to a cause he liked, Perera helped co-found Ivri-NASAWI, a national Sephardic cultural organization, and served as a volunteer adviser to the UCSC quarterly Leviathan.

When Perera suffered the stroke that robbed him of his ability to write or speak normally, friends and former students rallied on his behalf to raise money to pay for his care because the state's top university doesn't adequately insure the health of all of its instructors.

He made a partial recovery and was living in a small apartment in Santa Cruz when I visited him last year, sad that I couldn't do more to help out a friend who had encouraged my efforts as a college editor and had signed the paperwork to release me into the world with a journalism degree.

His mind was sharp as always, but he had trouble getting the words out and punched the air several times as a gesture of general frustration with his condition. Like other true artists, professional writers forgo many of the comforts afforded other accomplished members of our society because they're compelled by irresistible forces to share their thoughts. Why had the universe conspired to levy such a cruel sentence?

He kept repeating "too much" every time his words failed. Were the thoughts racing faster than his disabled coordination could express them? Was modern society careening out of control from forces beyond the ability of humans to control them? Or was he advising me to slow down, watch my health and not work so hard? I think "too much" meant all three.

Luckily, his writings, while mystical and lyrical, read less ambiguously. In browsing his works in the days since his passing, Victor Perera's visionary prose and thinking speak even louder than when his pen was snatched from his fingers half a decade ago.

Wouldn't it be fitting if his wake-up call for global survival outlasted the mortal coil? Although I confess my view is colored by hopefulness that grows out of my fondness for him as a person, I can't help but think that Perera's writings have certain elements of classics that will inspire new readers who discover his works in years ahead.

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From the June 26-July 2, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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