Before moving on to different topics of interest, I want to discuss one last book that takes the political versus the personal as one of its themes. I read Jose Maria Arguedas’ Los Rios Profundos (Deep Rivers) in Spanish because I really missed reading in Spanish, and I wanted to make sure I could keep it up to par. At first I was worried I was going to have trouble getting into the book because it reminded me a lot of something we would read in Ms. Aguirre’s tenth-grade Spanish class (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I thought it was just going to be another coming-of-age novel, which it is, very much so. Now that some time has passed for me to reflect on it a little more, I’ll go out on a limb and say that it’s worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist.
The first half of the book is mostly episodic in nature. It’s with the last few chapters (the ones dealing with the indigenous women’s strike and the plague that afflicts the community) that the book really comes together, and all the seemingly disparate elements (the mad women, the various school friends and their dramas, the interactions with the indigenous community) suddenly click together into a cohesively, thematically-related whole. This makes sense, since it’s these two events (the strike and the plague) where Ernesto the narrator really comes together as a person. Beforehand, he’s very much a watcher, an observer. When the strike happens, he gets much more involved, and once the plague hits he’s a drastically more active character.
You can read more about Arguedas in his biography, but basically Los rios profundos is an fictionalized version of Arguedas’ childhood. Like the main character Ernesto, Arguedas’ father was a country lawyer who traveled a lot, and apparently whenever he was away from home Arguedas’ stepmother would lock him up in the kitchen and ignore him, so essentially he was raised by indigenous servants. Like Ernesto, until he went to Catholic boarding school at age 14, he spoke better Quechua than he did Spanish. He went on to study anthropology after writing Los rios profundos and wrote a lot of poetry in Quechua, but he never went on to write another work that reflected on or referred to his childhood. He ended up committing suicide, a fact that inevitably casts its shadow over Los rios profundos, which deals so much with Ernesto’s feeling of not belonging, of being trapped in between two worlds.
It’s tough, that whole between world things. I don’t think about it in relation to my own situation as much as I should, maybe. How did growing up in Colombia, in freaking South America, for goodness’ sake, affect me and form me as a person? How has it set me apart or made me different than if I’d grown up in a suburb in Virginia? I won’t go into it too much in this forum, but one thing I think tends to be overlooked in these discussions about origins is class. To put it bluntly, I grew up in a well-off family, and that’s what has made more of a difference than anything else. I have little things from Colombia: Shakira songs on my ipod, Spanish that vacillates between good, great and exceptional, depending on where I’m living. I went through a phase of reading Peace Corps blogs and a lot of people wrote about the discomfrot they felt at being stared at from being the foreigner, the stranger, the one who stood out in a crowd. And all I could think was “man, that feeling is old-school for me!” In Unicentro, man, in high school, every time I opened my mouth—I’d always be the gringa, la mona, you know? I was pretty excited to go to college in the U.S. because I really looked forward to the idea of blending in, of not standing out, of melting away into the crowd. I thought maybe that would make a difference in relationships with people, if there wasn’t this big white foreigner thing in between us all the time. Turns out I still felt pretty different, but it was a gift rather than a burden.
On with the book review. It’s the presence and the treatment of the indigenous community in this novel that sets it above and apart other typical coming-of-age novels. It’s not written in a vacuum (mainly I think of Jane Eyre, Mr. Rochester’s far away wealth coming from the distant islands). The Indians are not treated in a patronized or racist fashion, as they were in books like Aves sin nido, which purported to reveal the injustice of Peru’s treatment of Indians, but just ended up depicting them as these pitiful, helpless beings. There is nothing about indianismo on wikipedia, which makes me sad that I can’t make a happy-go-clicky link, but basically it was an early 20th-century literary movement in Latin America that was a combination of regionalism, realism and the picturesque, which a focus on indigenous presence. As Wililam Rowe puts it in the introduction, writers of the indigenismo movement more often than not “sever the Indian from his own culture and then attribute to him an outlook that will appear to explain his behavior. As the reipient of alien values which are projected into him, the Indian is merely a static character who reflects the view of outsiders. Any active interrelation with the world, in which culture and consciousness consist, is denied him.” (vii)
The fact that Arguedas avoids this is enough to make LRP a worthy read. How does he do it? Interestingly enough, it’s not through inserting a bunch of self-righteous, teary social justice speeches, with characters shaking their fists and bellowing about how unfair it all is. Unlike the other inidianismo books I’ve read According to both introductions in the two different versions I ended up having to check out (trying to avoid late fees, y’know), Arguedas adopts an “indigenous perspective” of the world not only through the language of the novel, but through Ernesto himself. As John V. Murra puts it in one introduction, Arguedas’ intention was “how to transmit to the reader of Spanish not only a compassion for the oppresed, but a sense that the latter also had a perception, a world view of their own, in which people, mountains, animals, the rain, truth, all had dimensions of their own, powerful, revealing, and utterly unlike the Iberian ones.” (pg. xi from the U of Texas Press 1978 edition—apologies for incorrect MLA notation due to my own laziness.) Which is all very well and good, but again—how does he do it? (I can’t help but think INDIGENOUS PERSPECTIVE OF THE WORLD M-F—DO YOU SPEAK IT?) I think Arguedas’ transcendental, almost ecstatic descriptions of nature and the Peruvian scenery throughout the book has a lot to do with it. The descriptions aren’t boring nature porn that become an absolute slog to get through (I’m looking at you, Thirteen Moons); instead, they’re charged with an intense, passionate language. I wish I hadn’t return my copy so that I could type up some examples. It’s pretty interesting. Again, I couldn’t help but relate it back to my own personal experiences, working this summer in Ecuador, with the Huaorani and the Siona, reading books like “Savages”… I’m not an anthropologist, but there really is a different worldview of things out there in the jungle, and nature is a huge part of it.
What really gets me more than anything else, though, is the language. Damn, I enjoy speaking Spanish, and man, how I miss it when I’m not. That’s what I miss about Colombia, more than anything else: speaking Spanish. I’m grateful for the ability to get that much closer to the language in books like this one….