Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Marañon River is the force, both symbolic and real, which dominates The Golden Serpent. It is the river of life (and of death) and the daily test of man’s fitness for survival. The book is a celebration of lives lived in harmony with the natural world. The lives and deaths of individuals matter much less than the continuing saga of man’s struggle with the river and the awareness of vitality and freedom that this struggle brings.

The episodes in the book spell out the day-to-day details of the existence of the Calemar villagers; a vast amount of information about currents, rafting, banana growing, goat keeping, fish catching, and household routines is included. All of the reader’s senses are engaged in myriad details of color, smell, taste, sound, and texture, extensively and lyrically described. General attitudes are illustrated by specific examples: The life story of an outlaw reveals the deep antagonisms between villagers and national law enforcement agencies; the tale of chasing the priest out of town when he tries to cheat people out of their prepaid masses illustrates the villagers’ insistence upon justice and hostility toward outsiders; the folktales about birds and animals show the deep sense of connection with nature felt by those of Calemar. Ciro Alegría manages, throughout The Golden Serpent, to balance these detailed descriptions of daily life with lyric praise of the beauty of Calemar. This balance works in the novel, without slipping into anthropological accounting on the one hand or sentimentality on the other, in part because it is contained within the powerful rhythm of the changing seasons, the cycle of the year. The primary time period of the novel is that of a full year, although flashbacks and the epilogue extend it into a ten-year span. Events and situations cycle through the novel in repetitive patterns, like the alternating dry and rainy seasons; over and over again, raftsmen go over the La Escalera rapids, crops are harvested, couples marry, babies are born, the festival of the Virgin is celebrated. An overall harmony and tone of well-being are affirmed and sustained despite occasional deaths or disasters.