Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1081

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Ciro Alegría’s panoramic novel mirrors life in the Peruvian Andes early in the twentieth century. Its many themes include defense of the downtrodden, justice, injustice, the tragedy of human life, dishonest lawyers and courts, litigation over land boundaries, suffering, villainy and heroism, and racism.

The novel’s power lies in its defense of the abused Indian populace of Rumi. The reader lives with Rumi’s people throughout the story and identifies with them. Unforgettable is the noble old leader of Rumi, Rosendo Maquis, and his efforts, ideals, character, misfortunes, and death. Grave and good like the community of Rumi itself, Rosendo incarnates his people, who are idealized by Alegría. The dark night and demise of Rumi are ably painted by Alegría, giving the novel an epic reach. Besides its many regionalist qualities, moreover, Broad and Alien Is the World has a well-developed plot and generally convincing characterization that rank it as one of the better contributions to the literature of indianismo, which defends the Indian peoples of Latin America. The plot reaches a final crescendo with the destruction of Rumi and all that the recently murdered Rosendo stands for; but the noble Rosendo, his wife the pathetic Pascuala, black-clad Fiero Vasquez, and Benito Castro still live and stand out in the reader’s memory.

Alegría’s language is poetic, lively, and colorful. He uses standard Spanish laced with occasional regionalisms, including Quechua words, to good effect. Dialogue is authentic. The novel is also unwieldy, structurally chaotic, and lacking in careful planning (owing to its hasty composition; it was completed in a matter of months).

Geography is always a silent presence in the novel. At times, it is almost a dominant character, reflecting the fact of the importance of geography in Peru’s culture. One sees the lofty Andean sierra with its crisp, thin air, its gaunt landscapes, sparse vegetation, and rocky soil, and pastel Rumi with its cobbled, wind-swept streets and huddled houses. Rumi’s people grow potatoes and tend their llamas, but they chew coca to cope with hunger and the cold, and their chests are like those of pouter pigeons since the air has so little oxygen.

Alegría was born and reared on a hacienda in the same region in which he sets his novel. Although his parents were his first teachers, he later credited the whole Peruvian people with having molded him and caused him to understand their grief. An Indian wet nurse cradled him in her arms and taught him to walk; he played as a child with Indian children and later saw things that he could not forget. In Broad and Alien Is the World, thus, Alegría penetrates the Indian mind, revealing the native’s feeling for the soil, his poverty, stoicism, dignity, superstition, and occasional lapsing into alcoholism or sexual license. Unfortunately, Alegría ladles out some crude propaganda in his lambasting of such types as white men, priests, and landowners. These stock, one-dimensional figures are reminiscent of Diego Rivera’s murals with their pasty-faced, and evil whites, bloated priests, cruel-faced landowners, and clean-cut Indians. Thus, Don Amenabar, Bismarck Ruiz, and the cowardly, servile priest are not convincingly drawn. Alegría reveals unconscious prejudice in this respect, although his own family owned land and was Caucasian in appearance. As is often the case in Spanish American literature, the novel is inspired and sincerely motivated but betrays the fact that its author belongs to a privileged social class and has not been as truly a member of the working classes as, say, John Steinbeck, Jack London, or José Antonio Villarreal.

One of Alegría’s great contributions is his pictorial depiction of rural Peruvian society. The reader experiences many social types and their folkways, traditions, mentality, society, and sorrows. In Rumi, readers see the kaleidoscopic results of four centuries of blending between Inca and Spaniard. One of the finest examples is the colorful sketch of Rumi’s village meeting, with its touches of imagery wherein bronzed Indian faces mingle with lighter mestizos and an occasional white face, against a background of Inca and Spanish dress, manners, postures, and gestures. The novel is thus a storehouse of all that has happened to Peru, from the days of the Inca empire, through the dramatic conquest by the Spaniards, and the four ensuing centuries of racial and cultural blending. It is said that all of Alegría’s works demonstrate a determination to create an original literature that not only interprets the Peruvian reality but also expresses contemporary Peru’s peculiarities. He therefore draws the mestizo, whose heart is rooted in the Peruvian soil and in whose soul exists a harmonious mixture. A mestizo is the central personality in all of Alegría’s novels, with the possible exception of Broad and Alien Is the World, and even in this work, the mestizo, Castro, inherits Rosendo’s role and develops into the most significant personality of the latter part of the novel.

Broad and Alien Is the World is essentially a novel of the high sierra as other Spanish American novels are novels of the pampa, llanos, desert, jungle, or city. It nevertheless broadens the social and human conflict beyond the boundaries of the community of Rumi to Peru’s coast and jungle—nowhere under the Peruvian flag is there a place that is not hostile to the Indian. Castro is regarded as an extremist agitator in Lima; one of Rosendo’s sons is blinded by the explosion of a rubber ball in the eastern jungles; Calixto Paucar dies in a mine shaft; other emigrants from Rumi meet misfortune in many parts of the Peruvian Republic, demonstrating that, for the Indian at least, broad and alien is the world. Alegría’s great achievement, thus, is that his masterpiece has undoubtedly helped to implement reform in favor of the mountain-dwelling Indians and mestizos of central Peru, for their lot has slowly but surely improved since the day when, while writing a scene for another novel concerning the expulsion of some Indians from their community, Alegría was struck with such force “by an intense gust of ideas and memories” that the inspiration for his masterpiece was born.

The novel is a veritable storehouse of Peruvian lore, giving as it does a detailed picture of the social structure of the Indian community, its innate dignity, its traditions, and its overwhelming tragedy. Alegría was exiled from Peru in 1934 because of his political views.