Eduardo Barrios was born in Valparaiso, Chile, the son of a Chilean father and a Peruvian mother. He lived in Peru and in various other countries of Latin America, where he traveled extensively and worked at odd jobs. He was a prolific writer of short stories, plays, and novels. Such versatility may have contributed to his careful, detailed literary style.
Brother Ass initiated in Latin America a literary trend that may be called the psychological novel. Within the realist mode focused on social critique, the psychological novel presents an analytical study of the human psyche by means of well-delineated characters, each of whom represents traits common to all people. The interaction and the clash of these types illustrate how human behavior works, including the ways in which people relate to each other in friendship. Psychological analysis such as this also includes a didactic approach to improvement of life in society at large. As a byproduct of the carefully orchestrated case study, the psychological novel offers a strong social comment on a particular problem in contemporary society.
In an analytical approach, Barrios’s characters are important components of what could be viewed as a psychological behavior experiment, with close documentation of their reactions toward each other. Characters, therefore, stand as abstractions of the impact of strong personality traits when people find themselves together in society. The title, Brother Ass, incorporates the concept of human beings viewed as animals in their personal interaction. Life in a formal social setting, along with the rules and restrictions imposed by groups, clashes against people’s animal-like feelings and emotions. That conflict reveals the metaphorical message: Each human being’s struggle to keep “Brother Ass” under control constitutes the greatest challenge for all members of society.
The choice of setting, a Franciscan monastery in an isolated town, illustrates Barrios’s intention to create a controlled environment for his psychological experiment. One could argue that Barrios’s intentions are twofold. One is to show how characters behave when removed from society. The second is to show how, once isolated from civilized rules, characters reconstitute societal values. The odd, unexpected behavior of the characters and the surprising ending constitute Barrios’s social comment.
Barrios moves away from examination of Latin American society as it was practiced by most of his contemporary realist fellow writers. Instead, Barrios attempts to achieve a universal message through contemplation of the human psyche and its function in the shaping of life within a social group. Unlike animals, human beings respond to one factor in particular that makes them relate to one another, making the social fabric of interpersonal relationships more apparent to the reader. Love and its opposite feeling, hatred, stand out as those forces that promote social cohesiveness. In Brother Ass, love is presented in three forms: fraternal, religious, and sexual. These loves, however, are interconnected, and their carefully maintained balance makes a well-rounded individual. Fraternal love makes people want to live together in a social group, as demonstrated by life at the monastery. The desire for companionship is the basic foundation of life in society. As demonstrated by the frantic behavior of Fray Lázaro and Fray Rufino, however, deprivation or overcommitment to the other two equally strong forms of love may result in a personal crisis.
In regard to sexual love, Barrios treats the roles of women in contemporary society in a new way. His contemporary fellow writers often take extreme positions in their representations of women. Either women represent evil vices (prostitution, for example) or they become ethereal beings, subjected to great stress from their immediate reality. In Barrios’s novel, women protagonists, such as María Mercedes, are affected by the same strains in life that men are. María Mercedes shares with Fray Lázaro his doubt about his vocation for the religious because they both understand that such a choice opposes a natural desire for reproduction. Women, therefore, share equally with men the inherent human task of establishing themselves as members of a larger social group.
The function of yet another inherent human feeling is the ability to love a supernatural being, known in Western cultures as God. Barrios depicts love for a divine being as the most sublime expression because this loving relationship does not require physical reciprocity, yet he does not preach acceptance of the existence of God. Instead, he proposes life as observed by the Franciscan order as an example of simpler societal values. Life in a community with close attachment to nature is seen as a refreshing relief from the chaotic modern society at the beginning of the twentieth century. When life in the monastery loses its spiritual purpose, however (as happened to Fray Rufino), an existentialist crisis takes place.
Barrios’s most important contribution to contemporary Latin American literature is his work with such modern psychological theories as Freudian psychoanalysis. Rather than bewildering his reader with macabre descriptions of situations in society, as most realist writers are doing, Barrios prefers a more in-depth critical analysis of the possible causes of those problems. His characters are also real, and they face psychological problems similar to those experienced by his readers.