Ciro Alegría’s novels are distinguished from prior works in the Latin American tradition of indigenist literature because they depict the Andes Indians realistically, and they avoid the extremes of either an exotic picturesque idealization of the “noble savage” or a warped negative portrayal of criminalistic and pathological primitivism amid the crudest living conditions. Like other novelists of the school of indigenist realism, which thrived in the 1920’s and 1930’s throughout Latin America, Alegría wrote novels of protest against the hard lot and oppressed condition of the Indians and was not concerned primarily with literary quality for its own sake. His works, perhaps for that very reason, give an impression of great spontaneity and directly perceived reality.
The Golden Serpent
Alegría’s first novel, The Golden Serpent, focuses not on the tribal Indians, who appear occasionally in the background, but on the cholo river men in a jungle valley along the treacherous Marañon River, where they earn their living as ferrymen transporting people, goods, and cattle on their balsa rafts at the risk of their lives. The great struggle of the book is between the rushing river—with its dangerous currents and rapids, its cliffs, jungles, and sandy, gold-dust-rich beaches—and the men who match their wits and brawn with the river’s primeval power.
The title The Golden Serpent refers to the river; this metaphor is applied to it by a young engineer from Lima, Don Osvaldo, because from a cliff top this “world of yellow mud” looks like a “great yellow serpent”; its secondary reference is to a company by the same name that the engineer plans to establish to obtain financing and machinery to mine the river’s rich gold deposits. The title also references the little yellow viper that bites the engineer fatally in the neck, preventing him from ever returning to civilization. All three meanings intermingle in the chthonic symbolism of the river and its jungles, teeming with both life and death. In Alegría’s rich, poetic prose, the river becomes a symbol of life itself, powerful and multivalent: “Life always triumphs. Man is like the river, deep, having his ups and downs, but always stout-hearted.” “Not everything went smoothly, for life is like the river, full of turns and rough crossings.” Such comparisons, both explicit and implicit, are woven into the texture of many vivid descriptions of the tropical environment.
In The Golden Serpent, the central focus is on humankind’s struggle with nature—the exploitation or oppression of human beings by other humans plays only a small role here. The river, whose ominous roar can always be heard in the background, is the main challenge as well as the life-giving force. Among its more tangible dangers are landslides, treacherous rapids, seasonal floods that sweep away whole settlements, and tremendous logjams that fling the flimsy balsa rafts of the cholos against jutting cliffs or cause them to be swallowed up by whirlpools. The deadly disease uta, which rots the flesh off a person’s living bones, affects mainly outsiders who venture into the tropical valleys. Snakes, mosquitoes, and other vermin are ubiquitous, and larger denizens of the jungle also make their presence felt; in one chapter, a cholo woman outwits and kills a puma that has been slaying the farm animals and spreading panic in the village. Early in the novel, Alegría graphically describes the plight of two brothers stranded in the middle of the shallows in the low-water season, separated from shore on both sides by deep water and steep cliffs and slowly starving. Only one of the brothers survives; the other is caught in the swift current and drowns when he makes a desperate but unwise attempt to swim to shore.
The cholo men are uneducated, heavy drinkers, hard workers, impetuous, proud of their hazardous life, and grateful to the river for their livelihood, aware of its beauty and its unexpected dangers, which could kill them suddenly when they least expect it. They face its challenges boldly, matching their courage to its strength.
Thenarrative perspective of the novel is quite complex. The overall narrative vantage point is the first-person plural, denoting “we cholos”—as opposed, on one hand, to the pure-blooded tribal Indians who are further from civilization and, on the other, to the occasional representatives of white, civilized authority, both of whom appear only rarely and peripherally to the lives of the cholo river-valley dwellers in their remote habitat. Gradually, a first-person-singular narrator emerges out of the plural “we” and becomes a particular cholo close to the mainprotagonists, though his name, Lucas Vilca, is not mentioned until near the end of the book in a chapter in which, by falling hopelessly in love with the widow of one of his dead friends, he momentarily becomes no longer merely a sympathetic observer but the main protagonist. Framed within the comprehensive unity of the cholo river man Vilca’s “we” and “I” narrative are numerous stories-within-a-story told by other narrators, so that the result is a colorful patchwork quilt of narrative perspective.
Los perros hambrientos
Los perros hambrientos begins with an idyllic scene that sets the tone for the entire first part of the book: A shepherd girl, La Antuca, is herding a large flock of sheep high in the mountains with the help of four faithful dogs. Between sorties to bring back various stray sheep, her companion dog, Zambo, snuggles close to her so that they “mutually share the warmth of their bodies” against the cold wind and mist. The dogs have been raised to be sheepdogs from birth, and they enjoy their work and perform it intelligently. The girl, too, is happy at this lonely work, sometimes singing or calling to the elements, sometimes remaining still “as if united with the vast and profound silence of the cordillera, which consists of rock and immeasurable, lonely distances.”
The shepherd girl’s father, Simón Robles, is famous throughout the region for this breed of dogs as well as for his other talents, such as playing the flute and the drum, telling stories, and exercising sound, humane judgment. The dogs are not purebred, but of a stock “as mixed as that of Peruvian man.” They are “mestizos like their master.” The dogs share the simple but good life of their masters “fraternally,” and they feel attached to their owners. Even in the idyllic first part of the novel, however, some mishaps occur. One dog is accidentally blown to bits by exploding dynamite; another is killed with a single jugular-severing bite by a vicious dog that belongs to the local feudal landlord.
The exploits of Robles’s dogs are described with pride. They never mistreat the sheep but get them to obey by yapping at their ears. One dog is skilled at partridge hunting; another keeps a frightened herd of cattle from turning back disastrously at midstream in a swift river. They all are courageous and feel a comradeship with humans. The birth and naming of new pups is an occasion of joy. Sometimes they receive traditional names: For example, two dogs are called Pellejo (skin) and Güeso (bones), and Simón Robles, the great storyteller, jovially explains how once an old widow, guessing that a thief was hiding in her house, kept saying more and more loudly, as if to herself, “All I am is skin and bones, that’s all, just skin and bones,” until her two dogs by those names finally heard and came to her rescue. Sometimes, a dog gets its name from a special occasion. One pup is the perpetual companion of Robles’s little grandson Damián. “He seems just like his brother,” the boy’s mother remarks. The little boy overhears and keeps repeating his baby version of the word “brother” (hermano), mañu, and so the dog is named Mañu. It is a good life, in which each being, human or animal, feels sheltered within the communal pattern of existence....
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