The Golden Serpent

by Ciro Alegría

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The Golden Serpent is a poetic description of the daily life of a small village on the bank of the mighty Marañon River in north-central Peru. Rather than having a single central plot, the nineteen chapters are a series of stories or related episodes told by the narrator, Lucas Vilca, a raftsman and farmer of the Calemar Valley. Lucas Vilca both participates in the incidents recounted and serves as an omniscient narrator who chronicles and generalizes. The stories that Lucas Vilca tells include many adventures on the river, descriptions of festivals and religious celebrations, encounters with state troopers, intense dramas of survival amid natural dangers, and accounts of superstitions, customs, and folklore. Many of the episodes are complete short stories in themselves, but their effect is also cumulative: They are all lyric depictions of the unity of man and nature in the Calemar Valley.

The Marañon River dominates the lives of the villagers who live beside it. The cholos (part Indian, part Spanish) of Calemar are fishermen and raftsmen who earn their living by ferrying travelers and cattle across the river. They respect and exult in the power of the huge river as it rushes by them, roaring against the cliffs, churning over the rocks, gliding expansively through open stretches, carrying men and animals to their destinations or to their deaths. Years are measured in terms of rainy seasons, which cause the river to swell and flood, and dry seasons, when the rapids are treacherous and fish are easy to trap in shallow pools. Men live in close harmony with the natural rhythms of the great river, appreciative of the extraordinary beauty of their surroundings and wary of the dangers of this way of life.

Calemar is depicted as a primitive Garden of Eden where bananas, avocados, oranges, and coca grow in profusion. It is a fragile paradise, a utopian community dependent upon the continuous hard work, positive spirit, and adaptability of the men and women who choose this life. Both natural dangers (snakes, diseases, rapids, landslides) and human threats (state troopers, the inevitability of commercial development on a national scale) menace the autonomous survival of this small, isolated community, yet throughout The Golden Serpent the villagers are seen triumphing over one peril after another, not only surviving difficulties but also celebrating their ingenuity, valor, persistence, and good fortune in joyful rituals and tales. As the raftsmen cross back and forth over the raging waters of the Marañon, they sing a song to the river, acknowledging its strength and power but asserting man’s right to live and thrive in this environment: “River Marañon, let me cross . . ./ River Marañon, I have to cross,/ You have your waters,/ I, my heart.” The Golden Serpent is a song of celebration of the beauty and nobility of both man and nature.

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