José María Arguedas 1911-1969
Peruvian novelist, short story writer, poet, ethnologist, and translator.
The following entry provides criticism of Arguedas's works from 1982 through 2002.
Arguedas is less well-known than contemporaries like Gabriel García Márquez or his friend Mario Vargas Llosa, but his deep understanding of Peru's indigenous people has established his place among Latin America's most respected writers. Arguedas chronicled the social, economic, cultural and linguistic transformations wrought by urbanization and the massive migrations of highland Indians to Peru's coastal cities. Arguedas's fiction drew heavily from his accomplishments in ethnography and his intimate knowledge of Peru's history and geography. His childhood as a sort of mestizo—a white child more fluent in Quechua than Spanish—also informed his work; he wrote his fiction first in Quechua and then translated it himself to Spanish. Arguedas was a major figure in Peruvian life, receiving important appointments to governmental and cultural organizations and holding several university positions. His writings were also influential with the Liberation Theologians of the 1960s and 1970s.
Arguedas was born on January 18, 1911, in Andahuaylas, Peru. His father was an itinerate lawyer who traveled the countryside, and Arguedas's mother died when he was three. His father remarried, and Arguedas spent most of his childhood on his stepmother's hacienda in the Peruvian highlands. Because his stepmother “despised and hated me as much as [her] Indians,” Arguedas wrote in Páginas escogidas (1972), “she decided that I was to live with them in the kitchen, eat and sleep there.” His stepmother intended it as punishment, but Arguedas considered his experiences among the Indians one of the most spiritually nourishing developments of his life. The Indians treated him as one of their own, and as he wrote in the introduction to Yawar fiesta (1941), “my protectors showered me with a deep and brave tenderness, … the purest love, which makes the individual who has acquired it absolutely immune to skepticism.” Soon he was more fluent in the Indians' Quechua language than he was in Spanish. As a teenager, he alternated study at boarding schools with travels accompanying his father across the Peruvian highlands and to the cities on the coast. In 1931 he enrolled at the University of San Marcos, but his literature studies were interrupted a year later; authorities closed the University during political unrest, and his father's death and the subsequent need to support himself led him to take a job working for the postal ministry. He started publishing articles in 1934, and when the University re-opened in 1935 he began his anthropological studies. That year he also published Agua. Los escoleros. Warma kukay, a collection of stories that won him second prize in an Argentine-sponsored competition. In 1937 Arguedas's political activity resulted in his spending eleven months in prison for protesting an event honoring an official of Mussolini's government and his firing from the postal ministry. In 1939 he married Celia Bustamante Vernal, wrote his dissertation on language differences between the Peruvian highlands and coast, and took a teaching position at a boys' school. He published his first novel, Yawar fiesta, in 1941, and he continued the steady output of works of ethnography, folklore, musicology, and studies of the Quechua language that would continue until his death. Despite being falsely denounced as a communist in 1947, Arguedas traveled often on behalf of Peruvian governmental agencies and cultural organizations, and he developed friendships with novelists Mario Vargas Llosa and Julio Cortazar. In the fifties Arguedas did extensive ethnographic work, earning him a professorship at the University of San Marcos in 1958, the same year he published his novel Los ríos profundos (Deep Rivers). Arguedas became prominent in Peruvian culture and politics, and he was appointed to many governmental and cultural positions, including director of the National History Museum. Despite his success, Arguedas was increasingly unhappy; he separated from his wife in 1965, and a year later he attempted suicide. He started a diary, which provided some material for his posthumously-published novel El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (1971; The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below). He remarried in 1966, traveled frequently, and published prolifically, but in 1969 he shot himself and died on December 2, 1969.
Arguedas believed much of his work was the product of a “bedeviled struggle with language.” His work reflects an attempt to bring forms of consciousness and reality he experienced and most easily expressed in Quechua to readers of Spanish, the language of the Quechua people's oppressors. Arguedas wrote Agua, his first collection of stories, in anger at the treatment of the Indians and out of disdain for the depictions of Indians in Peruvian literature. These stories lay out many of the themes and narrative patterns for all of Arguedas's stories and novels—the narrators are children struggling with their identity, the Indians are shown living in organic solidarity and in harmony with nature, but the lives and culture of the highland Indians are being threatened by the individual and rationalistic culture of the Spanish-speaking peoples on the Peruvian coast. Agua earned Arguedas second prize in an international contest sponsored by Revista Americana in Buenos Aires. Arguedas's first novel, Yawar fiesta, depicts an Indian community attempting to perform a ritual feast that is prohibited by the civil authorities of holding a bullfight. It is a sympathetic portrait of the Indians and their culture besieged by the cold brutality of the authorities acting in the name of civilization.
Yawar fiesta was followed by several years of writer's block, but in 1958 Arguedas published Deep Rivers, considered by many his masterpiece. It follows the young child Ernesto, like Arguedas, the white son of an itinerate lawyer who is raised by Indian servants. It begins by describing a wondrous world of magic and nature, viewed through the mythical perspective of the Indians. Eventually, however, Ernesto is sent away to school, where he encounters loneliness and sees how the rational and individualistic society of the Spanish-speaking dominant classes impinges on the freedom and dignity of the Indians, forcing them into futile rebellion against their military-backed oppressors. Arguedas's later works, including El sexto (1961) and Todas las sangres (1964) were more overtly socially and politically pointed. While critics generally do not hold these works in as high a regard as Deep Rivers, Liberation Theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez were inspired by these works to call for the Catholic Church to seek harmony with the indigenous peoples through respect for their forms of communal solidarity and pre-rational consciousness. Arguedas's last novel, The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below), takes place in a coastal town where the culture of the Indian migrants from the highlands clashes with rootless culture and urban poverty of Peru's teeming cities and contains diary entries from a despairing narrator. It was published posthumously.
Arguedas's engagement with the language, consciousness, and power are fundamental to almost all appraisals of his life and work. From his earliest stories, according to Christian Fernández's profile of Arguedas for the critical edition of The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below, “We see the beginning of the apprenticeship and representation of a reality that apparently was carefully planned from the beginning by Arguedas … Arguedas is already previewing the problems he will represent in subsequent works. In all of them, the narrator is a child with a problem of cultural identity …” Arguedas had an obvious affinity with the culture of the Quechua Indians. Alita Kelley sees Arguedas as a “translator” of Quechua culture, and Lucía Lockert has written in the Michigan Academician that “Arguedas captures the acculturated language that one hears in every Andean corner of Peru from the mouths of mestizos who speak Spanish.” In Modern Language Quarterly Walter D. Mignolo found in Arguedas's work the “legacies of the linguistic conflict created by migrations from the metropolitan centers to the colonial domains, and the fractures of local languages introduced by colonial ones” that date back to the sixteenth century. In GeoJournal, geographer César N. Caviedes praised The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below as “a synthesis of contemporary Peru” crafted by Arguedas “with perhaps more propriety and sensitivity than a historian, sociologist or geographer.” In his introduction to The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below, Ciro A. Sandoval went even further, declaring that “as an author, Arguedas's concern was the totality of human culture.” One of Arguedas's most engaged and perceptive critics is his friend, fellow Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. In Review of Contemporary Fiction Vargas Llosa wrote that Arguedas's first novel, Yawar fiesta, succeeds as fiction because the narrator presents the world of the novel “as an indivisible though heartbreaking totality” from an anti-rational perspective that Vargas Llosa nevertheless concludes is deeply conservative. But as his career progressed, Vargas Llosa believed Arguedas succumbed to the pressure to produce literature that supported his social and political commitments. In Harper's Vargas Llosa concluded that Todas las sangres was a “very ambition book, in which [Arguedas] tried, escaping from himself, to describe the social and political problems of his country. The novel is a total failure: the vision is simplistic and even a caricature … The book is the classic failure of an artistic talent as a result of the self-imposition of social commitment.”