José María Arguedas

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Braulio Muñoz (essay date May-June 1982)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3472

SOURCE: Muñoz, Braulio. “Indian of the Heart.” Americas 34, no. 3 (May-June 1982): 25-9.

[In the following essay, Muñoz examines Arguedas's struggle to describe a future for the Andean Indians that relies on neither liberalism nor western socialism and retains their sense of the magical.]

But if I die of
life, and not of time, …

—César Vallejo

I first met José María Arguedas when he came to Chimbote, my native port in northern Peru. He came to write a novel about despair and hope—a novel about Peru. He was the first “Indian” I really knew. He was born in the Andean highlands, had learned the Indian worldview through the Inca language, and had grown up in the ayllus (Indian communities that to this day infuse their members with the old ways). But this indio sonqo, this Indian of the heart, did not remain in the highlands for long. His mestizo ancestry proved too strong for the claims the ayllu had on him, and eventually succeeded in drawing him to the coast.

The childhood experiences were not to be erased, however; until his death, J. M. Arguedas remained an Indian of the heart. Through Ernesto, the central character of his best novel, Los Ríos Profundos (1958) (Deep Rivers, 1978), Arguedas evokes memories of his own childhood:

To escape cruel relatives, I had thrown myself on the mercy of the Indian community that grew corn in the smallest, happiest valley I had ever known. The flame-blossomed thorn trees and the songs of the wild doves illuminated the corn fields. The family chiefs and the older women, the mamakunas of the community, protected me and instilled in me the kindness in which I live and which I can never repay.

These memories, repeated throughout his work, are witness to a desire to return. In these memories he sought solace from the onslaught of injustice and inhumanity that makes of Peru a tragic society.

For too brief a period, Arguedas was my teacher. Under his guidance I entered the distorted and fragmented world of the Indian, who barely existed in his shantytowns scattered on the outskirts of the port. It was a world in which Indians, through their rather awkward speech and mannerisms, showed their disdain and even contempt for their native culture. As I followed this indio sonqo among the Indians of the port I began to wonder what he could be searching for, why he became suddenly silent as he heard the sorrowful tune of a blind beggar's harp, why his eyes moistened as he spoke in Quechua to a drunken Indian who would not answer except in a badly learned Spanish.

Only years later, when I reread his work and remembered our experiences, did I begin to understand why he always seemed to be searching for atonement. In rereading his books I grasped the extent of his love and respect for the Indians who had nurtured him. And his love and respect seemed to develop, quite naturally, into a deep desire to liberate the Indian from centuries of oppression. But if the wish to liberate seemed a most human stance, the consequences of such a redemptive posture seemed most unfair. For Arguedas was caught on the horns of a dilemma: the liberation of the Indians whom he loved and respected for being what they were seemed to demand that he ask them to become other. Indeed, as one reads his novels a paradox immediately manifests itself: for the Indians to be saved they had to vanish. This paradox underlay Arguedas' existential predicament and affected him in untold...

(This entire section contains 3472 words.)

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But great artists are never alone in their predicaments; they are never “ahead of their time.” They articulate that which is felt by the many who are unable or unwilling to articulate their hopes or their dis-ease. Thus, Arguedas was not alone in his anguish; he only gathered and reflected a collective dis-ease through his life and work. He did this better than anyone else because he was an indio sonqo, and felt these fateful, paradoxical demands in his very being.

When I first encountered it, I thought that Arguedas' dilemma was Peruvian property. After all, had not César Vallejo—the Peruvian poet who looked at death all too soon—stated with the full force of his own Indianness: “In sum, I do not have anything with which to express my life except my death” (Poesía Completa, 1978)? But reflecting about it, I realized that the dilemma underlying Arguedas' life and work was neither a uniquely Peruvian dilemma nor, for that matter, a Hispano-American dilemma. It is in fact a dilemma that envelops today's humanist posture and points out the need for its justification. Let us use the Indian case to sharpen our focus on it, given that Arguedas reaches us from that context. To do this, it is necessary to discuss, however briefly, the socioliterary movement of which he formed an essential part, and of which he was the conscience; namely, Indigenismo, the Indianist movement.

The influence of Indianism as a socioliterary movement was felt across Hispanic America and lasted from about 1919 to roughly 1964. In its artistic expression, the Indianist movement aimed at shattering old myths about the Indian in Hispanic America. It pitted itself against two traditional views—the old image of the Indian as a cross between a noble and a savage (an image found in half-forgotten accounts by half-forgotten chroniclers who in their dreams saw the Spanish conquest of America as a destruction of Arcadia), and the romantic view of the nineteenth century, which saw the Indian living exotically in remote corners of Hispanic America. Against the first view Indianism insisted on speaking about the Indians of the present. Against the second it insisted that the Indian did not live a romantic life in exotic places but a sordid one amidst white and mestizo landlords. In short, the Indianist literary movement presented itself as part of a larger social movement to liberate the Indian. That aim expressed itself initially in a liberal and later a socialist literature. The Indianist novel of the Andes is focused on here for two reasons—it is from the Andes that J. M. Arguedas speaks, and the work of the Andean writers is paradigmatic of the movement as a whole.

The liberal writers presented the Indian characters as almost subhuman, and incapable of acting on their own behalf with any hope of success. Yet, in their view, Hispanic America needed to move beyond neocolonialism and its ultimate result, exploitation of the Indian. The redemptive fervor of the liberal writers led to their demand that the Indian be liberated at all costs; that he be incorporated into a liberal society as a citizen—even if that meant dictatorship. Thus, ironically, liberalism was to be born out of despotism. And the irony concealed the paradox that in order for the Indian to be liberated he had to become something other than what he was. For liberalism and Indian culture are incompatible. The paradox remained concealed from the liberals because to them the only life worth living was that of a member of the bourgeoisie. All other conceptions of life were seen as either hopelessly romantic or decidedly backward.

Socialist writers, among whom Arguedas must be included, articulated the paradox more fully. But, except for him, even these writers did not grasp the paradox in its full import. Instead, they viewed the paradox as a fateful and fitting event. In their eyes the Indian came to constitute the messianic subject-object of history. In their very hearts, these writers believed, Indians were socialists; and they pointed to the remnants of communal life in the ayllus as examples of the ancient socialist spirit. All the Indians needed was to be shown their past that they might claim a future. Once having grasped their true desire, the Indians would come down from the mountains to stamp out the evils of bourgeois society that radiated from the capitalist centers of the cities.

The paradox concealed from the liberal writers was thus made explicit and “solved” at the same time. No, the Indians were not asked to vanish; they were being asked to “return” to their “true” being. The Indians would save the Andes from centuries of injustice with a last effort that was at the same time their self-immolation. The Indians were praised for sacrificing their Indianness in pursuit of socialist society where all men would be free. But they would make good their promise only if they acted not as Indians but as free men. And free men do not follow the whims of magic or deceive themselves by believing in drawing strength from mythical inspiration. Free men act rationally; their acts are grounded in a true and scientific understanding of history and the world. In other words, for the socialist writers, too, the Indians had to become other.

Looking back at the Indianist movement one may well ask what reasons could these writers give for demanding the Indians' cultural death? That the Indianist writers' hopes for either a liberal or a socialist society in the Andes did not materialize should not preempt the asking of the question. For, whatever the outcome, it is the ground for the demand itself that stands in need of justification. It is here that we appreciate the seriousness of the humanist dilemma exemplified by Indianism.

The dilemma can be stated as follows: On the one side, to have “left the Indians alone” in the highlands under real and perceived conditions of oppression would have been willfully to ignore the evils feeding on Indian poverty, thus abandoning the humanist stance. On the other, to demand changes in the Indians' culture in view of liberating them from oppression necessarily meant to ask for their cultural death, a demand not altogether consonant with a humanist position respectful of all human efforts toward self-fulfillment.

It is at this juncture that the issues transcend a discussion of Indianism. The questions surrounding the Indianist dilemma are the same as those enveloping the dilemma of humanism in general. For at the bottom of the humanist stance there lurks the question: How does one justify decreeing how others ought to live?

Western humanism has always been dual. While it manifests a contemplative concern with man's understanding of his existence—which ultimately implies an anthropocentric, a panhuman, conception of the world—it also sustains an active intervention in the world to make that world comply with the demands of thought. The interplay between the contemplative and the interventive faces of humanism, however, has not always been auspicious. Often its anthropocentric conception of the world has turned into an ethnocentric conception as soon as Western man has attempted to act. Thus, humanism often changes into its opposite and shows its Janus face. The proverbial contradiction between thought and action has here one of its most telling tales. A tale, one might add, that reaches deep into Western history, and is well exemplified in two concrete instances in Latin American history—the colonial experience and Indianism.

The earliest grounds for humanism were furnished mainly by religion. Socrates affirmed this with his life, and Christ gave it a sublime character. Until recently the idea that all men were created in the image of God and therefore shared in His essence was taken as given. This fundamental postulate of Christian theology furnished the basis for Charity and Love—the cardinal tenets of a religiously based humanism. But this religious grounding also gave humanism a militant edge. Martyrdom—perhaps the purest form of militancy—and proselytizing translated the Christian faith into practice. And in the translation something was certainly lost. Let us recall the soldier-priests who carried out the deeds of conquest in Hispanic America: the Indian soul had to be “saved”; the Indian had to be converted at all costs, even if he had to be eliminated in the process. The Janus face of humanism in this instance was shown to be of a purple color.

This religious ground for humanism began to erode around the fifteenth century. By the end of the eighteenth century the once solid religious base had virtually disappeared. The expansion of the West—so effectively supported by its religious zeal—eventually worked against those values that sustained it. From conquerors, missionaries, converted natives, pirates, and adventurers, the eighteenth century philosophes had gathered evidence to use against their own church and state. By the end of the eighteenth century the Christian Godhead had been largely replaced in the minds of humanists by a new one: Nature. And attached to this God-term there were two minor gods: Human Nature and Reason.

But, as it turned out, the attempts by the philosophes of the Enlightenment were half-hearted. They could claim to have found a Human Nature only because they did not look hard enough. As anthropologists examined the evidence, the concept of Human Nature all but evaporated. Anthropologists became convinced that if there was something constant in all cultures, it was a tendency to be different. To be sure, all men belonged to one family, but now the ground for the obvious unity was no longer obvious. As the social sciences increased their participation in the general discussion, the conception of man and his world on purely religious grounds was left behind. The development of the social sciences was marked by a shift to scientism—a reliance on the scientific method—and a pronounced preoccupation with the classification and analysis of “hard facts.” The old concept of Reason gave way to a conception of reason as instrumental; the traditional concept of Human Nature gave way to one couched in the theories of socialization and propaganda that saw man as manipulable and malleable. As to humanism, having lost faith, it embraced science. It came to rely more and more on the correct reading of “hard facts” ostensibly gathered through work done with full impartiality and objectivity.

The new grounding of humanism when translated into practice brought about another turn of its Janus face. This is clearly exemplified by the case of Indianism, for the humanism of the Indianist writers was certainly grounded in scientism. It was no longer based on religion or notions of Human Nature, as were the romantic Indian novels of the nineteenth century. Indianism was a naturalist-realistic movement. These novels report “hard facts,” and the assessment of these facts undergirds the author's humanist stance. After all, the hard facts were all too eloquent in showing the Indian exploited by a corrupt white minority. Convinced by their readings of the available hard facts, these writers saw no choice but to wrest the Indians from their shackles—and thus reaffirm their own humanism.

The problem was that their stance was too “objective.” These humanists looked at the Indian from the outside and did not attempt to gain an appreciation of two subjective elements involved—their own motives as representatives of a particular culture and class, and the Indian's appreciation of their own culture. From their position as outsiders these humanists increasingly took a paternalistic position vis-à-vis the Indians. The eventual outcome of this position was the silencing of the Indian voice with respect to any discussion about their own future. Since the Indian was seen as caught in a web of social relations that prevented self-reflection, ultimately only writers and other humanists could adjudicate between alternative courses of action for liberation. Given all this, it is no wonder that the Indian was asked to commit cultural suicide, and that all efforts to resist such a demand were seen as the product of “false-consciousness” or sheer ignorance of the telling “hard facts.”

To be sure, this scientistic grounding for humanism has been forcefully questioned in recent years. Social scientists from Hispanic America, for example, are intent upon rooting out some of the basically ethnocentric biases of orthodox Marxism. This effort has come in the aftermath of World War II, encouraged by developments in Western Marxist thought. A renewed Hispano-American Christian theology has also taken a stand against the scientistic developments. But as far as the Indians are concerned, these developments have come too late. The Indians have now moved down from the mountains to the coastal and urban centers. They did not come to destroy bourgeois society, but to lose themselves in it. They now engulf the capitalist centers with their shantytowns. What the course of events would have been had these developments taken place at the peak of Indianism we cannot say. Perhaps the demand for the Indian's cultural death would not have been so powerful as to smother attempts to oppose it.

Arguedas did not enjoy the full benefits of the current challenges to paternalism in and outside of Latin America. This is precisely because he himself must be counted among the first to challenge all forms of scientism and paternalism. Among all Indianist writers he is alone in presenting the paradox noted both clearly and as unsolved—indeed as unsolvable. He firmly believed that neither bourgeois liberalism nor Marxist socialism could accommodate the Indian world within it. Liberalism with its decisive emphasis on individualism could not accommodate the Indian communalistic spirit; socialism with its decisive emphasis on rationalism would never admit the Indian magico-mystical worldview. He knew that calls for a “return” were sirens' calls.

And yet Arguedas, too, called for revolution, perhaps more subtly than others, but certainly as forcefully. He hoped that a society could be fashioned in the Andes which, while destroying age-old injustices, would keep and share in the Indian heritage, wisdom, and values. Only a revolution, he believed, could rid the Andes of centuries-old injustices; but also only the Indian's communalistic, magical spirit could save the Andean peoples from the ills of a rapidly growing materialistic, rationalistic, and individualistic society, be it in its liberal or its socialist form. But deep in his heart he feared his hopes would come to naught. He saw the Indian becoming “other,” and no new society in sight. Perhaps he felt partly responsible for the change—perhaps he just sensed it as a fateful event.

J. M. Arguedas paid the price for setting a course between Scylla and Charybdis. His hopes he presented as hopes, leaving the real paradox in full display. He did not fall into the temptation of closing the circle too soon, of giving false solutions to the contradiction inherent in his work; he did not offer clear-cut solutions to the problems he described. As one reads his work one finds him torn between the Indian's and the white's understanding of the world. And this ambivalence permeates his work and gives it the depth other Indianist literature lacks. At the end of Los Ríos Profundos Ernesto, the young hero who reflects Arguedas' own anguish, disappears from the scene of the massacre of Indians by the forces of “law and order,” but we do not know either his destination or his intent. We are left to ponder his next step as we imagine him growing into a man.

But even if we do not know Ernesto's next step we can be certain of Arguedas' stance. When the ground for humanism seemed to turn against humanism itself, he, through his art, pointed out the danger. He reached into a magico-mystical world for illumination and strength. He wrote truly magico-realist novels because he lived and felt the world in that fashion. This indio sonqo actually believed, as Indians still do, that rivers speak, that old elms guard ancient secrets, that flora and fauna store wisdom and bear counsel to men.

We may describe moments of Arguedas' life as he himself described those of the Indians. We may truthfully say that in his heart “the rolling hills [were] laughing and crying, in his eyes live[d] the sun and sky; in his insides the rolling hills [were] singing with their voices of morning, noon, afternoon and evening.” (Yawar Fiesta, 1940). And despite all polite skepticism as to the grounds for his life and work, Arguedas' magico-realist position was ultimately the most human of stances. In it, humanity reaffirmed itself against a dehumanized humanism.

As he heard the sorrowful tune of the blind beggar's harp, Arguedas felt the withering strength of an exploited humanity reach the depths of his soul. Fortunately for us, he lived long enough to translate, and thus capture, that withering humanity into literature. In doing this he found both a reason for living and a source of agony. He never finished the novel he intended to write when he came to Chimbote. His last novel resembles his life in that, like his life, it is a truncated effort. J. M. Arguedas took his own life in 1969. His battle against death ended when he realized he could no longer continue with his lifelong commitment to writing a nonpaternalistic, nonethnocentric literature.


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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Lucía Lockert (essay date spring 1987)

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SOURCE: Lockert, Lucía. “Peruvian Social Realities in José María Arguedas.” Michigan Academician 19, no. 2 (spring 1987): 243-51.

[In the following essay, Lockert presents Arguedas's work as examples of the tensions in his thought between solidarity and individualism and acculturation and assimilation.]

The noted twentieth-century Peruvian author, José María Arguedas, once wrote of his homeland:

There isn't a country more diverse, more varied in its terrain and its people; every degree of heat and color, of love and hate, of manipulations and inspiring symbols. Not without reason, as the common people would say, were important people and events made here. People like Pachacamac and Pachacutec, Huaman Poma de Ayala, Cieza and the Inca Garcilaso, Tupac Amaruc and Vallejo, Mariátegui and Eguren. The Coastal Yungas and those of the Sierras. Events such as the celebration of the Coyllur and the Procession of Our Lord of the Miracles.1

In his writings José María Arguedas tried to capture aspects of the multiple reality of Perú. It is not an easy task to extract out of context the cultural dichotomies that appear in his work, given that “the world of the novel is more complex than any of the dichotomies.”2 This paper examines the dichotomies Arguedas emphasizes in their relation to his own life and to Peruvian social realities. Arguedas called attention to some prominent polarities or dichotomies of Peruvian life in the modern era. A concern with cultural dichotomies is not unique to Arguedas, but characterizes some fundamental works in Peruvian literature which have as a common denominator: the search for cultural identity.

The Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, son of an Incan princess, was the first mestizo writer from Peru. Inspired by nostalgia, and by the desire to do justice to the Indian race, he wrote Comentarios Reales.3 He was able to recall the conversations of the Inca nobles about their grandiose past that always ended with the phrase, “We went from being kings to being vassals.”4 But three hundred years later Peruvian writers, far from recalling their Incan ancestry, saw an exploited and ignorant Indian race. In 1881 the thinker Manuel González Prada stated that Perú was populated primarily by “semi-civilized Indians and that if they became literate they would regain their human dignity.5 To this civilization/ignorance dichotomy the novelist Clorinda Matto de Turner, in her work Aves sin nido, added the observation that the principal dichotomy was the opposition between the group that had power (land owners, civil authorities, and priests) and the group of exploited victims, i.e., the Indians of the Peruvian sierra.6 To these white men who controlled the situation “the Indians were shrewd tricksters who did not want to pay what they owed.7 Several decades later the essayist José Carlos Mariátegui, in his Siete ensayos sobre la realidad peruana,8 explored not only the Indian problem but also the great dichotomy of the few versus the many. To the question, who constitutes the majority in Peru? his answer was categorical: “Without the Indian, Peruvian identity is not possible.”9 During the 1940s the literary figure Ciro Alegría published the novel El mundo es ancho y ajeno,10 in which he stressed the economic dichotomy of selfishness of the landlords versus the vulnerability of the common people who lived in the neighboring lands. Although the Spanish crown has allowed many “ayllus”—communal lands of the Incan era—to continue to subsist as autonomous communities,11 landlords in the Republican period began to take land from the Indians by every means available. By presenting—in El mundo es ancho y ajeno12—the defeated community of Rumi and showing that the common people who remained there now had no other recourse but to migrate in the most complete misery, Alegría described the Indians of Northern Perú who no longer spoke Quechua.13 Following the postulates of the indigenous destruction, Alegría put great emphasis on the polarity White-evil/Indian-good.

Such dicotomous perspectives continued to appear in Peruvian literature.14

In his emphasis upon dichotomies, therefore, José María Arguedas represented and shared in an established Peruvian literary tradition. He recognized openly the influence that Mariátegui and the magazine Amauta15 had in shaping his work and credited them with furnishing the ideological orientation and theoretical tools indispensable for judging his experiences and making them good material for literature.16 In speaking about the first stage of his literary career that corresponded to Agua17 Arguedas emphasized a dichotomy passed over by critics who prefer to focus on the marginality of the protagonist instead of his possible identification with the Peruvian mestizo. In describing village life he wrote:

In that village the human element are at their simplest. The landlord of the greater part of the lands, a few anguished mestizos who do not know on whom their destiny depends, who do not know if they should side with the Indian or if they should side unconditionally with the landlord. These people also have a tragedy with which I can identify perfectly. Some indigenous people hate the mestizo because they consider him an evil tool of the landlord. Not, it could be said that he is an evil tool, but deep down, for the same reasons, the mestizos are miserable and must be saved and in them there is possibility, there is the first intent of fusion between the elements of both the Hispanic culture and the indigenous culture.18

One finds illustrations of that identification with the mestizo scattered throughout Arguedas' works. The boy narrator of the stories in Agua is the son of a misti (white gentleman), but because of his social position he is treated as a servant in the house of his stepmother and stepbrother. His stepmother is a landowner and his father is a circuit lawyer. In “Los escoleros,” the foreman Don Ciprian yells at the boy, “I am going to whip you again. Understand? Your father made me lose a lawsuit with the Kocha community; I gave him thirty pounds; you'll have to pay it back by working.” Similarly, in his memoirs, Arguedas tells of his stepbrother yelling, “You are not even worth what you eat,” as he accuses the boy of being a bad servant.19

However, Arguedas also identified with the Indians, because in his childhood he had been helped by the Indians with whom he ate and slept. In his 1950 article “La novela y la expresión literarua,”20 he says that the “good mestizo identifies with the Indians, loves them and generously sacrifices his life to defend them, while the bad mestizo serves the landlords and acts viciously against the Indians.”21

There is yet another link between Arguedas and the Indian: the Quechua language. In Perú two official languages exist: Spanish predominately on the coast, and Quechua in the central and southern sierra; there is a mestizo language as well. Arguedas first learned Quechua, and until he was eight did not know Spanish well. He relates the following anecdote that reveals, on the one hand, the attitudes of the whites toward those who do not speak their language well, and, on the other hand, the confusion that Arguedas experienced, as an adult, at having to write in the traditional Spanish about the Andean Quechua and mestizo world. He said:

And without this being anything against my father who is the best thing that I have had in this world, at times my father was embarrassed when I attended gatherings where there were important people attending because I spoke Spanish very poorly. When I read Agua in Spanish, it seemed horrible to me, it seemed that I had disguised the world almost as much as the people against whom I intended to write. To the astonishment of my friends I tore up all those pages. Some six or seven months later I wrote them in a completely different form, mixing a little Quechua sintaxis with Spanish, a truly hellish struggle between the two languages. I saved this piece a while. I was working at the Post Office at the time. And one afternoon while I was on duty, during an hour when there were few people, I read the narration, and it was what I wanted it to be, so I published it as it was.22

In his narration, Arguedas captures the accultured language that one hears in every Andean corner of Perú from the mouths of mestizos who speak Spanish.

The conflicting mestizo attitude in Arguedas made him say in El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo, “I have been fighting in a country of falcons and frogs since I was five.”23 It would not be fair to say that Arguedas felt no attraction for the white man; his father with the blue eyes was the model for many of his Hispanic characters who had some redeeming quality, like Don Bruno in Todas las sangres, or the father Director in Los ríos profundos. But in those characters as in the biographical model, his father, there is intolerance toward the Indians. Arguedas stated, “I did not understand anything well in my father's world. It was a curious thing, my father felt sympathy for the Indians, but publicly he treated them poorly.”24 Arguedas never overcame his intimate alienation from the white people although he received international literary recognition. His childhood had marked him, as he said, with fire and love, the destructive passion of the white man and the love of the Indian.25

Another dichotomy in Arguedas' work appears in Yawar fiesta, a novel which reflects life in the pueblos and the hacendados, landlords, in the 1920s,26 the confrontation of the world of the coast with that of the sierra. The Lieutenant Governor, who is the ultimate authority of the pueblo Puquio, represents the coastland central government of Peru and, as a result, the politics of the moment. The landlords and a few mestizos want to get rid of the bullfights that had been very important in the pueblo. Castro Klaren has given us an interesting interpretation of why they want to do it:

The sierran people, upon confronting themselves and being rejected, begin the long and difficult search for themselves; they find the Indian within their psyche. They consider the Indian in the negative pole of the coast/sierra dichotomy. They feel the indigenous part of them is what makes them different and that is the reason for their rejection by those from the coast. The rejected misti, as well as the cholo (mestizo) decide then to change the Indian and his lifestyle. The least enlightened of those with power, like Don Demetrio, the landlord, who unequivocally identifies with Lima's powerful elite, propose the eradication of all native customs among the Indians and among themselves. They consider anything Indian as inferior and alien, a difference which mysteriously and awkwardly stays with them. Their reasoning is that in order to live fully, which in Peruvian cosmology means being treated as an equal by those from Lima, they should eliminate all vestiges which are Indian, backwards, and savage, from themselves and that which surrounds them.27

So then is not just the bullfights that bother them, but life itself in the ‘pueblos’ (towns). Therefore, to transform ‘pueblo’ life, they wish to eliminate the Indian acculturation of many customs. However, that change could never succeed, because for the man from Lima ‘the Limenean’ ‘pueblos’ like Puquio are ‘pueblos’ of another world. “Only the need for money can bring one to suffer all the inconveniences in those towns.”28 ‘Limeneans’ don't like ‘serranos’ regardless of money, class, or privilege. The Lieutenant Governor says of the latter, “they steal, drink, get fat, exploit the Indian and then come to the dispatch office to complain to me, “Oh, Lieutenant Governor. …”29 On the other hand, for the ‘serrano,’ man from the sierra, like Don Pancho, the pueblo has something special. He responds to the ‘Limenean’ “How can it not be ugly to you? You were born in a coastal town. For Don Demetrio it is also a dirty place. But I come from here, my body has grown in this air, for me, and I'm being honest, Puquio is not ugly. I've tried to live in other ‘pueblos,’ but I couldn't. Like you, I was miserable.”30

To the aforementioned dichotomies can be added the dichotomy of individuality versus solidarity found in Arguedas' Los ríos profundos.31 The socialization process that takes place in the Hispanic schools, particularly in the parochial schools, is designed to give the students not only a sense of social class but also an individuality among their peers. Here, in a microcosm, one can find many boys who come from places where their playmates and caretakers were Indians. When they were very young, they absorbed the beliefs and much of the cosmological vision of an indigenous world. Now, however, they must be totally Hispanic, renounce all the magic of the Andean world and adopt their roles as future landlords, landowners, and perhaps regional administrators. Ernesto and Palacios are the most Indianized, and at the beginning, so is Antero. But, little by little, new role models emerge. Among them is that of a boy from the coast, Gerardo, son of a military commander. The influences of role models and of adolescence contribute to the fact that the children, one after another, begin to show their individuality. Antonio, for example, begins by rejecting his childhood beliefs and starts to act the part of the rich landowner's son.

In contrast to this burgeoning individuality is the solidarity of groups among the lower classes. Thinking of the good of the majority, the mestizas ‘chicheras’ (who own their own establishments where ‘chicha’ beverage made of corn is sold) rebel against the injustice of the authorities. They give all the salt to the poorest Indians called ‘colonos.’ They must pay for their boldness and will be punished. Another uprising follows. The ‘colonos’ servants of the haciendas, and in Arguedas' opinion the most miserable Indians, also rebel. But they are not rebelling for social injustices. All they want is to go to Abancay to fetch a priest to say a mass. The Indians stricken with typhus believe that the typhus' mother is a sobrenatural animal that cannot die, “except by the virtue of a mass that the holy Father of Abancay says so that the typhus' mother will die.”32 When the crowd of Indians advances toward Abancay, not even the police machine guns can detain them. Finally, they get the priest to say the mass and they leave singing hymns. In the author's words, “That was the thesis of the novel and I was discouraged when the critics reviewed the book and did not see that.”33 Solidarity is also attained through music, notably when Ernesto feels the magnetism of the Indian music and narrates the feeling of harmony and oneness that the Indians experience when they hear their music.34

In the novel Todas las sangres35 the dichotomies are multiplied and communicated on several levels. Yet the book's fundamental dichotomy presents old versus new. Old is represented by the semifeudal landlord Don Bruno. Besides the fact that he is filled with guilt and the knowledge of his own sexual aberrations, he believes that he can save the Indians, who are like children not yet corrupted by greed. There are many contradictions in this character who evolves from a paternalistic feeling to an almost communal Christianity. His brother, Don Fermin, represents the new, and wants the Indians to move from being peasants in the rural stage to peons in the technological stage. He believes that as soon as they learn the value of money they can be manipulated according to the principles of capitalism. Don Fermin says, “Perú is an embarrassment, there are idolatrous, illiterate Indians of despicable and savage tenderness, people who speak Quechua, a language no good for expressing reason, only for weeping and expressing inferior love. We must turn them into lucid factory workers, and very systematically, the door will be opened halfway for them to move up to the level of technicians.”36 This future world is not and will not be full of love and fraternity: rather it will be a world in which some, the most serene and dispassionate, wield power over the inferior who must work. At the same time Don Fermin believes that he can transform barbarism into civilization.

Although the fight of the landlords, brother against brother, is prominent in Todas las sangres, the novel primarily shows that in the decade of the sixties in Perú there existed other forces that were able not only to manipulate the central government of Perú but also to destroy ‘pueblos,’ buy mines, and get rid of everyone and everything in their path. The ‘Consortium’ that represents the multinational in the novel has a decisive role in the life of the Peruvians of the Andes. It should be mentioned, however, that after Don Fermin loses his mine to the Consortium, he does not leave defeated, instead he goes to the coast to invest in the fishing industry. The novel shows the migration of both poor community dwellers and landlords to the capital, but depicts the middle class disappearing when their town is burned. Many of them also will end up in Lima seeking employment.37 Asunta, a middle class woman, takes the role of the avenger, killing Cabrejos, who is a tool of the Consortium, but this is an heroic gesture of a social class that has been vanquished.

Arguedas is deeply concerned whether or not the soul can survive all these changes. He makes a distinction between men with soul and those without. Those who have a soul, ultimately, can distinguish between good and evil. Those who lack one are capable of doing everything for money. In Todas las sangres Rendon Wilka is an Indian who has a soul. He is a leader among Indians, has lived in Lima, and knows the methods by which Indians are manipulated. He is ambiguous in the novel because he has plans of his own. At the end, as police are going to shoot him, he speaks out for the Indian, “Guns are not going to extinguish the sun, nor dry up the rivers, nor the lives of all Indians. Keep on shooting. We do not have factory weapons, which are worthless. Our hearts are of fire. We have known the motherland at last. And you will not kill the motherland, Mister.”38

From excerpts such as this, one can deduce that Arguedas does not want the acculturation of the Indian, but rather his assimilation. Saving the Indian's soul means leaving him the vision of his cosmic world, his roots in nature. Perhaps he hopes that, “the cosmic sentiment which saved the Indians and that before has saved Ernesto from the pressures of his environment, will persist.”39 He hopes that the Indian will be like him, “I am not an accultured Indian; I am a Peruvian who proud as a happy devil speaks in Christian and in Indian, in Spanish and in Quechua.40

Unfortunately, Arguedas committed suicide without being able to resolve his own conflicts. In the last work he wrote, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo, which appeared posthumously, he asserted, “I have lived attentive to the heartbeat of our country.”41 Out of that attentiveness he offered an assessment of his work and this ultimate solution of his troubled country's problems:

These three books have represented three stages of my growth, but the doctrine that the author sustains is that aggressive individualism is not going to do Humanity any good, but rather is going to destroy it; it is human brotherhood that will make possible not only the greatness of Peru, but also the greatness of Humanity.42


  1. José María Arguedas quoted in “Homenaje a José María Arguedas” in Cultura y pueblo, Year V, July-December, 1969, p. 3.

  2. Alberto Escobar, “La guerra silenciosa de todas las sangres,” Revista Nacional de Cultura, no. 5, April 1965, p. 10.

  3. Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, Los comentarios reales, Buenos Aires: Colección Austral, 1961, p. 25. Mestizo is a person of White and Indian racial mixture.

  4. Ibid., p. 25.

  5. Eugenio Chang Rodriguez, “El indigenismo peruano y Mariátegui,” Revista Iberoamericana, Vol. L., no. 125, April-June, 1984, p. 37.

  6. Clorinda Matto de Turner, Aves sin nido, Lima: Ediciones Peisa, 1973.

  7. Ibid.

  8. José Carlos Mariátegui, Siete ensayos sobre la realidad peruana, Lima: Biblioteca Amauta, 1964.

  9. Appeared in Mundial, December 9, 1924, p. 5.

  10. Ciro Alegría, El mundo es ancho ya ajeno, while he was in exile, Santiago de Chile: Editorial Ercilla, 1941.

  11. Mario Castro Arenas, La novela peruana y la evolución social, Lima: Editor José Godard, date not given, p. 231.

  12. Ciro Alegría, El mundo es ancho ya ajeno, while he was in exile, Santiago de Chile: Editorial Ercilla, 1941.

  13. In Primer encuentro de narradores peruanos, Hernando Quintanilla and Antonio Cornejo Polar, eds. Lima: Casa de la Cultura del Perú, 1969, p. 248. Arguedas explains that although those Indians did not speak Quechua they have an indigenous sensibility.

  14. See Fernando Alegría, “Una clasificación de la novela hispanoamericana contemporánea,” Memoria del quinto congreso del Instituto de Literatura, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1952, p. 64.

  15. Earl Aldrich, The Modern Short Story in Peru, Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1966, p. 70.

  16. Primer encuentro con narradores peruanos, p. 236.

  17. José María Arguedas, Agua, Lima: Compañía de Impresiones y publicidad, 1935.

  18. Primer encuentro con narradores peruanos, p. 237.

  19. Ibid., p. 38.

  20. Silverio Muñoz, José María Arguedas y el mito de la salvación de la cultura, Minneapolis: Serie hacia una historia social de las literaturas hispánicas, 1980, p. 12.

  21. Ibid., pp. 28-29.

  22. Primer encuentro con narradores peruanos, p. 41.

  23. Mario Vargas Llosa, Jose María Arguedas, entre sapos y halcones, Madrid: Ediciones de cultura hispánica del Centro Interamericano de cooperación, 1978, p. 21.

  24. Sara Castro Klaren, “Preguntas a José María Arguedas,” Hispamérica, Number 10, 1975, pp. 45-54.

  25. Primer encuentro con narradores peruanos, p. 37. In the book Los universos narrativos de José María Arguedas, Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada, 1973, professor Antonio Cornejo Polar does a study in one chapter on the double marginality in Arguedas, pp. 36-39.

  26. José María Arguedas, Yawar fiesta, Lima: Populibros, date unknown.

  27. Sara Castro Klaren, El mundo mágico de José María Arguedas, Lima: Instituto de Estudios peruanos, 1973, p. 47.

  28. José María Arguedas, Yawar fiesta, p. 58.

  29. Ibid., p. 61.

  30. Ibid., p. 59.

  31. José María Arguedas, Los ríos profundos, Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada, 1971.

  32. Primer encuentro con narradores peruanos, p. 237.

  33. Ibid., p. 239.

  34. José Carlos Mariátegui, Siete ensayos sobre la realidad peruana, p. 217, presents Federico More's thesis, More says that the Andeans are rural, while the Limeneans are urban; he continues with various differences, but what pertains to this work is “The Limeñean is a lover of colors, while the people from the Andes are music lovers.”

  35. José María Arguedas, Todas las sangres, Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada, 1964.

  36. Ibid., pp. 238-9.

  37. Ibid., p. 234. Arguedas is very explicit on the social changes that take place when the provincial people migrate to Lima; see pp. 333-8. In “Lima por fuera y por dentro” which appears in The City in the Latin American Novel, East Lansing: Latin American Center, 1980, Lucía Fox-Lockert studies the changes in the population of Lima. She says, “In 1940 the population was 402,976, and around 1961, Lima had tripled to 1,436,000 inhabitants,” p. 36.

  38. Ibid., p. 470.

  39. Lucía Fox-Lockert, “Visión del paisaje andino en José María Arguedas,” in El paisaje en la literatura hispánica, Madrid: Cuadernos de Aldeu, 1983, p. 340, considers the relationship between the Andean landscape and its inhabitants.

  40. Paper given upon Arguedas' acceptance of “Garcilaso de la Vega” prize, published in Cultura y pueblo, op. cit., p. 4.

  41. José María Arguedas, El zorro de arriba y de abajo, Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada, 1971, p. 294.

  42. Primer encuentro con narradores peruanos, p. 240.

Principal Works

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 206

Agua. Los escoleros. Warma kukay (short stories) 1935

Yawar fiesta (novel) 1941

Canciones y cuentos del pueblo quechua [The Singing Mountaineers: Songs and Tales of the Quechua People] [translator] (songs and short stories) 1949

Diamantes y pedernales. Agua (short stories) 1954

Los ríos profundos [Deep Rivers] (novel) 1958

El sexto (novel) 1961

La agonía de “Rasu-Niti” (novel) 1962

Túpac Amaru Kamaq taytanchisman; Haylli-taki. A nuestro padre creador Túpac Amaru; Himnocanción (poetry) 1962

Todas las sangres (novel) 1964

El sueño del pongo [translator] (short story) 1965

Dioses y hombres de huarochirí [translator] (novel) 1966

La amante de la culebra (short stories) 1966

Amor mundo y otros relatos; enlarged Amor mundo y todos los cuentos de José María Arguedas (short stories) 1967

Las comunidades de España y del Peru (prose) 1968

El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo [The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below] (novel) 1971

Páginas escogidas (collected works of fiction, poetry, and ethnographical and biographical prose) 1972

Cuentos olvidados (short stories) 1973

Relatos completos (short stories) 1974

Formación de una cultura nacional indoamericana (essays and lectures) 1975

Señores e indios: Acerca de la cultura quechua (essays and lectures) 1976

Obras completas. 5 vols. (short stories) 1983

Indios, mestizos y señores (prose) 1985

Un mundo de monstruos y de fuego (prose) 1993

Stephen B. Wall-Smith (essay date 18 November 1987)

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SOURCE: Wall-Smith, Stephen B. “José María Arguedas: Godfather of Liberationism.” Christian Century 104, no. 34 (18 November 1987): 1034-39.

[In the following essay, Wall-Smith examines Arguedas's conceptualization of highland culture as a spiritual force under pressure from the materialist pressures of Peru's coastal areas, and he shows how this influenced the development of liberation theology.]

An underlying liberation philosophy to validate Latin American theologies of liberation has yet to be extracted from the popular culture. In time, some scholar will no doubt reconstruct it academically. Until then, the fiction of José María Arguedas provides some of the most vivid portraits of that culture available, as well as penetrating reflections upon its meaning. Little-known in North America, the Peruvian novelist apparently played an important, though indirect, role in the first flowering of liberation theology. Some observers claim that Arguedas considerably influenced fellow Peruvian Gustavo Gutiérrez, as both an author and a friend.

The closeness of the relationship between the two men is difficult to establish from the works of either, but the friendship they apparently share does not seem improbable. The Spanish-language edition of A Theology of Liberation is prefaced with an extensive quote from one of Arguedas's novels and (in every language) the book is dedicated to him. In a commentary on one of Arguedas's books, Gutiérrez reproduces some personal correspondence from the novelist. For his part, Arguedas writes in passing but appreciatively of Gutiérrez in one of the rambling authorial interludes within his last novel. Finally, it was Gutiérrez who celebrated Arguedas's funeral mass in Chimbote after the novelist took his own life in 1969.

Arguedas was born in 1911 in Andahuaylas, southwest of Cuzco in Peru's southern highlands. As a child, he traveled frequently within the borders of his native country. He graduated from the University of San Marcos in Lima, becoming an ethnologist, with particular expertise in the folklore of highland Indians, the Quechua. He taught at several universities and was a curator of Peru's National Museum. He also participated actively in Peruvian politics.

Though Arguedas's literary career was avocational, he still, over a span of 35 years, published a great many scholarly works, numerous short stories, some original poetry and the seven novels that earned him modest acclaim: Agua (1935), Yawar fiesta (1941), Diamantes y pedernales (1954), Los ríos profundos (1958), El Sexto (1961), Todas las sangres (1964) and El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (posthumously, 1971). To date, Los ríos profundos (Deep Rivers, University of Texas Press, 1978) and Yawar Fiesta (University of Texas Press, 1985) have been published in English. However, many North American university libraries and even some U.S. public libraries maintain collections of Arguedas's work in Spanish.

In references sprinkled throughout his books, Gutiérrez cites Arguedas as a source of pivotal insights propelling his theological reflection. Foremost among these insights is the recognition that the Gods of the poor and those of the powerful are very different (The Power of the Poor in History [Orbis, 1983], p. 19). Indeed, the latter is actually an idol (A Theology of Liberation [Orbis, 1973], p. 195). The god of the powerful broods over a “fellowship of the wretched” which he is supposed to have ordained but—thankfully—being an idol, cannot really control. So it is that the de facto fellowship of the wretched becomes the means whereby the oppressed forge de jure solidarity. Together, oppressed people succeed in realizing their aims, for their God is not an idol. Rather, he is a Deliverer (We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People [Orbis, 1984], p. 21). The struggle between the poor and the powerful in Peru is the central theme in all Arguedas's novels. He stands apart from other writers on this theme because he treats it as a spiritual conflict, not merely a sociopolitical reality.

Some commentators suggest that Arguedas's interpretation of events points to a dialectical clash of cultures. “Culture” is used here in a very broad sense. The word denotes a distinctive world view, expressed in an integrated and fairly stable corpus of ideals and practices. Peru's antithetical cultures—the powerful and the poor—are found on the coast and in the highlands respectively.

As seen in Arguedas's work, coastal culture is rooted in a calculating, scientific, Western mentality. Materialistic, it exalts empirical rationality and denies the worth of intuition, sentiment or other psychic processes as vehicles to understanding or as guides to behavior. Mechanistic, coastal culture does not value the lives of imprecise human beings. It is highly individualistic, but only insofar as individualism justifies competition. In truth coastal culture values the group or the mass.

Coastal culture extols religion, but since its basic world view has no real place for God, religion has mainly instrumental worth. It serves as a vehicle for rationalizing and enforcing the status quo. Clerics do not generally fare well in Arguedas's novels, though Christian laypeople do not escape scrutiny either. The priest/headmaster of the boarding school where much of Los ríos profundos is set takes time from his other duties to quell a small uprising in Abancay. His approach is to shame the rebellious campesinos and to put them under threat of damnation.

Owing in no small part to its roots in an Andean cosmology taken over from the Indians, highland culture presents a sharp contrast to that of the coast. The informing image of this world view is water, especially as found in the deep, swift streams that flow through Peru's mountain gorges. Water binds all animate objects to the earth and is the source of affinity among living things, the ground of a profound, animistic empathy between humans and both animals and plants. More than a totem, however, water is for the Andeans what it was for the Greek philosopher Thales: a symbol for the nature of things. As such it is fluid and only partly comprehensible.

As water is witness, nature is no respecter of persons. Wellborn though he was, Don Braulio Felix is worse than cruel when he diverts his comuneros' scarce water during a drought. His act is an outrage against “mama-allpa (Mother Earth) [who] bestows water freely, the same for everyone” (Agua, p. 27). Representing nature in general, water is benign but stern: the same stream that irrigates may also flood; bathing may end in drowning.

Highland culture takes at face value the pervasive sense of smallness that humans feel in the world. Since humans occupy no privileged place within the cosmos, highland culture sanctions a social order appropriate for humanity's humble estate. At its best, it is cooperative, communitarian and nonacquisitive. Without being individualistic, highland culture assigns great worth to people as the essential elements of community life; in such a situation toleration is almost an absolute. Hence, highland culture is much better able to accommodate deviance and outright madness than is coastal culture.

Arguedas reinforces the foregoing point by offering up a stream of Runyonesque characters, among whom one of the most engaging is Moncada, the mad prophet of Chimbote:

“We are under siege,” remarked an onlooker.

“Moncada is wise. Watch what you say,” replied another. “He speaks the truth of the insane. …”

Elegantly dressed, Moncada spoke … “Here in Peru, from the days of San Martín, we have always been ruled by foreigners. We have never been anything but the servants of aliens. …

“The foreigners are like rapists. They promise everything until they have had their ways, then they beat and scorn their victims. And now, today, the foreigners' bastard children roll over and beg to be violated, themselves! I tell you, their ‘sophistication’ is just a sickness”

[El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo, pp. 58, 60]

Highlanders hold that insights into the nature of reality come through an impressionistic interweaving of experiences by the combined agencies of reason and intuition. In some sense osmotic, this weaving is most effectively undertaken in a setting such as the Andean countryside, where nature's superabundance is readily available to human faculties.

In the short story “Orovilca,” because the unnamed adolescent protagonist has drunk deep of creation in the highlands, he is wise among his classmates at a coastal boarding school. He tells his fellow students about birds and trees, he recounts myths, and divines signs of the times that they, products of the deserts, neither recognize nor are able to interpret.

The result of intuition is wisdom, which is not something that can be taught; rather, it is gathered. One might even say that, like the personified wisdom of the Hebrew Scriptures, it actually gathers the wise. Wisdom is much more than knowledge, with which it is favorably contrasted in many of Arguedas's works. Knowledge is a value of coastal culture, something that is embodied apart from knowers and that hires itself out to competing individuals. Wisdom, by comparison, is embodied only in the community which holds it in common. It evolves along with the people who incarnate it. The moral consequences of each are different and provide a clear basis for commitment. Untoward moral implications of coastal culture, with its various presuppositions, suggest that it should be rejected. Knowledge is the product of reason, which structures experience according to the standards of logical coherence, involving denial and exclusion. Thus the picture of the world that passes for knowledge is bound to be distorted. Morality rooted in knowledge alone will thus almost certainly be mistaken in many of its prescriptions. A partisan of coastal culture will no doubt describe it as “streamlined” or “efficient.” Arguedas, however, portrays it as self-limited at best. At its worst, it is self-deceptive.

Highland culture is a hybrid, a product of what Arguedas scholar Pedro Trigo calls “transculturation.” It represents a mixture of native and European elements. It is mestizo in what, to Arguedas, was the best sense of that word: a mixture dominated by Indian influences but preserving the best of both the Old World and the New.

When whites and Indians first met in the highlands, the clash between their cultures was painful and profound. The resolution of the clash, however, was a happy one. Arguedas clearly hoped that a transculturation similar to that which occurred earlier in Peru's history would happen again during his lifetime. Whether he sustained the confidence that coastal and highland cultures could be synthesized with so favorable an outcome is open to question.

The answer is judged on how one understands Arguedas's last novel, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo. In previous works—all, with the exception of El Sexto, set in the highlands—the bearers of highland culture were often vanquished by costales or their minions, but their culture with its values and spirit prevailed. Thus the victory of the oppressors was hollow and short-lived.

Los zorros (as Arguedas called his last book) is disturbingly different from those previous, not nearly so sanguine. The work is a bleak portrayal of highland culture transplanted to the coastal city of Chimbote, a fishing port surrounded by deserts and shantytowns. There the highland society staggers into total disarray, amid a hellish landscape dominated by a factory which processes anchovies into fishmeal, spewing forth a pillar of acrid smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night.

In the midst of masses hypnotized by drunkenness, whoring and ambition wander a few men of integrity: Maxwell, a former religious, now a bricklayer and community leader; Bazalar, the pigman; Antolin Crispín, the blind musician; the mad prophet Moncada and his consumptive sidekick, Don Esteban de la Cruz. In general, however, the transplanted highlanders have traded their culture uncritically and pell-mell for that of the coast.

Gutiérrez, in an afterword to a commentary on Arguedas, argues that Los zorros is as hopeful, in its own way, as other of Arguedas's books, and that the novelist did not renounce his faith in liberation through transculturation. Other writers make similar assertions about Arguedas, but dismiss Los zorros as aberrant. Shortly after completing it, Arguedas committed suicide, the outcome of a long struggle with mental illness. As the product of a difficult period in the author's life, so the argument goes, Los zorros cannot represent his best and clearest thinking.

On the other hand, the counterargument can be made that Los zorros was just the last stop on a long decline in Arguedas's optimism about prospects for transculturation in Peru. The late novel Todas las sangres raises the question of whether costales might not hold out against highland culture indefinitely, sustained by the reserves of international capitalism. Too, in Los zorros Arguedas seems to express a new appreciation for the power of environment to shape those dwelling therein. Environment is an important consideration in an era that saw highlanders, in search of opportunity, migrate in vast numbers from the mountains to the barriadas around Lima and other coastal cities. However, as early as El Sexto, Arguedas apparently began to wonder whether highland culture could survive on the coast.

Taking its name from the prison in Lima's sixth police district, El Sexto traces the consequences of environment on the attitudes and actions of a young political prisoner named Gabriel. For much of the book, Gabriel holds his own against the communists and Apristas (followers of non-Marxist political reformer Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre) who are his cellblock companions. Critic Edgardo Pantigoso writes that Gabriel is secure in his knowledge that “the force of Andean people resides … in the depth of their sensitivities. Against the doctrinaire and cerebral approach which others maintain, into the face of reality, Gabriel offers the values of a highland villager” (La rebelión contra el indigenismo y la afirmación del pueblo in el mundo de José María Arguedas, p. 232).

Against Pedro, a communist, Gabriel argues:

“Pedro, you don't understand the sierra. It's another world. Among the towering mountains, beside the rivers which tumble through the abysses, a man grows up with the most profound sensibilities. That's the source of his power. In the mountains, Peru is very ancient. They haven't rooted out its marrow. …”

“I'm not a Communist,” I told him. “I don't have to be. I just listen to the old country. A man's worth is told by his memory of the ancients, and not just by his modern mechanisms.”

[pp. 120, 122]

However, in a climate of systematic, institutionalized violence, over which it is neither the communists nor the Apristas but the self-serving guards and the criminal element who preside, Gabriel becomes the kingpin in a plot to assassinate the sadistic criminal called “Puñalada.” Pantigoso argues that this is a natural extension of Gabriel's Andean sensibilities, but it seems more likely that Gabriel has in fact lost touch with the broad perspective of his native culture and has become acculturated to the narrow and perverse microculture of the prison. There, on the coast, he loses his soul, becoming just another thug struggling to survive and to have his way.

Arguedas worked toward a Peruvian transculturation, whereby the values of the highland people will not succumb to the blind, scientific or Western mentality of coastal culture. His vision has been carried along by Gutiérrez and other liberationists, who have placed the struggle between the poor and the powerful centrally in their works. Arguedas's writings, a repository of images and concepts with both emotional and historical power, have reached far beyond the highlands and coasts of Peru.

Claudette Kemper Columbus (essay date July-December 1993)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6213

SOURCE: Columbus, Claudette Kemper. “Arguedas's De-Auto-Rized Biography: A Failed? Trickster's Tale.” Latin American Literary Review 21, no. 42 (July-December 1993): 21-33.

[In the following essay, Columbus likens Arguedas and his narrator in El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo to a trickster who inhabits “compound characters who, like him, straddle several language worlds.”]

Individuality can no longer be contained within the terms of manifest personality traits. In a world of transition and revolution individuality has become a problem of historical and social relations, such as cannot be revealed by the mere characterizations of an already established social stereotype. Every mode of individuality now relates to the whole world.

(John Berger, The Look of Things, 41)

Autobiography, in focusing on the life of an individual, even a culture hero or heroine, has generally been, as a genre, the province of the exceptional: the rich, the famous, the crippled, the exemplary case. Its highlighting of a particular life emphasizes the individual and marginalizes the lives of others. In a context in which masses suffer gross inequities of opportunity, such as those suffered by the native populations of Peru, autobiography seems a particularly egoistic genre. Even Rigoberta Menchú draws on the lives of others in Guatemala, almost exclusively, in vignette form.

To deem autobiography as inherently egoistic is a rather harsh view, but it does raise an issue: has José María Arguedas (1911-1969), anthropologist, poet, and novelist, written a novel autobiography in his unfinished last novel, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (hereinafter referred to as The Foxes) an autobiography that gives others equal space? equal voice?1

In part reared by Quechua Indians, Arguedas spoke Quechua and could look on the world with non-Western eyes. He suffered the tensions of a country so stratified economically that the concept of upward mobility for its shrunken middle class has long been replaced by the hope of just getting by. Peru's worsening social tensions erupted during the writing of this novel, significantly set amidst the metropolitan forces2 of a “horrible” port city: multi-ethnic and industrial Chimbote, Peru, its agonistic turbulence resonant in Arguedas's multimodal book. In the sixties, guerrilla activity begins to increase, its strategy to set countryside against city, and globally, the U.S. intervention in Vietnam is coming to an end, not before the slaughter of millions in the third world with which Arguedas symbiotically allied himself.3

The many layered historical and social situations of the novel's inhabitants are matched by its temporal dimensions. Several time periods are introduced in the “First Diary” and pervade the chapters of the novel as well. One time period is terminally short—the drawing to an end of Arguedas's life, his plans for the future the imminent suicide planned in the diaries that are intercalated with the chapters. Another time period is the inclusion of the most daily of events; another, memories of his personal past. He also identifies with two, pre-Colombian myths: the Andean, shaman deity Huatyacuri who overhears the foxes and the shaman deity Tutaykire, waylaid by lust. The perdurable arches of these shaping myths of an archaic epoch of living affect rise above the flux of transient and therefore “terminal” times. For it is mythic time that is memorable and essential, in contrast to the indeterminate present, the vast past, the shadowed future. The forms of personal life that transcend death, such as Arguedas's growing renown, do so because they acquire a mythic dimension not to be confused with glorification of the individual. Rather, his voice is subsumed by the polyphony of voices heard.

As in the diaries, the scenes of the novel present perforated collages of time. The present moment as each character experiences it in its transit is represented perforated by different personal memories of times past, and by the ongoing time of the myths. Like Arguedas, the major characters speak of incidents past as well as on-going crises in personal and public history. And like Arguedas, the characters inhabit identifiable and polyglot mythic horizons.

Arguedas oscillates between the first person singular in the diary form and, in the chapters of the novel, depicts characters closely modelled on living persons and sometimes even with their actual names: the crazed, black, street preacher Moncada and the dying miner Esteban de la Cruz among those whose names are unchanged. This admixture of lives and letters exemplifies Arguedas's emphatic assertion that in his work there is no separation between art and life.4 He speaks of how dependent his life and art are on the lives and arts of others. He makes clear that the concept of an individual life apart from the lives of others is delusory.

Even though Arguedas shaped the “facts” of his life for the diaries, alteration is itself a reflection of experience. The act of selection from the field of what happens is a part of the truth of one's life. The shaped account is in many ways more revealing of the shaper than what happens. Even outright lies and misleading distortions do not alter the referentiality of a biography to its author. However high one's standards of accountability to a data base may be in biography, an author's presentation is at least as expressive of the truth as its accuracy in sequencing.

But what is autobiography when the lives of prostitutes and brute fishermen comprise as significant a part of one's life as one's wife and one's friends? Or when the poignancy of a blind musician, a defiant whore, and a pre-historic or mythic shaman help comprise one's own life and art in a reciprocal, chameleon poesis? For when crazed black Moncada preaches sacrifice and nails himself symbolically to the cross as an act of resistance and of freedom, he signifies Arguedas's own suffering as well.5 The scripts for a number of characters indicates to Arguedas that resistance against massive exploitation and environmental degradation6 may have to entail self-sacrifice.

While writing The Foxes, Arguedas prowled the streets of Chimbote, listening for the operational logic for this last of his novels. The unmistakably individual people Arguedas found in the streets, in the markets, on the docks, in the fishmeal factories become deeply Arguedean characters. Their lives became his life, and their deaths, his also. No corner constitutes a private enclave vis-a-vis the city in which he weighed his life while gathering materials. He suffered the city's tentacles; they reached into such privacies as his sexuality and his death.7

The word “Boilers” for the chapters indicates the novel itself is being “produced” by the forces it resists: the demonic energies of the fishmeal factories of Chimbote and other deranged and corrupting urban forces such as those city fathers and industrialists motivated by material considerations and those agents of an international mafia.

The following passage from the “Second Diary” shows Arguedas's sense of the inseparability of the private and the public spheres. The ecological, the sociological, the historical, the mythic perforate this “individual” life:

Andean demons in the mountains and the abysses of Peru as they try to follow their destinies eviscerate one another; battle of God, excrement, light. When I thought that war won by the river of blood, the yawar mayu in my previous novel, it is as if I won. But I cannot quite get chapter III of this new novel in hand, because … I fundamentally do not understand what is going on in Chimbote and in the world.

In half a second—in the margins—I will transcribe the pages I wrote in Chimbote, when, just like today, after several sleepless nights besieged by the odious, the impotent, the empty, I decided yet once again to commit suicide. Word for word, I copy into the margin what did not then seem so fallacious … I believe myself to have, like all mountain people, a portion of frog, a bit of lark, some snake, and a trace of the little falcon we so much loved as children. But at this instant, I remember, utterly desire to be the Andean flamingo.


Not only are other human beings and historical struggles past and present part of Arguedas, other creatures are. And not only other creatures, but river and mountain landscapes. The blood in his veins is the river of blood of the Andes that falls from the summits to the sea. The natural world is indivisible from the cultural and social worlds he seems not so much to write as to overhear; it is a world overheard that scrawls over his life, de-auto-rizing it, or, to draw on Derrida's pun, creating an otobiography attentive to the ears of the others.

Arguedas represents his personal agony as intricately interfused with those exploited by the industrialized and international megalopolis. In Certeau's terms, Arguedas explores in his own life and in the lives of others the “microphysics” of power, looked at through—given the constraints of this essay—three, interrelated characters, the Arguedas of the diaries, Esteban de la Cruz, the Quechua former miner dying of black lung disease, and his preacher friend, Moncada.

“I am trying to hear,” Certeau writes, “these fragile ways in which the body makes itself heard in the language, the multiple voices.” (1984,131) The “triumphal conquista” of a capitalist economy has a history of thrusting these voices aside and thrusting aside also “the provincial soul of the world,”9 and thrusting aside its creatures.

Still very frightened at having been taken to a hospital, even after his release, Esteban picks a fight with his brother, who has adapted to city life and to the Spanish language. His brother gazes down at his own super-shiny shoes as Esteban protests:

I weigh the carbon I spit out; I do it to get better, you fuck-off. Even a fuck-off can do magic, you fuck-off product of a fuck-off police state. Damn it, at least I spit out this filth!


Because his wife objects to Esteban's profanity, Moncada carries him home, tears a page from the day's newspaper, and spreads it on a small table for Esteban to spit on. The page has a photograph of a space station or possibly a rocket.

“Would you look at that!” Moncada exclaims. “They say that weird looking wheel will fly to the moon! Spit there! Spit, my friend! Get on your knees before Moncada. Moncada knows how insect lives and plant lives are organized, how Peruvian rangers are organized—ha-ha-ha!—hey yankees! you on your moon shot! up yours with invisible sausages. Spit!”

Don Esteban gets to his knees and without trying hard, spits dry the first, the third, the tenth time. Then he shoots out a stream, he launches a shot of stuff that could stick to a door, or to a face, or to the wall of a church, giving color and shape. Finally, Don Esteban coughs up a clot wrapped in carbon. (161)

As a good luck charm against Esteban's dying, Moncada takes a scissors to Esteban's “powerfully” shiny eyelashes and blows one lash to the winds. “Black light, friend. Black light.” (162)

The explicit and dramatic connection between the dying and impoverished Indian and the space station funded in the billions is an economic connection that subsumes whole populations, including Arguedas, and hence Esteban becomes, paradoxically, an independent component of Arguedas's autobiography.10 Both appeal to higher orders of reality perceivable through the poesis of creative language, the deep rhythms of conversations with friends and spirits.

Esteban speaks of a cemetery named Field of Lilies near his hometown. Moncada asks him about the lilies. “¿Había lirios?” (152) and hearing there are none, Moncada says:

My friend grows a lily in his lung. Though it is a black lily, it is a flower and for nobodies will he kneel. He will not prepare his death, not confess, not sing an unopen, peevish, dead song. He will not say a prayer. Not salt, not pepper. … Black vomit? a messenger butterfly that … arrives all tired out to rest on the dead man who has nobodies. You no evangelist. You, brother, you want to bury death. Ain't that the way it is?


A year before when he had awakened knowing how ill he was, Esteban had beaten the walls, kicked his wife, spoken filth, and then, his hands in fists, recited verses from Isaiah. He appreciates this prophet fated not to be heard because Isaiah was never wishy-washy (qaima in Quechua, 153); nor is Esteban wishy-washy. The bold voice of Isaiah, the voice of Esteban, the voice of Arguedas together amplify diversity.11

After little little time, death squeezes me like a serpent or its blows make my nose bleed. When I turn the light on, his head remains up. … He looks at my blood as if it were a pig thinking things over. He says he hears the frog that competes with the tiny music of the mosquito and the “cricket” [cicada]. But Esteban respects the frog. … When I lights candle, though blood is in my mouth, I hear the fat frog speak in the ditch. Isaiah, … Isaiah Frog. Crickets. We the little people. Cursed drunkards born to blows. From black mud the frog speaks bravely against the dark. … For him, there is no darkness. On the contrary. It is this humanity that will disappear, another will be born in the throat of Isaiah. We will push mountains aside; we will build aqueducts and bring water to the midlands; we will push stronger than Caterpillar.


Even speaking roughly the same language (Spanish) as we do, Esteban does not speak the same dialect or echo an orthodox version of the Bible. In Jameson's marvelous phrase, Esteban speaks a “nonimperial, non cosmopolitan language,” (1993 33) a composite language that incorporates (but does not colonize) the croaks of frogs12 and ducks,13 a death-defiant, a systems-defiant, anti-disciplinary ideolect of freedom.”

Arguedas reproduces the rhythms of his characters' speech habits.14 He does not speak for but, having listened to, he speaks with Esteban. Nor does the book of Isaiah assimilate Esteban. Beyond synchretism, Esteban's own voice reconstitutes fragments of the Western tradition not as it contributes to a conflicted consciousness, but as absorbed in spirit, if in fractured form. It is as if Esteban, oysterlike, has absorbed foreign matter, so much foreign matter that the oyster will die. But he has not been consumed by ‘walrus’ Western perspectives nor by ‘carpenter’ Western professionalism. By transmuting Isaiah, Esteban side steps the us/them binary distinction that maintains a colonializing system. Instead, Esteban expresses a self that, like Arguedas's, is not authorized by a single tradition, but, like Arguedas, is a bricoleur choosing from what is on hand when he has choice; choosing not to assimilate when he can resist. Esteban, for instance, resists bedding an urban, “white,” and relatively well-off Limeña, who attempts to seduce him for the sole purpose of having sex.

With Arguedas, these characters are the record keepers of death who defy the death of meaningless social roles, who refuse to confess or sing unopen, peevish songs, who revivify the so-called “minor,” non-standardized languages.15 Like Arguedas, the character-people of the novel are compound characters who, like him, straddle several language worlds. These character-people engage in the “microphysics” of resistance in part through ideolectic speech acts, through “the delicate layering and plasticity of ordinary language, with its almost orchestral combinations of logical elements (temporalization, modalization, injunction, predicates of action, etc.),” (Certeau xvi). “Poets of their own acts,” “discoverers of their own paths in the jungle of functionalist rationality,” each major character works out “signifying practices” something like “the ‘wandering lines’ … drawn by the autistic children.” (Certeau 1984 xviii) They sustain resistance by alternative values, whether they be superstitious beliefs or sustaining myths. These, like fiction, have life-shaping power.

These worlds of consciousness and constantly changing voice incorporate singular and plural. The ill that befalls the abused and abusive Esteban filters into Arguedas's life. In this work the identity theme for Esteban, however singular he may be, is merely another expression of one organism among others, sharing a heterogenous environment. Each character's concerns are reflected within the others. There is almost no character not sketched in terms of pig, louse, and worm, for instance, terms Arguedas uses to sketch himself as well. So, while communicating singularity, he withdraws boundaries. For it is Arguedas who scratches a pig into ecstatic snoring, releasing the absolute joy of the libido in the “First Diary” (8-9); it is Esteban who exclaims, in a paean to pig earth: “The pig is majesty in its … why, buddy, majesty in its talk!” “Pigs have taught me so much!” (151) Native music, cricket and frog and libidinous pig rhythms of the “peasant” countryside, “trickster” profanity also help him, both of them, many in the cast, to support resistance to a decreaturing system.

When not regulated by principles of social welfare and the common good, capitalism or any other system of governance settles into fixed forms that favor an elite. Against the triumphal but deadly socioeconomic system (represented in Chapter III by Braschi, head honcho of the fishmeal factory), against a social world organized by “discipline” (and punishment) rather than by communication, rather than by shared beliefs and human values, Arguedas sets such “helpless” characters as Esteban and Moncada:

… the goal is not to make clearer how the violence of order is transmuted into a disciplinary technology, but rather to bring to light the clandestine forms taken by the dispersed, tactical, and make-shift creativity of groups or individuals already caught in the nets of “discipline.” Pushed to their ideal limits, these procedures and ruses … compose the network of an antidiscipline which is the subject of this book.

(Certeau 1984 xiv-xv)

Antidiscipline, the subject of Arguedas's de-auto-rized biography, offers a transition from Esteban and Moncada as component parts of Arguedas's (and the reader's) life, to Arguedas's as a failed? tricker's tale and the relationship of Arguedas to the foxes of myth, diary, and novel.

The agon trickster Arguedas draws the second diary to a close the way he draws the first to a close: by invoking these mythic trickster figures, the foxes. First, Arguedas addresses the black Gastiaburú who used to call Arguedas a woolen man (a highlander and hence a fox from above). Arguedas asks, “Why did I ever include these difficult foxes in my novel? However much we highland foxes sniff over city folk from the lowlands, we cannot understand them.”

The semantically saturate and polyvalent fox is a borderline creature who escapes taxonomy in being so widely associated: with nighttime, with the moon, with music, with the spring, as well as with people in commerce, with thieves, with artists and tricksters. The rapscallion fox is also tricked; a hunter, he is hunted; a truthful soothsayer, he is also a liar and an ominous bearer of bad news. And the pharmakon fox, representing the cure as well as the kill, is a creature superbly “qualified” mythologically to bring out “multiple connotations.”16 A binarily shape-shifting, he is the body of the world as a whole and also the breakup of wholeness into parts.

Cross-hatching his voice with the voices of highland Indians (foxes from above) attempting to withstand city life, and also cross-hatching his voice with the voices of the mythic foxes, creative tricksters holding liminal positions, Arguedas subsumes himself as “we foxes” to seek “thresholds of larger meaning, ways of turning ordure into order, … feces into treasure.”17 Like Carmen Taripha,18 the trickster speaks not only in human languages but the languages of nature.19 As we have seen, Arguedas hopes to expand biography into sociography and zoography and ecography. “Not without reason is it said that Trickster speaks the language of all living things; for in Trickster's universe, everything is already a sign of something. Trickster's universe is essentially linguistic and infinitely interpretable. Trickster is thus not a sacred being, but the way the whole universe may become meaningful, sacred, and filled with ‘power,’” (Doueihi 1984 309). Sacred power is not, of course, synonymous to the sanitary, obedient, and asexual.

But, unlike Carmen Taripha, neither fox speaks complete fables nor does either represent the arts of the folk tale. Rather, in catching wind of discursive fragments, innuendo, gossip, whatever's in the air, in fragmentary conversations and narrative bits, they enjoy scraps of life essences, whether criminal or creative. Theirs is very much like Arguedas's own art in The Foxes.20

Watching and listening, the prehistoric Andean foxes, figurative embodiments of thought processes even larger than those embodied by historical forces,21 roam the margins of human life. Inhabitants of a realm that mocks the present moment, they do not feel with or for the human beings/characters either in this 20th century novel on in their ancient folk context in which they report anti-social forms of sexual life. Then and now, they represent creative but not necessarily curative alternatives through metafiction and wordplay.

At the end of the “Second Diary,” Arguedas “plays” metasocially, linguistically, acoustically, and discursively with blackness. The letter “z” begins a term for colored, zambo. “Do you have it right, black man?” [¿Tendrás razón, negro?] he says to the black physician, Gastiaburú. [“Negro” is also a term of endearment.] Arguedas asks, “Are we zambos criollos? We blacks and a-blacks, we de-colored ones. [“zambos y azambados”] we in that category of blacks in white-face [en esa categoría de azambados], you include Indians and highlanders, suckled by [amamarrachados] city life, don't you? The foxes (zorros), the Indians, we, I azambado.” (83)

The foxes contribute to the erasure of boundaries among “diaries” and the chapters of his novel. The foxes help erase the demarcations of skin color. They slip the bondage of ethnic tagging and tongue gagging. The novel named for them includes rough and crude scenes, deploying offensiveness to trangress the “finer sensibilities” of a reader. For it is those very sensibilities that encase the reader in a discourse of domination exerted by an apparatus: church, class, state,22 and that allow the reader to escape awareness of inequity. An invocation of supposedly “normal” behavior and response evinces another site where an inequitable socioeconomic system has exerted its power. As a trickster, known for his foul habits, Arguedas [and Esteban, and Moncada] is both character and narrator; or rather, he is the discourse that cannot decide between the two, that erases their boundaries, makes an opening in their boundaries, linking them and at the same time allowing them to be distinguished and juxtaposed. (Doueihi 1984, 306)

But however potentially transformative, Arguedas finds working with the foxes ultimately too difficult. Although they offer a plural poetics of self; although they leap barriers of space and time, of text and context, although they move between the discursive and the narrative, and present themselves as human and superhuman personages, characters in the Boilers seemingly cannot go beyond scenes of instruction into scenes of action. Although the tricksters' hint of another story unfolding behind the surfaces and although they transform the text whenever they appear, the relentless weight of irresponsible greed and racial hatred shifts too little. The tricksters' story deconstructs into a semiotic activity, a free play. It invites the reader to recognize in this play of signi-fiers a “seeming as if” they signified a particular story, a clear and univocal meaning. (Doueihi 1984 303).

But few English speakers have accepted the invitation; the novel remains untranslated into English.

Patently “fictive” and mythic, Arguedas's foxes are also “operative” in what seems [and for Arguedas is] real life. Their genital gossip adds a discursive dimension that goes so far beyond mundane explanation of the prostituted city that cause and effect is made to appear what it is: simplistic. Their discourse opens up each narrative moment to speculation by opening up multiple perspectives and durations.23 But in shattering familiar taxonomies, the foxes may be too difficult for human powers of adaptive “play.”

The shape-shifter fox from below prowls the borders of machinic systems for exit signs. His name is the indigenous name for fox, Diego, after St. James. In appearance looking like an Inca hippy, he acts as a commercial man, a representative of mafia business interests and as a magician. In itself, his Inca hippy appearance suggests a complex boundary situation if there ever was one. Diego is also on the boundary between a most mundane tour of a fishmeal factory and the dance of deity.

As the linguist of the gods, the trickster can sometimes transform the most obdurate predicament, can turn “ordure to order,” can link “these bits of social dirt into the forms of communal life,” can reveal “how it is precisely on the plane of the daily and the specific that time is cooled down, social order enlarged, and all experience opened to transformation,” (Pelton 1993 130).

In the “Last Diary?”—and I paraphrase—the foxes could not tell such tales as were boiling up in Chimbote; they could not intervene. They were to have commented on Moncada's sermon in which he judged the earth and the sea. But only the black man sees the totality of the connections between nature and destiny; the foxes could not dance leaping, the light flashing from them, not to those last words. I will not be able to relate (for Arguedas as agon trickster changes from third to first person, showing again how the trickster “is both character and narrator; or rather, the discourse that cannot decide between the two” (Doueihi 1984 306). Arguedas and the fox leave apocalypse to the black preacher to narrate, for Arguedas will interrupt this novel about his death and the deaths of others with his death and with the deaths of several main characters. His suicide notwithstanding:

The trickster shows us a way to see the world by opening our minds to the spontaneous transformations of a reality that is always open and creative. It is only to the closed, ordinary mind that trickster stories seem absurd or profane.

(Doueihi 1993 200)

In the “Last Diary?” Arguedas takes his leave of the mythic narrative and of his life, leaves what options are left for changing the destiny of a pueblo through myth and art to those who survive by transformative acts directed not towards primarily individual good but towards the social good, a criteria by which Arguedas survives.


  1. Pratt asks us to imagine “linguistics that decentered community, that placed at its center the operation of language across lines of social differentiation, a linguistics that focused on modes and zones of contact between dominant and dominated groups, between persons of different and multiple identities, speakers of different languages, that focused on how such speakers constitute each other relationally and in difference, how they enact differences in languages. Let us call this enterprise a linguistics of contact, a term linked to Jakobson's notion of contact as a component of speech events, and to the phenomenon of contact languages, one of the best recognised challenges to the systematising linguistics of code,” 60.

  2. “Metropolitan forces” is a phrase owed to Coronil.

  3. “You, my own other, my Vietnamese brother,” comes from a speech delivered by Arguedas in August of 1969 to Quechua who feared they were also the intended targets of U.S. forces; “Vietnamita, runa-masiy,” “Vietnamita, semejante mío,” translated into Spanish by Alfredo Torero and Arguedas (1983, 266-7).

  4. Arguedas argued this point emphatically (1965 passim).

  5. Moncada nails an image of himself to the cross, but the action is a leitmotif: Arguedas nails himself to the cross of a cause he believes all but lost; the poor drag the crosses of their dead from the cemetery of the rich to their “very own” cemetery; the mythic Tutaykire hangs upon a cross of bone in the “Last Diary?”

  6. So depleted of sardines was the Pacific ocean near Chimbote in the late 60's that pelicans would in flight fall dead of starvation. Only on November 27, 1987 did El Comercio report that the “national catch” was coming back.

  7. Possibly, living in a third world country contributes to the sense of permeability among people. Wilson Harris takes note of redefinition of character in a mode similar to the Arguedean: “The consolidation of character is, to a major extent, the preoccupation of most novelists who work in the twentieth century within the frame-work of the nineteenth century novel. Indeed, the nineteenth century novel has exercised a very powerful influence on reader and writer alike in the contemporary world. And this is not surprising after all since the rise of the novel in its conventional and historical mould coincides in Europe with states of society which were involved in consolidating their class and other vested interests. As a result ‘character’ in the novel rests more or less on the self-sufficient individual—on elements of ‘persuasion’ (a refined or liberal persuasion at best in the spirit of the philosopher Whitehead) rather than ‘dialogue’ or ‘dialectic’ in the profound and unpredictable sense of person which Martin Buber, for example, evokes,” (28-9); also “What in my view is remarkable about the West Indian in depth is a sense of subtle links, the series of subtle and nebulous links which are latent within him, the latent ground of old and new realities.” (28)

  8. I presume that the armed resurrection Arguedas represented in All the Races had begun to show that such violence and rage was not only not efficacious, but destroyed human values. During that very period that Arguedas had begun to urge, “Que no haya rabia,” his second wife, Sybila Arredondo, was becoming more closely involved with Sendero Luminoso, a simultaneously puritanical and a terrorist movement. A February, 1969 letter to John Murra makes explicit their political difference; his wife disdains his dedication to writing when he could be an activist (Fell 285). In 1985, she was jailed for a time, a move prompted because, allegedly, she was caught transporting dynamite with known Senderistas.

  9. Arguedas's own phrase.

  10. That Arguedas is political is obvious, but the issue is not one of being representative of a particular political party or conscious ideology. Arguedas supported the insurrectionist, Hugo Blanco. But the Peruvian government was oppressive. He was barred as a Communist from entering the States for a P.E.N. convention. However, communal life as Andean Indian groups experience it has little in common with such collectivities as a Soviet farm. In Peru, Communism is conspicuously communisms. The matter of Arguedas's politics is more fairly phrased by itemizing. Arguedas was against fascism, against violation of civil rights, against an ethic that shamed the native populations. He was in favor of preserving their right to develop as independently as possible. He was in favor of Castro's revolution in Cuba. And so on.

  11. “El mundo de El zorro se articula sobre todo desde el sónico,” writes Rowe (1990, 333).

  12. Cornejo Polar claims allegory in the frog, claims a philosophy of life very like Conrad's character's advice to Lord Jim: “In the destructive element, immerse,” (1973, 294).

  13. Maxine Hong Kingston refers to herself as “quacking” like a duck.

  14. Mróz demonstrates how good an ear Arguedas had for street speech (1981, 133-160).

  15. As Deleuze and Guattari show also (1986).

  16. See, for instance, Lévi-Strauss 467; fox myths on 94-97.

  17. Pelton (1993, 127). Taking a cue from Victor Turner, Pelton defines limina as threshold.

  18. In the “First Diary,” Carmen Taripha's tale-telling talent is remembered; it expresses Arguedas's own love for the folk tale. Carmen “told endless tales about zorros [a polysemous word that may be translated as foxes, harlots, “beaver,” Indians, persons engaged in commercial adventures], tales about the condemned [ghost stories], about bears, snakes, lizards. She imitated those animals with her voice and her body. She imitated them so well that the living room of the curate became caves, mountains, table-lands, gorges through which you could hear the snake dragging itself as it moved slowly through the grasses and brushwood. You could hear the fox's talk, between comic and cruel; the speech of the bear that seems to have dough in its mouth, and the speech of the rat that even cuts off its own shadow. Doña Carmen went about like a fox and like a bear, and she moved her arms like a snake or like a puma, even waving her tail, and she bellowed as loudly as the damned” (1990, 14). By bringing creatures to vivid life, Carmen's tales bridge the gap between culture and nature in such a way that nature seems to narrate, and in nature's narration, culture acquires body. Arguedas is indicting the poverty of written narratives that embody comparatively little, that function in the absence of an audience and of nature. His praise of Carmen is a paean to oral literature that brings characters both animal and human fully to ideolectic and physical life. The artist is a composite “surplus” other wise than singleness of being.

  19. Of animal mimicry, Taussig writes, “Foolhardy as it is to speculate what it might be about the absence of chiefs and property, the State and the market, that would enhance the mimetic faculty—the terms are as generous as they are suggestive—I cannot resist suggesting that it must have to do with a protean or plastic sense of self in an animated nature where objects, in some sense, have souls and nature speaks back, the material world being like an envelope to an underlying spiritual reality such that every material entity is paired with an only occasionally visible spirit-double—a mimetic double!—of itself,” from ms. version of Mimesis and Alterity: A Contribution to the History of the Senses, 1990.

  20. Some—but only some—aspects of post-modernism illuminate this last work of Arguedas. For instance, the following passage applies, except for its dismissal of reality:

    But what exactly might this loss of reality, this genuine erosion of the principle of reality, mean for emancipation and liberation? Emancipation, here, consists in disorientation, which is at the same time also the liberation of differences, of local elements, of what could generally be called dialect. With the demise of the idea of a central rationality of history, the world of generalized communication explodes like a multiplicity of “local” rationalities—ethnic, sexual, religious, cultural or aesthetic minorities—that finally speak up for themselves.

    (Vattimo, 8-9)

  21. Carr attaches historical processes of thought to a “we,” going further he says than Dilthey and Collingwood who think of history as “the actions of individuals,” (1986, 178).

  22. The limits of discourse analyses in colonial contexts such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's and Homi Bhabha's are brilliantly summarized in Parry's cogent essay of 1987.

  23. Good criticism on the relationship between Arguedas's use of discourse in narrative in the Foxes and comparable Latin American authors may be found in Rowe (1984).

The page numbers cited come from Fell's critical edition; all translations into English are mine. Julio Ortega was attempting to have the novel translated into English.

Works Cited

Arguedas, José María. Primer encuentro de narradores peruanos. Arequipa, Peru, 1965; Lima, Peru: Casa de la Cultura del Peru, 1969.

———. “Vietnamita, runamasiy.” Obras Completas, Vol. V. Ed. Sybila A. de Arguedas. Lima, Peru: Editorial Horizonte, 1983: 266-7.

———. El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo. Coordinated by Eve-Marie Fell. CEP de la Biblioteca Nacional Madrid: Coleccion Archivos, 14, 1990.

Berger, John. The Look of Things. N.Y.: The Viking Press, 1971.

Carr, David. Time, Narrative, and History. Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley, LA, London: University of California Press, 1984.

Cornejo Polar, Antonio. Los universos narrativos de José María Arguedas. Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada, S. A., 1973.

Coronil, Fernando. “Can Postcoloniality be Decolonized? Imperial Banality and Postcolonial Power.” Public Culture Vol. 5 #1: Fall 1992: 89-108.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. Trans. Dana Polan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Derrida, Jacques. The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. The University of Nebraska Press, 1988.

Doueihi, Anne. “Trickster: On Inhabiting the Space between Discourse and Story.” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 67/3. 1984: 283-311.

———. “Inhabiting the Space between Discourse and Story in Trickster Narratives.” Mythical Trickster Figures: Contours, Contexts, and Criticism. Eds. William J. Hynes & William G. Doty. Tuscaloosa & London: University of Alabama Press, 1993.

Dumont, Jean-Paul. Under the Rainbow: Nature and Supernature among the Panare Indians. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1976.

Harris, Wilson. Tradition, The Writer and Society: Critical Essays. London: New Beacon Books, 1967.

Jameson, Fredric. “Cultural Studies.” SOCIALTEXT, 34 1993: 17-52.

———. The Political Unconscious. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. From Honey to Ashes: Introduction to a Science of Mythology, Vol. 2: Trans. by John and Doreen Weightman. N.Y.: Harper & Row, 1973,

Mróz, Marcín. “José María Arguedas como representante de la cultura Quechua. Análisis de la novela El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo.Allpanchis, Vol XV, #17-18. Cusco, 1981: 133-160.

Parry, Benita. “Problems in Current Theories of Colonial Discourse.” OLR, Vol. 9, Nos.1-2, 1987: 27-58.

Pelton, Robert D. “West African Tricksters: Web of Purpose, Dance of Delight.” Mythical Trickster Figures: Contours, Contexts, and Criticism. Eds. William J. Hynes & William G. Doty. Tuscaloosa & London: University of Alabama Press, 1993: 122-139.

Pratt, Mary Louise. “Linguistic Utopias.” The Linguistics of Writing: Arguments between Language and Literature. Eds. Nigel Fabb, Derek Attridge, Alan Durant, and Colin MacCabe. New York: Methuen Inc. 1987: 39-66.

Rowe, William. “Deseo, escritura y fuerzas productivas.” El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo. Edición Critica. Ed. Eve-Marie Fell. CEP de la Biblioteca Nacional Madrid: Coleccion Archivos, 14: 1990: 333-340.

———. “Ethnocentric Orthodoxies Vs. Text as Cultural Action: Some Issues in Latin-American Literature.” Romance Studies, Vol. 5. 1984:75-87.

Taussig, Michael. Mimesis and Alterity: A Contribution to the History of the Senses. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Vattimo, Gianni. The Transparent Society. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Further Reading

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Aponte, Barbara. “The Initiation Archetype in Arguedas, Roa Bastos and Ocampo.” Latin American Literary Review 11, no. 21 (fall-winter 1982): 45-55.

Arguedas's works and Peru itself are seen in tension between utopia and despair.

Beyersdorff, Margot. “Voice of the Runa: Quechua Substratum in the Narrative of José María Arguedas.” Latin American Indian Literatures Journal 2, no. 1 (spring 1986): 28-48.

Special attention is given to the role of the Quechua language in shaping Arguedas's narratives.

Castro-Klaren, Sara. “Dancing and the Sacred in the Andes: From the Taqui-Oncoy to ‘Rasu-Niti’.” Dipositio/n:American Journal of Cultural Histories and Theories 14, no. 36-8 (1989): 169-85.

Arguedas's work is compared with Andean myths of death and rebirth.

Caviedes, Cesar. “The Latin American Boom-Town in the Literary View of José María Arguedas.” In Geography and Literature: A Meeting of the Disciplines, edited by William E. Mallory and Paul Simpson-Housley, pp. 57-77. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1987.

Examines how Arguedas depicts rapid urbanization.

Columbus, Claudette Kemper. Mythological Consciousness and the Future: José María Arguedas. New York: Peter Lang, 1986, 191 p.

Identifies several elements of Arguedas's fiction as emanating from his knowledge of Andean myths.

———. “Mother Earth in Amazonia and in the Andes: Darcy Ribeiro and José María Arguedas.” In Literature and Anthropology, edited by Phillip A. Dennis and Wendell Aycock, pp. 165-80. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1989.

Arguedas's field work in anthropology is shown as a strong influence on his fiction and poetry.

De Castro, Juan E. “From Mestizaje to Multiculturalism: On José María Arguedas, New Mestizas, Demons, and the Uncanny.” In Mestizo Nations: Culture, Race, and Conformity in Latin American Literature, pp. 119-27. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002.

Discusses the transcultural sources of knowledge Arguedas employed and revealed in El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo.

Ekstrom, Margaret V. “Crossing ‘Deep Rivers’: José María Arguedas and the Renaming of Peru.” Literary Onomastics Studies 16 (1989): 33-7.

Discusses Arguedas's treatment of the effects of language and power in naming places.

Emery, Amy Fass. “The Eye of the Anthropologist: Vision and Mastery in José María Arguedas.” In The Anthropological Imagination in Latin American Literature, pp. 43-69. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996.

Discusses Arguedas's background in anthropology in relation to his fiction and poetry.

Givenez Mico, and Jose Antonio. “The Deterritorialization of Knowledge in El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo.Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispanicos 26, no. 1-2 (fall-winter 2001-2002): 83-105.

Asserts that Arguedas represented many of the racial and cultural conflicts of modern life through the hybrid nature of life and the characters in El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo.

Kelley, Alita. “José María Arguedas and the Tenets of Neo-Modernity: The Andean Novelist's Challenge to a Zeitgeist.” In Beyond Indigenous Voices: LAILA/ALILA 11th International Symposium on Latin American Indian Literatures, edited by Mary H. Preuss, pp. 151-55. Lancaster, Calif.: Labyrinthos, 1996.

Examines Arguedas's perspectives on the role and vocation of the novelist in the context of post-modernism.

Lambright, Anne. “Losing Ground: Some Notes on the Feminine in El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo.Hispanfólia 122 (January 1998): 71-84.

Argues that the feminist symbolism of the foxes in El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo is rooted in Arguedas's association of the Andes as feminine in contrast with the masculine coast.

Ledgerwood, Mikle D. “José María Arguedas's Rural Indian in Los Rios Profundos: An Example of Whether Indians are Rural Unchanging Inhabitants in Twentieth Century Latin American Literature.” SECOLAS Annals: Journal of the Southeastern Council on Latin American Studies 18 (March 1987): 60-6.

Examines the effects of social and economic change as they appear in Arguedas's works.

Ortega, Julio, and Galen D. Greaser. “A Book on Death.” In Poetics of Change: The New Spanish-American Narrative, translated by William L. Siemens, pp. 183-89. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984.

Discusses the sexual initiations of Arguedas's adolescent protagonists.

Walford, Lynn. “Beyond Chaos: El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo.Hispanic Journal 21, no. 2 (fall 2000): 421-34.

Argues that the disorder and rootlessness of the setting of El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo evoke lifeless chaos.

Additional coverage of Arguedas's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 89-92; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 3; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 10, 18; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 113; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Hispanic Literature Criticism, Ed. 1; Hispanic Writers, Ed. 1; Latin American Writers; Literature Resource Center; Reference Guide to World Literature, Eds. 2, 3; and World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 1.

Mario Vargas Llosa (essay date September 1993)

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SOURCE: Vargas Llosa, Mario. “The Real Life of the Latin American Novelist.” Harper's 287, no. 1720 (September 1993): 22-4.

[In the following essay, Vargas Llosa categorizes Arguedas's works as “literature meant for him” and the later works, such as Todas las Sangres, in which he succumbed to the pressures to produce works of social and political conscience, which Vargas Llosa found “a total failure.”]

The Peruvian novelist José María Arguedas killed himself the second day of December 1969 in a classroom at La Molina Agricultural University in Lima. He was a very discreet man, and so as not to disturb his colleagues and the students with his suicide he waited until everybody had left the place. Near his body was found a letter with very detailed instructions about his burial: where he should be mourned, who should pronounce the eulogies in the cemetery, and he asked, too, that an Indian musician friend of his play the huaynos and mulizas he was fond of. His will was respected, and Arguedas, who had been when he was alive a very modest and shy man, had a very spectacular political burial.

But some days later other letters written by him appeared, little by little. They, too, were different aspects of his last will, and they were addressed to very different people: his publisher, friends, journalists, academics, politicians. The main subject of these letters was his death, of course, or, better, the reasons for which he decided to kill himself. These reasons changed from letter to letter. In one of them, he said that he had decided to commit suicide because he felt that he was finished as a writer, that he no longer had the impulses and the will to create. In another, he gave moral, social, and political reasons: he could not stand anymore the misery and neglect of the Peruvian peasants, those people of the Indian communities among whom he had been raised; he lived oppressed and anguished by the crisis of the cultural and educational life in the country; the low level and abject nature of the press and the caricature of liberty in Peru were too much for him.

In these dramatic letters we follow, naturally, the personal crisis that Arguedas had been going through; they are the desperate call of a suffering man who, at the edge of the abyss, asks mankind for help and compassion. But they are more than just clinical testimony. They are graphic evidence of the situation of the writer in Latin America in the Sixties, of the difficulties and pressures of all sorts that had surrounded and oriented and many times destroyed the literary vocation in our countries.

All countries have problems, of course, but in many parts of Latin America, both in the past and even in the present, the problems that constitute the closest daily reality for people are not freely discussed and analyzed in public; in fact, there was strict censorship of the media and the universities. You must remember, for instance, that during the military regime in Uruguay, the departments of sociology were closed indefinitely because the social sciences were considered subversive. Academic knowledge in many Latin American countries was a victim of the deliberate turning away from what objectively was happening in society. This vacuum was filled by literature.

All over Latin America novels, poems, and plays became (as Stendhal once said the novel should be) mirrors, in which Latin Americans could truly see their faces and examine their sufferings. What was, for political reasons, repressed or distorted in the press and in the schools and universities—all the evils that were buried by the military and economic elite ruling the countries, evils that were never mentioned in the speeches of the politicians, or taught in the lecture halls, or criticized in the congresses, or discussed in magazines—found a vehicle of expression in literature. So something curious and paradoxical occurred. The realm of imagination became in Latin America the kingdom of objective reality; fiction was a substitute for social science; our best teachers about reality were the dreamers, the literary artists.

No writer in Latin America is unaware of the pressure pushing him or her toward social commitment. Some accept this role because the external impulse coincides with their innermost feelings and personal convictions. These cases are, surely, the happy ones. The aligning of the writer's individual choice and society's idea of his or her vocation permits novelists, poets, or playwrights to create freely, without any pangs of conscience, knowing that they are supported and approved by their contemporaries. But many writers are not really prepared to deal with political and social problems. These are the unhappy cases. If these writers prefer their intimate calling and produce uncommitted work, they will be considered, in the best of cases, irresponsible and selfish; or, at worst, accomplices, by omission, to all the evils—illiteracy, misery, exploitation, injustice, prejudice—of their country. If they submit to social pressure and try to write about social and political themes, it is quite probable that they will fail as writers, that they will frustrate themselves as artists for not having acted as their feelings prompted them to do.

I think that José María Arguedas experienced this terrible dilemma, and that all his life and work bears the trace of it. He was born in the Andes. In spite of being the son of a lawyer, he was raised among the Indian peasants and, until his adolescence, was—in the language he spoke and in his vision of the world—an Indian. Later he became a middle-class, Spanish-speaking Peruvian white. He lived always torn between these two different cultures and societies. And literature meant for him, in his first short stories and novel (Agua,Yawar Fiesta,Los Ríos Profundos), a melancholic escape to the days and places of his childhood, the world of the little Indian villages (San Juan de Lucanas, Puquio) or towns of the Andes (Abancay) whose landscapes and customs he described in a tender and poetic prose. But later, he felt obliged to renounce this kind of lyric image in order to fill the social responsibilities that everybody expected of him. And he wrote a very ambitious book (Todas las Sangres) in which he 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. We do not find any of the great literary virtues that made his previous books genuine works of art. The book is the classic failure of an artistic talent as a result of the self-imposition of social commitment. Arguedas's other books oscillate between those two sides of his personality, and it is probable that all this played a part in his suicide.

When he pulled the trigger of the gun, at the University of La Molina on the second day of December of 1969, José María Arguedas was, too, in a way, showing how difficult and daring it can be to be a writer in Latin America.

Throughout this talk I have been using the past tense. Why? Well, things have been improving politically, at least in Latin America. In the last few years, almost all Latin American countries have replaced authoritarian and military regimes with civilian and elected governments. With the exception of Peru and Haiti, the rest of the continent can be called “democratic” and free, although there are, of course, different levels of commitments to freedom and participation in these new regimes. But you can assume, I believe, without excessive optimism, that there is a new political enthusiasm in Latin Americans for the Western liberal and democratic system, which, in the past, was despised and rejected equally by the right and the left. If this process continues, it will certainly have an effect on literature, and writers will gradually lose incentives and pressures to commit themselves to political and social causes. Is this prospect something to celebrate or to deplore? I have mixed feelings about it.

John C. Hawley, S. J. (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Hawley, John C., S. J. “We Wretched of the Earth: The Search for a Language of Justice.” In Postcolonial Literature and the Biblical Call for Justice, edited by Susan VanZanten Gallagher, pp. 125-35. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994.

[In the following essay, Hawley draws on Bakhtin's claim that language shapes our self-definition to frame Arguedas's personal and literary development as a three-stage development of mythological consciousness: his childhood immersion in the language and culture of the Quechua Indians; his “agonistic and abstract phase” when he learned Spanish and received his formal education; and his years writing fiction when he tried to break out of colonial and oppressive forms of consciousness and extend the power and meaning of ancient stories, songs and myths.]

“In the beginning was the Word,” writes John—God's revealing utterance that “was made flesh and lived among us.” This incarnational character of the Word, this “living among us,” has demanded of Christians in each age a reinterpretation of its original and ongoing meaning. If the protean nature of God's self-expression has seen a continuing “translation” in each age, though, it is becoming increasingly evident among church members that a similar task is also required in each ethnic milieu. The “us” among whom the Word lives is made up of many communities of discourse, and a logocentric theology like Christianity must take special interest in the self-expressive nature of the ongoing local struggles for a forum. Implicated in the colonization of much of the world and the imposition of Western languages, the Church, as a matter of justice, now finds itself examining the role of language in any people's self-definition and consequent worship of God.

The shape of Christendom is changing, and the pace of that change is accelerating. The “Third Church,” as Walbert Bühlmann has dubbed Christendom in the emergent nations, will soon set the agenda for the century to come. In 1900 there were 392 million Christians in Western developed countries (Europe and North America), and 67 million in southern countries (Asia, Africa, Oceania, and South America); 85 percent of Christians were in the First and Second Church, 15 percent in the Third Church. By 1965 there were 637 million Christians in Western developed countries and 370 million in southern countries; 63 percent were in the First and Second Church, 37 percent were in the third. Current estimates suggest that by the year 2000 there will be 796 million Christians in Western developed countries and 1.118 billion in southern countries. Forty-two percent will be in the First and Second Church; 58 percent will be in the Third Church. This change is even more striking in the Roman Catholic Church, 70 percent of whose members will live in the developing countries in the year 2000 (Bühlmann 20).

As the makeup of the church has changed, so has consideration of its role. A new recognition has emerged that the Roman Catholic Church should stand independent from the political intentions of colonizers; the 1953 decree of the bishops of Madagascar, for example, explicitly acknowledged that self-government was a natural right (Bühlmann 43). As recently as October 1991, Pope John Paul II told Fernando Collor de Mello, President of Brazil, that “the objectives of the church in its purely religious and spiritual mission and those of the state pertaining to the common good are certainly different. But they coincide in one point: humanity and the well-being of the country.” This common objective involved, he said, the modernization of work conditions, the creation of jobs, a halt to “the violence that has already taken so many lives,” and the provision of financial and other services for millions of peasants (Cowell, “Pope Challenges” A4). Then addressing Indians of the southern rim of the Amazon basin, he announced that “the Pope has not come, like the bandits of the past and the prospectors of today, to search for gold,” and he asked their forgiveness for the “weakness and defects” of some missionaries during centuries of evangelism (Cowell, “Pope Asks” A3).

The search for a national voice among the constituents of this new Christendom is clearly evident in their writers, but that search must first choose the language most appropriate to its expression. In her recent novel Jasmine, Indian novelist Bharati Mukherjee has her Punjabi narrator ironically observe that her new American husband “comes from a place where the language you speak is what you are” (8). If he were a native American, the irony would be complete. She, also, is not English, so their language does not fully define who they are. This is crucial because, as the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin argues, our engagement in language does, in fact, shape our self-definition.

Consideration of this dilemma often takes on a religious cast among the writers themselves. Most postcolonial novelists who write in English, or whose works have been translated into English, have been baptized. They attended religious schools and, for better or for worse, have been shaped by that experience. Their novels, poetry, and essays increasingly call not only for restitution—of their precolonial identity, of their postcolonial voice—but frequently do so specifically in terms of a biblical call for justice. With a lacerating irony, this struggle for justice among peoples upon whom the Gospel was sometimes cruelly imposed draws its strength from the Bible's example of Yahweh's enduring righteousness, the prophets' call to fidelity, and the significance of the individual in the eyes of God.

“In his conversation with Saint Bernard in Paradise,” writes Bakhtin, “Dante suggests that our body shall be resurrected not for its own sake, but for the sake of those who love us—those who knew and loved our one-and-only countenance” (Art 57). This “one-and-only” incarnated specificity fascinates Bakhtin—but not as it might have fascinated a Sartrean, as the inescapable prison of our individual isolation. Bakhtin's analysis of the human condition, instead, transforms existentialist isolation.

His notion of dialogism, the idea that “we call forth, and are ourselves summoned by, the words of others, which we make our own … through borders we build around them” (xliv), is by now relatively well-known. This notion, perhaps, approaches a “door” in the Sartrean prison; the implications are made even more apparent in Bakhtin's earliest writings, dating from 1919 to 1924, in which “there are no things in themselves, no possibility of an actual object understood as an it-itself; [and] thus, the dialogic subject, existing only in a world of consciousness, is free to perceive others not as a constraint, but as a possibility: others are neither hell nor heaven, but the necessary condition for both” (xxxviii). Social interaction demands a porous margin of subjectivity—neither a complete submission to the other, nor a solid wall of difference.

Briefly put, in the Bakhtinian world there is an inescapable “otherness,” but our very sense of our distinct self is dependent upon an interaction with the other. I look at someone else and see things about him or her that that individual is dependent upon me to “see”: the backdrop, the facial expression, the gestalt. Bakhtin's emphasis in his discussion of this phenomenon is not on the conquest of one by the other, but on the simultaneity of their identification: “the resulting simultaneity is not a private either/or, but an inclusive also/and” (xxiii). Identity, for Bakhtin and his followers—the identity of a nation and certainly the identity of an individual—is, therefore, an activity rather than a thought. It is an ongoing “mythmaking,” in the view of another theoretician (Mariátegui 187-88), which expresses itself as a conversation. No healthy individual wishes to be subsumed by the other: each admits his or her status of foreigner, even in the face of the beloved.

These theories about language and identity take a sharper focus in writers whose language is historically tied to forces that controlled and suppressed the “otherness” of subject peoples. The Senegalese novelist Cheikh Hamidou Kane, first educated in a Koranic school and eventually at the Sorbonne, notes in Ambiguous Adventure that he was “personally conquered” by the French through their imposition of their language: “their alphabet. With it, they struck the first hard blow at the country of the Diallobé. I remained for a long time under the spell of those signs and those sounds which constitute the structure and the music of their language” (159). The true power of the French, he claims, “lay not in the cannons of the first morning, but rather in what followed the cannons,” the language and culture that were imposed (49).

José María Arguedas and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o also speak for this increasingly vocal world, with its prophetic judgment upon the colonizers and its salvific witness to the interdependence of Christian peoples. Ngũgĩ puts it succinctly: “The oppressor nation uses language as a means of entrenching itself in the oppressed nation. The weapon of language is added to that of the Bible and the sword in pursuit of what David Livingstone, in the case of nineteenth-century imperialism, called ‘Christianity plus 5 percent’” (Moving 31). Writers such as Arguedas and Ngũgĩ represent a pattern repeated throughout the postcolonial world: the Bible, implicitly identified in their writings with the oppressor, nonetheless offers a paradigmatic justification and strategy for liberation.

José María Arguedas was born in a remote Andean village in 1911 and died in Lima, by his own hand, fifty-eight years later. His mother had died when he was three, and his father, a lawyer, remarried when the boy was six. Arguedas did not get along with his stepmother and spent most of his time with the Quechua servants. When he was thirteen he was sent away to school, but his fascination with the world of the servants seems to have shaped his entire life: he later became an anthropologist, a musicologist, an ethnographer, a linguist specializing in Quechua, a poet, novelist, and translator of indigenous myths. He made what liberation theologians call a preferential “option for the poor” (Boff 416), aligning himself with them in a struggle against his own class.

Unless one is a Quechua, the Spanish language is by now identified as the natural language for all the former Incan lands. For Arguedas, however, it embodied the heritage of cultural domination of the Indians by the colonizers. In 1958, accepting the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega prize, he proclaimed, “I have not become acculturated” (Columbus 23). As we have noted, Arguedas was not, in fact, Quechua: he only desperately wished he were and was suggesting as much in his acceptance speech. His novels are written principally in Spanish, but employ Quechua regularly, implicitly asserting the ongoing presence in Peru of these people and their heritage. Of course, despite his claim in accepting the award, Arguedas did have the rather conspicuous trappings of apparent acculturation to the colonizing powers: a doctorate from the University of San Marcos in Lima, for example, where he served as head of the anthropology department at the time of his death. But his suicide suggests an internal division that plagued his life and his stories, a division that he saw no way to heal. It tore him apart, but he also recognized in this angry polarity a power that might be channeled into a salvific dialogue for himself and his Peruvian society, if both learned the other's language.

Like many writers in the postcolonial world, Arguedas grew increasingly uncomfortable with his own alienation from the poor that was one consequence of his mastery of the “master's” language. His was, in the words of one critic, a “mythological consciousness,” which developed in three stages. The first was a “pre-historic, generative” stage, in which as a child he learned Quechua, the language of the Incas, a language in which “the circumambient situation affects the meaning of root words”—a language, therefore, with “far greater contextual immediacy than either Spanish or English” (Columbus 22). The second stage of his developing mythological consciousness, the agonistic and abstract phase, is symbolized by his formal education and the world represented by the Spanish language. In this experience, writes Claudette Columbus, “the lexical, the lettered, the systematized tried to sever Arguedas from his roots, from the people of his heart, from his place in a community, from his personal past” (23). The third stage of his development in mythological consciousness came in his mature years of fiction writing; here, “the individual accepts a basic helplessness as the condition of openness to others and to the world” (24). Closed, defensive, and self-protective systems are abandoned in favor of an ongoing development of the ancient stories. As if referring to this stage, Arguedas writes that “within the isolating and oppressive walls, the Quechua pueblo (considerably arcaisized and defending itself by dissimulation) continues conceiving ideas, creating songs and myths” (“Palabras” 431).

In an entry in his last diary Arguedas saw himself as living between two ages: “The one that closes is the one of the whip and impotent hatred, funereal uprisings of fear of an oppressive god; and the one that opens is the cycle of light and liberating force … the liberating God, that God which reconciles and reintegrates” (qtd. Trigo 29). Will it be, he wondered, a humanistic atheism, as in Feuerbach, or can it also be the liberation of Christianity, incorporating its reintegration into the original condition as a servant of humanity? In the light of his suicide, it would seem that Arguedas was not optimistic in his own response to these questions. With our growing recognition of the disparity between the First and the Third worlds, we are not surprised by Arguedas's despair. Considering what we have noted regarding the third phase of mythological consciousness, the transcendent liberation he envisioned would demand a rejection of self-sufficiency, of rationalism, of the sort of individual who creates himself or herself and who “knows” and dominates: it would demand, in short, a rejection of the colonizing mind. Arguedas did not see this happening.

Far removed from Peru, the experience of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o nonetheless echoes the mixture of anger, hope, and fear so evident in Arguedas. It also embodies a rejection of the western European model of human, and specifically Christian, expression. Ngũgĩ grew up in Kenya and vividly recalls the stories in Gikuyu that he heard while working in the fields as a child—the same language he spoke at home. This corresponds with Arguedas' first stage of mythological consciousness, the “pre-historic and generative” stage. He began his schooling in the village of Kamaandura; at first this missionary-run school conducted classes in Gikuyu, but after 1952 the colonial regime demanded that all education be in English. This was Ngũgĩ's equivalent of Arguedas' second stage of mythological consciousness. As Ngũgĩ remembers it, “language and literature were taking us further and further from ourselves to other selves, from our world to other worlds” (Decolonising 12). English became an enforcement officer especially in the lives of the imaginative and eloquent. If they wished to write, they had to play by the rules set down by the missionaries and the colonial administrators who controlled the publishing houses. The Literature Bureau in Rhodesia would only publish novels that had religious or sociological themes free from politics: “Stories of characters who move from the darkness of the pre-colonial past to the light of the christian present, yes. But any discussion of or any sign of dissatisfaction with colonialism. No!” (Decolonising 70).

In Ngũgĩ's opinion, the rise of universities in Africa in the 1950s brought another form of colonialization. The best writers, a Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, or Kofi Awoonor, ended up producing “the Afro-European novel” instead of writing their own people's literature. This sort of Europeanized writing squandered the tightly controlled access to non-governmental and non-religiously aligned publishers and evaded the bold social criticism present in the very novels such authors were imitating. Thus, writes Ngũgĩ, “the African novel was further impoverished by the very means of its possible liberation” (Decolonising 70). The earlier control was bad, but so was this false new freedom. Recognizing his own complicity in this scheme, Ngũgĩ includes himself in the list of co-opted authors. Since 1977, however, he generally writes and publishes first in Gikuyu, seeing his own people as his principal audience, and then has the book or essay translated and published in English. This immersion in the language of his roots symbolizes Ngũgĩ's movement into the third stage of mythological consciousness, a recognition of self-empowerment through the very means of apparent alienation.

Some have criticized Ngũgĩ's decision to write in Gikuyu as an unnecessarily political response to his religious and literary training, but his defenders maintain that the colonized have little choice these days but to foreground a choice that all writers in fact make. Terry Eagleton argues that all literary theories are politically grounded. In his view, far more suspect than Ngũgĩ's confrontational stance are those disingenuous theories, supposedly apolitical, that “offer as a supposedly ‘technical’, ‘self-evident’, ‘scientific’ or ‘universal’ truth doctrines which with a little reflection can be seen to relate to and reinforce the particular interests of particular groups of people at particular times” (195).

The same might be said of theories of missiology and ecclesiology, as revisionist church historians have demonstrated in their analyses of the complex role their spokesmen and spokeswomen have played in colonial cultures. And, as the political insight that informs Eagleton's own vision draws much of its strength from Marxist analysis, so do those contemporary theologies that associate themselves with processes of liberation. For a Christian literary critic, and perhaps for others, the intersection of these disciplines provides a lively source for a discussion of fiction that is explicitly moral in its tone and marginalized in its voice, fiction like that of Arguedas and Ngũgĩ.

Both the literary theory Eagleton describes and the theology informing my analysis here share what Pedro Arrupe calls “an attention to economic factors, to property structures, to economic interests which motivate this or that group”; both share a “sensitivity to the exploitation that victimizes entire classes, attention to the role of class struggle in history … [and] attention to ideologies which can camouflage vested interests and even injustice” (308). Whatever may be true of Marxist literary analysis, however, it must be noted that truly Christian liberation theology does not attribute an exclusive character to historical materialism nor to an economic framework for reality. The notion of class struggle, seen as the inevitable vehicle for historical evolution in Marxism, is here tempered by the broader framework of biblical prophecy and the call to conversion. The Latin American bishops, writing in 1979, note that there is an inspiration for liberation that is contained in the Bible. Relying on strict Marxist analysis dangerously leads, in their view, to “the total politicization of Christian existence, the disintegration of the language of faith into that of the social sciences, and the draining away of the transcendental dimension of Christian salvation” (Puebla 245). Like native peoples in the face of a colonizing power, the bishops are here objecting to the usurpation of their voice, their “language” of faith.

As Gustavo Gutiérrez, the best known of these theologians notes, liberation theology “implies a firm, Gospel-oriented witness to God's love and, as a concrete expression of that love, a firm commitment to those who are most oppressed and dispossessed” (“Criticism” 419). It means “not becoming accustomed to seeing the newspapers filled day after day with pictures of mutilated corpses, of mass graves, of innocent people mowed down. … It means maintaining a permanent attitude of shock and rejection in the face of … indignities” (420). “Our task,” he writes elsewhere, “is to find the words” (On Job 102).

If a sense of ultimate hope and a belief in the transcendent distinguish liberation theology from strict Marxist analysis, therefore, the sense of urgency and the emphasis on praxis, or action, distinguishes it from other theologies. These theologians do not see liberation as a topic to be studied, but as an event in which to engage. As Leonardo Boff notes, liberation theology “examines the concrete practice of the oppressed, their progress and their allies; it asks about the participation of individual Christians, base communities and sectors of the church in the overall liberation process … it is necessary to participate as an active member in a particular movement, a base community, a center for the defense of human rights, or a trade union. This immersion in the world of the poor and oppressed gives theological discourse a passionate edge, an occasional mordancy, a holy wrath—and a sense of the practical” (416-17). Such theologians are making a case for the retrieval of the theological language of the preexilic prophets, and they are meeting with opposition from those who now speak the colonizer's language of stability and control.

There is, of course, a common “language” of myths and symbols in these various cultures. As Ngũgĩ himself notes, “I use the Bible quite a lot, or biblical sayings, not because I share in any belief in the Bible, or in the sanctity of the Bible. It's just simply as a common body of knowledge I can share with my audience, and the same is true when I'm writing in Gikuyu language” (Wilkinson 130). Still, what is generally missing in any confrontation between language groups, however metaphorically we may wish to apply the term “language,” is an acceptance of the truth that is tied to the language itself. Perhaps the words that are effective in one culture are specific to it and can never fully be translated. In Ngũgĩ's The River Between, for instance, “Gikuyu myth and Judaic Old Testament touch, and in the touching the established order of each is threatened. … Opposing tribal religion and cosmic structure is Christianity—equally as biased, equally as ordered, and equally as necessitated by the psychological dispositions of the people who espouse it” (Howard 100). Yet Ngũgĩ describes himself as having been “deeply Christian” when writing this novel, as though he sensed that a hidden language of faith needed to be unearthed from the arbitrary historical encrustations. He describes the writing of the book: “In school I was concerned with trying to remove the central Christian doctrine from the dress of western culture, and seeing how this might be grafted on to the central beliefs of our people. ‘The River Between’ was concerned with this process” (E. Wright 97).

A parallel struggle shapes the works of Arguedas. Anyone familiar with the Catholic Church as represented in his Deep Rivers will see little social concern in that institution. Arguedas, in fact, depicts the Church as a great enslaving instrument. The indictment the novelist brings against the Spanish overseers is brought with even greater force against the policing function undertaken by the Church: the rector imagines his paternalistic words to be a necessary caution for his flock. However well-meaning he considers himself to be, he clearly embodies for the reader a pacifying role that maintains colonial power. As Pedro Trigo, the novelist's best critic, has noted, “the urgency for liberation impregnates all Arguedas's work” (37, my trans.) and there is liberation in the novel. This conclusion is demonstrated in detail by Gutiérrez (Entre 75-78). But the distinction Arguedas makes is important: it is a liberation that is brought to the Church from forces arising in, and defining, the indigenous peoples. This act of liberation in Arguedas, though not made to appear explicitly Christian, shares with liberation theologians an emphasis upon the local, even “base,” community as essential to and even coterminal with one's individual “salvation.” Arguedas holds out less hope for transcendence than liberation theologians, however, embodying whatever little there may be in characters who have been driven crazy by their immediate circumstances.

A literary critic with an interest in liberation theology would implicitly address Arguedas's and Ngũgĩ's challenges to institutionalized religion and explicitly foreground a shared search for transcendence by stipulating the commonality of a human “metalanguage,” possibly a literary equivalent to natural law, while still embracing the irreducibility of localized languages. The positing of a “metalanguage” would be an act of faith in the value of an ecology of heteroglossia, an option for explicit recognition and valorization of the other's language as forever Other. It would demand the patience to withhold a self-comforting digestion of the inexplicable and inexpressible in the Other. It would conduct its criticism almost with the reverence implied in Martin Buber's suggestive phrase “I and Thou.” It would allow and even encourage difference, and resist the need to categorize or canonize.

The paradox that becomes increasingly evident in the closing days of the twentieth century, however, is that the linguae francae that have helped establish a global village have historically implied the subjugation of one community by the other. The result, which is increasingly resisted, is the obliteration of difference. And this is especially true in the realm of language. As Ngũgĩ notes, “a specific culture is not transmitted through language in its universality but in its particularity as the language of a specific community with a specific history.” In the context of this discussion, this insight is particularly significant because, again in Ngũgĩ's words, “language carries culture, and culture carries … the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world (Decolonising 15-16). This specificity amounts to the “otherness” that polarizes individuals and communities, with a resultant devalorization of one by the other.

Like Arguedas, Ngũgĩ identifies the poor as the seedbed of the cultural specificity and language, the site of implicit defiance of the imposed order: “What prevented our languages from being completely swallowed up by English and other oppressor languages,” he writes, “was that the rural and urban masses, who had refused to surrender completely in the political and economic spheres, also continued to breathe life into our languages and thus helped to keep alive the histories and cultures they carried. The masses of Africa would often derive the strength needed in their economic and political struggles from those very languages. Thus the peoples of the Third World had refused to surrender their souls to English, French, or Portuguese” (Moving 35).

As Arguedas and Ngũgĩ exemplify, and as the critic Simon During has noted, “in both literature and politics the post-colonial drive towards identity centres around language, partly because in postmodernity identity is barely available elsewhere” (During, “Postmodernism” 43). The unfortunate historical pattern, as Ngũgĩ points out, has been the denigration of the local language and the elevation of the colonizer's (Moving 32). And today the global village obliterates difference: all is consumed, relativized, homogenized. Resistance to the ease of communication in the language of the former colonizer, on the other hand, as with Ngũgĩ, is a political recognition that something (or someone) is lost in the translation.

As any liberation theologian would emphasize, and as Mikhail Bakhtin recognized, the human condition is such that we are in this boat together. And we are called upon to row. That is to say, there is an ethical component to this interactional philosophy of personal and national identity. In his earliest published essay, for example, Bakhtin asks, “What guarantees the inner connection of the constituent elements of a person? Only the unity of answerability. I have to answer with my own life for what I have experienced and understood in art, so that everything I have experienced and understood would not remain ineffectual in my life” (Art 1-2).

And what would an effectual understanding of literature possibly demand for the contemporary, postcolonial, postmodern Christian? “Answerability” seems a suggestive response. In the context of the essays in this volume it is a wonderful term, because it implies the prior question—a question posed by others, by other cultures, by others' needs as “they” stand before “us” and babble in an intransigently foreign tongue. It suggests a demand, as well, lest the question be left hanging in the air. As communal as such a critic believes the human situation ultimately to be, honesty and justice require that those in traditionally colonizing countries stand up for the wonder of an “invading,” alien word: one that disrupts; one that makes new.

Works Cited

Arguedas, José María. Deep Rivers. Austin: U of Texas P, 1978.

———. “Palabras de José María Arguedas.” Recopilacion de textos sobre José María Arguedas. Ed. Juan Larco. Havana: Casa de las Americas, 1976.

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist and Vadim Liapunov. Austin: U of Texas P, 1990.

Boff, Leonardo. “Vatican Instruction Reflects European Mind-Set.” Hennelly 415-19.

Bühlmann, Walbert. The Coming of the Third Church. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1977.

Columbus, Claudette Kemper. Mythological Consciousness and the Future. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.

Cowell, Alan. “Pope Challenges Brazil's Authorities.” New York Times 15 Oct. 1991: A4.

———. “Pope Asks Amends of Brazil's Indians.” New York Times 17 Oct. 1991: A3.

During, Simon. “Postmodernism or Postcolonialism?” Landfall 39 (1985): 366-80.

———. “Postmodernism or post-colonialism today.” Textual Practice 1 (1987): 32-47.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. “Criticism Will Deepen, Clarify Liberation Theology.” Hennelly 419-25.

———. Entre las calandrias: Un ensayo sobre José María Arguedas. Lima: Instituto Bartolomé de Las Casas, 1989.

———. On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1987.

Kane, Cheikh Hamidou. Ambiguous Adventure. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1963.

Mariátegui, José Carlos. Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality. Austin: U of Texas P, 1971.

Mukherjee, Bharati. Jasmine. New York: Ballantine, 1989.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o. Barrel of a Pen: Resistance to Repression in Neo-Colonial Kenya. London: New Beacon Books, 1983.

———. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London: James Currey/Heinemann, 1986.

———. Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms. London: James Currey/Heinemann, 1993.

Puebla bishops. “Evangelization in Latin America's Present and Future.” Hennelly 225-59.

Trigo, Pedro. Arguedas, mito, historia y religion. Lima: Centro de estudio y publicaciones, 1982.

Wilkinson, Jane. Talking with African Writers. London: James Currey/Heinemann, 1992.

Wright, Edgar, ed. The Critical Evaluation of African Literature. London: Heinemann, 1982.

Walter D. Mignolo (essay date June 1996)

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SOURCE: Mignolo, Walter D. “Linguistic Maps, Literary Geographies, and Cultural Landscapes: Languages, Languaging, and (Trans)nationalism.” Modern Language Quarterly 57, no. 2 (June 1996): 181-96.

[In the following essay, Mignolo compares Arguedas's efforts to write in a transcultural language with the efforts of two other writers—a Mexican-American and Caribbean; where the other writers are seen facing the challenge of communicating the linguistic and cultural conflicts of a “Third World” immigrant living in the “First World,” Arguedas is seen as exploring the conflicts of hundreds of years ago, when the native peoples of America were confronted with the colonizing migrations from Spain and other regions of the Americas.]

The aim of my argument is to challenge the authority of the past by looking at languages and languaging in the context of Western expansion since 1500. I argue that theoretical models dealing with languages have been built in complicity (not necessarily planned, but perhaps resulting from a lack of awareness) with colonial expansion. The linguistic and philosophical models of the twentieth century, and most remarkably those popularized in the sixties and seventies, are of little use for dealing with the transnational dimension of language and languaging, since they appear in academic discourse as a universal speaking subject. This speaking subject, curiously enough, was modeled on the experiences and the idea of national languages that were, at the same time, imperial languages. My argument implies the legacies of the early modern and colonial periods (modernity and coloniality) and joins forces with efforts to demodernize and decolonize scholarship as well as discourse in the public sphere that emerged in postmodern and postcolonial theorizing after World War II. In this genealogy, modernity and coloniality presuppose the coexistence of the modern state and imperial domains in a way that was not yet articulated in the early modern period under the Spanish and Portuguese Empires. It is precisely in the junction between the early modern and colonial periods (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) and modernity and coloniality (seventeenth century to 1945) that we witness a significant switch in the way languages are conceived and languaging is practiced, in relation both to colonial control and to the rearticulation of knowledge and reason, indeed two sides of the same coin. What we are seeing now, as the examples discussed below illustrate, is a relocation of languages and cultures made possible by the very process of global interconnection.

It is worth noting that the last stage of a process designed to Christianize and civilize was transformed into a process whose aim is to “marketize” the world and no longer to civilize or Christianize it. Paradoxically, the emphasis on consumerism, commodities, and increasing marketplaces plays against the control imposed by early Christian and civilian programs. In the first place, non-Western languages such as Quechua and minority Western languages such as Catalan are reemerging from the forceful repression to which they were subjected during the national period in Latin America as well as in Europe. Secondly, Western languages such as Spanish, French, and English are being fractured by emergent languaging practices in formerly colonial domains. Finally, the processes resulting from the internal hierarchy within Western expansion and from the displacement of Spanish to second-class languaging rank (as it was considered inadequate for philosophical and scientific languaging) find their way of intervention prompted by migratory movements from areas colonized by the Spanish and British Empires and their national configurations during and after the nineteenth century. If a word is needed to identify the locus of these phenomena and processes, it is transculturation.1 Transculturation subsumes the emphasis placed on borders, migrations, plurilanguaging, and multiculturing and the increasing need to conceptualize transnational and transimperial languages, literacies, and literatures.

Sociohistorical transformations demand disciplinary modifications as well. The challenges presented to language and literary scholarship by transnational and transimperial languaging processes are epistemologically and pedagogically serious, for they impinge on the very conception of the humanities as a site of research and teaching. This is particularly the case when reevaluations are viewed from the perspective of nations with colonial legacies rather than from the perspective of the European modernity. Such challenges alter the commonly held belief that linguistic and literary studies deal only with texts and literary authors, with canon formation and transformation, and with aesthetic judgments and textual interpretations. Transnational languaging processes demand a theory and philosophy of human symbolic production predicated on languaging and transnational and transimperial categories, on a new philology, and on a pluritopic hermeneutics that will replace and displace “the” classical tradition in which philology and hermeneutics were housed in the modern period. The clouding of national frontiers also demands rethinking disciplinary boundaries, if not undoing them. In the past ten years, a substantial exchange has taken place among literary theorists, critics, and social scientists, chiefly in the fields of anthropology and history. Transimperial and transcolonial (and by trans here I mean beyond national languages and literatures as well as beyond comparative studies that presuppose national languages and literatures) cultural studies could serve as an emerging inter- and transdisciplinary space of reflection in which issues emerging from Western expansion and global interconnections since the end of the fifteenth century might be discussed and linguistic and literary studies redefined. Literacy, the missing and complicitous word between languages and literatures, and languaging, a concept difficult to grasp in the Western denotative philosophy of language, are moving to the forefront of this transdisciplinary discourse.

In the early modern world, languages were attached to territories, and nations were characterized by the “natural” links between them. After World War II, languages and territories were redefined when area studies emerged as a consequence of the hierarchical division of the World into First, Second, and Third. The linking of languages and territories to constitute a particular nation was essentially a move by intellectuals and the state striving for certain types of imagined communities. In contrast, area studies was a distribution of scientific labor among scholars located in the First World that was meant to secure (both in terms of war and in terms of production of knowledge) its primacy in the order of economy as well as of knowledge. Thus, insofar as the configuration of area studies coincided with the latest period of globalization, it brought into the foreground a new meaning for the expression understanding other/foreign languages and cultures. A fundamental question then becomes “understanding diversity and subaltern languages and knowledges,” where understanding is used both as a gerund and as an adjective. When it is employed as an adjective, understanding diversity becomes part of the paradigm in which we encounter expressions such as ethnic diversity or cultural diversity. In such cases, understanding diversity can be read as equivalent to diversity of understanding, provided that we can make sense of expressions such as ethnicity of understanding and cultures of understanding. What follows is predicated on understanding diversity, where understanding is employed both as a gerund and as an adjective. I will first comment on some particular cases (Arguedas, Cliff, Anzaldúa) before coming back to languaging and understanding diversity.

José María Arguedas's introduction to his Tupac Amaru Kamaq Taytanchisman/A nuestro padre creador Tupac Amaru is titled “I Do Not Regret Writing in Quechua.”2 The introduction itself is devoted to an explanation of Arguedas's decision. Anticipating objections from “quechólogos,” who would like to preserve the purity of the Quechua language, Arguedas points out that he has used Castilian words with Quechua declension as well as Castilian words written as Indians and “mestizos” pronounce them. He observes that in his text there is just one Quechua word that belongs to a sophisticated register of Quechua and that there are also words taken from the Huanca-Conchucos dialect. Despite these few obstacles, Arguedas states that the book of poems is accessible to the Quechua-speaking population in the linguistic map of Runasimi, from the Department of Huancavelica to Puno, Peru, to the entire Quechua zone in Bolivia. Furthermore, he believes that it could be well understood in Ecuador.

Arguedas also mentions that the Haylli-Taki was originally written in the Quechua he speaks, his native language, Chanca.3 After writing the book of poems, he translated it into Castilian. In the introduction he notes that an “impulso ineludible” forced him to write the poems in Quechua:

A medida que iba desarrollando el tema, mi convicción de que el quechua es un idioma más poderoso que el castellano para la expresión de muchos trances del espíritu y, sobre todo, del ánimo, se fue acrecentando, inspirándome y enardeciéndome. Palabras del quechua contienen con una densidad incomparables la materia del hombre y de la naturaleza y el vínculo intenso que por fortuna aún existe entre lo uno y lo otro. El indígena peruano está abrigado, consolado, iluminado, bendecido por la naturaleza: su odio y su amor, cuando son desencadenados, se precipitan, por eso, con toda esa materia, y también su lenguaje.

Sin embargo, aunque quisiera pedir perdón por haberme atrevido a escribir en quechua, no sólo no me arrepiento de ello, sino que ruego a quienes tienen un dominio mayor que el mío sobre este idioma, escriban. Debemos acrecentar nuestra literatura quechua, especialmente en el lenguaje que habla el pueblo; aunque el otro, el señorial y erudito, debiera ser cultivado con la misma dedicación. Demostremos que el quechua actual es un idioma en el que se puede escribir tan bella y conmovedoramente como en cualquiera de las otras lenguas perfeccionadas por siglos de tradición literaria. El quechua es también un idioma milenario.

(8; italics added)

[While I was developing my subject matter, my conviction that Quechua is a language better suited and more powerful than Castilian to express critical moments of the soul and, above all, critical moments of the mind, grew on me; became a source of inspiration and of growing excitement. Quechua words embrace the human and natural dimension in a density without parallel and, above all, the Quechua words also embrace the relationships that fortunately still exist between humanity and nature. Peruvian indigenous people are sheltered, comforted, brightened, blessed by nature: when their hate and love are unleashed, they hastily move toward grasping humanity and nature, with a force that also includes their language.

Nevertheless, and even if I would like to excuse myself for daring to write in Quechua, I have to confess that I do not regret it at all; on the contrary, I would go even further and beseech those who have a better command of Quechua than I to write themselves. We must enhance our Quechua literature, particularly in the language spoken by the people, without forgetting the other Quechua, the erudite and noble Quechua, that must also be cultivated with the same intensity. We will prove that current Quechua is a language in which it is possible to write with the same beauty and moving effect achievable in any other language that has been improved through centuries of literary tradition. Quechua too is a millenarian language.]

In Latin America, different manifestations of the tensions between linguistic maps, literary geographies, and cultural landscapes can be linked with linguistic dismissal under colonial and Western expansion. Arguedas's need and decision to write in Quechua, to translate his poem into Spanish, and to write a justification comparing Quechua with Spanish clearly articulate such tensions. Arguedas has struggled both with the millenarian forces and the memories of a language grounded in the body of those living and dying in the linguistic map and literary geography of Runasimi (to whom he addresses his poems), and with the centennial and institutional forces of a transplanted language grounded in the body and memories of Castilians living and dying in Spain, as well as in a New World constructed on the ruins of Runasimi.

There are other linguistic experiences complementing Arguedas's and foreshadowing the question of language and colonialism, an area in which linguistic maps, literary geographies, and cultural landscapes collide and in which social and cultural transformations reinforce each other. Let us now compare the Andes with the Caribbean and with the Mexican-U.S. border by bringing into the discussion a Jamaican writer, Michelle Cliff, and a Mexican American author, Gloria Anzaldúa.4

Cliff, who underlines the differences between metropolitan English and the colonial English of the West Indies, is more concerned with the political and cultural dimensions of language than with matters of accent or lexicon. Of the several types of creole languages in the Caribbean, I would like to remind the reader of the main varieties: the Creole of French lexicon spoken in French Guyana, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Haiti; “Papiamentu,” the Creole language of Castilian and Portuguese lexicon spoken in the Dutch Caribbean; and the English Creole spoken in Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad, Tobago, and elsewhere.5 Cliff refers to this last variety in her text.

The daughter of an affluent family, Cliff pursued graduate studies at the Warburg Institute in London. Her dissertation on game playing in the Italian Renaissance took her to Siena, Florence, and Urbino, a journey that ended in her participation in the feminist movement and in her rediscovery of an identity she had learned to despise. I will let Cliff speak for herself by quoting extensively from the preface to The Land of Look Behind:

I originated in the Caribbean, specifically on the island of Jamaica, and although I have lived in the United States and in England, I travel as a Jamaican. It is Jamaica that forms my writing for the most part, and which has formed, for the most part, myself. Even though I often feel what Derek Walcott expresses in his poem “The Schooner Flight”: “I had no nation now but the imagination.” It is a complicated business. Jamaica is a place halfway between Africa and England, to put it simply, although historically one culture (guess which one) has been esteemed and the other denigrated (both are understatements)—at least among those who control the culture and politics of the island—the Afro-Saxons. As a child among these people, indeed of these people, as one of them, I received the message of anglocentrism, of white supremacy, and I internalized it. As a writer, as a human being, I have had to accept that reality and deal with its effect on me, as well as finding what has been lost to me from the darker side, and what may be hidden, to be dredged from memory and dream. And it is there to be dredged. As my writing delved longer and deeper into this part of myself, I began to dream and imagine.

One of the effects of assimilation, indoctrination, passing into the anglocentrism of the British West Indian culture is that you believe absolutely in the hegemony of the King's English and in the form in which it is meant to be expressed. Or else your writing is not literature; it is folklore, and folklore can never be art. Read some poetry by West Indian writers—some, not all—and you will see what I mean. You have to dissect stanza after extraordinarily Anglican stanza for Afro-Caribbean truth; you may never find the latter. But this has been our education. The Anglican ideal—Milton, Wordsworth, Keats—was held before us with an assurance that we were unable, and would never be enabled, to compose a work of similar correctness. No reggae spoken here.


Cliff makes it clear that colonial literature will always be viewed as inferior when confronted with the practice defined and exemplified by the metropolitan literary canon. The same language, the same syntactic rules; but the game played under different conditions results in diverse verbal practices: folklore is not literature, just as myth is not history. In both cases, the “wisdom of the people” was invented to distinguish “taste and knowledge of genius and educated fews,” establishing a hierarchy of cultural practices parallel to economic and political regulations and government.

It is languaging, rather than language, that Arguedas and Cliff allow us to emphasize, moving away from the idea that language is a fact (e.g., a system of syntactic, semantic, and phonetic rules) toward the idea that speaking and writing are moves that orient and manipulate social domains of interaction. Both Arguedas's and Cliff's linguistic conceptualization and literary practices create fractures within languages (Spanish in Spain and in Peru; English in Jamaica) and between languages (Spanish on the Iberian Peninsula in contact with Spanish “dialects” and in the Andes in contact with “Amerindian languages”; English in England, and in the Caribbean, in contact with creole languages), revealing the colonial aspects of linguistic, literary, and cultural landscapes. The very concept of literature presupposes the major or official languages of a nation and the transmission of the cultural literacy built into them. Therefore it is not sufficient to recognize the links between the emergence of comparative literature as a field of study and literature's complicity with imperial expansion; nor is it adequate to denounce the pretended universality of a European observer, who does not recognize the regionality of other literatures.6 It is the concept of literature that, like the concept of languages, should be displaced from the idea of collecting facts (e.g., literary works; masterpieces) to the idea of languaging as cultural practice. Furthermore, colonial expansion and colonial legacies (since the sixteenth century) have created the conditions, on the one hand, for languaging across cultures and, on the other, for inventing a discourse about languages that placed the languaging of colonial powers above other linguistic and cultural practices.

Let me further explore the question of languaging and colonialism by moving to Anzaldúa's Borderlands. To read Borderlands is to read three languages and three literatures concurrently, which is, at the same time, a new way of languaging. It would be helpful to bear in mind Alton Becker's articulation of the idea of languaging, based on his experience of dealing with Burmese and English:

Entering another culture, another history of interactions, we face what is basically a problem of memory. Learning a new way of languaging is not learning a new code, into which the units of my domain of discourse are re-encoded, although the process may begin that way; and if the new way of languaging shares a history with my own, the exuberances and deficiencies may not get in the way of simple interactions. However, at some point the silences do get in the way and the wording out gets slow and hard. A new code would not be so hard and painful to learn; a new way of being in the world is.7

I would like to make it clear that I am quoting Becker not as a linguistic authority (even if he is) but next to the experiences of Arguedas, Cliff, and Anzaldúa: theorizing is a way of languaging, just as languaging implies its own theory; theorizing languages within social structures of domination is dealing with the “natural” plurilingual conditions of the human world “artificially” suppressed by the monolingual ideology and monotopic hermeneutics of modernity and nationalism. In Borderlands Anzaldúa remaps linguistic and literary practices, articulating three linguistic memories (Spanish, English, and Nahuatl). Chapter 6, for example, is titled “Tlilli, Tlapalli: The Path of the Red and Black Ink.” Anzaldúa explains:

For the ancient Aztecs, in tlilli, in tlapalli, la tinta negra y roja de sus códices (the black and red ink painted on codices) were the colors symbolizing escritura y sabiduria (writing and wisdom). … An image is a bridge between evoked emotion and conscious knowledge; words are cables that hold up the bridge. Images are more direct, more immediate than words, and closer to the unconscious. Picture language precedes thinking in words; the metaphorical mind precedes analytical consciousness. …

I write the myth in me, the myths I am, the myths I want to become. The word, the image and the feeling have a palatable energy, a kind of power. Con imágenes domo mi miedo, cruzo los abismos que tengo por dentro. Con palabras me hago piedra, pájaro, puente de serpientes arrastrando a ras del suelo todo lo que soy, todo lo que algún día seré.

Los que están mirando (leyendo),
los que cuentan (o refieren lo que leen).
Los que vuelven ruidosamente las hojas de los
la tinta negra y roja (la sabiduría)
y lo pintado,
ellos nos llevan nos guián,
          nos dicen el camino.

[With images I tame my fear, crossing my innermost abyss. With words I become stone, bird, bridge of snakes dragging along to the ground level all that I am, all that someday I will be.

Those who are looking at (reading),
Those who are always telling (or narrating what they read).
Those who noisily unfold the leaves of the codices
the black and the red ink (wisdom),
and what is painted,
They are who carry us and guide us,
          they show us the way.]

These two paragraphs bring to the foreground the juxtaposition of several memories. The Spanish quotation in verse form comes from the Colloquios y doctrina christiana, a dialogue between the first twelve Franciscan friars—who arrived in Mexico in 1524, after the fall of Mexico-Tenochtitlán—and representatives of the Mexican nobility. The dialogue was recorded in Nahuatl, collected, and then translated into Spanish by Bernardino de Sahagún toward 1565. Originally, then, this quotation, which reports the answers of the Mexican nobility to the Franciscan presentation, requesting that they adopt the Christian doctrine, was in Nahuatl. The excerpt quoted by Anzaldúa narrates the moment in which the Mexican noblemen refer to the Tlamatinime (the wise men, those who can read the black and the red ink written in the codices). Anzaldúa's languaging entangles Spanish, English, and Nahuatl (the first two with a strong “literary” tradition kept alive after the conquest; the third, which was and still is an oral way of languaging, was disrupted during and marginalized after the conquest), and her languaging invokes two kinds of writing: the alphabetic writing of the metropolitan center and the pictographic writing of pre-Columbian Mexican (as well as Mesoamerican) civilizations.

The scenario sketched above is embedded in a larger picture where colonial legacies and current globalizing processes meet, which I introduced in the first part of this essay. The increasing process of economic and technological global integration and some of its consequences (massive migrations) are forcing us to rethink the relationships between (national) languages and territories. The rearticulation of nations, as a result of the global flow of economic integration, is forming a world of connected languaging and shifting identities. As people become polyglots, their sense of history, nationality, and race becomes as entangled as their languaging. Border zones, diaspora, and postcolonial relations are daily phenomena of contemporary life.

How migration modifies languaging is related to its geopolitical direction. While migrations during the nineteenth century moved from Europe toward Africa, Asia, and the Americas, at the end of the twentieth century they proceed in reverse directions. Thus, migratory movements are disarticulating the idea of national languaging and, indirectly, of national literacies and literatures, in Europe as well as in the U.S. On the other hand, the rise of indigenous communities and their participation in the public sphere (such as the recent events in Chiapas, or the cultural politics of the state in Bolivia) complement migratory movements in their challenge to the idea of national languaging and to the one-to-one relation between language and territory. The notion of homogeneous national cultures and the consensual transmission of historical and literary traditions, as well as of unadulterated ethnic communities, are in the process of profound revisions and redefinitions. We need to think seriously about the processes by which languaging and the allocation of meaning to groups of people presumed to have common features (e.g., “ethnic culture,” “national culture,” etc.) are being relocated and how linguistic maps, literary geographies, and cultural landscapes are being repainted.

The current process of globalization is not a new phenomenon, although the way in which it is taking place is without precedent. On a larger scale, globalization at the end of the twentieth century (mainly occurring through transnational corporations, the media, and technology) is the most recent configuration of a process that can be traced back to the 1500s, with the beginning of transatlantic exploration and the consolidation of Western hegemony. Paradoxically, the early modern and early colonial periods (roughly 1500-1700, with the predominance of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires), as well as the modern and colonial periods (roughly 1700-1945, with the predominance of the British Empire and French and German colonialism), were the periods during which the consolidations of national languages took place concurrently with migrations promoted by transatlantic exploration and improved means of transportation. This progress created the conditions necessary to undermine the purity of a language that unified a nation. The construction of the first giant steamer (between 1852 and 1857) made possible transatlantic migrations unimaginable until then. Millions of people migrated from Europe to the Americas between 1860 and 1914, complicating the linguistic colonial map and placing increasing demands on national literary geographies. In Argentina, for example, intellectuals were uneasy at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, when the national and linguistic community was shaken up by massive Italian immigration.8 Migrations of people and the internationalization of capitals during the second half of the nineteenth century impinged on the spread of print culture and general education, emphasized by nation builders in both Americas. Thus, by the end of the nineteenth century, Amerindian legacies were becoming museum relics, more a reality of the past than a critical force of the present. Nahuatl, among others, became a language (i.e., an object) of the past, rather than a languaging activity of millions of people, suppressed by national languag(ing)es.

Migratory factors introduced an element of disorder at the otherwise quiet national horizon of linguistic, literary, and territorial homogeneity. While Arguedas's landscape presents the conflict between languaging practices prior to Spanish colonizing migrations and the introduction of new practices brought by the colonizing migratory movements, Cliff and Anzaldúa draw a map of reverse migration, from colonial territories relabeled Third World (after 1945) toward the First World (Cliff to Europe; Anzaldúa's ancestors to the U.S.). One could say that the cases of Arguedas, on the one hand, and Cliff and Anzaldúa, on the other, are the end of a spectrum whose chronological beginning I locate around 1500. Arguedas experienced 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. For Cliff and Anzaldúa, in contrast, languaging practices fracture the colonial language. In Cliff's texts, these fractures result from the linguistic transformation of imperial languaging practices in colonial domains. In the case of Anzaldúa, such fractures occur due to the languaging practices of two displaced linguistic communities: Nahuatl, displaced by the Spanish expansion, and Spanish, displaced by the increasing hegemony of the colonial languages of the modern period (English, German, and French).

Anzaldúa's observations about the future geographies of languaging practices, are relevant to my argument: “By the end of this century, Spanish speakers will comprise the biggest minority group in the U.S., a country where students in high schools and colleges are encouraged to take French classes because French is considered more ‘cultured.’ But for a language to remain alive, it must be used. By the end of this century English, not Spanish, will be the mother tongue of most Chicanos and Latinos” (59). Cherríe Moraga's Last Generation articulates a similar idea: English, not Spanish, will be the languaging practice of Chicano/as and Latino/as.9 I am not in a position either to mistrust or to contradict such predictions. I would, however, like to present some doubts based on other experiences. These doubts support the implicit desire (expressed by Anzaldúa and Moraga) not to see happen what they both predict. Anzaldúa's fear, for instance, that English will become the national languaging of Chicano/as and that French will be the foreign languaging of distinction may not look in 1994 as it looked in 1987. I have two reasons to cast such doubts: one is the decreasing number of students taking French at the college level in recent years; the other is the increasing interest in la francophonie, with the changing linguistic maps and literary geographies of French outside France and the growing significance in social and academic discourse of the relationship between language and race. Francophone languaging has as much in common with French languaging in France as Hispanic languaging in the U.S. has with Castilian languaging in Spain: the same languages allow quite different languaging priorities, feelings, and knowledge.

Frantz Fanon articulates the colonial legacies and linguistic politics of French outside France and the complicities between linguistic ideology and race.10 If nineteenth-century Europe invented the concept of race in order to bridge the gap between a “purity of blood” and a twentieth-century “color of your skin,” the complicity with linguistic ideology has been effortlessly traced. The method of classifying animal species provided the basis for the hypothesis that the “human races” were founded on an inheritance that transcended social evolution.11 At the same time, the new science of linguistics found its inspiration for classifying languages in the method of the biological sciences, associating, by the same token, the supposedly unique character of peoples with the characteristics of their languages. The gaps between Indo-European and Semitic (Hebrew and Arabic) languages were constructed as linguistic oppositions with racial implications. This statement is familiar to those educated in Spanish colonial discourse and the evaluation (with few exceptions) of Amerindian languages. Ernst Renan, for example, talked about the monstrous and backward character of Semitic languages, as opposed to the perfection of European languages, in a way that echoed early Spanish missionaries and men of letters.12 Today the belief in a hierarchy of human intelligence based on languaging-as-ethnicity is well and alive, even in academic circles.

Fanon's first chapter, an indirect response to Renan, is titled “The Negro and Language.” There he states: “I ascribe a basic importance to the phenomenon of language. That is why I find it necessary to begin with this subject, which should provide us with one of the elements in the colored man's comprehension of the dimension of the other. For it is implicit that to speak, is to exist absolutely for the other” (17). Fanon's speculations revolve around the black people in the French Antilles with respect to the metropolitan language and, further, with respect to the distinctions, among languages, between those of Martinicans and Guadeloupeans in the Caribbean and those of Antilleans and Senegalese in the context of African diaspora. Colonial mimicry consisted, in the first context, of achieving white status by speaking good French. In the second, Martinicans felt that they were “better” than Guadeloupeans and blacks in the Antilles and “better” than Senegalese, owing to the ways in which they related to the French language. This is why Fanon states at the beginning that “the Black man has two dimensions. One with his fellows, the other with the White man.” Thus, Anzaldúa's fear that French distinction will prevail over Spanish subalternity in the U.S. may have an interesting turn if we consider the growing force of French out of France (i.e., the so-called Francophonie, although France itself is also a Francophone country), similar to Spanish out of Spain and to English out of England and the U.S. But, in any event, the modern aura of territorial French is being paralleled by Francophone linguistic maps, literary geographies, and cultural landscapes.

From Morocco, Abdelkebir Khatibi rearticulates the early (somewhat dogmatic, although clearly justifiable) positions adopted by Fanon.13 Khatibi's concept of “l'amour bilangue,” and his preference for “bilanguage” over “bilingual,” locates him closer to Anzaldúa than to Fanon. To a certain extent, the transculturation of French with Arabic enacted by Khatibi has inscribed in it the silent presence of the early Castilian expulsion of the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula and the philosophical rearticulation of Arabic and its place in the early modern and colonial periods. By so doing, Khatibi makes an explicit connection between linguistic geographies and not only literary but also philosophical landscapes. His criticism of the social sciences, particularly sociology, could be applied to the disciplinary construction of philosophy in the modern period and to the subsequent suppression of the links between Greek and Arabic metaphysical reflections from the seventh to the fourteenth centuries.

Let me conclude by coming back to diversity of understanding and saying that insofar as linguistic maps are attached not only to literary geographies but also to the production and distribution of knowledge, changing linguistic cartographies imply (implies) a reordering of epistemology. “Serious” knowledge and “serious” literary production have been enacted, since the sixteenth century, in the colonial languages of modernity and their classical foundations (Greek and Latin). Global interconnections are now bringing us back to the relevance of millennial languaging (such as in Chinese, Arabic, Hindu, and Hebrew) relegated to second-class status by the epistemology of European modernity, to a critical examination of the “purity of languages,” and to the relevance of languages suppressed under the banners of the nation (such as Quechua and Aymara in Bolivia and Peru, and Nahuatl and Maya in Mexico and Central America). Thus languages, languaging, and diversity of understanding go hand in hand with subaltern knowledge and with understanding diversity. But this is a topic for another argument, focused on languages and epistemology rather than on languages and the politics of languaging.


  1. Fernando Ortiz, Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar, intro. Bronislaw Malinowski, new intro. Fernando Coronil (1940; Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995), x.

  2. Arguedas, Tupac Amaru Kamaq Taytanchisman/A nuestro padre creador Tupac Amaru (Lima: Salqantay, 1962).

  3. With this expression Arguedas refers to his book of poetry, which he calls not poetry (a Greco-Latin derivation) but “Haylli-taki.” In Quechua, hally means “victory, extreme success, triumph,” and taki means “song, chant.” So the expression translates as “victorious or triumphal chant.” I am grateful to Juan Carlos Godenzi and Lydia Fossa for discussing this issue with me.

  4. Cliff, The Land of Look Behind: Prose and Poetry (Ithaca, N.Y.: Firebrand, 1985); Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987).

  5. Luca Citarella, “Problemas de educación y modelos de desarrollo: El caso de los criollos del Caribe,” in Pueblos indios, estados y educación: 46o Congreso internacional de americanistas, ed. Luis Enrique López and Ruth Moya (Puno: Programa de Educación Bilingüe de Puno; Quito: Proyecto de Educación Bilingüe Intercultural del Ecuador; Lima: Programa de Educación Rural Andina, 1989), 167-88.

  6. Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Knopf, 1993).

  7. Becker, “A Short Essay on Languaging,” in Research and Reflexivity, ed. Frederick Steier (London: Sage, 1991), 230.

  8. Roberto Cortéz Conde and Ezequiel Gallo, La formación de la Argentina moderna (Buenos Aires: Paidos, 1987).

  9. Moraga, The Last Generation (Boston: South End, 1993).

  10. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (New York: Grove, 1967), 17.

  11. See Wilhelm von Humboldt, On Language: The Diversity of Human Language Structure and Its Influence on the Mental Development of Mankind, trans. Peter Heath (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

  12. Renan, Histoire générale et systèmes comparés des langues sémitiques (Paris: Imprimerie Impériale, 1863).

  13. Khatibi, Love in Two Languages, trans. Richard Howard (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990).

César N. Caviedes (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6829

SOURCE: Caviedes, César N. “Tangible and Mythical Places in José M. Arguedas, Gabriel García Márquez, and Pablo Neruda.” GeoJournal 38, no. 1 (1996): 99-107.

[In the following essay, Caviedes explores Arguedas's allegorical depictions of the physical geography of Peru in El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo, a work he declares “a synthesis of contemporary Peru” crafted by Arguedas “with perhaps more propriety and sensitivity than a historian, sociologist or geographer.”]


The flight that Latin American literature has taken during the last three decades is to be considered as an intellectual revolution. From a parochial, confused, baroque genre unbearably obsessed with social relevance and political messages, Latin American literature has now acquired a simulating universality that entertains and often stuns contemporary readers. Its striking success—not to be measured in volumes sold but in intrinsic quality and penetrating depth—has been achieved without renouncing the genuine attributes of Latin American writing and without sacrificing the peculiar Weltanschauung of Latin Americans. In fact, the opposite has occurred: prominent Latin American writers have offered to a global readership an image of their world which, although outlandish, has many common points with the rest of humanity.

The vitality and attractiveness of contemporary Latin American literature rests on some stylistic resources—tellurism, mythical reality and magic realism—that have become emblematic of the Latin American performing arts. These three styles expose relations of humans with the environment in which rational or positivist explanations are inadequate. Conventional reality is substituted by mystic representations that proceed not from perceived externalities, but from the personal sensibilities of the authors.

Tellurism1 makes reference to the impelling force that place, landscape and earth assume in many Latin American literary works. The imperative role that nature plays vis-à-vis humans—its subordinates—and the strong presence of earth as a literary character is seldom found in other contemporary artistic creations. Granted that the first level of contact between nature and man occurs at his locus of habitation, it follows that place—a basic notion of geography—is fully imbued with the attributes of earth, and the insistence of some Latin American literature to exalt nature reveals a collective spirit that believes and accepts the dictates of solum. The exaggerated value attributed to earth in literary production and the intellectual stimulation of tellurism as an objective or subjective perception of a lived-in space has been frequently questioned because of its deterministic underpinnings. However, as we shall see in the case of Pablo Neruda, its pertinence as a unique style elevates telluric views far above sheer naturalism.

While tellurism suggests a certain tyranny of place over humans, mythical reality sublimates the trivial bonds of humans with their environment, place and history. As a literary style it ascribes to places or events allegorical meanings which, for the Western mind, conflict with conventional perception. While the worlds presented in a mythical fashion might be unacceptable to the positivist observer, the storytelling modality is widespread in contemporary Latin American literature. However, this attractive genre has evaded, so far, the attention of geographers, perhaps, because most of the geographical interpretation of literature is conducted from a strictly European and Anglo-American perspective, or, because the involvement of Latin American geographers in this type of studies has been impaired by an absence of appropriate analytical methods.

Even further removed from cognitive reality and, therefore, more difficult to approach with a positivist mindset is magic realism for it presupposes a level of phantasy and an acceptance of the sub-real which is abhorrent to rationalism. This does not hold true, however, for most Latin Americans, whose ancestral roots predispose them to accept a “magical reality” on equal footing with factual reality (Conniff 1990). Absurd, grotesque, and imaginative interpretations are not in contradiction with reality but additives that contribute to enrich a perceived surrounding. There are places on earth where the magic attributes of a landscape emerge more forcibly than in others: think, for instance, of Easter Island, Stonehenge, or Karnack. The Caribbean realm, the northern board of South America, the high plateau of Mexico, are other places in which this immanence becomes more evident to the sensitive soul. The novels of Alejo Carpentier set in Caribbean places, the introspective works of Carlos Castañeda on the arid southwest of North America, and García Márquez' great successes, Cien Años de Soledad (1968)—not to mention Ojos de Perro Azul (1973) and Los funerales de la Mamá Grande (1974)—are superb examples of a literature in which the magic is not perplexing, but, to the contrary, a complement to “normalcy” that does not bother a Caribbean or Mexican mentality.

There has been, so far, no exploratory analysis of the geographical implications of tellurism, mythical reality and magic realism in top Latin American fiction; this essay attempts to shed light on the mental disposition of three South American authors and the symbols they employ when describing particular environments. All of them have a peculiar way of perceiving geography and possess an exquisite sensitivity towards sense of place. Pablo Neruda and Gabriel García Márquez are Nobel laureates and widely known outside Latin America—whereas the Peruvian José Luis Arguedas is not particularly known beyond the Hispanic-American readership due to his difficult prose. This exercise aims at opening a window onto a segment of humanity which, despite its extraordinary richness in human experiences, has gone largely unnoticed by the intellectual mainstreams of our world.


One of the foundations on which environmental images are built and relationships with other people are established, is place—the territorial basis of the human subjective experience. Sense of place is the ultimate expression of a felt reality or of an internalized landscape onto which humans project or transpose feelings and emotions. In the mental conceptualization of a place are intertwined numerous elements of its objective reality (geography), as well as many subjective perceptions derived from the cultural background and the individual's personality. Since literature is one vehicle for expressing the varied shades of personal worlds, but, also, for articulating collectively-shared views of a space occupied by a human group, the world suggested by a writer contains a particularized vision whose subtleties might be gauged against the views held by an “impartial” observer. The geographer can act as a mediator or interpreter of an author's world, notwithstanding shortcomings that such a task implies.

The sense of place in Latin American literature, deeply steeped in tellurism, has developed from a unique set of “man-environment” relationships whose origins go back to a mythical past, and is, therefore, very difficult to reduce to entrenched western conceptual categories. Since European contact, the Latin American soul has been shaped by the dominant western heritage and by the more subdued Indian and African roots: the ensuing cultural product is tainted by a split personality which is certainly noticeable in its literature. In the past, artistic expressions were, in theme and style, imitations of Europe, whose subservient purposes resulted in works of questionable value. While remaining inferior to the European models, Latin American literature lacked painfully in originality. It was not until the works of Carlos Castañeda, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, García Márquez, or Isabel Allende unlocked the gate to magic places populated by enchanted creatures, that the mythic mentality of original America has found its most genuine expression (Kemper-Columbus 1986).

Telluric tendencies and magic realism among Latin American writers can, therefore, be interpreted as the awakening of a way of apprehending nature that had lain dormant in the Hispanic-Indian-African soul. In this context, the excessive force of nature should not be regarded as a simplistic literary tradition and the use of myth to endow places or situations with allegorical attributes should be appreciated as a perception of nature and the environment that varies from traditional western artistic canons.

It is interesting also to note that, while criollismo2 was superated long ago, the local essences, colors, and atmospheres that characterized such orientation still abound in the description of places and environments, offering an astounding rebuttal to the assumption that “criollismo” supplanted exteriorities for lack of depth in the expression of interior situations. The Macondo of García Márquez, the Lima of Vargas Llosa's La ciudad y los perros, and the Chimbote of Arguedas demonstrate that “sense of place” is richer and more universal, less parochial than in the times of “criollismo.” Priced Latin American writers have introduced in their novels symbols and atmospheres that transcend the superficial significance of place and environments as “habitats” for the cast of characters it had in past dramas, to impose a quality that I would call “the personality of place.” In our treatment of Arguedas and Gracía Márquez this proposition will be substantiated.


First-time readers of Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa or Isabel Allende are amazed by these writers' skilled use of allegoric characters and ghostly atmospheres to evoke a strange spirituality and exoticism. Surely, these authors are masters at attributing magical properties to trivial places and specialists at transposing time so as to turn ghosts into real people. This is not, however, an artifice of a selected crop of Latin American writers but the outcome of a literary tradition well inclined to “entertain,” and to articulate many of the collective perceptions and entrenched myths of the societies in which these authors live.

The magic in nature, the mysticism of place, the impenetrability of certain environments are traits rooted in the mental structures of pre-Hispanic and early colonial inhabitants. The endowment of places with such attributes is one of the historic constants that explain the Spanish, Portuguese and even English conquerors' obsession to reach the heart of South America in pursuit of “interior mirages,” such as the legendary El Dorado, the Amazons, the King of the Silver Mountains, the Manoa, or the mysterious City of the Caesars (Caviedes and Knapp 1995). These legendary creations were not merely ruses of the Indians to divert the greedy conquistadors' attention away from their villages, but indications that there was some undefinable scent in the nature of the New World that lent itself to the mythical and the legendary. Such “scents” were palpable also among pre-Hispanic populations. For the Indians, places and the forces of nature possessed mystical meanings and mysterious purposes, so that their sense of place blended binding relations with the environment and with the portentuous spirits that inhabited it. In their world perception was ingrained a respect for, and fear of, the awe-inspiring forces of nature to whose whims they were subjected. Compared with the grandiose but rather submissible nature of North America, exuberant South America was for the Indians, and later the Europeans, an enigmatic entity ready to destroy those who would dare to violate its impenetrability: “y se los tragó la selva” … (… and the wild forest devoured them …) are the lapidary final words of José Eustacio Rivera's La vorágine. It is understandable, then, that these perceptions of the environment remained indelibly engraved in the collective mind of the race that resulted from the miscegenation of Indians and Europeans and surfaced when sensitive writers (as well as other artists) awoke the latent group consciousness.

Among recent South American authors, José María Arguedas deserves a justifiable attention for the messages encoded in his writings. However, his difficult prose and frequent relapses into the language and structure of dated criollismo discourage many critics from engaging in a deeper analysis (Castro Klaren 1973). Contributing to this reluctancy is the confused life of the writer—an inveterate pessimist who attempted suicide twice before succeeding in 1969—which adds a component of emotional imbalance to his later works.

I came across his last novel, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (1971), while surveying the effects of El Niño 1972-73 upon coastal Peru and I was astounded to discover that this unpretentious novel was not only a fictionalized account of the rise of the fishing industry in central Peru since the mid 1950s and the parallel destiny of Chimbote—its main center of production—but also a legendary interpretation of the encounters of “sierra” and “costa” in Peruvian history (Caviedes 1975, 1987). The discourse of the book alternates from the dialogue between two animal characters drawn from Inca mythology to the vicissitudes experienced by the cosmopolitan individuals who flocked to Chimbote to partake of the ephemeral riches of the sea: introvert Indians from the Peruvian sierra, unscrupulous speculators from Lima, cunning cholos3 from coastal Peru, American preachers and Peace Corps volunteers, European opportunists, and the entire spectrum of the human scum. Against the backdrop of this Babylon, Arguedas exposes the voracious appetites of national and international profiteers and equates the contemporary pillage with the ravaging of pre-Hispanic America—specifically the Inca Empire—by the hordes of Hispanic invaders (Marin 1973). The drama that occurred at the time of European contact repeats itself with the same gruesomeness and depravity.

Myth and allegory play a fundamental role in Arguedas's interpretation of these events as they are commented by two mythical Quechua personages: el zorro de arriba (the fox from above), who symbolizes the ancestral spirit and wisdom of Indian forefathers from the Andean mountains, and el zorro de abajo (the fox from below), who represents the shrewdness and alertness of past coastal civilizations (Lienhard 1990). The dialogue is ingeneous, extremely profound, rich in symbols and images, stressing the dichotomy that has existed since early times between the classical spaces of Peru: la sierra (the mountains) and la costa (the coast). Arguedas—who was raised by an Indian nanny and spoke Quecha in his youth (Zuñiga Ortega 1994)—glorifies the sierra as the most virtuous space of Peru; the cosmopolitan, urbanized coast, on the other hand, is regarded as a treacherous environment. In several passages of the book the geographic antagonism is construed in metaphoric terms: the desertic coast of Peru has benefited since times immemorial from the fertile waters of Andean snowfields and glacial lakes that bring life to river oases and costal plains. The mountains personify the mythical mother of Peru who feeds her children of the lowlands: without the water from above there would be no fertile loams, life on the coast would be impossible (Caviedes 1987).

Also the populations of these contrasting realms are different: the serrano, the Indian mountain dweller, is reserved, melancholic, profound, mystic; the coastal cholo, in whose veins circulates the blood of all the races that shared the spoils of the conquest, is exuberant, vivacious, extrovert: the typical product of the “rape” of the coast. For Arguedas the coast is the easy prostitute who gives herself to indiscriminate seducers. The picture is so strong that, in one passage, the author likens the Bay of Chimbote to an enormous vagina ready to be invaded. At the time of his writing—the late 1960s—the booming city of Chimbote experienced the height of a modern predatory cycle and the sierra was providing again her vital fluids to the coast. Thousands of serranos, sorely lacking in industrial experience, converged to Chimbote to work in fishing fleets, fishmeal plants, and the supporting activities of the sprawling city (Caviedes 1976). These expatriates constituted an alien population settled in a hostile environment, radically different from the patriarchal and hierarchized communities of the highlands. By preserving their ancestral customs, the serranos escaped the socio-cultural disintegration that befell Peruvian cholos and profiteers and were spared corruption and cultural denaturalization (Gutiérrez 1989). In this Arguedas sees the greater moral integrity of the “sierra,” the geographical realm that is the cradle of all that is sublime and worthy in the Peruvian soul.

Chimbote is presented in El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo as the microcosm of a Peru located at a crucial historical and cultural crossroad, when, as a consequence of the persistent coastward migration of the serranos, there is at stake not only the further disintegration of the Indian culture, but also the depletion of the sea resources due to greed, speculation, and irresponsible management. Arguedas foresaw in the 1960s the cultural crisis, the environmental collapse and the institutional decline of Peru in the decades to come, a crisis that has not subsided yet. His novel is really a remarkable socio-historical interpretation that captures the values at play during the rise and fall of Chimbote, and of the fishing industry of Peru. Rare is the literary personality who places socio-cultural and environmental crises in the framework of a mythical past, of contemporary history, of societal disintegration, and nature deterioration. José María Arguedas crafted a synthesis of contemporary Peru with perhaps more propriety and sensitivity than a historian, sociologist or geographer.


It has been proposed that each society identifies its own territory and creates its own territorial consciousness (Lando 1993). By so doing, a society models an ideal realm which is its own particular vision of the region in which it exists. Thus, the notion of region is made up more of subjective than of objective indicators. This raises the question in which ways the collective mind isolates or extracts certain “traits borne by the space” (Frémont 1990) to shape the idea of a region departing from informations that have been obtained via learned “geographical objectivities,” or, through acquired “subjective experiences.”

When a literary author defines a place he permeates objectively perceived realities with elements of his own sensibility. The mental construct, the “region of the mind” thus obtained must be expressed in terms the reader can grasp, including the use of symbols and terms by which he transfers his personal notion of that place. The author's introspective vision of a region is transmitted in a codified language that prompts the reader's own vision.

In this fashion, broadly shared regional “subjectivities” form the territorial basis of human subjectivity. An appropriate example of this process is the perception of the region in which most of the novels of the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez are set. His world of reference is the Carribbean, the realm he lived in since childhood.

García Márquez's conceptualization of the Caribbean realm emerges with force particularly in his novels Love in the times of cholera (1985) and The general in his labyrinth (1990) which will be summarily analyzed here. But, indisputably, the fictitious town of Macondo—the setting of One hundred years of solitude (1968) and the other novelas of the “Macondo cycle”—represent the author's image of the sweltering Caribbean coast of Colombia.

Intended as an exaltation of perseverance, undeclining lust, and spirit of enterprise, Love in the times of cholera portrays the Caribbean realm in all its “real” regional complexity. Enmeshed in the drama are peculiar characters that could not be found in another South American setting, such as the suicidal Haitian refugee, Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, the seductive daughter of a Jamaican preacher, Barbara Lynch, or the host of nameless adventurers who have made their way into Cartagena from all corners of the Caribbean region. The fate of the city and the destiny of all the major characters in the novel is tied to the Caribbean Sea: Florentino Ariza—the indefatigable lover—after recovering the gold treasures of a Spanish gallion bound for Havana, consolidates his wealth by proficiently running the “River Company of the Caribbean,” a fleet of fluvial streamers that connects the coastal centers with the miserable villages along the Magdalena River. In one of them, Colonel Aureliano Buendía—of the legendary progeny of Aureliano Buendía, the patriarch of One hundred years of solitude—has been dejectedly waiting for more than sixty years for the arrival of the Friday mail ferry that should bring him a letter from a Bogotá ministry accrediting his services to the republic during a long-forgotten revolution (El coronel no tiene quien le escriba, 1961). The overpowering atmosphere of the Caribbean coastal towns pervades also the opening pages of La mala hora (1974) creating the depressing environment for the senseless murder of the amateur clarinetist Pastor by a husband who reacts violently to an unfounded defamation made in an anonymous lampoon. There are hundreds of squares in the little towns of Caribbean Colombia that are flanked by those melancholic almond trees under which Salvador Nasar is savagely butchered in Chronicle of a death foretold (1981). This is not a land of fancies: brutal passions, irrepressible violence, scorching heat, pestilence, the stench of putrefaction and unsufferable humidity during the rainy season characterize that part of Colombia which shares so much with other conterminous lands of the Caribbean Sea (Volkening 1967).

Yet, on the other hand, García Máquez shows great empathy for this country so poor in attractive attributes. Savage and smoldering as they are, the tropical lowlands are still preferable over the frigid highlands of Colombia: the author hates the cold mountains and abhors the duplicity of the Andean people. The point is clearly made in The General in his labyrinth, the fictional account of the last days of the Liberator Simon Bolívar. At the beginning of the novel the conspiratory atmosphere of Bogotá is painted in the grey colors of the misty mornings of the Andes. Treachery is as cold and deceitful as the fog of Bogotá. For Bolívar salvation can only be hoped for from a return to the sunny lowlands, a trip that he undertakes with a mixture of trepidation and hope. An inverted, calvary ensues: the Liberator's descent from the cold highlands parallels his physical and spiritual decline. The balmy lowlands promise an illusory refuge from the string of political disillusions that have sapped his once indomitable spirit: the dream of preserving a united Greater Colombia has been finally destroyed by the secession of Venezuela, and instead of finding solace for his ailing body, he will meet death on the warm beaches of Santa Marta.

But, the antithetic planes of Andean mountains and Caribbean coast are expounded not only in the drama of Bolívar's life, but also in the juxtaposition of Cartagena—Colombia's historical gate to the Caribbean—and Bogotá, the primate city in the Andeas. While the latter is characterized by oppressing parochialism, paltriness and intransigence, great Cartagena de Indias still radiates some of the grandeur of its colonial past, when the Caribbean was a pivotal space in the Spanish empire, and the city, its most formidable stronghold. Surely, the Spanish hegemony was merely exterior and the contestation by contemporary powers like England, France and Holland brought to the Caribbean enthnocultural elements that altered considerably the racial fabric of the Caribbean. Characters such as Saint-Amour and Barbara Lynch, personify the presence of Africans in the Caribbean—today the dominant ethnic group—brought in by non-Hispanic colonial powers. Bogotá lacks the cosmopolitan and universal atmosphere that characterizes the Caribbean coast of Colombia, particularly Cartagena. Main and secondary characters in Love in the times of cholera bring to the city scents from distant places of the Caribbean: there are allusions to the smugglers of Curaçao or the salt merchants from the Dutch Antilles; the upper class of Cartagena travel to the Adventist Hospital of Panama in search of a cure for their hideous tropical ailments; the growing influence of the United States in the Caribbean emerges from passing references to gringos sailing down from New Orleans; the Panama Canal spills its misery on the door step of the Colombian coast in the guise of Chinese laborers fleeing from the yellow fever. The immanence of the Caribbean in the novels of García Márquez reveals the preeminence that this geographic space has in his literary world. His novels sublimate the attributes of that peculiar geographic realm and the time scales of his works tend to glorify the sunset of colonial rule in the Caribbean. Furthermore, a geographical pondering of Gabriel García Márquez's works conveys the impression that he wrote them with his back to the Colombian highlands: the Caribbean monopolizes his vision of Colombia, illustrating well the regional split that exists in the geography of that country.


While Arguedas provides a mythical interpretation of the history of Peru in several of his later writings and García Márquez fascinates multitudes with the magic-fantastic atmosphere of his works, Neruda tells his stories or depicts environmental moods in an evocative poetic language. The mental regions and the personal visions of inanimate objects are communicated to the sensitive reader in a language which reveals the poet's ability to abstract the essential attributes of an object and express these distilled notions in lyric terms.

One may question if the perceptions thus transferred fit the norms conventionally accepted by geographers to analytically describe physical processes and phenomena. Let us not forget that the description is accomplished by a “poet” and not by an earth scientist: can both coincide in extracting the most distinctive traits of the observed objects? In the poem Floods are depicted the elements that make such a natural disaster frightening, but also its deep human and social implications. The physical circumstances and the impact of humans are skillfully woven into a wholeness that only the heightened sensibility of a great artist can conceive:


The poor live below waiting for the rivers
to rise at night and take them to the sea.
I have seen little cradles afloat,
remains of houses, chairs and an august rage
of livid waters in which sky and terrors are fused.
It is only for you, poor man, for your wife and off-
for your dog and your tools,
so that you can learn to beg.
The water does not rise to the homes of the
whose snow-clad collars fly from the laundries.
Eat this devastating mud and these swimming
with your dead, gently drifting to the sea,
amid humble tables and lost trees
that tumble downstream displaying their roots.

(From Canto General, 1940)

The poems included in Canto General de Chile by Pablo Neruda, an overtly ambitious work, has been termed by some an “epic poem” (Camacho Guizado 1978). This monumental chant adopts the accepted canons of the Renaissance Cosmographia to provide a lyrical depiction of the geography of the New World from its origin to the arrival of the Spaniards. From a natural “tableau” it shifts into poetic historical account after the European contact and the destruction of a pristine America (Bravo 1991). The Canto General de Chile offers a unique possibility to look for convergences in the language and images used by poets to define the physical world and the terms used by geographers for the same purpose.

One of the most admired attributes of Neruda's is his sensuality in the use of the word; the sybaritic pleasure he experienced when pronouncing a word and the intimate delight he feels when defining a simple object of the world as observed by him. A special gift of Neruda is the glorification of the trivial and the elevation of the mundane. The poem “Farewell to the products of the sea” is a masterful sample of these qualities. A preamble is necessary here to understand some terms in the poem. In 1970 Pablo Neruda collected, under the title of Maremoto (tidal wave, tsunami), a series of poems in which he describes the derelicts scattered on the shore by this devastating phenomenon. Each poem refers to a particular creature and was to be accompanied by etchings from the Swedish artist Carin Oldfelt: in the opening line of “Farewell to the products of the sea” Neruda makes reference to these illustrations as he exhorts the sea creatures to leave the inert pages and return to the sea. The project, interrupted by the author's death in 1973, was realized only in 1991. While brief and not widely known, “Maremoto” constitutes a most sentimental elegy on the damages inflicted by a natural hazard on living creatures.

The last poem of the collection finds the poet walking down the devastated beach observing, and dialoguing with, the sea creatures exposed by the retreating wave. The human dimension is also incorporated in the poem: Neruda voices his sadness for having to abandon the company of the sea creatures to resume his stolid and routinary chores amidst paper, ink, presses, cardboards, and the women and men who clamor for his return. Finally, there is also a calm and serene tenderness in the poem as the aging poet looks forward to his return to the children of different places of Chile who “also want to play with the poet.”


Volved, volved al mar
desde estas hojas!
Peces, mariscos, algas
escapadas del frío,
volved a la cintura
del Pacífico
al beso atolondrado
de la ola, a la razón
secreta de la roca!
O escondidos,
desnudos, sumergidos,
es hora
de dividirnos y separarnos:
el papel me reclama:
la tinta, los tinteros,
las imprentas, las cartas, los cartones
las letras y los números
se amontanaron en cubiles
desde donde
me acechan: las mujeres
y los hombres
quieren mi amor, piden mi compañía
los niños de Petorca,
de Atacama, de Arauco,
de Loncoche,
quieren jugar también con el poeta
Adios, organizados frutos de agua,
adios, camarones vestidos de imperiales,
volveré, volveremos
a la unidad ahora interrumpida.
Pertenezco a la arena:
volveré al mar redondo
y a su flora
y su furia:
ahora me voy
por las calles.


Return, return to the sea
from these pages!
Fish, molluscs, algae
fleeing the cold,
return to the girdle
of the Pacific
to the giddy kiss
of the waves,
to the secret wisdom of the rock!
Oh, you hidden,
naked, submerged,
it is time
to come apart and separate:
the paper claims me,
the ink, the inkpots
the presses, the letters, the cardboards
the characters and the numbers
piled up in cubicles
from which
they are ambushing me: the women
and the men
demand my love, for my company ask
the children of Petorca,
of Atacama, of Arauco,
of Loncoche,
they also want to play with the poet!
Farewell, organized fruits of the sea
farewell, crabs in imperial dress,
I shall return, we will return
to the unity now interrupted.
I am part of the sand:
I shall return to the rounded sea
and its flora
and its fury:
for now I walk away
down the streets.

(From Maremoto, 1991)

There still remains the question whether Pablo Neruda's descriptive language reproduces, with appropriateness, the perceptions and concepts shared by his countrymen about the awe-inspiring nature of Chile, and whether the spiritual messages that he receives when contemplating the Chilean landscape also strike a note in the soul of less lyrically inclined readers. As a native of that country and a geographer, I certainly vibrate with Neruda's depiction of the inanimate elements laid at the concrete bases of physical landscapes. However, there is more than sheer description. Each term in the vocabulary of the author tends to grant a quality to the inert object that raises it to the level of a living entity. Particularly suggestive and full of earthy symbology is the collection of poems Piedras de Chile (Stones of Chile, 1960), inspired by the rich geological variety of the country. Granites, diorites, schists, disbases, and gabbros are depicted in powerful verbal strokes by this poet who, although lacking the formal education of an earth scientist, knows well how to differentiate the rocks and understands their role in the edifice of Chile. Especially impressive is his masterful evocation of the capricious shapes into which these rocks have been molded by the waves of the Pacific Ocean or by the rivers which descend from the Andean cordillera.

Pablo Neruda's acute geographical sensitivity is revealed best in the lead poem of the collection:


Piedras locas de Chile, derramadas
desde las cordilleras,
negros, ciegos, opacos,
que anudan a la tierra los caminos,
que ponen punto y piedra
a la jornada,
rocas blancas
que interrumpen los ríos
y suaves son besadas
por una cinta sísmica
de espuma,
granito de la altura
bajo la nieve
como un monasterio,
espinazo de la más dura patria
o nave inmóvil,
de la tierra terrible,
piedra, piedra infinitamente pura,
como cósmica paloma,
dura de sol, de viento, de energía,
de sueño mineral, de tiempo oscuro,
piedras locas,
y pabellón dormido,
cumbres, rodados, rocas:
siga el silencio
sobre vuestro durísimo silencio,
bajo la investidura
antartica de Chile,
bajo su claridad ferruginosa.


Foolish rocks of Chile, scattered
from the cordilleras,
dark, blind, opaque,
that tie the roads to the earth,
that put an end
to the journey,
white rocks
that interrupt the rivers
and are softly kissed
by a seismic ribbon
of foam,
granites of the heights
under the snow
like a monastery,
spine of the harshest homeland
or immobilized vessel,
of the terrible earth,
stone, infinitely pure stone,
like a cosmic dove,
hardened by sun, by wind, by energy,
of mineral dream, from dark times,
foolish rocks,
and sleeping banner,
summits, rolling stones, rocks:
may the silence continue
over your unbearable silence,
under the antarctic
vestment of Chile,
under its ferruginous brightness.

In this poem not only the concrete nature of the rock is exalted in its eternal permanence, but the silence that shrouds them is elevated to a mystical quality. The rock becomes a monastery, the spine of the entire country, a cosmic dove, defying time, sun, wind and energy. Very aware of the earth-building processes, Neruda imagines the rocks descending from the cordillera to create this country of stone which is Chile. Rarely can one find a poetical rendition so appropriate to the significance of rocks, the mute evidence of morphogenesis. It definitely takes an exquisite sensitivity to express with such artistry the physical complexity involved in earth dynamics. In our view, Neruda has raised “tellurism” to its highest level in Latin America literature.


The works by the authors reviewed may not faithfully reproduce the real features of the lived-in-spaces, but they represent imaginative constructs that the collective mind imprinted onto these spaces. Moreover, the literary places tend to conform to worlds of reference which are recognizable by the readers according to certain embedded codes, symbols and images. Thus, more than being “free” products of the writer's creative imagination, these constructs indicate to what an extent the authors are influenced by the collectively-perceived reality. At this point one might ask: How can the literary language be decoded by native or foreign readers? What elements of a landscape should be emphasized to project an image of the place in concordance with the world perceived by a wide audience? Is the utilization of myth or magical reality just a spurious technique to embellish a dull reality or trivial action? Do the tendencies to use magic and mythical entourages come from a genuine internal urge, or, are they but literary artifices skillfully utilized by some crafty writers?

It has been mentioned in this article that the works of the authors here considered are concerned not so much with the dominant external traits of a lived-in space as with the magical qualities that are attributed, almost by popular consensus, to special places. This is particularly evident in the imaginary Macondo of García Márquez which, although fictitious, incorporates all the real, figurative and mythical attributes of many anonymous towns on Colombia's Caribbean coast. Surely, any reader with sufficient knowledge of that region recognizes the clues that García Márquez encrypts in the narrations that have Macondo as their setting. In the case of Arguedas, the socio-historical backdrop of his novel El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo calls to the attention of the reader that he is not narrating the events occurring to a disparate cast of characters in the halcyon days of Chimbote, but reporting also on the legendary struggle between the spirits of the heights and of the lowlands, between virtuousness and licentiousness. His dialogues and allegories are, certainly, well understood by his people. Finally, even the corporeal realities that Neruda couches in poetical terms to exalt the common and trivial in nature can be properly grasped by his readers because of the spell of his words and the beauty of the invoked images.

It has been the happy marriage of talented writers and the intrinsic value of a captivating nature that has lent universal value to contemporary South American literature offered in a package of remarkable writing quality. From the perspective of a geographer who seeks to decipher the messages or sense of place which are coded in literary production, the study of these authors, as voices of a collective mentality expressed by its most sensitive representatives, constitutes a most gratifying intellectual endeavor.


  1. “Tellurism” as a term in Latin American literary analysis does not exist per se. I have been using it for more than a decade to refer to those books written in the first third of this century in which the earth itself was considered a powerful force in the destiny of characters. When referring to the modernist school in Chile, Promis (1993: 27-33) elaborates on the thematic preferences of this literature concerned with “asuntos telúricos” (sic).

  2. “Criollismo” refers to another aspect of the Latin American naturalism (first four decades of this century) in which the emphasis was placed on simple characters and situations—mostly from rural environments—as a reaction to cosmopolitan modernism. For more details on the program of this literary movement consult the article by Furlani de Civit and Gutiérrez de Manchón in this issue.

  3. Cholo is the name given to a stereotyped popular character which inhabits the coastal towns and oases villages of coastal Peru. Ethnically these individuals are the product of the miscegenation of mestizos with Blacks and serrano Indians.

Works Cited

Arguedas, J. M.: El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo. Editorial Horizonte, Lima 1971.

Bravo, M. E.: La primera ordenación del universo americano: Mito, historia e identidad en el Canto General de Pablo Neruda. Ediciones Documenta, Santiago 1991.

Camacho Guizado, E.: Pablo Neruda: Naturaleza, historia y poética. Sociedad General Española de Libreria, Madrid 1978.

Castro Klaren, S.: El mundo mágico de José María Arguedas. Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, Lima 1973.

Caviedes, C. N.: El Niño 1972: Its climatic, ecological, human and economic implications.Geographical Review 65, 439-509 (1975).

Caviedes, C. N.; Chimbote, P.: El caso de una ciudad boom. Revista Geográfica 83, 51-65 (1976).

Caviedes, C. N.: “The Latin American boom town in the literary view of José María Arguedas.” In: Mallory, W. E.; Simpson-Housley, P. (eds.), Geography and Literature: A Meeting of the Disciplines, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY, 1987, pp. 57-77.

Caviedes, C. N.; Knapp, G.: South America. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs 1995.

Connif, B.: “The dark side of magical realism: Science, pression and apocalyse in One Hundred Years of Solitude.Modern Fiction Studies, 167-179 (1990).

Frémont A.: La région espace véçu. Presses Universitaires de France, Paris 1976.

García Márquez, G.: El coronel no tiene quien le escriba. Editorial Sudamericana, Buenos Aires 1961. (No one writes to the Colonel. Harper & Row, New York 1968.)

García Márquez, G.: Cien años de soledad. Editorial Sudamericana, Buenos Aires 1968. (One Hundred Years of Solitude. Harper & Row, New York 1970.)

García Márquez, G.: Ojos de perro azul. Scretaría de Obras y Servicios, Mexico 1973.

García Márquez, G.: Los funerales de Mamá Grande y otros cuentos. Editorial Sudamericana, Buenos Aires 1974.

García Márquez, G.: La mala hora. Perez Janés Editores. Barcelona 1974.

García Márquez, G.: Crónica de una muerte anunciada. Editorial Oveja Negra, Bogotá 1981. (Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1981.)

García Márquez, G.: El amor en los años del cólera. Editorial Sudamericana, Buenos Aires 1985. (Love in the Times of Cholera. Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1985).

García Márquez, G.: El general en su laberinto. Editorial Sudamericana, Buenos Aires 1989. (The general in His Labyrinth. Alfred A. Knopf, New York 1990.)

Gutiérrez, G. (ed.): Arguedas: Cultura e identidad nacional. Edaprospo, Lima 1989.

Kemper-Columbus, C.: Mythological Consciousness and the Future. American University Studies/P. Lang, New York 1986.

Lando, F.: “Geografia e letteratura: immagine e immaginazione.” In: Lando, F. (ed.), Fatto e finzione: Geografia e letteratura, pp. 1-16, Etaslibri, Milano 1994.

Marin, G.: La experiencia americana de José María Arguedas. García Gambeiro, Buenos Aires 1973.

Neruda, P.: Canto General. Ediciones Océano, Mexico 1950.

Neruda, P.: Piedras de Chile. Editorial Losada, Buenos Aires 1961.

Neruda, P.: Maremoto, Editora Pehuén, Santiago de Chile 1991.

Promis, J.: La novela chilena del último siglo. Editorial La Noria, 1993.

Spina, V.: El modo épico en José María Arguedas. Editorial Pliegos, Madrid 1986.

Villegas, J.: Estructuras míticas y arquetipos en el “Canto General” de Neruda. Editorial Planeta, Barcelona 1976.

Volkening, E.: Los cuentos de Gabriel García Márquez o el trópico desembrujado. Editorial Estuario, Buenos Aires 1967.

Zúñiga-Ortega, C.: José María Arguedas: un hombre entre dos mundos. Ediciones Abdya-Yala, Quito 1994.

Claudette Kemper Columbus (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8296

SOURCE: Columbus, Claudette Kemper. “Oracular Foxes, Archaic Times, Twentieth-Century Peru: J. M. Arguedas's The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below.Dispositio/n: American Journal of Cultural Histories and Theories 21, no. 48 (1996): 137-54.

[In the following essay, Columbus notes that the foxes symbolize art in The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below and are presented as symbols struggling against the bureaucratization of folk art and culture.]

In The Foxes (El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo, 1969)1 the Peruvian novelist José María Arguedas conflates the myth of a failed Andean mountain-weather deity and culture hero, Tutaykire, and the myth of his brother, the shaman-healer and fellow mountain-weather deity, Huatyacuri. Arguedas translates the myths of Huarochirí (Dioses y hombres de huarochirí, 1966) and later, his fascination with them deepening, he brings Huatyacuri, Tutaykire, and the ancient Andean foxes out of the deep past of Andean myth and folklore and out of a nature-worshipping context and into the twentieth century.2 The plight of Tutaykire, “Wound of Night,” as failed deity, resonates with Arguedas's own psycho-social predicament as well as with political-economic crises in Peru and elsewhere. Arguedas concentrates these crises in the blasphemous and profane port city of Chimbote, hazardous in the extreme not only to the environment but to social and sexual health.3

The Foxes is accessible to readers, even though Arguedas creates tremendous density of meaning by layering present-day mores with the two “foundational” myths of Huatyacuri and Tutaykire, conflated in the novel with one another, and, since they appear revised in the novel, also conflating the deep past and the novel's present. The density of meaning does not lend itself to ready explication. Yet it is precisely through unmediated disjunctions that the novel achieves many of its effects. Disjunctions among the haplessly conjoined, disjunctions among private, public, and differently cultured lives communicate “unspeakable” injuries. Disjunctions expose the disrupted relationships between nature and culture, pagan and Christian religions, and local and global affairs. Chimbote's populations are alienated internally in terms of inherited traditions, local affairs, and distressed private lives, while externally, global disorder exacerbates local and personal conditions.

When the Tutaykire of the myth, on a conquest of highlanders over lowland terrain, falls captive to the debased coast, figured as female genitals or “fox,” the archaic and the natural worlds are held hostage to a sexual desire that is originary and sterile. Tutaykire's prolonged dalliance becomes anti-origin, anti-cultural, anti-natural. The penal bondage he suffers disrupts natural and cultural productivity and displaces the creative properties depicted in his brother Huatyacuri's myth. Yet it is the myth of Tutaykire that ends the unfinished Foxes. The Wound of Night—although Tutaykire's name may also mean, fittingly enough in the context of a fishing port and murky psychological impasses, “deep sea”4—arrests the history of twentieth-century Peru and Arguedas's personal life, and supplants the myth/history of Huatyacuri, healer of history.

In the myth, Huatyacuri cures a highland ruler and boastfully rich man and his faithless wife, in part because Huatyacuri has overheard two foxes conversing about a sexual sin committed by the ill man's wife. In other words, Huatyacuri, a nature deity affiliated to a geography and a culture like his brother Tutaykire, succeeds in mediating between the natural and the “cultural” world that, he overhears the foxes explain, are contaminated by acquisitiveness and irreligious sexual license. But Tutaykire does not “overhear” the foxes, who are ambivalently tricksters and healers, shysters and artists, sacred and profane. So whereas Huatyacuri mediates conquest of terrain by marrying a local woman and by displaying his artistry and powers of natural reproduction (he outdances his rival and miraculously provides enough corn beer for everyone, as instances of his creativity), Tutaykire falls prey to a vixen.

Tutaykire represents the enervation that results when cultural differences, geographically sustained, engender an environment of unrelenting oppression. The geographical divisions between symbolic highland and symbolic lowland areas make Tutaykire the totemic captive of the professionalized and prostitute world of the lowlands (fetishistic, metonymic sexuality and art that accede to those market forces that the wealthy and sick accumulator of goods in the Huatyacuri myth represents). The capture has lasted for as long as this myth has been in existence (minimally, five hundred years, although its antiquity is to my mind at least double that; Arguedas claims two thousand five hundred years for it).

Since the Huatyacuri myth appears as a fully formulated narrative, in the sixteenth-century document recording these myths (chapter 5), it is significant that even then the Tutaykire narrative appears in fragments. What follows is about all there is about him: Tutaykire like his father and his brother transforms himself into a welcome red and yellow rain as he descends through the valleys of Sisiscaya and Mama. He insults the Quinti, whom he disparages as mosquitoes, but he verbally anoints those who acknowledge him as brothers. In other words, his power lies in considerable part in characterizing others and is in large part oral. The rainfall and the peaceful conquest by verbalized “brotherhood” cause distant communities to worship him. Subsequent ritual pilgrimages in hope of rain follow Tutaykire's downward route.5 (The foregoing incidents are all from chapter 11).

Tutaykire is described as the most valiant of the sons of the great mountain deity, Pariaqaqa. But then, just before he reaches the Huarochirí and the Quinti, he is seduced and thus keeps the terrain of the Huarochirí and the Quinti from extending into the lowlands (chapter 12). Tutaykire's importance is intimated in the origin myth that relates how blood fell from the sky onto a place called Field of Blood. There a quinoa tree sprouted, and from its fruits, people. And, many lines after recounting the exploits of his father, Pariaqaqa, the narrative mentions that there too in that Field of Blood was Tutaykire of blood born (chapter 24).

Tutaykire's interrupted, indeed, reversed transit snaps the connections made by both Pariaqaqa and Tutaykire himself among good naming, good weather, and peaceful conquest. But when genitalia divert Tutaykire from his mission, his foxy tongue is also anaphorically stilled. (Arguedas's novel makes clear the connections among language use, foxiness, and sexuality; a widely known Andean myth of a fox that fell from the stars to the earth and from whose splattered body vegetables grow is another version of blood—red rain—from the sky.)

Michel de Certeau presents the “imperfect” and the “dissimilar” as changing language into “a system wounded by its speaker.” The system of the wounded, imperfect, “dissimilar” speaker may turn the spoken word into

a song of its defeated medium … as if the dissimilar were an operation that [renders language] a sort of tattoo or signature for the unsayable origin. What can no longer be laid down in the language as its principle and ground is insinuated into the whole range of its practice in the successive acts of speaking it, like a movement that folds it back upon itself and punctuates it with dissimilarities.


Defeated, the powerful Wound of Night, associated with verbal authority, becomes a “signature” for an unsayable origin that is also a rending. In its fragmentariness, the myth insinuates the unspeakable failure of a people that speak fragments of a story folded “back on itself.” In chapter 24, Pariaqaqa the father takes his son's role of shaping goodness and prosperity by good naming. But in so doing, he punctuates his son's achievement with disruptive narrative similarities. Associated with the greatest mountain heights, Pariaqaqa is a topographic intrusion on his sons' geographical shift towards the coast. Yet these reintroduced ritual observances for Pariaqaqa become systemic and subordinate his son's far more recent innovations in pilgrimage routes and rites. Pariaqaqa's “above” stands in for, but cannot embody nor empower, the hoped for “below.” In a way, father contributes to the verbal and even the sexual eclipse of his son's potency. But, since the old god cannot do the work of his sons, even though the myths of Huarochirí are not arranged along a time line, it seems clear that the narrator(s) of the Huarochirí myths associates copulation without socialization with psychological and linguistic darkness, and Arguedas sees these failures “insinuated” into the future.

In the first diary of the novel, Arguedas identifies a number of “professional” writers; he had long before attacked “professional” scientists and industrialists whose “helicopter” overviews and limited experience disparage and wound the native populations about whom they remain cruelly indifferent. Forced not to write in the indigenous language he considered suited to his subject, Arguedas sings as Tutaykire's sexually wounded double. (Among the few conjunctions in the novel is that between irresponsible economic practices and sexual degradation.) Arguedas felt himself both victim and victimizer in the arena of sexual relations. He writes in “First Diary” (21-22) of being seduced while still a boy by a pregnant, homeless and indigenous woman. He also writes of an encounter with a black prostitute who restored his appetite for life—although he does not mention that she stole his wallet from him on the train to Huacho and left him penniless6 In his short stories and in All the Bloods, he writes of witnessing rapes of indigenous women. And, of course, to write about the whores of Chimbote, Arguedas needs to know a great deal about them.

If Arguedas, victim of Peru's inter-ethnic warfare, had received social support, it may be he could have acted as the mediating brother, the shaman healer Huatyacuri, who benefits from hearing the foxes' dialogue and who develops a range of new songs in consultation with his extensive mountain relations. Instead, as a man, he finds that he is himself captivated by sexual relations with women who are victims of the economic system. And in that captivation, he is their victimizer as well.

Like Arguedas himself, Huatyacuri commands a range of linguistic and ritual practices in his journey from the highlands to the coast. But although Arguedas was writing quite beyond the skills of most artists and remains unequalled in his ability to express indigenous linguistic idiolects and feelings, Arguedas confesses the foxes become too much for him (“Third Diary” 179: “Estos ‘Zorros’ se han puesto fuera de mi alcance …”). His wound was too deep: “[S]oy muy amado por buena y bella gente, como mi mujer por ejemplo. Pero algo nos hirieron cuando más indefensos éramos” (16). Perhaps this unspeakable “algo,” this something, prevents the voices of the foxes in dialogue from playing a part in the myth of Tutaykire, although natural forces help Huatyacuri. The foxless fragments of the myth of Tutaykire speak only of great strength, arrested. Perhaps Arguedas associates this epoch of wounding darkness with that courtesan, historical time, and its destruction of mythic time and space.7 It is as if historical and urban time supplants the fluidity of mythic and seasonal time with historical brackets that de-animate and immobilize space, as they do Tutaykire. Frozen time replaces fluvial time.

In the diary that opens this novel of voices in widely differing but “successive” acts of speaking, Arguedas starts off with the intimacy of a first-person confession in direct address. This lamenting voice hints at the personal reasons for Arguedas's suicide, at his physical, sexual, social, and psychological wounds closely associated with the history of Peru, and, as the setting of the port town implicates the global marketplace, his wounds connect to wounds in world history (Cuba, Vietnam). Periodically, the plangent prose rises from lamentation into song, usually by way of a lyrical passage on a remembered landscape that temporarily restores the amplitude of mythic space: “beholding the immense mountains and the profound abysses where the trees and the flowers of the Andes grieve with a beauty that concentrates the loneliness and the silence of the world” (16).8 But urban and national concerns interrupt the moment and marginalize this expanse of geographical-natural space. The anthropocentric plot displaces the movements of the sacred mountains with their potential for gifts of water and song, and their powers of intercession in human affairs.

The voice of the wounded diarist contrasts sharply with the voices of the diary's foxes, whose supernatural dialogue closes the first “true to life” diary. These foxes are inhuman voyeurs. From a human perspective, their tough attitude cryptically expressed is impenetrable. And yet Andean foxes, often associated with dances in the moonlight, with the rainbow, with the most used motif in, for instance, Moche art, represent the arts, including the crafts of the natural and of what is “really” out there. So, although the subject matter of the foxes is Arguedas's subject matter, their “wait and see” tone accentuates Arguedas's suffering as a writer of peoples wounded, like him, by interethnic struggle and oppression expressed through sexual repercussions. Even though the foxes speak in indigenous tongues (the grammar indicates indigenous speech) and even though they are born of folk mythology, their reportorial objectivity is non-participatory, at once omniscient and gnomic (see below).

Foxes have appeared as imperturbable beings in folk tales and myths, but the sapience of the foxes as Arguedas represents them separates them from the human condition. In contrast to the Huatyacuri myth's scene between shaman healer and the dialogue of the foxes, where the dialogue illuminates the deity so that he can address social problems, the dialogue between the foxes in Arguedas is malicious “ji ji ji” (23). Neither Arguedas nor his characters can subsequently intervene for the betterment of the pueblo. The ugly stories of the Arguedean foxes heighten the tension between Arguedas as mortally wounded artist of his time and his country. Overhearing the tales of the foxes as they speak for the “natural” world offers no suggestions for curing the ills of the cruel “culture” of the coast.

The dialogue of the foxes conjoins two time frames: Huarochiri's oral myths of a past undatably archaic and Arguedas's personal time, shortening moment by moment. But even the time frames of the Peru of the 1600's when the myths from the oral tradition were transcribed into writing, and the thousands of years behind the oral traditions recorded in huarochirí, and the years of Arguedas's life (1911-1969) dissolve. The decade of the 1990s co-exists in one continuance of agony with the captivity of Tutaykire, expressed in sexual terms. The homogenizing powers of a commercialized system of values violate, corrupt, or alter natural phenomena. Advice “from nature” that formed bridges among denatured human, natural, and supernatural domains, has become little more than a reflection of “culture.”

The ghostly, ancient, wound-and-cure opening dialogue of the Huarochirí myth that finds an echo in the first diary follows:

On his travels from Lake Below, Huatyacuri fell asleep on the side of the mountain. While he lay there asleep, a fox from the coast met a fox from the sierra. The fox from below asked, “Brother, how are things in High Willka?”

The fox from above replied, “So so. A leader named Colored Darkness by the Lake of Sighs thinks of himself as so sacred and so wise that he takes himself for a god and has come down sick. The wise men of the area have been asked what ails him, but not one can diagnose his sickness. What they do not know is that, as his wife was toasting corn, a dark kernel jumped from the frying pan into her vagina. The woman took it out and she gave it to a man from another place to eat. He and the woman are much to be blamed. People consider her an adulteress. On account of what she did, a serpent living atop their beautiful house and a two-headed frog living in the grindstone are devouring the pair.” So spoke the fox from above to let the fox from below know what was going on. …

Huatyacuri overheard the foxes conversing about the sickness of the man who thought he was wise and pretended he was a god, and whose older daughter had married a very rich man.

(Arguedas 1966, 90-93, chap. 5, ll. 21-28; my translation)

The dialogue juxtaposes true value (a productive marriage) and false value. False value is represented both by Colored Darkness, who, because he had a large herd, decorated his house extravagantly and considered himself wise and by his wife, whose “cooking” includes dark kernels of corn that jump into her vagina, either a reference to sterile sexual practices or to adultery with the stranger.

Colored Darkness seems unaware of the meaning of his name, Tamtañamca; ñamca is associated with leaders in a dark epoch9 and with showily feathered headdresses. The shaman healer, musician, and dancer, Huatyacuri brings the village a sense of true value related to ongoing dialogues with the environment (Columbus 1990, passim.).

In “The First Diary,” Arguedas renders a dialogue between the foxes that evokes the dialogue above but differs from it markedly:

THE Fox from above:
Fidela, pregnant. Blood. She's gone. The boy, confounded. A stranger in this land. He came down into your territory.
THE Fox from below:
Sex, sexuality, unknown, unrecognized, confounds them. Prostitutes jeer, with reason. They alienate sexuality ever more strangely. The prostitute's “fox” is nobody's fox, fox of my realm. Flower of …, that “fox” is called. In that “fox,” fear and also confidence appear.
THE Fox from above:
Confidence, also fear, from the Virgin and from the high altitude plant, Ima Sapra, and from twisted and retwisted iron, frozen or in motion, estrangement, alienation, will to control the coming in and going hither of all things.
THE Fox from below:
Hee, hee, hee … ! Here, the sugarcane flowers are … that dance … the web that wraps the heart of those who can speak; the cotton is white ima sapra. But the amaru, the sacred serpent, will not end there. The iron spouts smoke, blood, it makes sex burn, the breast, the testicles.
THE Fox from above:
So it is. Let's watch and see. …


In an earlier version of this dialogue mentioned in a marginal note (23), Arguedas describes Maxwell, a sympathetic character who, after resigning from the Peace Corps, dances in the whorehouse, as a stranger to his own sexual nature. In the published version, the injury to and ignorance of sexuality is far less specifically rendered; Maxwell is not mentioned and Arguedas through the several sexual encounters in the diary represents himself as sexually estranged. (That is not the subject matter of this essay, however.)

The foxes represent injury to and the ignorance of one's own sexual nature. Ignorance of one's own sexuality is also an injury to language. The sentence fragments correlate to sexual fragmentation: “Here, the sugarcane flowers are … that dance … the web that wraps the heart of those who can speak; the cotton is white ima sapra,ima sapra, an image, according to Lienhard (passim), that refers to women's public hair. Both one's own sexual trauma and traumatically broken sentences bespeak the damage done in considerable part by industrialization, the iron that spouts smoke and blood. The iron of industry is a tongue, a smoke stack, and a penis: “The iron spouts smoke, blood, it makes sex burn, the breast, the testicles:”

The ostensible similarities between past and present in the diary suggested by virtue of the repetition with variation of the ancient dialogue actually introduce dissimilarities between the “original” dialogue and the diary dialogue. Each portion of the cryptic diary dialogue enlarges the wound of night, enlarges the realm of the primordial unknown persisting in the disturbed present. The radical incompleteness of the fragmentary narrative each for sketches, only obliquely connected to episodes within the novel, augments the agonies of the ineffable and the irresolvable. The fox knowledge brought from the realm of each fox about sexually distressed human affairs seems absolute, however incomplete the tale being reported. Simply because there has been no resolution in all the time between 1600 and 1970 (and now), time for the corrective implementation of curative knowledge in the reporting of modern urban, business and media context is all but non-existent. And, because the foxes do not help Tutaykire, Wound of Night, in the novel, in contrast to the help their conversation gave the nature and fertility deity, Huatyacuri in the past, all that time between has been, socially speaking, inert, captive.

What percentage of a population laboring in the factories retains interest in folk traditions and in the pagan, religious inheritance the foxes in part represent? Tiny fragments of the folk past punctuate the novel, fragments too tiny to suggest an underlying, an ancient, or a possible resolution, and yet fragments too insistently punctuating the text for indifference to them.

The many appearances of the foxes in the body of Arguedas's novel all also invoke narratives in medias res that fail to bring resolution to the lethal predicaments therein inscribed. For not only does each dialogue overlie and double the older [attention calling? llamativo] dialogue of the foxes in the ancient myths of Huarochirí; each dialogue folds into horrible aberrations in socially destructive situations that, in contradistinction to the Huarochirí myth, in which the protagonist, Huatyacuri, benefits from a fox dialogue, the foxes' language brings no lasting benefit to any character (Columbus 1997).

The fox dialogues echo not only the socially and environmentally damaging environs of the industrialized port city of Chimbote, overfishing the sardines and undernourishing the population, but the fox dialogues also enfold the wounded author's psychological agony into far more generalized social and sexual pathologies. In The Foxes, the reader must think, then, not only of the wounded characters who for the most part are based on historical persons, and the wounded artist, but sense also the wounds in the social world and in language. Words are “imperfect” and “dissimilar” and language has changed into “a system wounded by its speaker[s]” (Certeau 150). Words contain within themselves other words, as the dialogue of the Arguedean foxes contain within themselves the dialogue of the foxes of Huarochirí.

Reading The Foxes is a painful experience. But only through hearing the lost souls of Arguedas's novel speaking soul-less words, only through hearing about “the vicious and the murderous,” not served up “as spectacle and figure” (Hartman xii) can a reader engage in a Derridean fugue at once unsettling and affecting. The reader “overhears” voices speaking of obscure and dark matters. The narrator does not explain them. In mourning over five hundred years of violence to the indigenous world and mourning for himself, Arguedas lets the reader perceive the structure of words within words, a structure so deeply mediated by other texts, so ghostly and echoic—and intimate—that, like the suicidal author, the reader finds it hard to find an exit into unwounded life, even as the need to do so becomes more and more imperative and more and more tied up with words. It is as if the ultimate subject of this book is our inability, as readers, to turn our wounds into song and our inability to move among different linguistic worlds. Our failure explains the failure of multicultural interactivities. It is as if we will suffer a collective suicide of soul unless we recover revitalizing sounds, meanings, images, languages, values, mythic voices. We too cannot cope with the signals from the foxes of the past.

César Caviedes translates-elaborates the first diary's fox dialogue by landscaping it and including his critical commentary. In other words, he removes the gaps, the silences, the implicit agonies; he demystifies and desexualizes the foxes: “In a magnificent legendary mode, the two foxes define the content and expanse of their respective worlds.” Thus speaks The [sic] Fox from Below:

Our world was divided then in two parts as it is today: the land where it does not rain and it is warm—the world of below—the land close to the sea and in which valley yungas run narrowed by the dry, ocher mountains and open themselves to the sea, like the light, in uncounted veins loaded with worms, flies, insects and birds that speak; this land is more virgin and fertile than the lands of your circle. This world is mine but begins in your world.

And the Fox from Above replies:

The water descends from the mountains that I inhabit; runs through the valley yungas narrowed by the dry, ocher mountains, and opens itself, just like the light, close to the sea; these valleys are thin veins in the scorched land, flowing between dunes and tired rocks, and that is the largest part of your world. Listen to me: I have descended always and you have ascended sometimes.

(Caviedes 60)

There is a sense in which Arguedas, like Caviedes, like Huatyacuri, turns to nature to heal the wound. In The Foxes, however, nature suffers defeat. Even though the lyricism of one of the characters (Esteban, a former miner dying of black lung disease who sings of the lilies of the field) is a tremendously affecting and effective wounded restorer of language, the black lilies of which he sings are lilies of death, lilies that do not exist in life, the lilies of a wound in a man who will not survive his wound.

The sexual references in the “fox” dialogue connect the deities of folklore to the fox, the genitalia of the prostitute, and to shyster commercialism. Although the genitalia are shown as harmed and harmful in the dialogue, they are sacred when the lunar fox serves the deities of fertility in lunar rites, with moonlight drumming and dancing. So the fox artist represents culture and yet, an acultural figure, fox problematizes cultures, shows the savagery of culture, shows culture as sterile and predatory. And yet again, the predatory fox in the context of Chimbote, a mercenary city under mafia control, even the fox, slipping along boundaries, may be crucified if the gods are crucified. Andeans sometimes make purses out of fox skins, a compound image in which the trickster tricked nevertheless confers trickster powers over money upon the purse holder. So the artist, represented by the fox and, as is very much the case with Arguedas, belonging nowhere, a creature of margins and borderlands, inhabits a dangerous position, particularly since not only is he sometimes made a purse of, but also suffers from a sense of emotional and artistic sterility.

In the first diary, Arguedas also describes the tales of Carmen, who makes the creatures she speaks of come alive in her language. The potato used to make retablo dough, at least up to this century, is the atoq-papa, the fox potato,10 so-called because the artist flexes the potato-dough foxily into figures. Retablos are altars or scenes, either religious or from daily life. The dramatic metamorphosis in the artist's creatively bringing materia prima to life, the fox-potato, like the fox, like Carmen, like Arguedas, transcends time through immanence.

A widespread Andean myth resolves the tension between the killing and the curative aspects of the fox. The myth that connects the fox and the origin of plant life casts the talking fox, irresponsible trickster-predator, into a role very like that of the wounded “fisher king” who dies to ensure agricultural and woodland fertility; his deadly wound cures. In the Andean myth, the spider (or the condor) urges the fox who has climbed to the sky with spider's help to return to earth. The fox, entranced with the language of the stars, demurs, then falls, and strikes earth with splattering force. But from his flesh grow vegetables and shy animals. The destructive fall folds back on itself in a “song of its defeated medium.”


Fox said to spider, “Cusi, I want to talk to the stars.”
“I'll spin the web,” Cusi said.
The stars hauled them. Up spun spider.
Up climbed fox.
Fox talked to the stars,
talked to them talked to them.
Fox said nothing to spider, the diviner, impatient to return.
When the stars became gray with talking
and faded, Fox fell,
yowling for Cusi to weave him a bed!
Corn is spattered fox,
Tassels and heads are tail, rank and quick.
Deer are fox whiskers running free.
People with white red black fur are fox,
yipping at spiders, at stars.
Tassels announce there is insurrection!
Rowed vegetables grow
restless among the restless spiders.

In this myth, the figure of transformation is itself transfigured; fox splashes into other forms that are far from the form that he also figures as a constellation. A fertility icon, he is himself undomesticated and domesticated; fertile and “castrated,” a compound often finding echo elsewhere. For instance,

One of the most widely cited talismans used to augment the attraction of the opposite sex is that tail of the fox. Young men must capture the animal, cut off the last vertebra of its tail, and release it alive. The tails of dead animals lack the necessary power, the “cunning of the hunter.”

(Millones and Pratt 17)

This evocative circumcision that readies the young man for marriage may arise from impressions of foxes in the animal world, the primary impression, of course, being their wildness. But also foxes seem to have acquired mythic status because they seem beyond pain. Perhaps the powerful properties of their feral eyes and their reeking odor suggest inhuman and undomestic armor that a man feels he may need in a marriage. That he preserves a fox's tail may prevent him from becoming wounded in his sexuality.

Housebuilding and other Andean rituals show the imbrication of fox and domesticity (Gose 1991). The wildness of foxes and their “dissimilar” knowledge are necessary to social health, if artfully and ritually brought into the household. The analogy is to the artist who distinguishes between proper and improper domestication of sexuality. If the artist is unable to achieve this himself, he too is imbricated in social abuses like those that the talking foxes speak insinuatingly about. And so the artist is unable to cure social ills. What can not be “laid down in language”—the preservation of a piece of fox tail, a curatively “dissimilar” condition—is, in Arguedas, unconsummated and his foxes preserve untouched tails. In exposing himself to the violence of Chimbote, he faces a sociocultural context “dissimilar” to what he desired and so undomesticatable as to be murderous. In such debasing circumstances, even a deity such as Turaykire, Wound of Night, cannot weave a golden safety net.

The tension between the artist who can die and the foxes who can and have danced through time, is keyed up rather than resolved in the novel. The human artist as healer and the human artist as failure both are themes that increase in intensity.

The foxes not only hail from different realms (from above, from below, from Andean myth generally, from the Huarochirí myths and the Arguedas novel specifically), but they are multivalent in their realms. The multiplicity of fox connotations includes fertility, but also sterility and gluttony; true artistry and harlotry; randy young men but also ancient and malevolent crone, adroit and maladroit use of language, and domestic order and disorder.

Myth expresses biological “language”—rhythms of dirge and lamentation; rhythms of celebration; rhythms of communication with dissimilar beings. In a segment entitled “Integration across Mimetic Modalities,” Merlin Donald argues the integrative capability of mimesis in tracking and creating rhythm.

Rhythm is … related to both vocal and visuomotor mimesis. … Rhythm is, in a sense, the quintessential mimetic skill, requiring the coordination of disparate aspects and modalities of movement.

Rhythm is therefore evidence of a central mimetic controller that can track various movement modalities simultaneously and in parallel. It can interrelate the activities of these modalities in an incredibly subtle and rapid manner—for instance, by maintaining different rhythmic components for the hands, feet, and voice in the same performance. …


Like the foxes of Huarochirí, rhythm breaks boundaries to establish its own space. “What can no longer be laid down in the language as its principle and ground is insinuated” by rhythm (Certeau 150). The fox artist borders on the limits of language and the origins of song, as at the moment of origin. But at the ending of Arguedas's novel, the foxes would not dance “these last words”; one spun like a top, but would not dance the bloody long history of Chaucato. Nor could wounded Arguedas control these foxes.

Perhaps a part of his failure is implicit in the dialogue of the foxes as Arguedas renders it and in contrast to the dialogue recorded in the myths of Huarochirí. For the foxes in his novel are different in kind from Andean foxes and the trickster foxes that instruct and fertilize; the dialogue between these two show them to be entirely uninvolved with and apparently indifferent to the plight they report, and so they lack a condition necessary for change and exchange,

the concern of both participants for the message and their capacity to overcome the semiotic barriers that must inevitably arise. John Newson, for instance, who has studied the dialogic situation between a mother who is breast-feeding and her infant, has noticed that—however strange this may sound in this kind of textbook—a necessary condition for dialogue is love, the mutual attraction of the participants.

(Lotman: 143)

Michel Serres asks, in a chapter entitled “Lunar Meals,”

Of the fox and the wolf, which one is better, the stronger or smarter? I think, by playing this game of competition, playing the game of slyer, stronger, crueler, these species have disappeared, leaving man alone to play this game of destruction. But before there were no more foxes or wolves, a question about intelligence could be asked. In fact, it was this question that killed the foxes and the wolves. Aesop chose the fox and La Fontaine, the wolf; teachers like to classify things. I think that they are equivalent, and I think it all depends.

(Michel Serres 74)

In the Andean myth of the fox that falls from the stars, the myth assists the rhythms of biology to expression. The fox rises: fox tricks a spider (or a condor) into taking him to the stars, for he wishes to speak with them and have concourse with the constellations. (There is an Andean fox constellation, whose tail at a certain time seems to dip into the ocean and therefore the eloquence-loving fox “dies” at dawn.) The fox falls. Desire renders the fox vulnerable. In another Andean belief, the foxes are an indication of fertility, their rhythms, the rhythm of fertility.

Thus, if the fox (atuj) is seen going uphill in September (sowing time), the year will be productive on the puna; but if the fox is seen going downhill, the year will be good in the valley. Further, two nebulas in the southern sky are associated with puna and valley, respectively. If one grows brighter than the other, it will be a good year in the corresponding region.

(Platt 233)

The fox of the ritual of the clipping of the fox's tail slips along the boundaries drawn between nature and culture and in that slipping along connects them (Isbell 300). And the fox as a figure of desire, as a metaphor for metaphor, also slips along and through discourse, evading capture but encouraging verbal exchanges. As the preeminent creature of boundary transgression, necessary boundary transgression, the movement, the discourse of the fox “folds … back upon itself and punctuates it with dissimilarities.” Hence the fox embodies desire, an emotion that enfolds opposite conditions and the phenomenon of the polarities within symbols of deceitful foxiness. But the foxes in Arguedas's novel are voyeurs. They experience no wounding of heart or life that makes the human artist trickster bleed. When in the chapters to come they interact with the characters, they reserve their thoughts and feelings. The highland fox does teach the ex-Peace Corps volunteer Maxwell how to be an Andean musician, but plays no part when Maxwell's life is wasted in a vicious and senseless beheading.

It is difficult to discern fox slipping along boundaries, as between the dry grasses and the corral. Yet as fox slips along the edges of sight, fox is, punningly, the figure of design. Fox possesses a mind both cunningly calculative, a mind that can without irony outsmart the designs of others, and can represent the hallucinating mind, possibly oracular, sometimes aligned to the shaman as a supernatural helper. Fox is aligned also with the traveler moving from space to space, as is the case with Huatyacuri in Huarochirí. Fox barks the mating season in springtime, when boundaries are breached for fertilizing purposes. Fox is associated with moisture and mating calls and mysterious, “taboo” night messages, possibly particularly messages among women.11 Fox is also sacrificial victim. Privy to a field of knowledge greater than that of human beings, as the Huarochirí fox dialogues show, and creature of the gods, particularly of the moon—they are sacred lunar drummers,12 forerunners of spring rites, of mating and of fertility—yet fox knowledge does not spare the fox that fertilizes the death agony. Fox dies “ineffably”: “like a movement that folds it back upon itself.” Fox suffers from hubris, dies, and lives.

Psychologically, the fox stands for the limit that must be transgressed, the excess that may hold the secret of surplus in liminality. An indistinct boundary between, say, the profane and sacred, the beast and the human, the fox represents the limits of consciousness, human and animal. The fox as artist shaman healer and the fox as animal both gaze fascinated at the alienating qualities of urban, technological consciousness, distanced from the rhythms of nature.

Like the fox, the fox artist represents culture and yet is acultural. Like fox, the artist is a creature of the boundary and critical of culture and is sometimes skinned or impaled; is sometimes deceived, sometimes deceiving; is sometimes made a purse of.

The preceding is to suppose that Arguedas was so wounded that The Foxes fails as a work of art. The contrary is closer to the truth. The suicide succeeds in expressing that Arguedas does not capitulate spiritually to the hard indifference of the foxes of the novel, who seem rather to have joined the assault mounted on the arts of folk representation by venal bureaucrats under whose control social violence mindlessly grows (Columbus 1995). Above all, the foxes are survivors, no longer in the agricultural sense of transfiguration into the domestic domain, but in the sense of assimilation into the business world, a business world that is indifferent to the plight of the unemployed.

Evidently having been urbanized themselves, the foxes spin like tops rather than dancing with leaps and with light. It is as if their powers have devolved in the era of technology to the point that they cannot accompany the wounded and dissimilar artist (Moncada as the case in point, the mad preacher whose last sermon in the burned field, covered with the skeletons of rats, was to have been a scene in the novel, according to “The Last Diary?”). The Fox from Above dances like a top in “The Last Diary?” rather than dancing like a hyperreal animal transfiguring the tears of victimized people. Running from high to low and back again, the foxes muse rather than feel and are mysteriously integral with the abysmal complexities of the contemporary industrial city under mafia control. They remain so separated from it that the light they dance to is blue rather than polychrome, like the light on the dance the Fox from Below performs earlier in the fishmeal factory. If “song-related activities are spiritually heated in nature,”13 and if, as is the case with the Peruvian scissors dancers, rhythm also is an integral attunement to the nature within us and in the outside world, then the twisted metal damages more than our sexuality; it destroys the connection between art and nature, human and other.

Derrida worries the anomalous status of event: “But let me use the term ‘event,’ anyway, employing it with caution and as if in quotation marks. In this sense, this event will have the exterior form of a rupture and a redoubling” (247). An event may break the thread of obsessional time. Arguedas hoped his death would be a rupturing and doubling event, rather like the fall of the fox that, although it killed the fox, caused the land to bloom. Until we see the old texts embedded in the new, however wrenched, until we hear many voices and languages, lip-service will be paid the “other,” but few will give the time for more than lip-service. We colonize by self-interested acquisitiveness, by sexual contamination, by haste, by our declarative modes, by our confidence in our convictions, by inattention. And if we protest the Arguedean solution is impossible (we haven't the time to listen to minor voices, those fragments of the impolitic body), we remain colonizers, crucifiers.

El Zorro de arriba seeks another solution, a way out through discourses that, despite their multiplicity, suggest no hierarchization, no God's-eye view. The listening poetics of this bricoleur artist assembles differing voices. Possibly the ethnopoesis of such an assemblage may serve as a substitute for acquiring a minor language. Since, however, under ordinary circumstances, the minor language (even if acquired) cannot be “spoken,” the patience needed to hear an assemblage may suffice to surmount wounding.


  1. The page numbers cited come from the critical edition El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo, coordinated by Eve-Marie Fell. Although I reference the scholarly translation of Frank Salomon and George L. Urioste entitled The Huarochirí Manuscript, in this essay, the translations are mine, except for the great debt I owe Gerald Taylor's Spanish version with the Quechua on the facing pages. See his Ritos y tradiciones de Huarochirí del siglo xvii. The fox myths appear in chapters V and XI. Frances Barraclough's translation into English is to be published by UNESCO (University of Pittsburgh Press).

  2. So he told Alejandro Ortiz Rescaniere, the son of his friend and his student (personal conversation).

  3. The most complete treatment of the setting of The Foxes remains Martin Lienhard's 1981 Cultura popular andina y forma novelesca: zorros y danzantes en la última novela de Arguedas.

  4. Thérèse Bouysse-Cassagne/Olivia Harris in Tres reflexiones sobre el pensamiento andino:

    Este tiempo ‘entre dos luces’—tutayan pacha o cchamaca pacha—no sólo se refiere a la ya mencionada región de los cerros. El contenido léxico y la carga metafórica de estas palabras evocan otras regiones. Según Bertonio cchamaca significa también ‘lago sin suelo’ y tuta ‘mar profunda.’


  5. Travels over terrain such as Huatyacuri's suggest that ritual pilgrimages over space mark historical and geographical events. Michael Sallnow describes Andean pilgrimage as “a passage from an exclusive cultic domain, bounded and hierarchical, to an inclusive one, unbounded and fluid. The passage is heavily ritualized, being undertaken by rural pilgrims in separate contingents, each self-consciously reconstructing and heightening the closure and homogeneity of its home community. It is a periodic turning outward, an eversion, by which many separate microcosms reorient themselves in a fleeting, macrocosmic setting” (Sallnow 3).

  6. Information from Alejandro Ortiz Rescaniere in conversation, Lima, April 1996.

  7. Rosaleen Howard-Malverde records Quechua speakers' careful demarcation between story time and legend time (1989). What is and what is not historical in the original Huarochirí is under debate, but Arguedas seems to have associated the descent of Tutaykire with a descent into colonial history. Howard-Malverde associates vertical space with mythic time and horizontal space with historical time in tracing “[n]arrative structure in the text: the paths of the ancestors” and she finds that the “narrative's episodic structure emerges directly from its nature as a tracing of routes over a landscape. … The configurations of the landscape can thus be seen to be in iconic relation to the narrative structure: the one is a direct reflection of the other” (Howard-Malverde 60).

  8. “[F]rente a las inmensas montañas y abismos de los Andes donde los árboles y flores lastiman con una belleza en que la soledad y silencio del mundo se concentran” (Arguedas 1966, 16).

  9. See the first footnote in Ritos y tradiciones de Huarochirí; the name is left blank in the Tratado of Francisco de Avila, the extirpator of idolatries who assembled the myths. Cristóbal de Albornoz identifies “Tantanamoc” as a dead vixen; see Taylor (87, fn. 11). It is as if the word within the word that connects to the psyche of the people is deeply shielded from alien eyes.

  10. Nicario Jiménez, retablista, June 25, 1990, NEH Early Andean Texts seminar at Brown University.

  11. In “Introducción a la cultura Paracas,” Arturo Jiménez Borja writes,

    Los zorros se aparean en setiembre. Durante este tiempo se suele oír en el campo grana gritería de zorros. El P. Lira dice: ‘Si el zorro grita hasta culminar su grito, buena cosecha de papas y si falla, mala’. Aun cuando estamos tocando sólo la piel de la imagen, este pasaje es penetrante. Alude a la alimentación y la natural ansiedad por ella.

    Garcilaso de la Vega relaciona la zorra y la luna. ‘Dicen, que una zorra se enamoró de la luna viéndola tan hermosa y que por hurtarla subió al cielo y cuando quizo echar mano de ella, la luna se abrazó con la zorra y la pegó a sí, y de esto se le hicieron las manchas’. (Comentarios Reales, Libro II, Cap. XXIII). Es evidente que aquí la imagen vuela más alto. La luna tiene que ver con las mareas y pescadores, con las reglas de las mujeres, el rocio y humedad nocturna. En suma, el zorro se relaciona con algo que tiene mensaje.

    En el mes de diciembre se observa en la Vía Láctea una mancha obscura que los campesinos consideran configura la imagen de un zorro. Por ese mismo nos determina la gestación en las zorras y más o menos en el 30 de diciembre nacen los zorritos. Esto sucede en el solsticio, con lo cual la imagen cobra su definida dimensión.

    (Jiménez Borja 18)

  12. Rebeca Carrión writes,

    Concepciones similares están registradas en numerosas piezas de cerámica tipo tambor. Es constante la figuración del par de felinos, que a veces tiene el aspecto de perros o zorros, lo que establece una asociación entre el instrumento musical y dichos animales.

    En las leyendas figuras dos zorros, macho y hembra que periódicamente ascendian la cordillera y se presentaban ante el Dios de los nevado Paracaca, portando dos objetos sagrados; un cántaro de agua y un tambor, con el cual danzaban.

    (Carrión 37)

  13. A phrase of Mark B. King from “Hearing the Echoes of Verbal Art in Mixtec Writing” (King 107).

Works Cited

Arguedas, José María. 1966. Dioses y hombres de huarochirí. Lima, Peru: siglo xxi editores, s.a.

———. 1990. El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo. Edición Crítica. Eve-Marie Fell, ed. Madrid: CEP de la Biblioteca Nacional. Collección Archivos 14.

Bouysse-Cassagne, Thérèse and Olivia Harris. 1987. Tres reflexiones sobre el pensamiento andino. La Paz, Bolivia: HISBOL.

Carrión Cachot de Girard, Rebeca. 1959. La religión en el antiguo Peru (Norte y centro de la costa, periodo post-clásico). Lima:

Certeau, Michel de. 1992. The Mystic Fable. Vol. I: The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Trans. Michael B. Smith. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Columbus, Claudette Kemper. 1990. “Immortal Eggs: A Peruvian Geocracy; Pariaqaqa of Huarochirí.Journal of Latin American Lore 16.2:175-98.

———. 1995. “Grounds for De-Colonization: Arguedas's Foxes.Death, Sex, Madness: Genealogy and Literature. Ed. Lee Quinby. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 116-33.

———. 1998. “Tricksters in the Fishmeal Factory: Fragmentation in Arguedas's Last Novel.” José María Arguedas: A Comparative Reconsideration. Eds. Ciro A. Sandoval and Sandra M. Boschetto-Sandoval. Columbus: Ohio University Press. 167-86.

Derrida, Jacques. 1972. “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man. Eds. Richard A. Macksey and Eugenio Donato. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Donald, Merlin. 1991. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gose, Peter. 1991. “House Rethatching in an Andean Annual Cycle: Practice, Meaning, and Contradiction.” American Ethnologist: The Journal of the American Ethnological Society. 18.1 (February): 39-66.

Howard-Malverde, Rosaleen. 1989. “Storytelling Strategies in Quechua Narrative Performance.” Journal of Latin American Lore 15.1: 3-71.

Isbell, Billie Jean. 1985. “The Metaphoric Process.” Animal Myths and Metaphors in South America. Ed. Gary Urton. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press. 285-313.

Jiménez Borja, Arturo. 1983. “Introducción a la cultura Paracas.” Arte y Tesoros del Peru. Eds. José Antonio de Lavalle and Werner Lang. Lima, Peru: Banco de Credito del Peru en la Cultura. 11-31.

King, Mark B. 1994. “Hearing the Echoes of Verbal Art in Mixtec Writing.” Writing without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes. Ed. Elizabeth Hill Boone. Durham: Duke University Press. 102-36.

Lienhard, Martin. 1981. Cultura popular andina y forma novelesca: zorros y danzantes en la última novela de Arguedas. Lima, Peru: Tarea, Latino-americana editores.

Lotman, Yuri M. 1990. Universe of the Mind: A Semiotic Theory of Culture. Trans. Ann Shukman. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Millones, Luis and Mary Louise Pratt. 1990. Amor Brujo: Images and Culture of Love in the Andes. Syracuse: Syracuse University. Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Foreign and Comparative Studies: Latin American Series 10.

Platt, Tristan. 1986. “Mirrors and Maize: The Concept of Yanantin among the Macha of Bolivia.” Anthropological History of Andean Polities. Ed. J. V. Murra. New York: Cambridge University Press. 228-59.

Pratt. See Millones.

Sallnow, Michael. 1987. Pilgrims of the Andes: Regional Cults in Cusco. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press. Smithsonian Series in Ethnographic Inquiry.

Salomon, Frank, ed., and George L. Urioste, trans. 1991. The Huarochirí Manuscript: A Testament of Ancient and Colonial Andean Religion. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. Annotations and introductory essay by Frank Salomon. Transcription of the Quechua by George L. Urioste.

Serres, Michel. 1982. The Parasite. Trans. Lawrence R. Schehr. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Sullivan, William. 1996. The Secret of the Incas: Myth, Astronomy, and the War against Time. New York: Crown Publishers.

Taylor, Gerald, trans. 1987. Ritos y tradiciones de Huarochirí. Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos.

Alberto Moreiras (essay date winter 1997)

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SOURCE: Moreiras, Alberto. “The End of Magical Realism: José María Arguedas's Passionate Signifier (El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo).” Journal of Narrative Technique 27, no. 1 (winter 1997): 84-112.

[In the following essay, Moreiras declares that the death of the author in El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo symbolizes the death of Magical Realism, and with it “Latin American foundational utopianism comes to its end.”]

What would happiness be that is not measured by an immeasurable grief at what is?

(Adorno 200)


There is an old Latin Americanist ideology which insistently affirms that the continent is a yet-to-be-realized historical project. Irlemar Chiampi has noted that this ideology is solidary with (she calls it “a residue of”) a certain “foundational Utopianism” which the early Spanish and Portuguese conquerors and other European settlers brought with them (133). Magical realism is very significantly a part of that ideology. It developed in the first half of the twentieth century through the cultural fights within the Latin American intellectual public sphere—more specifically, within Angel Rama's “ciudad letrada”—between the centripetal forces of regionalism/nationalism and the centrifugal forces of the artistic avant-garde.1 What James Clifford has called “ethnographic surrealism,” a project largely associated with a certain French avant-garde which came programmatically together in the College de Sociologie (Michel Leiris, Georges Bataille, Roger Caillois, and Pierre Klossowski were some of the people involved), joins a Latin American cultural-political will to difference to produce in the first works of Aimé Cesaire, Miguel Angel Asturias, and Alejo Carpentier the inception of the Latin American semiotic practice known as magical or marvelous realism.2

Perhaps ethnographic surrealism and political will to cultural difference are not sufficient to define such transculturating apparatus. Magical realism is a complicated phenomenon. At its base, in the social body that originates magical-real objects, a disparity between two or more modes of economic production is always present. As Michael Taussig puts it, referring to a felicitous expression by Ernst Bloch, “the nonsynchronous contradiction comes to life where qualitative changes in a society's mode of production animate images of the past in the hope of a better future” (Shamanism 166).3 Chiampi argues that magical realism is a writing of non-disjunction, in the sense that in magical realism the nonsynchronous contradiction wants to be mediated, and therefore it wants to disappear as contradiction (134). As writing of non-disjunction, following upon the Cuban José Lezama Lima's vision of Latin America as “incorporative protoplasm,” magical realism endorses the ideologeme that names Latin America as a site of transculturation, “mestizaje,” miscegenation, not just a melting pot of races and cultures, but also a region of radical assimilation where difference does not operate according to conventional, Aristotelian logic: from a cultural point of view, in effect, the principle of the contradiction of opposites (be they opposite rationalities), or its corollary the tertio excluso, are not operative for Latin American mestizaje. Magical realism allows, as it were, for the simultaneous textualization of both A and non-A without scandal. The conciliation of the disjointed, according to Chiampi, is the textual effect in which magical realism comes to constitute itself as such. I will take a different position, perhaps opposite, to claim that magical realism is radically or primarily a writing of disjunction—regardless of what it itself purports to be.

Magical realism is a technical device within a larger and more encompassing apparatus of transculturating representation. There are two main uses of the word “transculturation,” and the frequent confusion between them is not without its implications. “Transculturation,” in a loosely anthropological sense, is a descriptive word for any kind of culture mixing (some acquisition, some loss, and some creation are always ingredients in it). And then “transculturation” also refers to a different use as a critical concept: that is, to an active, self-conscious use of it as a tool for aesthetic or critical production (or the analysis thereof). In the sense developed by Rama from Fernando Ortiz's first (anthropological) use of the term, literary transculturation is a

revitalized examination of local traditions, which had become sclerotic, in order to find formulations that would allow for the absorption of external influences. External influences would thus be diluted into larger artistic structures that can still translate the problematics and the peculiar flavors they had continued to preserve.

(“Procesos” 207)4

Transculturation is thus a form of “cultural plasticity,” an active receptivity, as it were, that regulates “the incorporation of new elements … through the total rearticulation of the regional cultural structure” (208). In Rama's use, therefore, literary transculturation is a form for the promotion of cultural survival undertaken as a reactive response to modernization. As he puts it, it comes to strengthen and co-constitute the contemporary “Latin American literary system, understood as a field of integration and mediation, and with enough leeway for self-regulation” (217).

As a foundational notion for contemporary Latin Americanist criticism, transculturation is and is not a return to Latin American cultural origins. It is not a return because, as Silvia Spitta argues in her recent book, post-Ortiz transculturators—the kind of people about whom Rama wrote his own book on transculturation—“open the door to a radical rewriting of the tradition” (10). But it is a return because, once that rewriting is done, it would finally be established that transculturation is indeed at the traumatic source of everything which is literary and not-so-literary in Latin America: in other words, its technical, critical or literary use would revert to its anthropological use.

If the critical insistence on transculturation is meant to counter the colonialist “whitening” of Latin American culture against which Ortiz warned, the task at hand for transculturation analysts is to further Ortiz's enterprise by “reinterpreting” and “reconstructing” the tradition so that the transculturated Latin American subject can survive within a full, and fully-known, representational genealogy. The political epistemics of transculturation thus go beyond the description or the incorporation of a given state of affairs into a willed critical interference with its very conditions of possibility: in other words, literary transculturation (and, for that matter, transculturation in the extended anthropological sense) is not simply a response to modernization, understood as an “external influence,” but it is necessarily also a critical relationship to it.

Such critical relationship, however, has some limitations, which Rama may not have fully seen. Transculturation analysts must realize, following the very logic of their practice, that transculturation is in itself always already transculturated, that is, that transculturation, in their sense, does not name a “natural” or primary fact, but that it is itself an engaged representation.5 As a hermeneutic concept, transculturation is as historically produced as the phenomena it would seek to interpret. To that extent there is no such thing as a stable “reinterpretation” or “reconstruction” or a proper genealogy of the transculturated subject. The possibility that a full Latin American subject in its complex historicity can emerge or be constituted, even at the level of literary representation, through more or less exhaustive analysis is simply not given—and it wouldn't be given even if we replace, as indeed we should, the notion of a Latin American historical subject by a sufficient plurality of them: subjects. There is no transparency in transculturation, which means that literary transculturation is always beyond control, always outside its function as a technical device for the integration of external influences into an enterprise of cultural preservation and renewal. This is however the sense in which Rama for the most part theorizes it.

Transculturation, as a genealogical critical apparatus for a certain cultural and historical expression, will have extreme difficulty protecting itself from the history it attempts to critique or vanquish for the sake of the history it attempts to preserve in mediated form, because those histories are simultaneously part of its own constitution: transculturation cannot step outside of itself so as to establish clear-cut “objective” or disengaged distinctions. As a radical concept, insofar as it is oriented towards a possible restitution, preservation or renewal of cultural origins (even if just, I insist, at the literary-representational level), and not towards a mere phenomenology of culture, transculturation runs into the theoretical wall that marks its conditions of possibility as heterogeneous with respect to itself: the critical concept of transculturation, paradoxically enough, does not seem to originate in the anthropological concept, but rather in a different, non-transculturated realm of (unexamined) truth. There is no critical transculturation without an end or a limit of transculturation, through which the critical concept of transculturation appears as something other than or beyond what it is purported to be—and it is precisely that “end” or excess in the self-conscious use of transculturation that interests me in this essay.6

In his foreword to Néstor García Canclini's Hybrid Cultures, Renato Rosaldo remarks about the critical concept of cultural hybridity that there is always a conceptual polarity involved in it:

hybridity can imply a space betwixt and between two zones of purity in a manner that follows biological usage that distinguishes two discrete species and the hybrid pseudospecies that results from their combination. … [H]ybridity can [also] be understood as the ongoing condition of all human cultures, which contain no zones of purity because they undergo continuous processes of transculturation.


The concept of transculturation is naturally caught up in the same unresolved and ultimately unresolvable polarity. The militant or critical version of literary transculturation must posit both a (utopian) zero-degree and a full-degree of transculturation, a point of origin and a goal, which are always unreachable, but without which it would find itself deprived of a teleological reason for its own practice. The phenomenological usage of transculturation, on the other hand, can survive safely within the second polarity, which ultimately makes it redundant or merely tautological, in the sense that if everything is transculturation then the concept itself has no particular critical validity. The conditions of possibility of critical transculturation, to the very extent that they refer back to the anthropological notion as their natural ground, are therefore aporetic, as the critical concept is only made possible by the invocation of a reason for transculturation, which is itself beyond the reach of transculturation. The way out of the aporetic conflict is of course always pragmatic: the end, or the limit, of every transculturating practice or analysis determines in every case its specific relevance as a hermeneutic tool.

In Spitta's definition, “[t]he transculturated subject is someone who, like [José María] Arguedas, is consciously or unconsciously situated between at least two worlds, two cultures, two languages, and two definitions of subjectivity, and who constantly mediates between them all” (24). Transculturation would then organize that “ambivalent and indeterminate space” (24) where the transculturating artist or critic would be free to give herself over to the task of, in Rama's words, “recomposing from [previous cultural] material a superior discourse that could match or confront the most hierarchic products of a universal literature” (“Procesos” 228).

Perhaps our historical times, different from Rama's, no longer advise or enable us to be so relentlessly enthusiastic in the evaluation of the cultural power of the world's semi-periphery. I want to overturn that celebratory telos of transculturation through a rather simple question: what if that indeterminate space of in-between-ness should prove to be, not the purveyor of a new historical coherence, but rather a mestizo space of incoherence, in the definition of Claudio Lomnitz-Adler? “Mestizaje is the process wherein communities are extracted from their cultures of origin without being assimilated into the dominant culture. This is a process that entails fracturing the coherence of a subordinate … culture. It also entails undermining the conditions for the creation of a new, independent, coherent culture” (39).

Hasn't transculturation theory assumed for too long that meaning is always already available, always already to be either found or produced? What if transculturation were shown to be, not a path to meaning, but rather a path into the implosion of meaning? In other words, what if a given transculturating practice turned toward the site of its aporetic impossibility, and not toward its possibility? It is merely a matter of emphasis, perhaps, but with rather portentous implications. Rama preferred to dwell on an optimistic or celebratory possibility, understanding the end of transculturation as the “ample overcoming of modernization” from a Latin American or regional perspective (“Procesos” 215), and perhaps that is what he had to do. It may now be high time to examine its opposite or sinister side. The thesis I want to propose is that critical transculturation, once it goes to the end of itself and explores, as it is wont to do through its own logic, its own excess with respect of itself, can no longer go on, and suffers collapse. José María Arguedas has given us perhaps the paradigmatic example in the Latin American tradition of this final “transculturation” of transculturation—its overturning.

The rest of this essay studies Arguedas's dramatic staging of the implosion of meaning in transculturation in his last, posthumously published novel, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (1971). Roland Forgues has succinctly expressed the major theoretical conflict with which Arguedas was forced to deal in the writing of El zorro:

Upon observing the deep mutation suffered by Chimbote's society, a mutation which radically questioned the ideas he had previously formed about mestizaje and the social and cultural integration of the Indians and other marginalized sectors, the writer had to confront the destabilization of what had until then constituted the very foundations of his work.

(“Por qué” 314)

My purpose is to begin to draw some of the theoretical and political conclusions for Latin American literary and cultural historiography that the novel not so secretly offers in the working out of that conflict, but which have nevertheless remained mostly unread.7


Jean Franco has argued that several Latin American novels written before El zorro but also dealing with “the motif of the dying community or the wake around the body” (206) must be understood as a textualization of the impossibility of construction of the modern Latin American state (205). The writings of Gabriel García Márquez, post-Zorro work such as Augusto Roa Bastos's Yo el Supremo, and two texts by Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá are also presented by Franco as a representation of the impossibility of a nationalist ideology. Franco's readings are for her a sufficient demonstration of the fact that contemporary Latin American literature is not necessarily national-allegorical. In Franco's opinion, however, the fact that those texts do not seem to fall for nationalist state representation should not automatically make them fit the alternative mold of so-called Latin American postmodernism. Resistant to both nationalist narrativization and to Latin American postmodernism, Franco prefers to speak of contemporary Latin American symbolic production as “an irrepressible process of appropriation and defiance” where we must detect “a Utopia glimpsed beyond the nightmare of an as yet unfinished modernity” (212).

Franco is engaging in a polemic with Fredric Jameson on the necessarily allegorical import of contemporary Third-World literature, and to that extent she chooses her examples carefully.8 But El zorro, which falls entirely within the purview of Jameson's model while at the same time, in a sense that will be explained later, turning it against itself, is not mentioned in Franco's essay. Would she also think of it as part of the “irrepressible process of appropriation and defiance” of modernity that she finds in her exemplary Latin American texts? There are solid grounds to do precisely that—grounds offered, for instance, by Martin Lienhard's and Antonio Cornejo Polar's splendid research on the Arguedas novel.9 However, if it were true, as I will contend, that El zorro is a narrative of the end of narrative, it would be reductive to call that writing of writing's collapse an “appropriation and defiance” of modernity. What else can it then be?

Arguedas's writing in El zorro, which is a writing between autobiography and fiction, between the personal and the social, is the expression of an event which does not easily yield to available critical-ideological determinations. If El zorro's fiction, that is, the attempt at realistic representation of the postsymbolic world of Chimbote, can perhaps still be understood as an appropriation and a defiance, that is, as the sort of successful transculturation Rama repeatedly described, the autobiography that simultaneously writes Arguedas's way towards suicide is also a radical disappropriation and also a radical defeat, whatever else it may be. Of the two opposing tendencies, appropriation and disappropriation, which one leads and what remains? Which one constitutes the ultimate horizon, or the end, of the novel?

Following Franco Moretti's argumentation in Modern Epic: The World System from Goethe to García Márquez,El zorro, like García Márquez's Cien años de soledad, as a “novel of uneven and combined development” (243), is one specific response to the situation that arises when

the pressure of the world-system forces your country into a more complete … integration. A thousand and one possibilities then really do become a thousand and one dead ends; the multiplicity of possible developments, a set route. It is the hour of black magic: an “incredible” that is no longer bound to a whirlpool of bizarre combinations, but to the enormity of the crimes committed.


Moretti's reading of Cien años de soledad has it that García Márquez's novel arises in a complicity between “magic and empire,” whereby modern literature's “rhetoric of innocence” takes its strategy of denial and disavowal one step further, into the heart of the victim. If “the rhetoric of innocence” had been Goethe's discovery in Faust, the means by which the West, while being “most lucid in recognizing the necessity of violence for [its own] civilized life,” simultaneously establishes “the necessity of its disavowal [i.e., disavowal of violence] for the West's civilized consciousness” (26), then García Márquez's brand of magical realism subserviently incorporates such a rhetoric into the literary resources of the world-system's semi-periphery. In Cien años de soledad “forced modernization [becomes] a story of extraordinary delight” (249). A certain appropriation occurs, a certain transculturation has taken place. But both appropriation and transculturation are purchased at the price of service to historical hegemony: not so much an overcoming of modernization as a submission to it. In Moretti's words:

A really strange place, Macondo. A city of madmen, where nobody has anything in common with anybody else. But where language is the same for everybody. While you are reading you pay no attention to it—it is all so lovely. But if you reopen the novel with a little detachment, you find that the narrator's impersonal voice covers more or less ninety-five per cent of the textual space … a real triumph of monologism.


Moretti's unsettling point is simply that magical realism has historically functioned as an apparatus for the capture of non-synchronicity, of heterogeneous contemporaneity, through the incorporation of the periphery's “reserves of magic” into a global enterprise of world “re-enchantment” (249) which serves as an ideological justification of the world-system. Its primary technical innovation would be the conflation of the rhetoric of innocence (which uses the periphery's “magic” for an enterprise of disavowal) and the ideology of progress and modernization:

For in magical realism the heterogeneity of historical time is also, for the first time, narratively interesting: it produces plot, suspense. It is not just the sign of a complex, stratified history: it is also the symptom of a history in progress.


There is therefore a surface agreement between Rama and Franco, on the one hand, and Moretti, on the other, which is only the obverse of a deeper disagreement: if for Franco and Rama the Latin American text is a symptom of “an as yet unfinished modernity,” Moretti sees the path to modernization as a relentless dissolution of heterogeneity “according to an ascending genealogy—which will then end by legitimizing the dominion of the ‘advanced’ West over the ‘backward’ periphery” (51). Everything may then have to do with our own critical position concerning modernization.

But is it possible to turn magical realism against itself, or to use it otherwise? What if a Latin American text, such as El zorro, had given us the means for understanding a diametrically opposite possibility within magical realism whereby the magical-real apparatus could reveal itself to be not simply a machine of appropriation but its opposite? The critical game would then be to expand our notion of magical realism and make it open itself to a deeper articulation. If the conditions of possibility of magical realism, or of literary transculturation in Rama's sense, are determined by “appropriation and defiance,” in Franco's expression, out of a certain temporal heterogeneity or non-contemporaneity of the material, perhaps what we could call the “defiance of disappropriation” within magical realism would reveal an altogether different ground for its theoretical definition. In Arguedas's text, as we will see, the double sound of gunpowder and lead, the fatal scar showing up at the end of its writing as sign and signature of the identity between the writer and the text, tragically bring to effect and completion the theoretical moment of the magical real as textual event. But the event is here non-conjunctive: it is rather a fissure in sense, designated by Arguedas with the Quechua word huayco, which is an abyss, a precipice. With it, we begin to see “appropriation” as an inadequate concept to understand what is truly decisive about magical realism as the dominant manifestation of literary transculturation in contemporary Latin American times.

Los zorros, as it is said that Arguedas always referred to what is now known as El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo, published in 1971 and long considered a failed, insufficient novel, certainly not one of Arguedas's best, certainly not a part of the so-called Boom of the Latin American novel, is an epochal text for Latin American culture in which the possibility of a new commemoration, that is, a new reading of both the past and the future traditions of Latin American writing, is given.10 What I propose is to read, from Arguedas's epochal text, and in it, an event of heterogeneity which might alter our understanding of magical realism as a central ideologeme for Latin American cultural self-understanding. I will contend that Los zorros, written between 1966 and 1969, closes Latin American magic realism, or, better said, reveals that its conditions of possibility are also at the same time its conditions of impossibility. Magical realism after Arguedas, there where it is not a neocolonialist commercial mystification, can only begin to repeat Arguedas's gesture, but cannot, structurally speaking, take it any further than Arguedas did, precisely because what Arguedas ultimately did is to undo magical realism, and its system of representation. If the very tendency of magical realism is to seek its own undoing (by familiarizing the unfamiliar), the destruction of the possibility of magical realism will be shown to be the moment of its maximum effectiveness. Could the same be said about transculturation?


Cornejo Polar's theory of literary heterogeneity in Latin America, in which I read disjunction as the inescapable dimension of cultural encounter within the Latin American literary artifact, has been largely disattended.11 The Latin American critical establishment, in the wake of the Boom years and still totally possessed by the mirage of cultural presence in the global market, preferred to follow a simplified version of Rama's ideas on transculturation, which form more or less the hegemonic if often unstated paradigm for critical reflection on Latin American literature. Transculturation—that is, the macroprocess of translation by means of which elements of one culture are naturalized in another culture, not without undergoing some changes during the process—of course insists on conciliation, conjunction, and dialectical unification of the global cultural field. It is a productive model, but it is also a model which must work and even feed upon the systematic erasure of that which does not fit into it. And this Rama knew well.

In Rama's historical analysis, the group of narrators he calls “transculturators” (fundamentally, Juan Rulfo, Joäo Guimaraes Rosa, José María Arguedas, and Gabriel García Márquez) constitute a particular form of response to the crisis of accelerated modernization and integration into the world-system that Moretti also referred to. In this specific historical sense, transculturation retains, from regionalist writing, the need for “the conservation of those elements from the past which had contributed to cultural singularization” and tries to “transmit them to the future as a way of preserving acquired formations” (“Procesos” 205). But this kind of conditioned preservation comes at a price.

Transculturation is a war machine, feeding on cultural difference, whose principal function is the reduction of the possibility of radical cultural heterogeneity. Transculturation is a part of the ideology of cultural productionism, indeed a systemic part of a Western metaphysics of production, which still retains a strong colonizing grip on the cultural field. Arguedas's destruction of magical realism is a gesture against transculturation: by returning heterogeneity to where it belongs, Arguedas unmasks the reconciling tactics of transculturation as cure or “appropriation and defiance.” In a brief but important speech delivered in October 1968, at the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega Award ceremony, Arguedas said: “I am not acculturated, I am a Peruvian who proudly, like a happy demon, speaks Christian and Indian, Spanish and Quechua.”12 For Arguedas, transculturation could not be more than a remedial step taken after acculturation has sadly happened. And he has strong words for acculturation: “an overcome nation giving up her soul … and taking up the soul of the victors” (257). Arguedas's demon is the uncanny will to speak the two languages, to live in two cultures, to feel with two souls: a doubled demon, a demon of doubling, perhaps happy but also mischievous, as we shall see. In his affirmation of doubledness, Arguedas makes manifest his forceful rejection of the ideology of cultural conciliation, indeed stating his final conviction that, at the cultural level, there can be no conciliation without forced subordination.

Los zorros is apparently only the presentation of life in a new industrial center of the Peruvian Pacific Coast. In Chimbote a huge industrial conglomerate developed during the 1960s, whose main purpose was to process the fishing wealth of the South American Pacific into fishmeal for agricultural and other purposes. Before this happened, Chimbote was only an isolated Peruvian beach. During the fishmeal boom years it grew, through massive immigration, into a city many tens of thousands of people strong: most of them more or less recently proletarianized peasants. The sociocultural conflicts that immediately originated fascinated and horrified Arguedas, who came to see Chimbote as the apotheosis of the Andean future. For Arguedas, at this point, a drastically urgent if perhaps already desperate task lay at hand: to reappropriate, to resymbolize, life in Chimbote into a possible utopia, the only hope for the future. The real-marvelous machine was then emblematically in place—or apparently so. But in that limit-situation transculturation could only happen as a failure of transculturation—through the failure itself.

Arguedas's presentation of the Chimbote universe is thoroughly demonized in two specific and thoroughly diverse ways: first, because of the forceful interpolation within the text of diary fragments where Arguedas repeatedly manifests his intention to kill himself unless the novel somehow saves him; second, in ways that we could consider properly within the magical-real conventional repertoire, because of the enigmatic and defamiliarizing presence within the text of the two foxes, the fox from down below and the fox from up above, obviously two huacas, as it is said in Quechua, two demons or minor deities who make a brief but significant appearance in the sixteenth-century Andean Huarochirí chronicle, from which Arguedas takes them. Descriptions of actual life-situations as Arguedas witnessed them in his research trips to Chimbote alternate in the novel with magical-real moments in which the conflict of cultures is violently thematized, and also with self-reflective moments in which characters talk with calm or despair about their predicament.

Arguedas's text, and even the very location of the text, Chimbote, the beach where Peru finally meets transnational capitalism, are presented as holes of the real, dark pools or dark wounds of the world, where a world catastrophe is happening.13 The text says that the wealthy capitalist Braschi and the other fishmeal entrepreneurs (who are not merely, the text says, mealmakers but also madmakers, because they produce madness) have taken things “hasta donde no hay sol ni luna” [“to where there is neither sun nor moon”] (116). They have, that is, impossibly taken things even beyond the realm of the black sun, there where, as Freud puts it, the shadow of the object has fallen upon the subject.14 In Chimbote, in Arguedas's textual hell, where even the notion of shadow has vanished, melancholy is an optimistic delusion, a welcome relief from the overwhelming, always pending, psychotic collapse. Los zorros is a text written in the fold of a deathwish whose most intimate sense may have been to ward off a psychotic collapse which would not have had merely personal implications. It is here where the two dimensions of the novel, the fictional-ethnographic and the autobiographical or autothanatographical, come together seamlessly.15 Arguedas's narcissistic psychosis finds its world-catastrophic symbol in Chimbote. That is why Chimbote, in Arguedas's representation, is a postsymbolic world, where conciliation has yielded to renunciation: a limit-world where Arguedas wants to fight the losing battle of resignification.

Arguedas's last word on the possibility of resignification, as we will see, does not come to us through magical-real demonization, but through its other side: through suicide as transculturation's end. It is suicide that reads the magical-real. The fact that it does not happen the other way around is of course crucial not just for the history of Latin American literature, but also for the theoretical understanding of the limits of transculturation. Arguedas's suicide must be read not as the end of the novel, but necessarily as the novel's own end.16

In a letter the definitive redaction of which takes place on the fifth of November of 1969, after Arguedas has already made a final decision concerning his death, he says:

I will not survive the book. Since I am sure that my abilities and weapons as a creator … have weakened to near-nullity and I only have left those who would reduce me to the condition of an impotent and passive spectator of the formidable struggle that Humanity is carrying on in Peru and everywhere, it would not be possible for me to tolerate such a fate.


This “formidable struggle,” which is not just a struggle of the Quechua people, not only a Peruvian struggle, but Humanity's own struggle, is the struggle for the new beginning in which Arguedas had attempted to believe, and which he had attempted to bring into existence, his whole life. Another epistolary text, which is, like the one just cited, also incorporated to the novel as such, is even clearer:

Perhaps with me a cycle is beginning to close and another one is opening up in Peru and what Peru represents: the cycle of the comforting lark is closing, of the whipping, the muleteering, the impotent hate, of the funereal uprisings, of the fear of God and the dominance of that God and his protegés, his makers; the cycle of light and of the invincible liberating force of the Vietnam man is opening up, of the fire lark, of the liberating God.


Arguedas's new beginning, in which the old Tawantinsuyo notion of the pachacutiy or cosmic cycle is quite active, his belief in the new beginning, which forces him to remove himself once he is no longer strong enough to share in the “bloody struggle of the centuries” (246), dominates the totality of the textual construction of Los zorros. At the beginning of the novel, when the foxes are conversing, they tell each other that this is only the second time they meet in 2500 years, an ominous event (49).

Arguedas's madness and suicide are a result of his lifelong struggle to opt out of a system of reason which constituted itself in and through the exclusion of Quechua peasants from the very possibility of sanity. If Lienhard is right when he says that “in contemporary Quechua poetry” there is an “almost obsessive presence” of Andean messianism, prophecy, and utopianism, if that messianism is always understood to be the announcement of a historical break, and if that break is consistently related to the pachacutiy (Lienhard, Voz 221), then a work written on the horizon of the break and leading, as Los zorros led, to vital exhaustion, cannot just be read as a personal symptom. Rather, Arguedas's personal is political, and his libidinal economy must indeed be read in the context of the difficult, perhaps impossible (re)formation of a national allegory whose necessity, in today's Peru, does not need to be emphasized.18

Arguedas, who was born in 1911 in a small village of the Peruvian Andes (Andahuaylas), suffered the death of his mother when he was three years old. His father, a travelling judge, was forced to leave his child for long periods of time in the company of Quechua servants. Quechua was therefore his first language, but with it he also necessarily learned his social difference from it, a painful split which would haunt him all the way through his professionalization (first as a teacher of Spanish, then as an ethnologist of Quechua culture, and finally as a writer of literature), and his socialist politics, possibly to his death. Roberto González Echevarría, among others, has not hesitated to point out that Arguedas “felt within himself the contradictions and the tragedy inherent in the relationship between anthropology and literature with an intensity that in 1969 led him to choose suicide” (15). For Arguedas, of course, the conflict between anthropology and literature was always something more and something less than a disciplinary conflict, since it was also the violently felt conflict between two parts of his soul, and the producer of a serious narcissistic wound which Arguedas ultimately came to love too passionately, more than life itself.

Can Arguedas's suicide be read as an act of “unwriting” such as the one González Echevarría claims is implied in every modification of the Latin American archive? If anthropology, or an anthropological desire, marked indeed in 1969, as González Echevarría has argued, the hegemonic literary paradigm in Latin America, is Los zorros just another instance of that dominance, or, on the contrary, does it announce the end of the anthropological paradigm and in so doing prefigure a reconfiguration of the Archive whose break with the previous one goes further than anything yet seen since 1492? Arguedas's unwriting of himself, his self-erasure, which is also, as we shall see, a portentous form of self-inscription, is not too far from matching, all too literally, González Echevarría's notion of archival gaps.19

Magical realism finds its final theoretical moment, or its abysmal moment, in November 28, 1969. That day José María Arguedas commits suicide in his own office at the Agrarian University of La Molina, in Lima. A previous, failed attempt, which had taken place in April 1966 (there had been an earlier one in 1944), is mentioned in the very first line of Los zorros: “I attempted to commit suicide … in April 1966” (7). Los zorros ends with the following words:

Nov. 28, 1969. I choose this day because it won't interfere so much with the functioning of the University. I think the registration period will be over. I might make my friends and the authorities waste Saturday and Sunday, but it (sic) belongs to them and not to the U. (J. M. A).


After writing those words, Arguedas put two bullets through his head, two final affirmations of his will to death. Perhaps unsettlingly, the end of the novel figures them or allegorizes them in those repetitions of the last sentence (a bullet for my friends and a bullet for the authorities, a bullet for Saturday, and a bullet for Sunday, a bullet for them, and a bullet for the University: Arguedas is addressing the voices that would still yell at him from the depths of his neurosis, but he is also perhaps attracting attention to the fact that two bullets were coming, had come, and not just one: two powerful diacritical marks symbolizing the final identity of the novel and the writer's dead body).

Does this book, which Arguedas's widow, Sybila Arredondo, would publish two years later, end with the prefiguration of those two shots, or does it end with the shots themselves?: they are not a final period through his brain but a colon, signing (off) an equivalency between the text that Arguedas left on his office desk and his doubly perforated corpse. El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo will always have to be read as fantasmatized by the writer's cadaver, given Arguedas's signature effect, given the fact that Arguedas signed the end of the book with two bullets. El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo is really a crypt where the dead body of the writer still lives, an undead writer, an undead author, as every reader who has read in utter perplexity how death silently and inexorably comes Arguedas's way knows very well. The death of the author is here truly inseparable from the novel's very status as an artwork, that is, it can't be read away from it.

Forgues has warned against the possible superficiality of thinking that the apparent inconclusiveness of the narrative “can be a [willed] mode of articulation of the text with History, and that [Arguedas's] suicide would amount to a kind of justification of the open-narrative technique taken to its last consequences” (313). I agree that it is not a matter of being reductive or of oversimplifying. At the same time, however, Los zorros comes to be absolutely cannibalized by that which constitutes it as a posthumous object: Arguedas's suicide, after all, cannot in any way be understood or even thought independently of the problems that the text exposes, for the very fact that suicide is thematized and presented by Arguedas himself as that which will happen unless the text saves him, while all the while saying that it probably won't.

We know, from a letter written the thirty-first of October of 1969 to his Department Chair at the University, that the writing of Los zorros is, as Arguedas puts it, “a part of the therapeutic treatment I was told to undergo” after his second attempt at suicide in April 1966 (295). The novel itself says it over and over again: “It is not disgraceful to fight death by writing. I think the doctors may be right” (19). And:

I have fought against death or I believe to have fought against death by writing this faltering, whining narrative. I had few and weak allies, hesitant; her allies have won. They are strong and they were well sheltered in my own flesh. This unequal narrative is an image of the unequal fight.


Writing his text was a fight against death which ended up being a yielding to, and an embrace of, death, as if death were indeed a restful presence.

Understanding how the author's death can also at the same time be here the figure of an utopian space of regeneration is of course an issue of extraordinary difficulty, but in which the very possibility of a writing of mourning comes to be decided. Edmundo Gómez Mango, in a brilliant and unfortunately brief paper, has acknowledged this with good critical economy:

Arguedas's novelistic language is never more inebriating and powerful than when he comes to the edge of the huayco of his own destruction; it is as if he could only find or invent the plenitude of his writing in the imminence of his own, final, and silent disaster.


For Gómez Mango Los zorros is a writing of the lost object, and it is all the more successful as such the more the writing is implied in its own catastrophe. “Mourning for the lost object has not been accomplished. The magical rite of writing in order not to die fails in its own victory” (368) (since, I would add, dying is postponed for as long as writing lasts, but no longer). Because the writing in Los zorros is a commemoration of an incalculable loss, it can only satisfy itself within a horizon of loss. In this sense Arguedas's death, within the textual context in which we learn of it, is essentially a writing event, an event of writing. But Arguedas's death is also an opting out of writing altogether. In suicide, Arguedas comes to the end of writing. By coming to the end of writing, Arguedas takes writing to its very end, there where it reveals itself as an instrument of signification, precisely because it loses the power to signify. I want to read this fact in the light of the magical-real machine that Arguedas is all the while trying to set into unfaltering motion in Chimbote.


Los zorros opens up a new cycle of Latin American writing because it closes the possibility of an anthropological writing in González Echevarría's sense, or even in the sense in which Lienhard, one of the leading Arguedas scholars, has theorized what he calls “ethnofiction.” It is not that after Los zorros ethnofiction or anthropological narrative are no longer possible, but that Los zorros offers itself as a decisive text in which the conditions of impossibility of anthropological fiction are shown as such—conditions of impossibility, that is, insofar as we make them depend on epistemological paralysis, not on ethical or even political grounds. Los zorros marks the theoretical end of anthropological ethnofiction because Los zorros takes anthropological ethnofiction to a breaking point. In that breaking point, magical realism, as the organizing principle of ethnofiction, is epistemologically shattered because it is revealed to be inexorably dependent upon the subordination of indigenous cultures to an always already Western-hegemonic machine of transculturation: to modernization itself.

Referring to Lienhard's extensive investigation on Quechua elements within the text, Cornejo risks the following statement: “In El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo the Andean components are of such a magnitude and they exert such decisive functions, that it is legitimate to think that in that novel, for the first time, indigenous rationality comes to account for modernity [da razón de la modernidad]” (“Ensayo” 303). That it may indeed be legitimate to think so gives you an idea of the very high, epochal stakes that Los zorros had set for itself. We do not need to accept the literal truth of Cornejo Polar's statement in order to accept that such an intentionality had partially orchestrated the writing of the book. The other side of the novel's therapeutic failure is then the gift of a cultural instrument in which, for the first time, as Lienhard and Cornejo underline, the oppressing rationality comes, at least tendentially, to be contained by a form of understanding that cannot be accounted for within its parameters.

What I would consider the epochal event that Los zorros embodies is the fact that such (tendential) upturning of perspectives is necessarily and irrevocably framed in the catastrophic aura of a suicide that absolutely suspends all feelings of victory or of liberation: and thus any possibility of “accomplishment,” unless we speak of an accomplishment of “negation” in the same way in which we could speak of a negative theology (which is by the way the object of a rather secret but extensive treatment in the book). Let me put it in a clearer way: if those two shots at the end of the book, the sinister colon, signal the symbolic equivalency between Los zorros and Arguedas's dead body, then it is undeniable that Arguedas is dead because he paid the price, or at any rate he thought he paid the price, writing imposed on him; and that such a price is literally the impossibility of paying the price. The upturning of the cultural perspective within the book, the substitution of what Forgues calls tragic for dialectical thinking, of Quechua for Spanish rationality—all of that drained him, and made him suspect that his own personal sacrifice, redundant at that point as it may have been for anybody but Arguedas himself, was essential for the novel to accomplish what it had to accomplish—negatively.

I do not think that Arguedas's epochal accomplishment against any and all transculturation, namely, a text where a non-hegemonic rationality could be thought to account, that is, to give the very principle of reason, for modernity itself, I do not think such an accomplishment, on which we will never have reflected enough, can be read over, beyond, or apart from Arguedas's textual, literal, suicide. At the moment where Arguedas's inner tension made it possible for him to bring the real-marvelous machine into its most proper position, at that moment the nonsynchronous contradiction reversed itself, and arrest ensued. The result was, of course, not that a punctual moment of noncontradiction resulted, but that an aporetic gap of meaning opened up, and disjunction offered incalculable loss, a final arrest of productivity.

But with it the Latin American transculturating machine came to its end, in the double sense of epochal culmination and of equally epochal exhaustion. It is in that sense, in the sense of the double sense, that the novel triumphs through its very failure. Cornejo possibly points in the same direction when he says: “Paradoxically, the highest interest and value in Arguedas's last novel is to be, tragically but enlighteningly, testimony … of unresolved contradictions, upon which … it configures itself as a work of art” (“Ensayo” 301). Except that I do not think the contradictions are unresolved: the most extreme moment of transculturation, the transculturation of transculturation, results, and resolves itself, in aporetic, unreconstructible loss. Through it Arguedas's suicide marks the beginning of an alternative system of writing: a “defiance of disappropriation,” a writing of dis-affect, an antimodern writing whereby his text comes to present itself as a passionate signifier of the end of signification. But the end of signification is not yet the last word.

Arguedas will remove himself, the last man of the old cycle, so that a new cycle may begin. That is why in a letter written the twenty-seventh of November, that is, the day before his suicide, and included as such within the novel, Arguedas mentions, almost casually, that his novel is “casi inconclusa” [“almost unfinished”] (252). It is “almost unfinished” because he had not yet killed himself, but he had already taken the irrevocable decision to do so. After Arguedas's suicide the novel will and will not be finished, simultaneously and undecidably: no other interpretation of “casi inconclusa” is, to my mind, possible, although I realize that this interpretation is based upon the very unreadability of Arguedas's phrase. Arguedas's suicide is, properly speaking, the end of the book. Arguedas's radical disincorporation is also the investiture of his book, through an unheard-of act of identification, with the phantasmatic aura of his own split, melancholic identity: thus testifying about the final impossibility of transculturation. With and through Arguedas's suicide, Los zorros's conditions of literary possibility open themselves onto their conditions of impossibility. We are far here from “an ample overcoming of modernization” in Rama's sense.

But what about magical realism? Beyond any and all magical-real episodes in the text, every intervention of the foxes, every piercing sound of the bug called Onquray Onquray, the ominous messenger, every yunsa and every yawar mayu, and every song of the mountain ducks which gives the foxes the ability to understand the soul of the world, Arguedas's death is the truest magical-real event of the novel, as it gives itself in testimony of a violent conflict of cultures that will not be mediated away. Arguedas's death is a fissure in the textual sense which paradoxically organizes the text's plenitude of sense: meaning, in this novel, results from meaning's absolute implosion.

As an event of writing placed between the novel's failure and failure's other side, a rift, a gap, a bullet hole of total disjunction opens itself: as soon as meaning emerges, it needs to be erased anew. Or better, meaning is here the necessity of its erasure. Guido Podestá has pointed out that Los zorros represents “the irresolution of an aporia” (101), implying that in what we could call the andinization of modernity there is nothing like emancipation. For Podestá, Los zorros witnesses “the emergency, understanding it as the unexpected appearance, of the postmodern condition in Peru” (101). This emergence/emergency, at the same time event and danger, is aporetically resolved in the text: doubt, the extreme perplexity between the andinization of modernity and therapeutic failure, will not remain stable. Every aporia induces a moment of loss, in which the fight for sense is negatively solved, solved in negativity: that is ultimately the “unequality” of Arguedas's struggle, and his legacy. Arguedas's renunciation of the “rhetoric of innocence” destabilizes to an extreme the conciliation of “magic” and “empire” which is the price of the incorporation of Latin American writing into the world-system.

The loss at the end of magical realism makes it difficult to read the magical-realist tradition as a tradition in which national allegory is the ultimate account. Arguedas shows that the magical-real moment is tendentially a moment in which the national allegory, on the other side of its utopian directives, opens onto its colonizing substratum. Magical realism comes with Arguedas to its theoretical impossibility because Arguedas shows how magical realism is an impossible scene of emancipatory representation staged from a colonizing perspective. Arguedas destroys the good faith of a deluded enterprise. And he offers no alternative, other than insight.

Arguedas's suicide occurs, for us, as a language event. It is an illegible one, in the sense that it opens a fissure between language and signification. Maybe all language events do just that: they produce themselves by showing illegibility, disparity between meaning and the materiality of the sign. Perhaps then an event is more of an event, the more illegible it is. As you open yourself to the event, the event becomes more and more difficult to inscribe in a process of signification. An event, a language event, is an excess whose sense is only given in its recess, its withdrawal. As Jean-Luc Nancy puts it, an event is that which exposes the excess of meaning over any accomplishment of signification.20 The language event offers a possibility for thinking in which thought fleetingly becomes a total resistance to sense. Thinking, an excess of sense, will depend then upon the possibility of loss of sense.

This loss of sense within narrative organizes the language event as an instance of denarrativization. Arguedas's suicide, the end of the narrative, is a moment of denarrativization. It has an epistemological import which affects the Latin American literary tradition at the archival level. Arguedas's suicide, the denarrativization of narrative within the narrative, is the most intense, and therefore the most illegible accomplishment of magical realism. Because it brings magical realism to its fulfillment, it breaks magical realism, it brings it to the end of its narrative.

With Arguedas's literary act, Latin American foundational utopianism comes to its end. Arguedas loses for us all traces of the possibility of a magical-real mediation of cultures, just as much as he loses the possibility of a final conciliation between land and the human, between cultures and what we have insisted on calling culture, against all evidence. He therefore also signals the end of the anthropological paradigm for literary practice: so that the cycle of the fire lark may, perhaps, begin.


  1. See Antonio Cornejo Polar, Formación 137-55, for an illuminating commentary on those cultural struggles in Peruvian history. See also Rama, Transculturación 11-116, where the conflict is studied as a conflict between “regionalism” and “modernization,” and “Procesos” 203-33.

  2. See Clifford 117-51. See also Denis Hollier, ed., College. Enrico Mario Santí has mentioned the influence of the College de Sociologie in Octavio Paz's El laberinto de la soledad (98-106), but much remains to be done in the wider context of Latin American contemporary literature.

  3. Taussig's book adds many other fascinating insights into Latin American magical realism. I have previously studied some of them (Moreiras, “Restitution” 6-8, 21-24). See also Taussig's Devil and Fredric Jameson, “Magic,” for work on magical realism which departs from Bloch's notion of non-contemporaneity (Bloch 97-116). The recent compilation of articles by Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris is very useful, although I find the editorial position highly controversial. See also Amaryll Chanady. And of course Chiampi.

  4. For Fernando Ortiz's development of the notion, see Contrapunteo 129-35. See also Gustavo Pérez Firmat's essay on Ortiz, Cuban 16-33.

  5. I am borrowing the notion of “engaged representation” from Stephen Greenblatt: “any given representation is … itself a social relation, linked to the group understandings, status, hierarchies, resistances, and conflicts that exist in other spheres of the culture in which it circulates” (6).

  6. Another way of putting it: although Rama, for instance, is quite aware of the difference between literary and anthropological transculturation, for him transculturation is still something “to be accomplished,” rather than something that simply happens. In that sense he thought of Arguedas's work as “a reduced model for transculturation, where one could show and prove the eventuality of its actualization, so that if it was possible in literature it was also possible in the rest of the culture” (“Arguedas” 15). All of this of course depends upon Rama's notion of transculturation as necessarily “successful” transculturation, that is, a transculturation where the dominated culture is able to register or inscribe itself into the dominant. That an inscription into the dominant culture as such may be considered to constitute a success (and the non-inscription therefore a failure), I would argue, implies a strong ideological positioning concerning transculturation as an everyday anthropological phenomenon (in fact, it ultimately implies the acceptance of modernization as ideological truth and world destiny). For Rama, therefore, and not only for Rama, transculturation is always excessive with respect to itself, and it always already incorporates a certain goal. It is obvious that such a goal may or may not be shared by other subjects of transculturation, who may have different goals or may be blind to their goals, or may not have a goal. But if they don't have a goal they are not transculturators in the critical sense, only in the anthropological sense.

  7. They have not remained unread by, among others, Forgues, William Rowe, Cornejo Polar, or Martin Lienhard, but have remained mostly unread in the sense that they have not been taken to bear upon the Latin American literary and cultural tradition, where they operate a deep destabilization. Although this is not the place for me to elaborate on it, I would tend to understand Arguedas's critical self-positioning vis-à-vis Latin American writing in El zorro's “Primer diario” (7-23) from that particular problem. Arguedas had to feel that his Boom contemporaries remained willfully blind to what was for him a literally blinding light. See Rama's comments in “Procesos” 225-26.

  8. For Jameson, in ways that will powerfully resonate for any reader of Arguedas's last novel, “Third-world texts, even those which are seemingly private and invested with a properly libidinal dynamic—necessarily project a political dimension in the form of national allegory: the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society” (“Third World Literature” 69). Personally, I haven't found a text where those words do not ultimately prove true: perhaps the controversy surrounding them, and certainly in the case of Franco, arises from a misunderstanding concerning the term “allegory.” In any case, for Arguedas's last novel, those words should constitute something like an epigraph.

  9. In particular, Lienhard, Cultura popular andina, and Cornejo Polar, Universos narrativos. But see also the shorter essays cited in the bibliography under their names.

  10. Sara Castro-Klarén may be quoted as an example of a critical state of affairs which has possibly started to change in recent years: “El sexto as well as El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo are minor narrative works … [where] a desire to denounce reality dominates. As a consequence, those works are weak in structure and in narrative development” (200). I am in agreement regarding El sexto.

  11. See Cornejo, Literatura, “Reflexiones” and Escribir. See also Mabel Moraña's study of the notion of heterogeneidad in Cornejo, and Moreiras, “Storm.”

  12. “Yo no soy un aculturado,” Zorro 257. Apparently Arguedas had wanted that text to appear as a foreword to the novel, but it has always been published at its end. See Zorro XXVIII.

  13. On Chimbote see César Caviedes, “Latin American Boom-Town.”

  14. See Julia Kristeva's analysis of depression and melancholia entitled Black Sun. Of course the black sun is a well-known symbol in Latin American literature: it can be found in Ernesto Sábato's Sobre héroes y tumbas as well as in Julio Cortázar's Rayuela, for instance. Arguedas improves upon that image by denying its expressive sufficiency.

  15. On the general topic of literary autobiography in Arguedas, see Ignacio Díaz Ruiz's interesting monograph. See also Vargas Llosa on literature and suicide in Arguedas.

  16. With his customary precision Cornejo Polar remarks: “the death of the narrator … leads to the interpretation of that atrocious fact as a silent sign which permeates … the discourse that precedes it and announces it” (“Ensayo” 304).

  17. Gustavo Gutiérrez remarks that, for Arguedas, to say that the second cycle is about to begin or has already begun does not mean that the first one is over: “His very life fell prey to the clash between the cycles” (Arguedas: Cultura e identidad nacional 37). For an extended interpretation of the two cycles' imagery as reference to an “anthropocentric turn [which] does not imply the disappearance of the mythical or the religious” (236), see Pedro Trigo, Arguedas: Mito, historia y religión, as well as Gutiérrez's commentary on it, “Entre las calandrias,” both passim. José Miguel Oviedo suggests that the notion of the beginning of the fire lark cycle might also have to do with the political events developing in Peru at the time of writing: the “military revolution” and its indigenist rhetoric. Arguedas would have had, according to Oviedo, tremendous difficulty dealing with the political implementation of changes affecting indigenous societies, which on the other hand he could not simply oppose. For Oviedo that was the “detonante” of Arguedas's suicide (145). See Sybila Arredondo's presentation of Arguedas's correspondence between 1966 and 1969 to understand further Arguedas's psychological and intellectual crisis.

  18. See, for instance, among other possible texts, José Matos Mar's Desborde, the classic Buscando un inca, by Alberto Flores Galindo, and the pertinent sections of Orin Starn, Carlos Iván DeGregori & Robin Kirk, eds., The Peru Reader. Of course Arguedas's suicide is also an expression of radical skepticism about the formation of a Peruvian state of justice. Arguedas's novel puts the national allegory on its head, or breaks it, while at the same time being entirely contained within it. In that sense I said earlier that Arguedas takes the Jamesonian model as far as it can go in order then to turn it against itself, the affirmation of a new “cycle” of historical time notwithstanding.

  19. The “unwriting” of Latin American history signals for González Echevarría the beginning of the writing of the “Archive,” a “mode beyond anthropology” (15). Archival writing is for him the “razing” of the “various mediations through which Latin America was narrated, the systems from which fiction borrowed the truth-bearing forms, erased to assume the new mediation that requires this level-ground of self and history” (17). But for González Echevarría “what is left for the novel after Los pasos perdidos and Cien años de soledad” is simply “fiction itself” (18). The “voiding of the anthropological mediation” (20) results in “a relentless memory that disassembles the fictions of myth, literature and even history” (23), but such memory is itself the literary system as a fictional system. Although González Echevarría's model is very powerful, it doesn't yet provide for the possibility of developing strong internal distinctions regarding archival writing. There is a sense in which Arguedas, by ultimately “voiding the anthropological mediation,” also at the same time destabilizes the archive as literary system. If Los zorros is indeed archival writing, it is only so to the extent that it is also anti-archival, for it shows the very pretense of archival constitution as always already insufficient, always already invested in a project of “overcoming modernization” through an intensification of modernism. There is an interesting hesitation in Myth and Archive: toward the end of the first chapter, after explaining the notion of the Archive as that which puts an end to the anthropological paradigm, González Echevarría doubts his own words by saying: “the current mode, perhaps beyond the anthropological mediation, the locus on which my own text is situated” (40; my emphasis). Perhaps the limits of the Archive are also the limits of transculturation, which Los zorros, much more so than Los pasos perdidos or Cien años de soledad, and even in essentially different and opposite ways, thematizes. Arguedas, with his last novel, announces the voiding of the Archive itself, or its loss: not archival gaps, but the archive as gap.

  20. See Oubli 70-71. But Nancy's entire book is concerned with the thinking of the relationships between meaning and signification in senses that have influenced the writing of my essay.

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Caviedes, César. “The Latin American Boom-Town in the Literary View of José María Arguedas.” In Geography and Literature: A Meeting of the Disciplines. Eds. William Mallory and Paul Simpson-Housley. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1987. 57-77.

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Clifford, James. “On Ethnographic Surrealism.” The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988. 117-51.

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———. Escribir en el aire. Ensayo sobre la heterogeneidad socio-cultural en las literaturas andinas. Lima: Horizonte, 1994.

———. La formación de la tradición literaria en el Perú. Lima: Centro de Estudios y Publicaciones, 1989.

———. “Nuevas reflexiones sobre la crítica latinoamericana.” De Cervantes a Orovilca. Homenaje a Jean Paul Borel. Madrid: Visor, 1990. 225-35.

———. Sobre literatura y crítica latinoamericanas. Caracas: Facultad de Humanidades y Educación, Universidad Central de Venezuela, 1982.

———. Los universos narrativos de José María Arguedas. Buenos Aires: Losada, 1973.

Díaz Ruiz, Ignacio. Literatura y biografía en José María Arguedas. Mexico: UNAM, 1991.

Flores Galindo, Alberto. Buscando un inca. Identidad y utopía en los Andes. Havana: Casa de las Américas, 1986.

Forgues, Roland. José María Arguedas, de la pensée dialectique à la pensée tragique. Histoire d'une utopie. Toulouse: Ed. France-Ibérie Recherche, 1986.

———. “Por qué bailan los zorros.” In Arguedas, Zorro, 307-15.

Franco, Jean. “The Nation as Imagined Community.” In The New Historicism. Ed. H. Aram Veeser. New York: Routledge, 1989. 204-12.

Gómez Mango, Edmundo. “Todas las lenguas. Vida y muerte de la escritura en Los zorros de Arguedas.” In Arguedas, Zorro, 360-68.

González Echevarría, Roberto. Myth and Archive: A Theory of Spanish American Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. “Entre las calandrias.” In Pedro Trigo, Arguedas: Mito, historia y religión. Lima: Centro de Estudios y Publicaciones, 1982. 240-77.

———, Alejandro Romualdo and Alberto Escobar. Arguedas: Cultura e Identidad Nacional. Lima: EDAPROSPO, 1989.

Hollier, Denis, ed. College of Sociology (1937-39). Trans. Betsy Wing. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Jameson, Fredric. “On Magic Realism in Film.” Critical Inquiry 12.2 (1986): 301-25.

———. “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” Social Text 15 (1986): 65-88.

Kristeva, Julia. Black Sun. Depression and Melancholia. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

Lienhard, Martin. “La ‘andinización’ del vanguardismo urbano.” In Arguedas, Zorro, 321-32.

———. Cultura popular andina y forma novelesca. Zorros y danzantes en la última novela de Arguedas. Lima: Tarea Latinoamericana Eds., 1981.

———. La voz y su huella. Escritura y conflicto étnico-cultural en América Latina 1492-1988. Lima: Horizonte, 1992.

Lomnitz-Adler, Claudio. Exits from the Labyrinth: Culture and Ideology in the Mexican National Space. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Matos Mar, José. Desborde popular y crisis del estado. El nuevo rostro del Perú en la década de 1980. Lima: CONCYTEC, 1988.

Moraña, Mabel. “Escribir en el aire, ‘heterogeneidad’ y estudios culturales.” Revista iberoamericana 170-71 (1995): 280-86.

Moreiras, Alberto. “Restitution and Appropriation in Latinamericanism.” Journal of Interdisciplinary Literary Studies 7.1 (1995): 1-43.

———. “A Storm Blowing from Paradise: Negative Globality and Latin American Studies.” Forthcoming in Siglo XX/20th Century. Critique and Cultural Discourse.

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———. “Los procesos de transculturación en la narrativa latinoamericana.” In La novela en América Latina. Panoramas 1920-1980. Veracruz: Universidad Veracruzana/Fundación Angel Rama, 1982. 203-33.

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———. Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

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Mario Vargas Llosa (essay date spring 1997)

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SOURCE: Vargas Llosa, Mario. “A Bullfight in the Andes.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 17, no. 1 (spring 1997): 35-51.

[In the following essay, Vargas Llosa argues 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 Vargas Llosa concludes is deeply conservative.]

Critics who praise José María Arguedas's first novel share the assumption that there is an essential correspondence between a work of fiction and the reality it “describes,” that a novel is successful to the extent that it faithfully represents its model; and so they underscore the similarities between this story's bloody fiesta and life in the Andes. I assume the opposite: that there is an incompatibility between reality and fiction that separates truth from lies (and a hidden complicity that ties them together, since one cannot exist without the other). A novel results from a rejection of a real “model,” and its ambition is to attain sovereignty, an autonomous life, distinct from whatever appears to inspire it and whatever it pretends to describe. Thus the genuineness of fiction is not that which brings it closer to but rather that which distances it from lived experience: the substitute life it invents—not the reflection of some detached and prior experience but the dream, myth, fantasy, or fable its power of persuasion and verbal magic render as reality. And it is in precisely this sense that Yawar Fiesta succeeds as fiction.

In July of 1935 Arguedas became interested in the idea of an Indian bullfight that would function as the center of a conflict facing the social classes and races of an Andean community. Finding himself on vacation in Puquio, he attended a bullfight like the one described in Yawar Fiesta. That day, one of the amateur Indian bullfighters—nicknamed “el Honrao” (your Honor), like the character in the novel—was torn to pieces by the bull.1 Then, in 1937 a work entitled “El despojo” (“The Dispossession”)—which would figure in the book's second chapter—appeared in Lima. And that same year, the story “Yawar (Fiesta),” a rudimentary version of the book, written a year earlier, appeared in the Revista Americana de Buenos Aires.2 Arguedas's subsequent plan to revise and amplify this tale was interrupted by the year he spent in jail as a political prisoner. He was unable to execute it until the second half of 1940 in Cuzco's province of Sicuani. Recently married to Celia Bustamante Vernal, he had moved there in March of 1939 and served as professor of Spanish and Geography at the Mateo Pumacahua National Men's College until October of 1941. It was after a trip to Mexico in 1940, to attend the Indigenist Congress of Patzcuaro, that Arguedas took advantage of some midterm vacation time and wrote the novel, almost all of it without interruption. As he worked, he sent chapters to the poet Manuel Moreno Jiménez in Lima. The correspondence between the two friends during those months, published by Roland Forgues, minutely documents Arguedas's work on this, his first novel, which, though based on personal experience, as was everything he wrote (as is everything novelists write), was more an act of invention than of memory, a depersonalization of experience that, thanks to fantasy and language, functions to create a fictive world.3 And in this novel, even more than in the stories of Agua, his first book, Arguedas succeeds in creating that axis and infrastructure of all fiction: the narrator.


The main (though almost always invisible) character of this intense and beautiful novel is not its mistis (whites or near whites, the privileged class), nor its chalos (cholos: mestizos or Westernized native peoples), nor its Indians—those collective protagonists who seem to act in unison as though following choreography. Nor is it the pale individual figures who emerge from those collective placentas—the mestizo Don Pancho Jiménez, the landowner Don Pascual Aranguena, the subprefect from the coast, the sergeant from Arequipa, nor even Misitu, the bull positioned halfway between the reality of the bullfight and the mythology of the Andes, with vague reminders of the Minotaur. Instead it is the one who either emphasizes or elides them, astutely and skillfully displacing himself from them, recounting some of the things they say and silencing others. He can go back in time to illuminate deeds and events that throw light on the present (the regional mining crisis that brought so many white settlers to Puquio and the agrarian extortion that victimized the native communities and imposed the socioeconomic structure that manifests itself as events unfold in some undesignated year during the thirties). He travels through space, from the Andes to the poor districts of Lima where the lucaninos (emigrants from Lucanas province) live. He moves endlessly among the worlds of the whites, the mestizos, and the comuneros (members of Indian communes), peasants or police, Quechua- or Spanish-speaking, highlanders or coast-dwellers, coming and going between Christianity and animism, reason and magic, with a freedom and ease that no one but he enjoys in this rigidly hierarchical society where, according to his testimony, each and every person is confined to live within his social group, his race, his rites, his beliefs, and his moment in history as though behind bars.4

The narrator is the most important character in fiction, whether an omniscient being, external to history—the self-worshiping God the Father of classic romantic tales or the discreet, invisible one of modern works—or an implied narrator, witness to or protagonist of that which he narrates. He is the first character an author must invent to represent him in the made-up story. This is so because his movements, his mannerisms and silences, his perspectives and points of view determine whether what he talks about appears to be true or unconvincing, an illusion that imposes itself as reality or one that stands out as mere artifice. The narrator of Yawar Fiesta faces an immense task, because, although he tells a brief story, really a long tale more than a novel, the world he refers to is divided into radically different ethnic groups, into cultures bent on destroying themselves, societies separated by gulfs of hatred and incomprehension. Nevertheless, thanks to his versatility and resourcefulness, he manages to fulfill his narrative assignment, presenting this world as an indivisible though heartbreaking totality.

Who and what is this narrator? There is no doubt that he is a male and from the highlands (because he regards people from the coast as “them” and people from the mountains as “us”), either white or mestizo, who feels a psychic closeness to the Indians. He has a deep internal knowledge of them and shares their hardships, fears, and beliefs. He is omniscient and speaks in the present but shifts tenses in order to tell of the whites' arrival in Puquio three centuries earlier, when they laid waste to the surrounding mines, or to recall the Indians' voluntary work on the construction of the Puquio-Nazca road some years before that bullfight that is the central occurrence in the novel, or to evoke the waves of migration of Andean peasants toward the cities of the coast, which that road and others like it made possible.

From time to time he draws near to the mouths of the mistis, the chalos, the Indians; and by means of a few phrases—an exclamation, a song, an exchange of insults, a speech—he allows them a word, but then quickly takes back control of the story. He has a very sharp visual sense and his observations on the nature of this corner of the Andes—the province of Lucanas, the town of Puquio—are vivid, delicate, and poetic. He is bilingual and when describing the landscape (the rivers, the valleys, the trees, the fields, the mountains) expresses himself in a neutral, elegant, pure Spanish that afterward, as it comes in contact with his characters, becomes mestizo-like: peppered with Quechua words or hispanized quechuanisms and colored by the phonetic transcription of the distortions of popular speech.

He has a musical spirit, a superior calling for songs and dances, human activities that he privileges, assigning them a principal role in social life and adorning them with a sacred religious air. He is endowed with a sensitive ear capable of registering all the differences between social groups in terms of tone, accent, and pronunciation; and he possesses a stylistic dexterity that allows him to make the reader know, by means of the distinct music with which they express themselves, when people from the coast (like the subprefect and the sergeant) are speaking (the latter, though a native of Arequipa, talks as though he came from the coast) or when someone else has the floor, be it the members of a Lima-ized elite like Don Demetrio Caceres and Don Jesus Gutierrez, highland provincials like the landowner Don Julian Aranguena and the shopkeeper Don Pancho Jiménez, the literate and politicized cholos of the Lucanas Union Center, or the Indians of Puquio's four ayllus.5 This expressive accuracy, this plurality of speech modes that distinguishes Yawar Fiesta's characters, each one expressing himself according to his culture and his rank, has justly been highlighted by critics as one of the novel's artistic achievements; but such praise often misses the point since it applauds the indigenous characters' mode of expression for its authenticity, its genuineness. In truth, this manner of speaking is “authentic” only in a literary sense, not in any historical or sociological way. It is an effective narrative device, but an invention more than a reflection of living language, a creation rather than a linguistic document.


In a letter to Manuel Moreno Jiménez—who upon reading the manuscript of Yawar Fiesta registered certain reservations over the characters' language—Arguedas responded as follows: “I have an idea that anyone who can write about the panorama and life of our highland people from on high and in a refined, controlled Spanish, will, on the other hand, be unable to capture the germinal essence of this world with sufficient force and urgency, a world caught up in a violent and magnificent debate.”6 It was, rather, the reverse. The invention of a language like that spoken by the Indians of Yawar Fiesta required not only a mastery of Spanish but a working knowledge of true indigenous speech as well. However, these are both just raw materials that have no capacity to predetermine the final literary outcome: in the hands of a writer less artistic than Arguedas, this language might have sounded as false as that of so many indigenist novels.

In the oft-quoted 1950 article “The Novel and the Problem of Literary Expression in Peru,” Arguedas evocatively explains his “long and anguished” search for a style that would allow Indian characters—who in reality communicated among themselves in Quechua—to speak Spanish in a manner that would appear plausible.7 His aim was to “guard the essence,” to “impart the very substance of our spirit to an almost foreign tongue.” The solution (which Arguedas calls an “aesthetic discovery”) came after multiple attempts “as in a dream” and consisted of “finding the subtle dislocations that would turn Spanish into the proper mold, the adequate instrument.” This literary, or, more accurately, rhetorical solution was “to create a language for them [the Indians] built upon a foundation of the Spanish words incorporated into Quechua and the elementary Spanish some Indians managed to learn in their own villages.” Do actual flesh and blood highlanders talk this way? Arguedas's own testimony on this subject is unequivocal: “But the Indians don't even use this Spanish with those who are native Spanish speakers, let alone among themselves! It's fiction.”

Yes, this language is fiction and as such implies an unnegotiable distance between itself and the reality, the living speech it pretends to take as its inspiration. It is a semantic fiction, above all musical and melodic, a generic language that dissolves individuals into group categories and makes them express themselves in a depersonalized manner, as though massed together. Now, every generalization is an adulteration; it suppresses the specifically individual in order to foreground something generic, the common quality, the related tendency that marks a group or series. With this device Arguedas creates an effective and expressive verbal object, but one that is autonomous, distinct from Andean linguistic reality. Landowners, mestizos, and Indians do not exist simply as masses—classes, races, social strata; they are also individuals with personal characteristics that distinguish each one from the other members of their own ethnos, social group, or collectivity. By suppressing specific differences and registering only common denominators within language modes, the narrator turns away from conventional reality, separates it from the real model, turns it into a representation. Since on stage all the interpreters of a dance, like practitioners of a rite or ceremony, acquire a transitory collective identity, their individual traits become abolished by the gestures and movement of the group to which everyone contributes and of which all are a part.

Yawar Fiesta's fabricated Indian language, with its torn syntax full of quechuanisms and Spanish words disfigured by phonetic transcription, with its abundance of diminutives and dearth of articles, never expresses an individual; it expresses a multitude—one that when it communicates always does so in a plural voice, like a chorus. In contrast to what happens in many other novels belonging to indigenist or regionalist literature, where the figurative language coming out of the Indians' mouths ends up as caricature and destroys the reader's illusions, speech is persuasive in Yawar Fiesta; it appears “authentic” not because it is more genuine than that found in other works but because its coherence and the cut of its form—above all, its musicality and coloration—confer artistic status upon it.


It is true that this invented language very effectively helps to give a literary form to one of the most impressive traits found in the novel's Indian society: its collectivism, the community's absolute hegemony over separate individuals. But this does not prevent that language from being a spectacle in and of itself. In other words, it is more than just a vehicle of expression. Breaking forth in rich sonority and plastic originality, it becomes an autonomous reality that engages a reader's attention before any actual message becomes clear. When the novel's Indians speak, their words efface them: language lives, people disappear. This is similar to what happens during a concert when the music's spell makes the music lover forget that what he hears is the product of various instruments and various instrumentalists, or what happens when the perfection of the voices in a chorus vanishes behind the composer's melody. All regionalist writing, constructed at the outset from those “dislocations” of language to which Arguedas refers in his 1950 article, implies a certain aestheticism, a formalism, because it emancipates the form of the narrative matter and establishes the predominance of expressiveness over anecdote. The way characters speak obscures what they have to say. And while they picturesquely chat, this verbal exhibitionism—the deformities, distortions, mannerisms, anomalies, and liberties taken with linguistic norms—comes to be an actual theme of the story. Since a good number of those regionalist stories put social, moral, or ideological goals before artistic ones, the expressive “formalism” they make such a show of, that aestheticism that replaces ideas with the eccentricity and polychromatism of the language that enfolds them, produces a certain incongruity that deprives them of persuasive power, denounces them as fraudulent. In reality, this is the case only—but that only is everything in literature—with artistic failures, with an insurmountable breakdown between means and ends.

Why doesn't this happen in Yawar Fiesta? Why, even though the Indians' made-up language might be just as fabricated as that of the stories in Ventura García Calderón's Vengeance of the Condor or the novel Tungsten by César Vallejo, doesn't it give (as in these works) a false impression instead of a true one? Because Arguedas possessed the literary skill to disarrange Spanish artistically, of course, but also because, in Yawar Fiesta, a colorful expressive form, offered to readers as a spectacle, doesn't work against but rather coincides with the profound intentionality of a story that was meant not as a denouncement of the social horrors of the Andean highlands, but as a vindication of Quechua culture's right to exist; and it enacts this intention through the medium of one of that culture's most controversial creations, that is to say, a spectacle: that “bloody fiesta” that the book flaunts as its title just so there can be no mistaking the matter.


Now, unlike so many costumbrista novels, Yawar Fiesta is not a superficial apology for some local fiesta. In truth, it is motivated by an unbiased intention to stop time, to freeze history. The novel is an argument against the modernization of the Andean community, a subtly disguised yet vigorous defense of what we would call multiculturalism: the separate, autonomous evolution of different cultures and the rejection of any integration that could be understood as the destructive absorption of indigenous culture by Western society. This problem is beautifully symbolized by a forceful and vivid anecdote: the conflicts and incidents provoked by the central government's decision to prohibit the Indianized bullfight. Complete with spectators-turned-bullfighters, dynamite, drunkenness, and packsaddles, the yawarpunchay traditionally takes place in the ayllus on National Independence Day, July 28; but the authorities try to replace it with an orthodox Spanish bullfight, fought by a professional bullfighter in an enclosed arena.

The narrator presents his story with so much skill that in the end the reader can have no doubts as to what the proper conclusions must be: whoever undertakes to suppress the yawarpunchay clearly neither understands nor respects the Indians' culture—their customs, their beliefs, their rites—and, in truth, wishes to deprive them of something precious, their identity. All of the novel's “foreign” characters—the prominent citizens who bow to the subprefect, the “Lima-ized” highlanders, the coast-dwellers who hate anything that smacks of the mountains, the chalos, those educated mestizos and Indians left confused and culturally detached by life in Lima and the strange doctrines they find there—all share a certain complicity in this anti-Indian pretension.

Even though the bullfight may be an exhibition of savagery, this defense of the “bloody fiesta” is not a defense of barbarism. It is, instead, the defense of a cultural identity that survives and even renews itself despite the secular exploitation, ignorance, and isolation that mark the lives of the indigenous peoples of the Andes, an identity that functions on its own terms, that is, by acclimating the foreign—as it has done in the case of the Spanish practice of bullfighting—to its own magical, collective, animistic Andean tradition, a tradition sharply differentiated from that of its invaders (Spanish, coastal, Christian, white, and Western).

Yawar Fiesta's narrator is a discreet and relatively impartial presence until the fifth chapter; but in the pages that describe the conflict—the prohibition of bullfights without professional bullfighters—he abandons the appearance of neutrality, though without too much show, and takes sides with those who defend the toropukllay. He does this by ridiculing the leading citizens who support the subprefect and distance themselves from the shopkeeper Pancho Jiménez. He insinuates that they act out of servility rather than conviction in order to ingratiate themselves with the authorities. Later on, in this same chapter, he shows them at a council session which he invokes in order to foreground racism, since they all seem to believe, along with “the honorable citizen Caceres” that all Indians have “backward minds.”8

Why does the narrator align himself with those who defend the Indian bullfight? Certainly not because he is unaware of the inherent violence and cruelty that victimize unfortunate peasant bullfighters like Wallpa, whom Misitu disembowels; but rather because the bullfight represents a cultural creation, a symbol of the Quechua people's sovereignty, because the yawarpunchay—which at the outset was a colonial imposition—has now been torn from its original culture, transformed, and absorbed into the common property of indigenous practice. The narrator sees foreign as a negative concept, something that implies danger, menace, betrayal of the culture to which it attaches itself. And so the narrator ridicules those mistis who live on Bolivar Street, who sell their souls so easily, who dare to proclaim: “We need authorities who will come teach us and who will resolve to impose culture from the outside” (102).


These criticisms are not aimed solely at Puquio's Lima-ized, racist elite. They are also leveled against the well-meaning chalos who favor suppressing the Indian-style bullfight in order to bring progress to Puquio, a kind of progress that has a clear political and ideological orientation for those lucaninos who emigrated to Lima and became admirers of Mariátegui, a promoter of socialism and Marxism. The narrator uneuphemistically rebukes the “literate cholos” for taking sides against the native culture from which they came and for aligning themselves—because blinded by an abstract vision of progress—with “the mistis” and corrupt authority. It is true that their motives are altruistic: to bring modernity to Puquio, to put a stop to a barbaric celebration in which Indians are disemboweled for the pleasure of the white spectators. But the narrator finds the chalos' solution to be a mistaken approach to the problem, a case of simply begging the question, because he denounces a Westernized, “white,” anti-Indian assumption about the idea of progress, an idea in which everything that diverges from or contrasts with certain patterns preestablished by a colonizer or conqueror is rejected as an expression of barbarity and backwardness. Were he to accept this conception, the Quechua peasant in pursuit of “progress” would have no alternative but to assimilate the white world and renounce his language, his beliefs, his customs, and his traditions. And for the narrator—the one created by José María Arguedas who wrote Yawar Fiesta—to de-Indianize the Indians (“to save the Indians from superstition,” as Guzman, one of the literate cholos says) would be a crime even worse than exploiting, abusing, and discriminating against them.

The narrator of Yawar Fiesta refuses to vacillate between magic and ideology. He chooses the former and thus induces us to share his secret sympathy and respect for the mestizo Pancho Jiménez and the landowner Don Julian Aranguena, who, confronting the problems of cultural identity, side in favor of preserving toropukllay and thereby demonstrate themselves to be more lucid than the literate cholos. Although the first may be a less than scrupulous shopkeeper and the second an abusive exploiter of peasants, at least they both have a refined sense of the land and its customs. They are not ashamed to be what they are. They refuse to renounce their idiosyncracies as provincials and highlanders. They don't aspire to become “foreigners,” to Lima-ize themselves, and though in its own way it may be crude and instinctual, they defend an Indian fiesta as if it were their own.


They both have yet another outstanding virtue in Yawar Fiesta's viscerally machista world: they are brave. In this fictitious reality machismo is a totem worshiped by everyone: whites, mestizos, and Indians. Oppositions and antagonisms among races, cultures, and regions disappear when it comes to the relation between men and women, since no matter what his education, his background, or his heritage, every man is machista, and in such an obstinate and exclusive way that women hardly figure at all in the society described by the novel. That is, when they do appear, always as furtive apparitions, they seem to lack the degree of humanity with which the men are endowed, as though they belonged to some inferior species, halfway between human beings and animals or objects.

All of the men are machistas: mistis, chalos, and Indians, despicable bigwigs like Don Demetrio or prominent would-be rescuers such as Don Pascual, the generous Don Pancho, or that human ruin, the subprefect. All worship physical force and believe in courage. A defiant stance, a disdain for all life (including one's own), recklessness, and even sadism—these represent a kind of bravery. All despise women equally, treating them as presences designed to be beaten so that the macho can confirm his own superiority for himself or vent his rage and disappointment. All use the word womanish to denote an impoverishment of the masculine condition, something that borders on ignominy. Even the narrator participates in this prejudice, judging by the naturalness with which he presents the men's abusive and despotic attitudes toward women (whereas he always adopts a critical distance when dealing with the extortions and outrages suffered by the Indians). He himself uses expressions such as “even the most womanish” (of the villagers) in a disparaging sense (161).

But woman's extreme condition of inferiority in this world—victim among victims—is made most evident by the narrator's failure to invoke her as either protagonist or actor in events. She appears only sporadically and always as horizon, shadow, or bulk. She moves en masse, a landscape. One could say she exists solely to cry over or pray for men's exploits and tragedies and to allow herself to be shoved, insulted, or mistreated whenever males need to vent their fury on someone. That is what happens to the wife of the misti Don Jesus. Furious for having been swindled by the corrupt subprefect, he throws a plate of stewed corn in her face, “because his rage against the subprefect had not yet subsided” (147). And at another point in the story the Indians of K'ayau resort to kicking their women for the most trivial of reasons: so they will remove the children from the neighborhood plaza (154). And when, enraged over the loss of their traditional fiesta, Puquio's Indians hurl insults at the little Spanish bullfighter Ibarito II, they shout “Woman!” (191).


This conduct is the expression of a more general phenomenon that is characteristic of José María Arguedas's world. It is something François Bourricaud, in one of the many fine studies on this novel's machismo, calls “the displacement of aggression.”9 In order to vent the rage that grows out of abuse and frustration (but which often seems to arise for no apparent reason), men commit physical violence against someone or something weaker than they are, someone or something incapable of self-defense. Much of the time this means women, but it also includes subordinates—servants, employees, children—or animals, plants, even mere objects. But to interpret this rage in social psychological terms, to see it as a rebellion that wells up in the face of an intolerable state of affairs, as a resistance that is externalized in individual anarchic, irrational outbursts by those exploited, is to miss the way this phenomenon functions in fictitious reality. Characters suffer these emotional explosions—in a transitory yet recurrent way—regardless of race or social position: the exploiters as well as the exploited, people from the coast as well as highlanders. Fury blinds them all and drives them to destroy, injure, torture, or kill. In fictitious reality this sudden rage that possesses individuals or groups and drives them mad, converts them into malignant beasts, is more a magical plague or mysterious inherent malady of the human condition than a Freudian transference of resentment and revenge that inspires the weak to behave as brutally as the strong.

Besides these instances of battered and humiliated women, Yawar Fiesta is filled with other examples of the sharp exchanges brought about by the rage in manly souls. After a meeting with Don Pancho Jiménez, one that seems to end on good terms, the subprefect, watching the shopkeeper move off through the shadows of Puquio's town square, suddenly, arbitrarily, and inexplicably orders the sergeant to pick up his rifle and shoot him in the back: “Shoot him! And let him lie there like a dog” (117-18). And if the sergeant had not disobeyed, that would have been the end of the emotional merchant. Don Julian Aranguena, after a frustrated attempt to capture Misitu, first blindly shoots at his own men as they run away terrified by the violent animal and then fires at the sky in a curious mix of exasperation and exultation over his own failure and the impressive power of his bull. The narrator describes this state of mind in an unforgettable way: “He was going to kill it, but kept on firing at the sky, in a joyous rage” (136). Still and all, moments later, this rage mingled with joy impels him to kill the horse belonging to his foreman, the chalo Fermin, in order to discharge the remaining fury rising within him.


The counterpart to this rage can be found in those affecting outbursts of generosity to which individual characters are occasionally given. This is what we see when Don Julian Aranguena bestows his treasured Misitu upon the Indians of K'ayau or when the bullfighters Honrao, K'encho, Raura, and Wallpa are moved to throw themselves in front of the bull's horns during the yawarpunchay. But it is most apparent in its collective form among the Indians, where the individual dissolves into the group, where the private person blends into the social fabric. It is here that these outbursts of devotion and sacrifice reach their highest degree of generosity and selflessness and generate collective deeds such as the competition between the native communities of Puquio and Parincocha that produced a market square in only two months or the Nazca-Puqio road—186 miles in twenty-eight days—constructed by Puquio's Indians. The narrator describes these accomplishments as epic feats that express all that is most positive in the Quechua way of life: its nobility, its idealism. Sometimes these collective deeds have practical benefits for the community—as doubtless is the case with the market and the highway—but their utility does not always determine their moral and cultural value. For example, it would be difficult to establish precisely how the people of Puquio profit from the energy and courage the k'ayaus expend in capturing Misitu, another collective enterprise the novel offers as a model. No, these deeds are valuable in and of themselves, for the simple fact of having been accomplished, for the lack of self-interest with which they are undertaken, because they show the Indians' powerful potential, their capacity for work and sacrifice, the solidarity and will to move mountains that make it all possible. Certain notions of “progress” and “modernization” are at odds with the spirit that governs these collective deeds. The narrator makes this obvious when he describes what happens in response to Puquio's exemplary project of community road building. Throughout the central highlands, this feat unleashes construction fever aimed at opening roads to the coast. The local bosses want these routes to pass by their own haciendas and so road construction turns into a “business,” something despicable that denaturalizes a collective effort that started out as a disinterested, “pure” undertaking (121-26).


In a tentative way, something manifests itself here, a stance that will take on a more precise form in Arguedas's later novels: the rejection of urban civilization, of the market, of the industrial world. Commercial calculation and the love of money are manifestations of egoism and individualism, things that soil and degrade life, phenomena of the city. Human life—even though it may be wretched and seem backward when observed from that urban perspective—only maintains its moral purity in a rural world: there man lives close to Nature, the group prevails over the individual, feelings over figures, and reason has not yet defeated the spiritual, the religious, the magical.

These assumptions are developed far more elaborately in Yawar Fiesta than in the novel's prototype, the 1936 short story “Yawar (Fiesta).” A comparison of the two texts shows how much Arguedas's narrative technique has improved and how he has gone on to refine and complicate his literary world in the intervening four years. The short story is full of descriptions of folkways and traditions. The Indians' dialogue sounds like caricature because it has not been reworked in a literary way. The narrator's position is constant and explicit in relation to that which he narrates and his sentimentalism and truculence debase his testimony and undermine the story.10 In the short story the violence of the mistis and the police borders on the improbable. Their amusement over the Indians' blood and suffering could be called demonical. And the Indians, although capable of “collective deeds” like the construction of Puquio's market, fail to personify, as they do in the novel, a rich and ancient culture hidden beneath a surface primitivism. Instead they are a drunken lot with senses dulled by cheap cane liquor, the “poison from the coast.” The crazed and greedy native bullfighters throw themselves at the bulls, actually hoping to be gored so they can collect the money Puquio's señoritas have stuffed into packsaddles with this corrupt end in mind. The whites' wickedness stems from their individualism and affinity for commerce: “their souls were almost always enemies to one another because they were dominated by the spirit of business, by ambition; but the Indians were not.”

The feature that most differentiates one version from the other is the appearance, in 1940, of a new social sector, a wedge between the Indians and the mistis that did not exist in the 1936 text: the mestizos or chalos. They introduce a new dimension of reality: the ideological, the realm of progressive ideas committed to a transformation of society aimed at establishing justice. This is represented by the humble lucaninos who emigrate to Lima: Escobar the student, Martínez the chauffeur, Rodríguez the street-car conductor, Gutierrez the tailor, all those who go to the capital and are progressively de-Indianized and acculturated by the jobs and activities they find there. We see that the narrator condemns such influences because they bring the ingenuous youths, eager for Puquio's modernization, to make common cause with the Indians' exploiters—the subprefect and the mistis—in a major crime: the prohibition or, worse yet, the alienation of a cultural creation belonging to the Quechua people.

When they move to Lima's coastal world, the chalos begin to lose their ethnic and cultural roots. This clouds their judgment and induces them to become the accomplices of the political authorities and the local bosses. But fortunately, those roots have not disappeared completely, as becomes obvious when we see them, carried away by the spectacle of the Indians bringing Misitu into town, ask the varayok (staffbearer, Indian leader) to allow them to help haul the animal in. In other words, if only for a moment, they wish to set reason aside and act out of atavistic emotions and impulses—as the Indians do.


Reason tells the chalos to put an end to the Indian bullfight. For them it is a manifestation of backwardness, a cruel spectacle in which the villagers are gored for their executioners' entertainment. (“Never again will Indians die in Pich'kachuri square just to make those pigs happy!” says Escobar [130].) These ideas come to the lucaninos from José Carlos Mariátegui (1894-1930), founder of Peru's Communist Party, a writer and journalist who disseminated Marxist ideas throughout Peru, whose portrait presides over the novel's Lucanas Central Union meetings, and whom the chalos respectfully invoke, calling him “werak'ocha” and “taita” (father and lord) (131). Although Arguedas was never an official member of the Communist Party, he frequently declared that Mariátegui's essays and Amauta, the journal he directed, had a decisive influence on his development. What is more, while writing Yawar Fiesta, he was relatively close to the communists and his correspondence with Manuel Moreno Jiménez shows him sending articles to the party newspaper, Democracy and Labor, and selling bonds to finance it, clear proof that, without being militant, he at least approved of the ideological, rationalistic, modernizing, and Westernizing theories of Marxism in regard to the Indian problem.11

But once he began to write the novel—following his natural inclinations, the spontaneous dictates of his spirit—his “demons” turned out to be stronger than his ideological sympathies and ended up introducing a paradox into Yawar Fiesta, one to which the story owes a great deal of its dramatic tension. Although the narrator makes an effort to emphasize all the good intentions that guide the mestizo ideologues in their plans for modernization, the story he actually tells makes them appear blind and confused when it comes to dealing with the problem of the Andean people. It makes the chalos look like the victims of an intellectual mystification that prevents them from approaching this matter in a complete way, makes them appear unable to see it as something more than a fight against the economic deprivation and political abuse suffered by the Indians, unable to see it as a battle for the preservation and defense of the Andean being, his rites, his beliefs, and his customs, which, precisely because they are ancient and tied to tradition, guarantee the identity and perdurability of all that can be called “Indian.” By invoking socialism against “magic,” the chalos stop being a part of their people and become allied with their enemies.

The narrator, on the other hand, when faced with this dilemma, openly chooses the yawarpunchay and everything it symbolizes: the originality and force of a culture rooted deep in the past and in the harsh Andean geography—its lofty mountains, brilliant skies, and terrifying chasms, whose secret life of myths and miracles and intense spirituality can be found nowhere else.


Although its presence is suggested throughout the entire length of the novel, this magical and ceremonial, archaic and Andean, Quechua and rural culture bursts forth in all its atavistic force and vividness in chapter 7, “El Misitu.” Here the narrator introduces us to the mythic beliefs and magical practices of the Indians of the high plateau, the k'oñanis. They try to prevent the k'ayaus from bringing Don Julian's bull to the ring for the July 28th fiesta. This animal is a legendary and semidivine figure to them: they believe that, endowed with mythical powers, he emerged from the waters of a lagoon (Torok'ocha) one stormy night.12 In that same chapter we see the narrator blending in with the sorcerer Kokchi while he makes an offering to the k'oñanis' tutelary mountain (Lord Ak'chi) in hopes that he will protect Misitu; and then we see him, from the k'ayaus' perspective, sharing the magico-religious ceremony in which the village Indians ask another mountain spirit (the auki or demigod Karwarasu) for help in capturing the bull. In this way an ancestral, animistic, irrational, and magical Indian world appears in full relief, one that coexists, half-hidden, with the more modern and Westernized world of Puquio. And although, like Puquio, it is plagued by divisions and fractures—k'oñanis and k'ayaus disagree over Misitu—it still denotes, despite its primitivism, genuine character. That magical world has an authenticity that the other culture lacks because, besides being degraded through cruelty and servitude, the culture of Puquio bears the appearance of complete bastardization, the appearance of a poor imitation of some remote model inimical to this place in the Andes and to its people, an imitation that culminates in rootlessness. In contrast, the Indians' culture stands out like a natural transcription of that untamed landscape and a faithful copy of the uniqueness of the Quechua people, a culture that flows from lived experience and which, though discriminated against and exploited by white outsiders, still remains uncorrupted because self-interest does not hold sway there, business does not corrode its communitarian and collective social links. Everything is a function of the community, a moral force superior to the individual; and spirituality and religion—the dialogue with the transcendent—continue to preside over human activities.

This dialogue with the other world goes on constantly, through ceremony, music, and dance. They create a milieu in which the human becomes integrated with the divine and the individual becomes integrated with the natural world, a world that has vital and sacred meaning for the comuneros because it is inhabited by tutelary gods whose benevolence or hostility determines the success or failure of human enterprises. And so the comuneros' capture of Misitu—described in a chapter significantly entitled “The Auki”—is not a sporting event but a religious festival, complete with processions and offerings, a sacrifice made by the lay'ka (sorcerer), and the music of the wakawakras, trumpets made of horn, whose vibrant and dismal sounds, multiplied by the echos of the hills, perform an incantational function, instilling a sense of mystery, terror, uneasiness, and even exultation in the townspeople of Puquio as the hour of the fiesta arrives. It is this context, which gives meaning to the presence of the dancers Tankayllu and Tayta Untu (who reappear in many of Arguedas's fictions, above all in the lovely story “The Agony of Rasuñiti”). We see them running through the streets on the eve of the fiesta, tracing their mysterious labyrinth with dance steps and tinkling scissors, like emissaries from the beyond, from a pantheon of gods and spirits of whom the music is a privileged manifestation.

It is this context that explains and justifies the yawarpunchay, the barbarous fiesta to which all of these preparatory rituals lead in the book's final chapter. In the end the fiesta imposes its own law—its own irrepressible magico-religious force, bearer of the faith and solidarity of the Indian people—over the fragile intrigues and prohibitions of the authorities from the coast, who, with their court of servile mistis and acculturated chalos, attempted to replace “the genuine yawarpunchay” with that foreign simulacrum, the Spanish bullfight, complete with the little bullfighter from Lima, Ibarito II, whom Misitu, with his strange tricks and turns, drives from the ring. When the native bullfighters, summoned by the screams of the crowd (including those of the mistis), come out to face Misitu and the sticks of dynamite go off, and, despite all the mistis' entreaties, the bullfight is restored to its traditional Indian style, the narrator, breathing what appears to be a discreet sigh of relief, suspends his narration—precisely at the spectacle's apogee. This ending is not gratuitous: Misitu's death, his chest blown to pieces by the comuneros' explosives, is the victory—futile, symbolic—of a culture that, though often beaten down and denigrated by its enemies, renews itself in spectacles like this one and demonstrates its capacity for survival, its unbending will neither to vanish nor to be assimilated.

Despite its indignation and denunciations in the face of the iniquities the mistis inflict on the Indians, is it possible to imagine a work of fiction more conservative than Yawar Fiesta?


  1. Letter from José María Arguedas to Manuel Moreno Jiménez, from December 1940, in Arguedas's La letra inmortal: Correspondencia con Manuel Moreno Jiménez, ed. Roland Forgues (Lima: Ediciones de los Ríos Profundos, 1993), 101.

  2. “El despojo,” Palabra en Defensa de la Cultura: Revista órgano de los alumnos de la Facultad de Letras de la Universidad (Lima) 2, no. 4 (1936); “Yawar (Fiesta),” Revista Americana de Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires) 14, no. 156 (1937). See also Arguedas's Obras completas (Lima: Editorial Horizonte, 1983), 135, n. 11.

  3. La letra inmortal, principally the letters from Arguedas to Moreno Jiménez from August 1940 to June 1941 and which contain valuable information on the gestation of the novel, the literary competition at which it was presented and from which it was discarded by the jury (who gave the award to the today completely forgotten Panorama hacia el alba, by José Ferrando), and information on the book's publication and the commentaries and reviews that it received. Among these there was one by the historian Luis E. Valcarcel, the father of “indianismo,” who was a part of that jury, which, according to Valcarcel, preferred Panorama hacia el alba because it embraced “the coast, the sierras, the mountains,” while Arguedas's book only referred to one region of Peru and was “unintelligible” to anyone who had not “lived with the Indians” (La letra inmortal, 128).

  4. In the original manuscript the story takes place in 1931, but then Arguedas decided to erase the “1 from the date, and put in two ellipsis points,” according to what he said to Moreno Jiménez in an undated letter (8 November 1940) (La letra inmortal, 94).

  5. Ed. Note: ayllu in this case means both a subdivision of the Indian village or community and a kinship group.

  6. Typewritten letter, without a date (October 1940), in La letra inmortal, 90.

  7. Published in Mar del sur: Revista peruana de cultura (Lima) 9 (January-February 1950): 66-72. There is a version, revised and corrected by Arguedas, that appears as a prologue in the edition of Yawar Fiesta put out by Editorial Universitaria, in Chile, in 1968. I am quoting from this last version.

  8. Arguedas, Obras completas 2:107 (all citations from the novel are to this edition, which, although not free of errata, suffers from fewer than do earlier ones).

  9. François Bourricaud, “El tema de la violencia en Yawar Fiesta,” in Recopilación de textos sobre José María Arguedas, ed. Juan Laro and Serie Valoración Múltiple (Havana: Centro de Investigaciones Literarias, Casa de las Américas, 1976), 209-25.

  10. “But who cared about this blood? Who pitied this poor cholo, split from top to bottom by the bull's horns?” (135).

  11. La letra inmortal, 100.

  12. For Gladys C. Marin, La experiencia americana de José María Arguedas, Colección Estudios Latinoamericanos (Buenos Aires: Editorial Fernando García Cambeiro, 1973), 66, magical reality is present from the novel's first chapter, when the narrator, describing Bolivar Street, compares the street of the mistis to a snake, the Amaru, an animal that, in the world of Indian mythology, represents evil, destruction, death. In this way, the narrator would be, from the very beginning, subtly classifying the area's leading white citizens as the villains of the story he is going to tell.

Ciro A. Sandoval (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Sandoval, Ciro A. Introduction to José María Arguedas: Reconsiderations for Latin American Cultural Studies, edited by Ciro A. Sandoval and Sandra M. Boschetto-Sandoval, pp. xxi-xlii. Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1998.

[In the following essay, Sandoval first describes the social and political setting of Arguedas's life, then depicts Arguedas's work as representing “a drama of the unspeakable, of the undecidable, of the culturally and linguistically untranslatable.”]

A writer, a man writing, is the scribe of all nature;
he is the corn and the grass, and the atmosphere writing.

—H. D. Thoreau, A Writer's Journal


José María Arguedas Altamirano (1911-1969) was born into a world shaped by particular historical circumstances, at the crossroads of modernization's thrust into Peru. These circumstances would in turn shape his character and his destiny as one of the most creative and influential writers of both the Andean world and of Latin America as a whole. He was born in the southern Andean town of Andahuaylas to an itinerant lawyer from Cuzco, the capital of Tahuantinsuyu (the Indian name for the Inca empire). As a young boy, Arguedas accompanied his father on many of his travels through various towns in the southern Peruvian Andes. Arguedas would later portray its landscape and people in a masterful language, rendering transparent their poetical, lyrical, and mythico-scientific visions. He once remarked:

I journeyed the country fields, [and] performed the tasks of the “campesinos” under the infinite protection of the Quechua commoners. 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.

[introduction to Yawar Fiesta, 3)1

On another occasion Arguedas recalls that he was the product of his stepmother:

My mother died when I was two and a half. My father married a second time—a woman who had three sons … [and] who owned half the town; she had many indigenous servants, as well as the traditional contempt and ignorance of what an Indian was, and because she despised and hated me as much as [her] Indians, she decided that I was to live with them in the kitchen, eat and sleep there.

[Páginas escogidas, 247]

These biographical sketches allow us to glimpse the ambivalence, both positive and negative reflections, that branded Arguedas's life from its early stages. These indelible scars would motivate his coming to terms with reality and creativity in a never-ceasing struggle with language, a struggle that embodied his very life and that one also traces from his early writings:

I began writing after reading my first stories about the Indians; they were described in so false a way by writers I respected, who taught me what I know. … López Albújar knew the Indians only from his desk, as a criminal judge, and Mr. Ventura García Calderón, I do not know how he had heard of them. In these narratives the Indian was so distorted and the landscape so sugar-coated, so lacking in feeling, so … strange that I said to myself: “No, I have to write it as it is, because I have enjoyed knowing it, because I have suffered it,” and I wrote those first stories that were published in that little book I called Agua [Water].

[Páginas escogidas, 251]

As his friend Emilio Westphalen explained, “Arguedas's destiny was a special one: he happened to suffer in his own flesh, from within … the basic cultural dichotomy of the country [indigenous versus nonindigenous cultures]” (introduction to Páginas escogidas, n.p.). The fact that Arguedas had not been born into that indigenous world to which he felt he belonged, if not by physical circumstance, then by emotional attachment, was a source of constant anxiety. That frustration would later progress to the painful realization that the dream of rescuing his beloved Andean world and culture through the creation of a national mestizo culture was doomed. The culture he envisioned, in which Indian, white Western European, and modern industrialized worlds could fuse into a new kind of raza cósmica (a cosmic race, to borrow from José Vasconcelos) was but a utopia made of language. Had this utopian wishful thinking materialized, Arguedas would most likely have preferred it to arise from an inverse conquest, the forging of a mestizaje (racial and cultural crossing) in reverse. Arguedas recalled, for example, one of the leaders of Pichqachuri (one of the four ayllus, or Indian communities, of Puquio, a province capital) telling him once that his community was slow in progressing because it lacked mistis (whites, mestizos, and foreigners). The elders of the community were, therefore, set on having their sons undergo racial and cultural inmixing.2 Arguedas believed that this transculturation was important because it pointed to the possibility that mestizos could come into existence in the communities of Pichqachuri and Qayao (Puquio municipality) through a conscious transformation “launched by the Indians themselves, [and] not following the traditional, inverted process of impoverishment of mistis or as a consequence of illegitimate miscegenation” (Páginas escogidas, 187, 196).

As novelist, storyteller, folklorist, ethnographer, and educator, Arguedas wrote extensively. Yet, as he himself tells us in the First Journal (1968), he never thought of himself as a professional writer, one, that is, who sees writing as a profession (qtd. in Fell 1990, 18). Rather, Arguedas saw his writing as the very embodiment of his life, and as a means of testifying to the reality he knew and lived. In other words, he took writing as an author takes it, one for whom neither style nor form, nor canons, nor writing trends were the main concern, as Roland Barthes explains (1992, 143-50). As an author, Arguedas's concern was the totality of human culture. This also helps explain why he sought complementary venues of exploration in folklore, anthropology, and ethnography.

His yearning for humanistic and cultural totality finds expression in the continuous expansion of his writing from the local to the global; from the small indigenous communities, villages, and towns of the Andean sierra, to the larger coastal cities, from within the national Peruvian cosmos outward to the rest of the geographical and cultural world. As he illustrates with reference to his novel Todas las sangres (All bloods, 1964): “It would not have been possible for me to outline its course had I not first interpreted in Agua [Water, 1935] the life of an [Andean] village; that of a provincial capital in Yawar Fiesta [1941]; that of a wider and more complex human territory in Deep Rivers [1958]” (introduction to Páginas escogidas, n.p.). We can thus view his world as a subsystem within a wider global and universal system, with all things interconnected in different ways and at different levels. No more eloquent example of this weblike vision is found than the one reflected in his controversial novel Todas las sangres, which he places in the following perspective:

I have had the good fortune of traversing during my lifetime almost all levels and hierarchies in Peru; I have even been Director of Culture. … I tried to write a novel in which I could portray all these hierarchies, with all that they reflect of promise and of burden. [In the novel] there are three characters … two of which are fundamental … two inherit large feudal estates, two brothers [that] hate each other … one of them has an absolute, feudal mentality; the other, educated in the United States and in Lima … wants to make of Peru a country very much like North America; the other one wants to hold it back as a traditional country. … Between these two, like a formidable wedge, stands an Indian that suffered all that an Indian can in Lima [Peru's capital], the honorable Rendón Wilka.

[Páginas escogidas, 253]

The agitation of different social strata is the most conspicuously present mark of Arguedas's aesthetic, essayistic, and critical production. Bear in mind here that the term indio, which is used to mean the peasant of Quechua and Aymara origin in the Andean world of Peru and Bolivia, carries strong negative connotations for both mestizos and whites. It was because of this that in the early 1960s the populist regime of Velasco Ibarra attempted, with some success, to replace it with the term campesino, to mean highland people, and for whom Ibarra's government had plans of integration into the Peruvian mainstream. Despite this, indio (Indian) has prevailed, even to the present, as a term signifying those peoples who speak native languages, dress in native garb, and stubbornly hold to a way of life dubbed native, and to a status that no one else aspires to.

The Peru into which Arguedas was born, that he celebrated and agonized for as a “happy demon” who spoke “in Christian and in Indian, in Spanish and in Quechua,” that made him “happy” precisely because he “felt Peru in Quechua and in Spanish (Final Journal, 1969; qtd. in Fell 1990, 437) was still suffering the aftermath of the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) in which Peru lost to Chile its southern nitrate-producing regions of Tarapaca in 1883 and Arica in 1929. The reader suffers this postwar depression in Arguedas's celebrated novel Deep Rivers (1958), which portrays Peru in the grip of a new paradigm of development, modernization, and turmoil.

Arguedas was born at the end of the so-called Aristocratic Republic (1895-1914), which arose from the alliance between the government of José Nicolás de Piérola and his former opposition party, the Civilistas. The end of the Aristocratic Republican period also marks the beginning of Peru's economic instability on the brink of World War I. At the time of Arguedas's birth, Peru was dragging under the burden of new elites emerging from the ruins of the War of the Pacific, elites who coalesced to form the powerful oligarchy founded on the reemergence of sugar, cotton, and mining exports, and on the entrance of Peru into the international economy. It was also a Peru undergoing changes in its work force, as its peasantry migrated not only to industrial enclaves that had arisen in Lima but also throughout other areas of the country. Traditional haciendas and small-scale mining gave way to modern agro-industrial plantations, mining enclaves, and new proletarians as well.

This political, economic, social, and cultural whirlwind would have far-reaching consequences, tarnishing Arguedas's hopes for the formation of a national as well as universal culture. This because there was no hope of a democratic process that discounted violence in a country where the oligarchy was so powerful. These consequences became clear at the outbreak of the military coup motivated by the millionaire businessman Guillermo Billinghurst, who first forced the Republican congress to elect him, then entered into a series of bitter conflicts with it. After threatening to arm the workers and dissolve the congress, Billinghurst provoked Colonel Oscar Raimundo Benavides (1914-1915; 1933-1936; 1936-1939) to seize power. This new coup would mark the beginning of a long-term alliance between the military and the oligarchy until the 1968 revolution of General Juan Velasco Alvarado (1968-1975), just one year before Arguedas's death.

As for other changes in the political and social arena after World War I, radical new ideologies spreading from the Mexican and Russian revolutions (1910 and 1917) fueled growing unrest. In the meantime, indigenista (indigenous) movements attracted the attention of the first wave of indigenous writers, particularly middle-class mestizos who were interested in retracing their roots in this changing Peru and who wanted to celebrate the glorious Inca past. New indigenous awareness was galvanized by a series of native uprisings in the southern Andes, where communities were disrupted and dislocated by the opening of new international markets, the reorganization of the wool industry, and the expansion of other trades as demands from urban coastal areas for products from the sierra increased. The postwar worker-student alliance generated a new era of radical thinkers and reformers such as Victor Raúl Haya de la Torre of the University of San Marcos, who later founded the revolutionary and influential political leftist party APRA (American Popular and Revolutionary Alliance) while in exile in Mexico in 1924. Outside the academy, José Carlos Mariátegui, a brilliant Lima journalist, founded the Socialist Party as well as a liberal and widely read popular opinion magazine, Amauta, also a prestigious publishing house, which published extensively on economics, literature, and politics. Mariátegui's celebrated collection of essays dealing with these issues, Seven Essays on the Interpretation of Peruvian Reality (1928), would exert a tremendous influence on the thinking and writing of José María Arguedas. Especially influential was Mariátegui's socialist argument that Peruvian Marxism could be welded to an indigenous Andean revolutionary tradition, to include not only indigenismo, with its emphasis on the proud history of resistance of the Andean peasantry, but labor as well.

After 1930 both the military and the oligarchy, now firmly allied, became, along with APRA, the most important actors in Peru's political, social, and economic scenario until the 1960s. During this time, which would last to the end of Arguedas's life, the military often acted at the behest of the oligarchy to suppress the “unruly” masses represented by APRA and by the PCP (Communist Party of Peru). As expected, this oligarchic-military alliance provoked bloody uprisings of the APRA, such as the one in Trujillo (1932) in which some sixty army officers were executed by the insurgents. This violent act resulted in the first use of aerial bombing in the history of South America and was responsible for the death of some one thousand APRA members and sympathizers.

By maintaining its long-term export-oriented model of growth (led by cotton and new industrial metals such as lead and zinc) essentially unaltered, Peru was, in the 1930s, one of the countries in the continent least affected by the world economic depression. Yet, despite the measures taken by the presidency of Sánchez Cerro to reorganize its debt-ridden economy—including the invitation of North American consultant Edwin Kemmener, whose advice helped usher in Peru's return to the gold standard—the country was unable to forestall a moratorium on its U.S. $180-million debt in 1931. As a consequence, the country was barred from U.S. markets for the next thirty years.

The APRA party of the 1930s was essentially nationalist, populist, and reformist in its ideology and platform. Although certainly radical from the perspective of the oligarchy, the APRA platform focused on correcting the historical inequality of wealth and income in Peru, as well as on reducing and controlling large-scale foreign investments in the country (indeed very high in comparison with other Latin American and Andean countries). At the same time, Peru's richest, most powerful forty families perceived a direct challenge to their traditional privileges and absolute right to rule, which they were not willing to sacrifice without resistance. The oligarchy intensified its attacks in the face of APRA polemicist rhetoric, contributing thereby to the unleashing of violent assassinations, widespread imprisonment, and torture of Apristas and their followers. These events would later inform the main political corpus of Arguedas's testimonial novel El Sexto (The Sexto prison, 1961).

At the end of the Benavides presidency in 1939, Manuel Prado y Ugarteche, a prominent Lima banker, won the presidency and gradually moved to soften official opposition to APRA, as Haya de la Torre moved to moderate the party's platform in response to the changing national and international environment brought on by World War II. Consistent with this new environment and his reformed ideology, Haya de la Torre no longer proposed to radically redistribute income but instead to create new wealth and to replace the earlier radical “anti-imperialism” with more favorable calls for democracy, foreign investment, and hemispheric harmony. In response, the Prado government legalized the APRA party, thus allowing it to enter the political arena after thirteen years of underground activity.

In 1945, José Luis Bustamante (1945-1948) was elected president on the basis of his alliance with the now legal APRA. Nevertheless, this alliance would also cause problems for the government as it tried to respond to a more reformist, populist-oriented agenda, including a general fiscal expansion, higher wages, and controls on prices and exchange rates. These policies came at a time when Peru's exports were sagging after World War II. As a result, inflation and unrest began to mount, destabilizing the government.

After the 1947 assassination by Aprista militants of Francisco Graña Garland, director of the conservative newspaper La Prensa, and the naval mutiny organized by Aprista elements in 1948, the oligarchy pressed the military to overthrow the government and install General Manuel Odría as president (1948-1956). Odría imposed a personalistic dictatorship and returned to the familiar pattern of repression of the left, while astutely shielding himself by establishing a paternalistic relationship with labor and the urban poor through a series of charity and welfare measures. Odría could initiate these measures because his government had installed itself at a time when prices for the country's diverse commodities were rising on the world market due to the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. Greater political stability also brought increased national and foreign investment. In general, the economy experienced a period of strong export growth. However, not all Peruvians benefited from these favorable events in capitalist development, for they were confined mainly to the more modernized coastal region, a fact that accentuated the dualistic social structure of the country by widening the gap between the sierra and the coast. To be sure, the sierra has been losing economic ground to the modernizing forces operating on the coast since 1920. As expected, this phenomenon provoked an intense social mobilization of the rural population to the coast, as well as a series of confrontations between peasants and landowners during the 1950s and 1960s. All this was exacerbated by a rapid increase in Peru's urban population, which provided abundant and cheap labor, locking the arable land into feudal-like latifundios (large estates owned as private property), thus causing the demographic equality of land ownership to deteriorate and to increase peasant pressure on the land. Peru's land tenure system remains to this day one of the most unequal in Latin America. In the meantime, those peasants who chose not to migrate to urban centers did not remain passive in the face of their worsening circumstances but became increasingly organized and militant.

The postwar period of industrialization, urbanization, and economic growth also created a new middle and professional class that helped to alter the political panorama by creating two new political parties: Acción Popular (Popular Action), or AP, and Partido Demócrata Cristiano (Christian Democratic Party), or PDC. These parties emerged in the 1950s and 1960s to challenge the oligarchy as well as the left (especially the APRA), with its emphasis on modernization and development within a somewhat more activist framework.

In light of these events, APRA accelerated its rightward tendency and entered into a new alliance with its old enemy, the oligarchy, in exchange for new legal recognition. As a result of this suspect alliance, many of APRA's former party members flocked to support the charismatic reformist and founder of AP (Popular Action), Fernando Belaúnde Terry (1963-1968). Belaúnde ushered in a modest agrarian reform, colonization projects in the montaña (high jungle), and construction of the North-South Jungle Border Highway, running the entire length of the country. All this at a time when U.S. president John F. Kennedy was launching his Alliance for Progress campaign in Latin America, thereby contributing to widespread expectations for progress.

In 1969, the year of Arguedas's death, the Agrarian Reform Law was watered down in Congress by a conservative coalition between APRA and Odría's National Union Party (UNO). This coalition prompted the rise of guerrilla movements led by rebellious Apristas. Belaúnde lost his reformist zeal and called on the army to put down the guerrillas, opting for a more technocratic orientation and large numbers of construction projects, including irrigation, transportation, and housing, while at the same time investing heavily in education. Such initiatives were made possible, in part, by the economic boost provided by the dramatic expansion of the fishmeal industry that flourished in these years. The new industry, aided by new technologies and abundant fishing areas, was also favored by marine currents that brought an abundance of plankton to the Peruvian marine platform. By 1962 Peru became the world's leading fishmeal producer, with fishmeal accounting for one third of the nation's exports. Nevertheless, this bonanza would be of little help to Belaúnde. In 1967, faced with a growing balance-of-payments problem, he was forced to devaluate the sol, the country's monetary unit. Eventually, in 1968 he capitulated to foreign investments in a final controversial settlement with the International Petroleum Company (IPC) over La Brea y Paiñis oil field in Northern Peru. With growing public discontent, General Velasco Alvarado overthrew the Belaúnde government in 1968, launching thereby an expected series of reforms.3


Historically and culturally positioned at the crossroads of indigenous and industrial global environments, Arguedas's “poetic,”4 ideological, and cultural writing enacts a countercolonizing, counterassimilating scheme that is now gaining wider popular reception and critical attention, both within and outside Spanish-speaking countries. José María Arguedas, as “educated third,”5 or “cultural mestizo” whose education partakes of both indigenous and white, Western European worlds is uniquely positioned to enlighten different audiences, not only on the possibilities pertaining to an as yet incomplete Latin American cultural mestizaje, but on other transculturations as well. For these reasons, Arguedas stands as an authoritative voice for modern cultural history; a heartening symbol of cultural alternative within a fractured and complex world. As several of his readers, critics, and commentators (among them William Rowe) have suggested, the literary work of Arguedas, to name but one of his diverse facets, can claim universal validity because it openly dramatizes the conflict between traditional and modern democratic capitalistic cultures. Arguedas calls attention to the possibility that it is not in the interest of modern capitalism, as a cultural system, to foment and preserve the best of humanistic culture.6 On the contrary, it blindly contributes to dismantling it.

To read Arguedas implies not only new ways of confronting very specific locally defined problems and issues, such as internal sociocultural, economic disruption(s) caused by modernization processes. It implies the necessity, as well, of revising our ways of reading, thinking, and portraying the world in a more holistic, systemic way, which is to say, as a system of multiple interconnections. Thus, Arguedas's work serves as a locus whereby to play out new openings onto social, aesthetic, and cultural paradigms. Arguedas's work calls for new ways in which to read and to theorize about literature (Cornejo-Polar et al. 1984, 27), and especially literature from the emerging world (Third and Fourth, Indigenous worlds). Indeed, to read Arguedas in the context of what is currently taking place in the world is to focus our attention on important global issues, whether technological, political, economic, or ethical, issues that most often impact on indigenous peoples and nations on the verge of final silencing or assimilation into mainstream structures. To paraphrase the Mexican essayist, poet, and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz, with every culture that disappears from the face of the earth so too does another possibility for human survival (Azcuy 1986, preliminary aphorisms, n.p.).

Within the current process of globalization, traditional binary structural oppositions such as “the local” and “the global” have progressively blurred to the point of rendering them less discernible or even recognizable. Thus, it no longer makes sense within the Peruvian landscape, to characterize Indians as opposed to mistis. Rather, it is more appropriate to think of entire ethnias or nations confronting cultural and economic usurpation (Cornejo-Polar et al. 1984); this is because such nations do not always fit within the frontiers defined and created by modern states. It is within this context that Arguedas inserts the problematic of indigenous nations and cultures, first, within his beloved Peru, then within the Third World vis-à-vis global imperialisms.

Thus, Arguedas's work acquires a distinctly universal character. This universality, however, should not be viewed in purely Western ideological terms. As Cornejo-Polar points out, Arguedas's universality arises from within a culture that is historically rooted in concrete Andean experience, an experience that is as universal as “the Greek, the Chinese, or the Hindu, [and that] can be fully adopted as the patrimony of humanity …” (1984, 33). In this sense, Arguedas partakes of universal isomorphic cultural practices, such as those embodied in mythological paradigms; models as valid as those postulated through science and philosophy.

This helps us understand the extraordinary cultural intertextuality called for when reading Arguedas. Intellectual disciplinary endeavors cannot be defined in terms of absolute parameters or borders. It is arbitrary, therefore, to study Arguedas's literary work as independent or disconnected from his work as ethnographer, folklorist, compiler, translator, and interpreter of legends, myths, songs, and especially from his deep preoccupation with the study of autochthonous creativity and culture. If Arguedas is important, it is because he attempted a sociology of art and culture through literary, anthropological, ethnographic, linguistic, and folkloric venues. All these endeavors simultaneously unfold in Arguedas and mutually complement and interconnect at different levels.

Arguedas's life and work represent a drama of the unspeakable, of the undecidable, of the culturally and linguistically untranslatable, a drama that began for him as a struggle with language, and its ability to reflect an authentic reality:

Men legitimately express themselves in the language they have created. That language, like the men who created it, is son of the earth and of the landscape within which its creators were born. … In that sense, [Quechua] is the pure and genuine language of the men of the Ande[s]. And because of that … the [Quechua] huayno [typical musical Inca composition] is more beautiful than the Castilian [Spanish] or than the mixed [mestizo] one. … In the [Quechua] huayno the Andean landscape lives, as it is felt, suffered and carried in the soul by the man of the Ande[s].

[Nosotros los maestros, 35]

As a bilingual educated mestizo (educated third), speaking both Quechua and Spanish, Arguedas confronted the problem of communicating a lived reality to an audience unfamiliar with it, an audience to whom this reality was strange. This audience was mainly of Spanish Creole descent, people who had settled primarily in the coastal regions of Peru, neither speaking nor understanding Quechua.

Integration and disintegration, the construction of cosmos within the experience of chaos itself, both individual and textual, are constants in Arguedas's aesthetic and ideological undertaking. This is perhaps why Arguedas in El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (The fox from above and the fox from below) compares himself to a tree that far extends its branches “tanteando y anhelante” (groping and yearning) (92). This is why for Arguedas, to write is not merely to designate, to refer, or to represent, but rather to bring things into presence, to unveil them, as Heidegger would say.7 The difficulty of endowing the non-Quechua word with the essence of things—as only this language can—would ultimately lead Arguedas to a tragic impasse: the realization of an impossible translation of the being or essence of things (Seiendes) into modern languages, including scientific ones, and technolects (to borrow a term from Serres). Not unlike Socrates' skeptical posture on the written word's ability to portray reality as it is, Arguedas's writing displays a clear suspicion of written logocentrism.

Critics have noted, for example, that Arguedas writes from a “poetics of orality” (Rowe 1989, 6). In fact, Arguedas consistently signals in his work the very close relationship between the sound and the meaning of words in the Quechua language, hence of its possibility to communicate to the reader an alternative cultural perspective, quite unlike that of modern, positivistic, or dominant ways of thinking and writing. As Walter J. Ong has noted, sound is sensitive to the secrets of the heart and displays a forceful capacity for synthesis that cannot be discounted from a magical perception of reality.8 Magic in Arguedas breaks with homogeneity as embedded in modern democratic capitalistic systems, in the imposition of standardizing consumerism, and in ways of seeing nature and the world that threaten to obliterate cultural diversity. For Arguedas, writing was more than a means of deferring personal and cultural demise; it was both an ethical and political act and responsibility: to disseminate a vision of the indigenous world beyond its borders in the hope of bringing forth both internal and external change, change that would allow for the indigenous world to merge into mainstream culture without losing its traditional values and identity.

Given this context, possibilities arise for the intertwining of myth and history as forms of consciousness, the creation of hybrid paradigms as alternatives toward modernity (crossings between the traditional and the modern, the local and the global) as a response to the inevitable globalizing processes that science and technology have unleashed. By reenacting popular memory, while at the same time considering outside modernizing trends, Arguedas's hope was that the cultural traumas of invasion and usurpation, unleashed by sixteenth-century European discoveries and expansionist economies, could be reassessed in new ways, opening up more positive perspectives for the future. Hence, the importance of retracing the points whereby modern industrial technology and culture come together with magic, nature, and preindustrialized culture.

Within this framework, a crucial characteristic of Arguedas's work is his preoccupation with social immobility and individual solitude that Indian communities still confront in present times, either in their natural habitats or in industrial ones because of cultural dislocations and displacements brought on by impinging forces of modernization. This perspective explains Arguedas's reluctance to relinquish a utopian mode of thinking, a method that also allows us to compare and evaluate our own models (scientific, technological, cultural, and sociological). To be sure, Inca forms of organization provided the basic economic, social, and cultural model for such celebrated utopias as Thomas More's Utopia (1516) and Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888) (Morgan 1946).

Arguedas saw the problematic of indigenous culture as essentially “transcultural,” with a special role assigned to the mestizo, a figure Angel Rama calls “the compassionate heir” by opposition to the mere “renegade” (202). In his role of compassionate heir, the mestizo fulfills within himself the necessary transmutations that insure both his own as well as ancestral survival. In this regard, the mestizo echoes the goal assigned to Virgil's Aeneas in the renewal or foundation of human civilization, and to that of Demetrio Rendón Wilka in Arguedas's controversial novel Todas las sangres (1964).

The above may serve not only to call attention to Arguedas's commitment to indigenous issues but to underscore his originality and his divergence from traditional indigenista writing. Unlike the first indigenista writers, who wrote about indigenous peoples from afar (merely through reading and hearing about them), and with a paternalistic, condescending attitude, Arguedas's originality as an indigenista author stems from his firsthand knowledge of these peoples, speaking and writing from within, in an authentic, autonomous, testimonial and metatestimonial voice. Also distinguishable is Arguedas's representation of the mestizo as bridge between indigenous and white Western European worlds. For this Peruvian author, who saw himself as mestizo, mestizaje represented more than racial or blood crossings. For Arguedas, as for the French philosopher Michel Serres, mestizaje is also a cultural process involving the reassessment of values, and the voluntary adaptation of individuals, institutions and societies to their particular environments and social contexts.

As a polifacetic cultural mestizo (educated third), Arguedas could see that Peru had been mistakenly classified after World War II as a country undergoing transition from a traditional, nonindustrial society to a modern industrial one. Nothing could be farther from Arguedas's perceptions on the matter. In his view, this alleged process of transition was not to be understood simply as a replacement of one structure for another. Rather, Peruvian society was still in a process of reformulation and reconsideration of both traditional and new, communal and institutional social structures. This process is tellingly illustrated in his ethnographic study of the Mantaro River Valley (1953), where he uncovers one of the most radical processes of transculturation of the indigenous population of Peru (Formación de una cultura nacional indoamericana, 28-33, 80-148).9 In this context Arguedas's paradigm of “modernization from within” not only confronted social scientists of the time with an alternative model of societal development. More important, Arguedas's conception concerning societies of transition have only recently begun to be recognized as a way of describing a much-debated, distinct Latin American approach to entering modernity.

In our times of crisis, wherein nature and indigenous cultures lie at the brink of obliteration by modern technological constructions, as these push outward, increasing their radius of influence and dislocation—whether of place or cultural heritage, real or abstract—dislocation and loss of identity is traced to the theoretical construction of a subject as mere discursive category without ontological foundation. How did Arguedas sort out this problematic within his poetic, ideological endeavor? We can attempt to answer this question by postulating Arguedas's desire to give legitimate voice to “otherness.” Arguedas's consideration of the “other” (whether indigenous, mestizo, or white), however, must not be understood as difference, but rather as a constitutional element of the whole.10 There is no better reflection of this posture than Arguedas's proclaiming himself to be “nonacculturated,” a statement meant not to portray an isolated difference but rather to defiantly reaffirm his connection to the Andean peasantry, to that class that Michel Serres also calls “universal” (1985, 1991). The words of José de la Riva-Agüero, in this context, sound disturbingly Arguedean and prophetic: “The destiny of Peru is inseparable from that of the Indian: it either falls or is redeemed with him, but Peru cannot abandon him without committing suicide” (1969; qtd. in Tord 1978, 25).

Arguedas's work is undeniably innovative, and tellurically Latin American. Unfortunately, where Arguedas needed political and literary support, he met with incomprehension, discrepancy, and personal attack. When questioned about his “political radicalization,” he noted, “When I started writing, I was very radical, toward 1931-32. Then, I began giving in, to the point wherein I came to believe in a pacifist revolution. I once again understand that the selfishness and sensuality of those who profit from others' work cannot be destroyed by good intentions alone” (1968; qtd. in Forgues 1989, 425). Hence, his ambiguous relation to political faction, as expressed in his own words: “I still believe that to belong to a party in [Latin America] marginalizes the intellectual; it turns him into a target of prejudicial enmity … (letter to Marie Gutton, September 26, 1967; qtd. in Forgues 1989, 444).

As Arguedas well knew, to go outside a familiar worldview into another may be possible for individuals only in a theoretical way. The rupture with parochialism carries inherent dangers, including the precipitation of interpretive crisis. Arguedas's final words to his students and colleagues that fateful day in November 1969 are symbolic of this painful reflection, of a man caught between the worlds he could not bring into a democratic dialogue, except perhaps through imagination and his readers' good will.


  1. All translations are my own, unless otherwise indicated.

  2. Arguedas also notes that Don Nieves Quispe (another indigenous elder) decreed that all native children become mestizos so that the official authority and direction of the community be assumed by the mestizo descendants of Indians rather than by exclusive right of the traditional mestizos (Páginas escogidas, 196).

  3. For an expanded historical view of Peru, see Hudson 1993.

  4. Here I use the word poetic in connection with the general meaning assigned to the Greek term poiesis: production as social creativity.

  5. Paraphrasing Michel Serres (Le tiers-instruit, 1991), I use the term “educated third” as a value of cultural adaptation, cultural sharing, and the creational process that ensues from it. Arguedas was aware, as José Uriel García put it, that “There is no doubt that the world[s] of the Indian, the mestizo, and the creole still exist, even more the creative impulse, the spiritual force, tied to the blood that corresponds to each type. However, all that they produce is simply traditional and the man who overcomes those individual simplicities, he who can become the synthesis of each one of them, will be the creator of the future” (1937, 6-7).

  6. The term culture has now acquired a more ample sense, as tackled by the new cultural studies movement, and as brought to the fore by the Marxist thinker and social critic Raymond Williams. As Williams explains, culture is all-encompassing; it incorporates not only those classical meanings as implied in the active cultivation of the mind, but also those in the cultivation of the land. Culture, therefore, also has economic implications. In our own time, “culture” must coexist “often uneasily with the anthropological, and extended sociological use to indicate the ‘whole way of life’ of a distinct people or other social group” (1981, 11).

  7. Arguedas's struggle is in translating into Spanish an indigenous reading of nature, a reading that, to paraphrase Serres, is also tantamount to the reading of atoms that make up the codes of universal substances and entities, and as written in universal memory (Serres 1982).

  8. By way of example, see chapter 6 (“Zumbayllú”) in Deep Rivers (1978), wherein Arguedas provides a thorough explanation of the suffix -yllu as living, magical entity or spirit. See also “Acerca del intenso significado de dos voces quechuas” (Concerning the intense meaning of two Quechua voices) in Indios, mestizos y señores, pp. 147-49.

  9. See for instance in this volume “Cambio de cultura en las comunidades indígenas económicamente fuertes” (Cultural exchange in economically viable indigenous communities), 28-33; and “Evolucíon de las comunidades indígenas: El Valle del Mantaro y la ciudad de Huancayo: un caso de fusión de culturas no comprometida por las accíon de las instituciones de origen colonial” (The evolution of indigenous communities, Valley of Mantaro and the city of Huancayo: a case of cultural fusion uncompromised by the action of colonial institutions), 80-147.

  10. Tzvetan Todorov in The Conquest of America (1984) explores the concept of “otherness” from the perspective of the conquest in the chapter “Typology of Relations to the Other.” For Todorov this notion of the other develops at three levels: axiological (value judgment), praxiological (identification or nonidentification with the other), and epistemic (mutual knowledge or disavowal of knowledge). All three levels apply in their positive connotations to Arguedas's relations to indigenous communities. Thus, for example, at the axiological level, the other is not “bad” or inferior in relation to the one who judges (Arguedas himself). At the praxiological level, Arguedas embraces the other's values and identifies with them. At the epistemic level, Arguedas declares himself bound to the other in mutual knowledge.

Works Cited

Arguedas, José María. 1972. Páginas escogidas (Selected pages). Lima: Editorial Universo.

———. 1972. El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (The fox from above and the fox from below). Buenos Aires: Biblioteca Clásica y Contemporánea.

———. 1975. Formación de una cultura nacional indoamericana (The formation of a national Indoamerican culture). Mexico City: Siglo XXI Editores.

———. 1978. Deep Rivers. Trans. Frances Horning Barraclough. Austin: University of Texas Press.

———. 1986. Nosotros los maestros (We the teachers). Lima: Editorial Horizonte.

———. 1989. Indios, mestizos y señores (Indians, mestizos, and gentlemen). 3d ed. Lima: Editorial Horizonte.

———. 1993. Yawar Fiesta. Lima: Editorial Horizonte.

Azcuy, Eduardo A. 1986. Identidad cultural y cambio tecnológico en América Latina (Cultural identity and technological change in Latin America). Buenos Aires: Editorial Fundación Ross.

Barthes, Roland. 1972. “Authors and Writers.” In Critical Essays, 143-50. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press.

Cornejo-Polar, Antonio, Alberto Escobar, Martin Lienhard, and William Rowe. 1984. Vigencia y universalidad de José María Arguedas (The force and universality of José María Arguedas). Lima: Editorial Horizonte.

Fell, Eve-Marie, ed. 1990. José María Arguedas: El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (The fox from above and the fox from below). Nanterre, France: Centre de Recherches Latino-Américaines.

Forgues, Roland. 1989. José María Arguedas: Del pensamiento dialéctico al pensamiento trágico: Historia de una utopía. (José María Arguedas: From dialectic thought to tragic thought: The history of a utopia). Lima: Editorial Horizonte.

García, Uriel J. 1937. El nuevo indio: Ensayos indianistas sobre la sierra surperuana (The new Indian: Essays on the Indian of the southern Peruvian mountain range). Cuzco: H. G. Rosas Sucesores.

Hudson, Rex A., ed. 1993. Peru: A Country Study. 4th ed. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress.

Morgan, Arthur E. 1946. Nowhere Was Somewhere: How History Makes Utopias and How Utopias Make History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Ong, Walter J. 1982. “Oral Memory, the Story Line and Characterization.” In Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, 139-55. London: Methuen.

Rama, Angel. 1987. Transculturación narrativa en América Latina (Narrative transculturation in Latin America). Mexico City: Siglo XXI Editores.

Rowe, William. 1989. “Yawar Fiesta: José María Arguedas.” Third World Quarterly 11 (no. 4): 274-78.

Serres, Michel. 1982. “The Origin of Language: Biology, Information Theory, and Thermodynamics.” In Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy, ed. Josué V. Harari and David F. Bell, 71-83. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

———. 1985. “Visite.” In Le cinq sens (The five senses), 255-340. Paris: Bernard Grasset.

———. 1991. Le tiers-instruit (The educated third). Paris: François Bourin.

Todorov, Tzvetan. 1984. The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Harper Collins.

Tord, Luis Enrique. 1978. El indio en los ensayistas peruanos, 1848-1948 (The Indian in Peruvian essayists, 1848-1948). Lima: Editoriales Unidas.

Vasconcelos, José. 1992. La raza cósmica: Misión de la raza iberoamericana, Argentina y Brasil (The cosmic race: The mission of the Iberian-American race, Argentina and Brazil). Mexico City: Espasa-Calpe Mexicana.

Williams, Raymond. 1981. The Sociology of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Alita Kelley (essay date 1998)

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SOURCE: Kelley, Alita. “The Persistence of Center: José María Arguedas and the Challenge to the Postmodern Outlook.” In José María Arguedas: Reconsiderations for Latin American Cultural Studies, edited by Ciro A. Sandoval and Sandra M. Boschetto-Sandoval, pp. 70-84. Athens: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1998.

[In the following essay, Kelley asserts that Arguedas, despite using post-modernist techniques to depict the world of modern man, could not be a post-modernist; post-modernism, she contends, accepts no redemptive or transcendent force, whereas for Arguedas writing was itself a transcendent act of communion with the still-vibrant culture of the Quechua.]

José María Arguedas (1911-1969), the Peruvian writer and anthropologist, based his novels and stories on the life and outlook of the Quechua-speaking Indians living in a world forced upon them, and saw as his literary mission the expression of what another writer, speaking of current literature in the language of another oppressed people, the Irish, recently called a “unique and unrepeatable way of looking at the world” (Ní Dhomhnaill 1995, 28).

In recent years the terms posmodernismo and posmodernidad have begun figuring with increasing frequency in critical texts in Spanish, with little or no clarification as to usage. Subsequent to such clarification, Arguedas's work will be considered within the context of modernity and postmodernity, with his final novel El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (The fox from above and the fox from below, 1971) viewed as his ultimate rejection of the latter. Arguedas's rejection of postmodernity, however, is no mere defense of modernity in the face of a later development, but is expressed in such a way as to leave in no doubt his innovative position in an emerging world literature, one outlined by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, and in which the voices of the dominant Western culture are no longer the only ones, nor even those that prevail.

Awareness of postmodernity in Latin American fiction appeared in an essay by the Chilean José Promis Ojeda, “En torno a la nueva novela hispanoamericana: Reubicación de un concepto” (The new Hispano-American novel: Rethinking a concept, 1977). In it Promis Ojeda berates critics of the sixties and seventies for claiming that a “new” Latin American novel, one that incorporates thematic and textual innovations, such as auto-referentiality, a nonchronological story line, stream of consciousness passages, levels of reality other than the everyday empirical, and change of narrative viewpoint, came into being during the boom years. The critics were dating this so-called new novel from the 1950s or, perhaps, the forties (Brushwood 1975, 333-34) and virtually ignoring fiction written from the 1920s on by Latin Americans such as Macedonio Fernández, Jorge Luis Borges, María Luisa Bombal, Teresa de la Parra, and Martín Adán, alongside Proust, Joyce, Mann, Woolf, Hemingway, Faulkner, and others. The “new” novel was almost half a century old at the time of the boom but had been ignored or misread by positivist critics enamored of Zola's naturalist roman experimental (Promis Ojeda 1977, 17-18), which had purported to produce a scientistic social document based on detached observation of empirical reality and to eschew aesthetic creation and lyrical language (Promis Ojeda 1993, 17-23; Braun 1965, 308-11).

In 1976 in Modernism: 1890-1930, the British critics Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane coined the term “cultural seismology” to define “the shifts and displacements of sensibility in art, literature, and thought,” and to bring attention to upheavals within those shifts (1976, 19). A German neologism, Modernismus, was taken over by most Western languages as an umbrella term to denote the spirit behind a cataclysm that appeared to shake the arts before and after the first World War. In Catalan and Spanish, the term modernismo, however, had been preempted by the nineteenth-century art-for-art's-sake tremor that produced Art Nouveau, symbolism, and Decadence immediately preceding modernity, which is categorized in Spanish as vanguardismo in poetry or neo-realismo in prose. Incongruously, no umbrella term in Spanish defined “modernity” until the recent appearance of modernidad to cover the spirit that informed the plastic arts, music, and literature vis-á-vis the terms posmodernidad and posmodernismo, already in use as a translation of French and English usage, possibly disseminated through a 1971 essay of that name by Ihab Hassan (Bradbury and McFarlane 1976, 35; Calinescu 1987, 141-43).

Bradbury and McFarlane incorporate the nineteenth-century tremors, including Hispanic modernismo, within the literature of modernity as they point out the plethora of conflicting concepts the term denotes. There is no particular theme or style unique to modernity, though “modernism/modernity” has “a recognizable general meaning” that clearly serves as “a broad stylistic description” (23). Pio Baroja's laconic tone, from which Hemingway took much of his “pared down style,” might appear to be poles apart from Thomas Mann's baroque sentences, yet the three are modernists inasmuch as their writing reveals a will to produce an original voice. The works of modernity are informed by a common creative attitude of mind, and the period of modernity can be seen as the culmination of a romantic mind-set that extends from the late eighteenth century through the first half of the twentieth, during which time the artist, musician, or writer is “perpetually engaged in a profound and ceaseless journey through the means and integrity of art” (29), with redemption and transcendence often ascribed to the creative act itself. During the time of modernity proper such belief combines with a search for new transcendent codes to replace the eroded underpinnings of Western culture (Promis Ojeda 1977, 19) and which is found in the Latin American novel of the early boom years (23). In several Latin American writers of modernity, Eliot's search for “the Tradition,” Hemingway's longing for “the Code,” or Yeats's quest for a private mythology (Olsen 1990, 27) find an equivalent in the favoring of an indigenous concept of reality—for example, in Miguel Angel Asturias in El señor presidente (Mr. President, 1948), Alejo Carpentier in Los pasos perdidos (The lost steps, 1952), and Augusto Roa Bastos in Hijo del hombre (Son of man, 1960), while José María Arguedas is consistent in advocating the outlook of the Quechua Indians from his first publication in the thirties to his death in 1969, but particularly in the autobiographical Los ríos profundos (Deep rivers, 1958) and in his final, posthumous novel, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (1971).

In Los ríos profundos Arguedas depicts moments of oneness with nature and with the people with whom Ernesto, the young protagonist, identifies (64, 65, 71-80, etc.). Ernesto, raised by the Quechua, learned his views on life from them; he speaks of his pride in the discovery of his own literary voice possessed of a lyricism born of the Quechua tradition, and not the high-flown, romantic Spanish style he affected until that time; his new voice was “neither a wail of sorrow nor one of despair. I left the classroom proud and erect, as sure of myself as when I swam across rushing rivers swollen by January floods” (79).1 In his last work, El zorro de arriba (1971), Arguedas writes again of such a worldview learned through an upbringing among Indians and states a literary credo: “I live to write and I believe one must live unconditionally if one is to interpret the chaos and order of things” (26).

In the boom years of the Latin American novel, writers and critics familiar with world literature and the latest literary theories flourished; Arguedas felt incapable of rebutting their sophistries and affected ignorance of literary techniques (1971, 15; Narradores peruanos 1969, 71, 174), but in doing so, contradicted earlier statements in “La novela y el problema de la expresión literaria en el Perú” (“The novel and the problem of literary expression in Peru,” 1950), in which he outlines the problems confronting the writer who wishes to depict the reality and outlook of the Quechua in literary Spanish (69). According to Margot Beyersdorff, from as early as 1931 Arguedas's “overriding concern” was to find a means of transposing Quechua speech characteristics (1986, 28). She also notes that several critics have been fascinated by this genesis of his literary voice (28-30), including William Rowe, who shows how Arguedas's attempts to find a convincing way to express Quechua speech forces his prose through complex experimental stages from text to text. A given usage might be tried, abandoned, modified, and taken up again (1979, 41-66), and this awareness of language and will to experiment gives Arguedas his unique literary voice. It also separates him from writers of the indigenist school of Andean social realism, born of Zolan naturalism. While the dichotomy between the writing of modernity and that of the scientistic naturalists, who supposedly produced reports based on empiric observation, is less total than critics and practitioners believed (Knapp 1975, 41; Promis Ojeda 1993, 9-31), Arguedas's will to original literary expression and need to represent moments of transcendence clearly place him in the modernist camp from the start of his literary career.

As published, El zorro de arriba begins and ends with, and the story line includes, sections classified by the writer as “diaries,” written “in the hope of emerging from the unexpected well into which I have fallen … half consumed by a recurrence of my old illness” (207). The diaries contain comments on a wide variety of topics and include reflections on the natural world and the writer's sense of union with it (24, 27, 96, 206-7), memories of earlier times (28-31), and discussion of the author's acute physical pain (21) and state of clinical depression, which finally led to his suicide (11, 18, 95-99). He offers views on the writer's vocation and refers to other writers with whom he can or cannot empathize (15-30, 209-11).

In the 1960s an unfortunate, widely disseminated dispute had taken place in print between Arguedas and the Argentinean postmodernist Julio Cortázar; Arguedas refers to it specifically in his last novel (204). Each debated the nature of the writer and the literary act as he conceived it. Once again, reference to José Promis Ojeda's 1977 essay sheds light on this occurrence. Promis Ojeda believes that, as critics earlier had not recognized in the literature of Latin America the modernity that had started in the 1920s, they now were overlooking the change in outlook that was taking place in the novel of the sixties.

Textual and thematic experimental techniques did not originate with the boom novels nor with the French nouveau roman. They can, in fact, all be found as in a sampler in Joyce's Finnegans Wake of 1940, but a different spirit does begin to inform the Latin American works of the sixties, as it also informs the nouveau roman and an increasing number of works of Western fiction from many countries (Barth, Gass, Olsen, O'Neill). Promis Ojeda refers to this as a “fall, or loss of center,” which strangely echoes Yeats's earlier auguries of impending chaos: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” (1973, 210-11). The Chilean considers the whirlwind that carries away the written word at the end of Gabriel García Márquez's Cien años de soledad (One hundred years of solitude, 1967) emblematic of a new Weltanschauung (Promis Ojeda 1977, 26) that has now been identified with the postmodern. It had already manifested itself in the earlier part of the boom in Cortázar's Rayuela (Hopscotch, 1963), a tragic story told facetiously by a narrator who searches frantically but fruitlessly for transcendence. The postmodernist can find no redemptive forces, nothing in which to place hope of transcendence: all metanarratives have failed, God is dead, belief in historicism is not justified, reason has let us down, science dooms us to chaos. The modernist's only option appears to be laughter in the face of reality, and the absurdist playwright Eugène Ionesco, echoing Nietzsche, does in fact assert that “to become conscious of what is horrifying and to laugh … is to become master” (Esslin 1969, 158). This lends credence to Kristeva's assertion that, while the literature of modernity deals with the tragedy of existence, postmodern literature deals with the tragedy that is the human comedy (1987, 151).

Arguedas's last novel chronicles an appreciation of the new fiction of the sixties but ends by revealing his knowledge that he will never be able to come to terms with the postmodern viewpoint. He cannot, he says, consider writing as a “profession,” since, for him, to write is to live and is allied to his will to depict the moments of union with the natural world that he describes for an uncomprehending adversary (204, 210-11). However, Arguedas sees the “new” literary techniques of the sixties as necessary for depicting the new, man-made reality so different from the natural world with which he identifies. He says, “I should have learned something, at least; perhaps I should have learned a lot from the Cortázars,” but that would have meant being a very different person and leading a very different life (210).

Postmodernism is usually viewed nowadays as a literary Zeitgeist that starts around mid-century, but it can also be viewed as a constant in literature (Hillis Miller 1975, 31) that reflects a writer's individual temperament as much as the spirit of a given time (Kronik 1994). Kafka, Nabokov, and Borges were postmodernists during the heyday of the modernist outlook. A postmodern spirit might be said to inform Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy, and a character in Arthur Koestler's novel The Call-Girls (1972) insists that a similar spirit informs the words of Ecclesiastes, who “dates from the Bronze Age and God was still supposed to be alive then” (67).

Nothing could be further from postmodern mockery than the simple wonder expressed in Arguedas's lyrical prose in Los ríos profundos, or when the writer describes his experiences of redemption in the diary sections of his last novel. Arguedas spent his life attempting to communicate the “love, hate, and tenderness” (Narradores peruanos 1969, 36) that he learned, along with a sense of oneness with nature, as a child, as he says in his last novel “raised among don Felipe Maywa's folk, placed in the very oqllo [breast] of the Indians” (20). Just as Koestler finds that Ecclesiastes shows cynicism in the Bronze Age, it can be argued that efforts to convey the sense of such unity with all that is natural form a literary constant in religious expression from the Bronze Age and even earlier.

The difference between Arguedas and many modernist writers lies in the simple fervor with which he insists on the validity of his beliefs. In the “First Diary” of his last novel, he tells once again how and where he came upon his view of reality, stressing that such a view is based on his earliest perceptions of love (22-23) that have comforted him throughout his life. He is aware, however, that similar attitudes regarding the views of native peoples have become fashionable among some sophisticated writers, and he mentions one by name (17). His own commitment to artistic creation is typical of the spirit of modernism, but he is adamant in his abhorrence of literary posturing. Arguedas advocates the order he perceives as natural, and to describe it he prefers metaphors taken from the natural world (206, 207, 209, etc.), so that when the narrator of his last novel affirms his friendship with a tree: “two yards from its powerful, blackened trunk one hears a sound, the typical sound that flows forth at the foot of those who stand alone” (206), the reader senses his insistence that this is something he truly feels, as well as his fear that his sentences might be construed as fine writing.

In spite of the resentment that Arguedas feels for the new “professional” novelists and his insistence in his last novel that he is “a provincial” (25), he is remarkably successful in producing a totalizing text that incorporates the techniques he takes to be boom innovations. The story line of El zorro de arriba is set in the port of Chimbote, a once quiet backwater that in the 1960s became Peru's boom town due to the international fishmeal industry. As European and North American modernists looked to the Greek myths, so the Andean incorporates elements from Inca mythology. The novel covers all strata of Chimbote society, including some actual living persons, and its protagonists range from the displaced Indians of the shanty towns who, working at jobs created by the fishmeal boom—not the least important occupation being prostitution—to Peruvian and foreign capitalists who have turned the town into an inferno. Yet, in spite of the chaos, there are those beings who survive and even transcend the reality around them.

Arguedas was a very slow and careful writer who made many revisions. The jerky, impressionistic passages, which combine many styles, even elements of different genres, more than comply with the techniques considered mandatory for a novel written during the boom years, yet only a first, uncorrected draft of the novel exists, and no edition wholly complies with the writer's stipulations. The unfinished novel is in fragmentary form, with a stylized résumé near the end that proposes a denouement: Arguedas wanted the “chapters” of story line classified as “ebullitions” (212), as if to imply that they were being emitted by some uncontainable force.

The foxes of the title derive from the tricksters of a colonial Quechua document on myths of Huarochirí, a locality in the highlands, inland from Lima. In Arguedas's novel, the fox from the coast and the fox from the highlands first appear in order to discuss, critically, the writer's efforts to generate a new form of narrative (31-32). Diego, the fox from the coast, an “Inca hippie,” later performs an act of magic realism by powering the machinery in a fishmeal factory by dancing the traditional scissors-dance (130-34, 153), and he is also present as a stutterer magically cured of his affliction (151-53). The fox appears to symbolize Arguedas's faith in the indigenous population's ability to master the niceties of Western technology and custom without sacrificing its own culture and magic. Over the centuries, the Quechua have proven their capacity to prevail, and to take what they wish from the environment that was forced upon them, without relinquishing the qualities essential to their own particular vision. This also forms the subject of the Quechua poetry written by Arguedas in his later years (Murra 1978, xiii-xv; Rowe and Schelling 1991, 61).

There are factors in Arguedas's last novel that have proven troublesome to critics. William Rowe compares unfavorably the intellectualizing language of the “diaries” and their greater use of adverbs and adjectives with the gentle, onomatopoeic lyricism of Los ríos profundos dealing with identical material (1979, 197-99). There is a pervasive sexuality about the final novel. The action appears to take off from a description by the narrator in the “First Diary” of an enigmatic, infantile sexual experience (28-31), and Rowe ventures that the sexual element might mean to evoke the connotations possessed by the coast in the serrano mind (1979, 200-202); it is an element that figures prominently in Latin American boom literature but that appeared only mutedly in Arguedas's previous work. Arguedas incorporates into his last novel and his late poetry an unusual technique of deliberately comparing the natural to the man-made. A huayronqo (horsefly) is likened to a helicopter (27). While this brings to mind Dr. Johnson's famous observation that comparison of the man-made to the natural ennobles the man-made, and comparison of the natural to the man-made denigrates nature, denigration of nature is obviously not Arguedas's intent, yet the comparisons are so deliberate and insistent as to invite speculation. The text, unfinished as it is, shows that Arguedas “was an old dog with the adaptability to learn new tricks” (Higgins 1987, 211), but, as throughout the diaries, the narrator speaks repeatedly of beliefs that are firm and above changes of literary fashion.

Arguedas's repeated thesis was that in Peru the Quechua language has exercised more than substratum influence, and Rowe has pointed out in this context that the culture has produced two Quechua speakers, Guamán Poma de Ayala and José María Arguedas, who undertake to strengthen and extend the scope of the native tradition in time of crisis by depicting the Quechua outlook for the reader of Spanish. Rowe classifies the two as “translators” who attempt to present the Quechua world view to readers whose language is constituted quite differently from Quechua (1979, 53); according to culturally oriented translation theory, such translation ennobles and bestows authority on the source language (Lefevere 1992, 123).

Arguedas's writing in Spanish appears to possess such clarity of intent that its lyricism is evident, even in translation into other languages. The following is my translation of a passage from Los ríos profundos:

The rivers were always mine and the bushes growing on the slopes of the mountains, even the little villages and the houses with their red roofs streaked with lime, the blue fields of alfalfa, and my beloved cornfields. But whenever I was returning from the courtyard as night fell, the motherly glow of the world would melt before my eyes, and as soon as it was dark, my loneliness and isolation would grow.


In recent years Arguedas's popularity with readers of different languages and cultures appears to substantiate the success of his literary endeavor, but I do not believe that his fervor in presenting the Quechua vision should be construed as proselytizing to those who might or might not understand. He was aware from the start that the nuances of spoken language cannot be seen in print and that some Quechua concepts will not translate (1950), yet he does not hesitate to use them. Rosaleen Howard-Malverde in discussing Bruce Mannheim's writing on the Quechua principle of reciprocity, ayni, remarks that the concept is embedded in the language with suffixes indicating grammatically a sense of interpersonal obligation in Quechua speakers that functions below the level of consciousness (1994, 120). Arguedas told John V. Murra that he was persuaded to write in Spanish, though he had intended to write only in Quechua. Late in life he returned to writing in his first language (Murra 1978, x-xi). Arguedas's true intended reader must surely sense the niceties of that language and testify to the authenticity of the Quechua vision; Arguedas is addressing someone who reads Spanish but is familiar with the Quechua tradition. Such Peruvians, the first or second generation in their families to go to school, make up a considerable part of the population of Peru. For them, Arguedas's work has the appeal of writings by a close personal friend; his literary voice gives voice to their beliefs and outlook.

Ní Dhomhnaill, on speaking of her own poetry in the Irish language, voices the sentiment that appears to have inspired Arguedas's work. Ní Dhomhnaill stresses that she speaks not only for her own “defeated” language but for others throughout the world, and states that she believes such voices offer the only viable current alternative to the “originally Anglo-American, but now genuinely global, pop monoculture that reduces everything to the level of the most stupendous boredom” (1995, 28).

Arguedas's modernity consists in showing that, in spite of the fundamental viability of Ní Dhomhnaill's argument, her choice of wording is very wrong; the culture of the Quechua in Peru is anything but “defeated.” We are seeing that the staying power of a culture is not to be measured only in terms of economic and political hegemony or lack of same, as Rowe and Schelling (1991, 51-64) and others have shown. Anyone who visits Peru today, after a hiatus of several years, cannot but be astonished by the way in which the Andean culture is not merely surviving in the sierra but flourishing in the cities, where its presence has become ubiquitous; meanwhile, admiration for José María Arguedas, the “translator” of this culture—the man, his literary creativity and its message—has increased so greatly in the quarter century since his death that at times it almost reaches adulation.

That the sector of society whose culture Arguedas wrote of has been oppressed for over four hundred years and continues to be so to this day is certainly true, but we are coming to realize that the Quechua culture was never defeated, and that this might also be said of Ní Dhomhnaill's Celtic inheritance, and of that of many other peoples. Indeed, even in the face of total physical annihilation, a culture can prevail and influence its oppressors in ways never imagined. In directing his modernistic aesthetic toward the depiction of the Quechua and what he sees as the redemptive qualities of their culture, Arguedas, unlike most modernists, was expressing faith in what he knew from within. This lends to his work an unusual verisimilitude that flies in the face of the postmodern despair of the contemporaries with whom Arguedas debated in his final years. That he could master the purely technical aspects of so-called avant-garde prose writing he showed in his final novel, even as he insisted, to the very end of his life, through his depiction of the society he knew, that there is more to the human being and human culture than the society that has produced postmodernism could know or was willing to explore. In the case of the Quechua, as Julio Ortega has affirmed, Arguedas's writings show not only Peru's awareness of misfortune, but also its dream of what might be (1984, 89).


  1. All quotations from Spanish originals have been translated into English by the author.

Works Cited

Arguedas, José María. 1950. “La novela y el problema de la expresión literaria en el Perú” (The novel and the problem of literary expression in Peru). Mar del Sur (Lima) 3, no. 9 (January-February): 66-72.

———. 1964. Los ríos profundos (Deep rivers). Lima: Nuevo Mundo; 1978 Deep Rivers. Trans. Frances Horning Barraclough. Austin: University of Texas Press.

———. 1971. El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (The fox from above and the fox from below). 2d ed. Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada.

Barth, John. 1967. “The Literature of Exhaustion.” Atlantic 220 (August): 29-34.

———. 1980. “The Literature of Replenishment: Postmodernist Fiction.” Atlantic 245 (January): 65-71.

Beyersdorff, Margot. 1986. “Voice of the Runa: Quechua Substratum in the Narrative of José María Arguedas.” Latin American Indian Literatures Journal 2, no. 1 (Spring): 28-48.

Bradbury, Malcolm, and James McFarlane. 1976. “The Name and Nature of Modernism.” In Modernism: 1890-1930, ed. Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane, 19-55. London: Penguin.

Braun, Sidney D., ed. 1965. Dictionary of French Literature. New York: Fawcett.

Brushwood, John S. 1975. The Spanish American Novel: A Twentieth-Century Survey. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Calinescu, Matei. 1987. Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, and Postmodernism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Esslin, Martin. 1969. The Theatre of the Absurd. Rev. ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor-Doubleday.

Gass, William. 1987. “The First Seven Pages of the Boom.” Latin American Literary Review 15 (January-June): 33-56.

Higgins, James. 1987. A History of Peruvian Literature. London: Francis Cairns.

Hillis Miller, J. 1975. “Textual Strategies: Deconstructing the Deconstructers.” Diacritics 5, no. 2 (Summer): 24-31.

Howard-Malverde, Rosaleen. 1994. Review of The Language of the Inka since the European Invasion, by Bruce Mannheim. Bulletin of Latin American Research 13, no. 1 (January): 120-21.

Knapp, Bettina. 1975. Maurice Maeterlinck. Boston: Twayne.

Koestler, Arthur. 1976. The Call-Girls. London: Pan.

Kristeva, Julia. 1987. “The Pain and Sorrow of the Modern World: The Works of Marguerite Duras.” PMLA 102, no. 2: 138-52.

Kronik, John. 1994. “Strains of Postmodernism in Modern Narrative.” Taft Speaker, paper read at 14th Cincinnati Conference on Romance Languages and Literature, 14 May, at the University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Lefevere, André. 1992. Translating Literature: Practice and Theory in a Comparative Literature Context. New York: Modern Language Association of America.

Murra, John V. 1978. Introduction to Deep Rivers, by José María Arguedas. Trans. Frances Horning Barraclough. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Narradores peruanos (Peruvian writers). 1969. Primer encuentro de narradores peruanos (First meeting of Peruvian writers). Lima: Casa de la Cultura del Perú.

Ní Dhomhnaill, Nuala. 1995. “Why I Choose to Write in Irish, The Corpse That Sits Up and Talks Back.” New York Times Book Review (January 8): 3, 27-28.

Olsen, Lance. 1990. Circus of the Mind in Motion: Postmodernism and the Comic Vision. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

O'Neill, Patrick. 1990. The Comedy of Entropy: Humour, Narrative, Reading. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Ortega, Julio. 1984. Poetics of Change: The New Spanish-American Narrative. Trans. Galen D. Greaser, with the author. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Promis Ojeda, José. 1977. “En torno a la nueva novela hispanoamericana: Reubicación de un concepto” (The new Hispano-American novel: Rethinking a concept). Chasqui 7, no. 1: 16-27.

———. 1993. La novela chilena del último siglo (The Chilean novel in the last century). Santiago: Editorial La Noria.

Rowe, William. 1979. Mito e ideología en la obra de José María Arguedas (Myth and ideology in the work of José María Arguedas). Lima: Instituto Nacional de Cultura.

Rowe, William, and Vivian Schelling. 1991. Memory and Modernity: Popular Culture in Latin America. London: Verso.

William Rowe (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Rowe, William. “Reading Arguedas's Foxes.” In The Fox from Up Above and the Fox from Down Below, edited by Julio Ortega and Christian Fernandez, translated by Fred Fornoff, pp. 283-89. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Rowe describes “diaries” in The Fox from Up Above and the Fox from Down Below as “an erratic form of writing … that function as a threshold or multiple bridge between the fictional world, the sociocultural circumstance, the weave or Peruvian culture through many centuries, and the life of the author.”]

The initial reception of El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo was marked by the concern of the critics over the apparently inconclusive character of the text; they also stressed its supposedly testimonial nature (Arguedas himself uses the word testimonio in his “Diaries”), with regard to both the life of the author and the social world of the characters. With the years, however, it came to be recognized that this was a work of exceptional importance, not only within the Arguedian corpus but also for Peruvian and Latin American literature. The axis of this change of attitude on the part of the critics consists of what Martín Lienhard has called “a kind of Copernican revolution in the literary production of Arguedas and Peru” (Lienhard 1990: 322). This is because the text engages the Peruvian western-coastal world from Andean perspectives and patterns of discourse; thence, the formal techniques of the urban vanguardist novel are used and reformulated. As a result, “for the first time, since 1532, one perceives the possibility of unifying Peru, through narrative fiction, from an Andean perspective” (Lienhard 1990: 322), although the colonial mestizo chronicles, such as those of Guamán Poma, should be regarded as precursors, as should Arguedas's great epic-lyric poem itself, A Nuestro Padre Creador Túpac Amaru. This new literary process finds its historical base in the massive immigration of the Andean population to the cities of the coast, a demographic and cultural transformation unleashed by the rapid capitalist transformation of the 1960s.

As a result of all this, the reading of the text requires a certain degree of knowledge of the Andean culture, and to a certain extent, projects or anticipates a new bicultural reader. The sociohistorical context of the narration is the city of Chimbote, at the time (1967-69) the largest fishing port in the world, which had attracted an intense immigration from the mountains. There followed a rapid and fecund appropriation of the Western world by the mountain people, with a notable decrease in the shackles used to perpetuate Western-criollo privilege in the capital city. In a kind of counterinvasion, the Indian population was breaking through the barrier that had kept it marginalized since colonial times. In a letter, Arguedas writes: “The Hispano-Indian culture forged to the point of having attained a kind of incredible stability of contrast during the colonial period … is disintegrating in the most extraordinarily dramatic manner” (Arguedas 1990: 287). This disintegration is inextricably accompanied by a new potentialization, a process that is prolonged in the paradoxical struggle between life and death suffered by the author himself.

In this text, the narration does not progress toward a conclusion that promises to tie up the loose ends, as the classic novel usually does. On the contrary, there is a proliferation of voices and characters. These can be classified, according to geographical origin, as those from the mountains, those from the coast, and North Americans. The first group comprises, in an approximately ascending order of linguistic-cultural “occidentalization,” the following: Hilario Caullama, Paula Melchora, Esteban de la Cruz, Asto, Cecilio Ramírez, and Gregorio Bazalar. The most important of those from the coast are Angel Rincón, Chaucato, and Moncada, and there are three North Americans: Cardozo, Hutchinson, and Maxwell. We can also perceive differences in social strata, as for example between Angel Rincón, owner of a fish-meal factory, and Moncada, who lives on the margins of the economy. We have, as a result, an extraordinary variety of “sociolects” (see Escobar 1984: 188), and not only of voices, which makes this novel much more complex than many other Latin American novels that critics have called polyphonic. Traversing the different voices, we can grasp a wide variety of discourses, among them that of traditional Andean cosmology (Hilario Caullama), the corporal-mercantile discourse of the brothel (distinctly coastal), another corporal-expressive (Bazalar), and without exhausting the variations, another discourse of utopian convergence featuring the currents of Cuban socialism, Andean messianism, and liberation theology. If the boundaries between one sociolect and another and one discourse and another are not always clear, and if there is a high degree of interpenetration among them, this is due to the transformational power to which the novel subjects them. In the most intense moments, this produces a veritable swarm of discourses, characterized by disintegrations and extraordinarily fertile interconnections.

We are not speaking of a homogenizing integration—a program of forced and hierarchizing modernization—but of mutual transformations in which the differences are maintained and respected: a model, clearly, of a future society. The transformations take place under a specific tutelage (in the West, we would say muse): that of the character Diego, the Fox from Up Above, who interrogates and allows the people to speak and dance in ways that they alone would not be capable of doing. Diego incarnates the power of Quechua culture, especially its creative capacities. He channels into Arguedas's novel the presence of an extremely important Quechua text from the early seventeenth century, Dioses y hombres de Huarochirí [Gods and Men of Huarochirí], which Arguedas himself had translated shortly before beginning to write The Foxes. A text that collects the oral traditions of the popular social strata, Dioses y hombres has a cosmogonic and at the same time metamorphic character: it traces a series of swift transitions between different worlds. The main opposition of worlds consists of that between the world above and the world below, a traditional cosmological opposition and principle of spatial and social organization of the Andean zone; this is articulated in two characters/foxes, avatars of those of Arguedas, whose dialogue prolongs and renews an ancient dialogue. It can be said that among the many intertextualities of Arguedas's novel, the one articulated by the two foxes introduces into the text a time-space of long duration and vast spaces.

If the novel, from the perspective of Quechua culture, offers a new vision of Peru, not like the divisive and ethnocidal visions that have prevailed since the sixteenth century but rather one capable of embracing it as a totality, it is necessary to inquire more concretely what exactly we mean by Quechua culture. In the culturally hybrid world of Chimbote, as Arguedas perceives it, the coherence of a corpus of myths is no longer available. In this sense, for example, the fragments of Quechuan cosmogony are mixed with others of a coastal cosmogony (the Bay of Chimbote as the feminine sex penetrated by Braschi). Neither do we have a translation, in its “pure” state, of the Quechua notion of the sacred. The huaca, the predominant expression of the Andean sacred, has been reformulated: the pink smoke from the steel foundry is converted into a kind of industrial huaca, as a magical intensification of space.

We can utilize magic as the key word for clarifying the power of Quechua culture; this comes through in Arguedas's affirmation, when referring to the importance to him of socialism as an organizing principle, that nonetheless it [socialism] “did not kill the magic in me” (Arguedas 1990: 258). To sum it up briefly, magic, as the power of Quechua culture operating in the novel, would include the following elements: a time-space that is not homogeneous (Cartesian) but is capable of swift expansions and contractions and of affective twists; a semiotic fluidity (“the magical juice of nature,” as Arguedas would call it) capable of transpiercing everything, of confronting the most remote realities; a cosmos elaborated from specifically Andean modes of looking, hearing, and touching, which serves as the base for sustaining the semiotic flow; and the metamorphic inventiveness of popular Andean culture, capable of converting men into animals and vice versa and of making all beings change appearance.

At the level of expression and form, there is a key site in which the manifestation of Quechua culture can be observed as a structuring force. The long dialogue between Diego and Don Angel (chapter III) is developed much like the dance of the scissor dancers, a traditional dance of the southern Andean region in which two dancers engage in a competition of prowess for hours and days at a time (see Lienhard 1981, chap. 3). At a more general level, even in the “Diaries,” the written word is theatricalized by oral discourses, although these are not only Andean. The basic linguistic substance of the novel consists of popular coastal speech re-elaborated in different manners.

The collision of cultural and linguistic worlds occurs in the appropriation of Western technology and language by the immigrants from the mountains. Part of this same transculturating process are the hervores, or “boilings,” a word Arguedas used to refer to the coagulations of lives and words woven together and unwoven throughout the text, which gradually form the weave of times and spaces controlled by the Foxes, who are to some extent responsible for the narration. The hervores imply a freer and less linear method of composition than the division into chapters. They correspond to the incidence of the fragmentary and mobile reality of the modern city in the vanguardist novel and allow for the intersection in a single space of two polyphonies, that of precapitalist culture and that of modernity. In this way, it can be said that one of Arguedas's goals is the creation of an alternative modernity.

Given that there is no privileging of one form of expression over another, the different worlds collide under an equality of conditions, with no trace of archaism, folklorism, or traditionalism, words that emanate from supposedly advanced cultures. Within the hybridism of the speech, new possibilities of enunciation—of sociality—are woven, as for example in the dialogue between the “crazy” Moncada and Esteban de la Cruz. The forms of expression of the latter, a miner from the mountains who is dying of black lung disease, penetrate the speech of the former, a black man from the coast, and they attain a lovely synthesis whose dimensions of metamorphosis and resurrection are entirely devoid of patheticism. This can be regarded as a classic moment in Latin American literature, in which tenderness exorcizes the violence of the inherited language that is saturated with ethnocide.

The incompleteness of this text, which indicates scenes that were meant to be included but that will never be written, should be considered in its relation to the suicide of the author, mentioned as a possibility from the beginning. In the first place, it must be emphasized that this incompleteness has nothing to do with failure. The idea of a textual lack is inappropriate. On the contrary, the reader has before him a fully finished text, a text that converts its incompletion into a positive factor, primarily in two ways: (1) it is a text that demands completion within sociopolitical reality (in a multicultural modernity), and for this reason the textual material mentioned but not written is part and parcel of a lack pertaining to historical reality; (2) the open, nonconcluded character of the text consists of a multiple aperture to forces on a macro and micro scale that include the struggle of the people of Vietnam, the political situation in Peru, the disturbances provoked in the author by a new love, his friendships, his relationship with Latin American literature, and his death. The “Diaries” enter into this as an erratic form of writing, far more complex than what is normally understood by testimonial literature: they function as a threshold or multiple bridge between the fictional world, the sociocultural circumstance, the weave of Peruvian culture through many centuries, and the life of the author. Death, in all of this, asks to be acknowledged as a risk inherent in metamorphosis.

The book has aroused at this juncture a rather widespread critical debate. We should mention in this context, as a minimal summary, the problem of rationality versus magic or myth (Columbus 1986; Cornejo Polar 1990; Rowe 1990), the sociopolitical vision (Cornejo Polar 1990; Forgues 1986), language and the discourses and relationships between ethnoliterature and written literature (Escobar 1984; Lienhard 1981, 1990), Andean culture and vanguard literature (Lienhard 1981, 1990), and spirituality (Gutiérrez 1990). But the critical arguments have not exhausted the possibilities for further investigation. There are a number of topics that still need deep critical analysis, among them the linguistic-discursive richness of the text and its relation to the history of languages in Peru, and the vision of an alternative modernity.


Arguedas, José María. 1990. El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo. Edición Crítica, coord. Eve-Marie Fell. Colección Archivos, 14. Madrid: CSIC.

Columbus, Claudette. 1986. Mythological Consciousness and the Future: José María Arguedas. New York: Peter Lang.

Cornejo Polar, Antonio. 1990. “Un ensayo sobre ‘Los zorros’ de Arguedas.” In José María Arguedas, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo. Edición Crítica, coord. Eve-Marie Fell, 297-306. Madrid: CSIC.

Escobar, Alberto. 1984. Arguedas, o, La utopía de la lengua. Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos.

Forgues, Roland. 1986. De la pensée dialectique a la pensée tragique. Toulouse: France-Iberie Récherche.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. 1990. Entre las calandrias: Un ensayo sobre José María Arguedas. Lima: Instituto Bartolomé de Las Casas y Centro de Estudios y Publicaciones.

Lienhard, Martín. 1990. “La ‘andinización’ del vanguardismo urbano.” In José María Arguedas, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo. Edición Crítica, coord. Eve-Marie Fell, 321-332. Madrid: CSIC.

———. 1981. Cultura popular andina y forma novelesca: Zorros y danzantes en la última novela de Arguedas. Lima: Latinoamericana y Tarea.

Rowe, William. 1990. “Deseo, escritura y fuerzas productivas.” In José María Arguedas, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo. Edición Crítica, coord. Eve-Marie Fell, 333-340. Madrid: CSIC.

Christian Fernández (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: Fernández, Christian. “The Death of the Author in El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo.” In The Fox from Up Above and the Fox from Down Below, edited by Julio Ortega and Christian Fernández, translated by Fred Fornoff, pp. 290-306. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Fernández provides great detail about Arguedas's life, but ends by arguing that the diary entries included in The Fox from Up Above and the Fox from Down Below should be read as fiction and not as Arguedas's actual diaries.]

José María Arguedas was a man who lived between two worlds and two cultures: the indigenous world and the white world.1 He was born on January 18, 1911, in Andahuaylas, Apurímac, the son of Víctor Manuel Arguedas Arellano, a lawyer from Cuzco, and Victoria Altamirano Navarro de Arguedas, who died in 1914, when José María was barely three years old. After her death, he lives with his aunt and later with his grandmother for several years until his father marries again in 1917 and the family of the future writer goes to live in Puquio in the house of his stepmother, who owned an hacienda. There he will begin his primary education. The following year he transfers to San Juan de Lucanas to study. His father's duties as a lawyer and judge of primary court of claims keep him away from his wife and children, constantly on the move, leaving José María in the care of his stepmother, who, according to Arguedas, mistreated him and forced him to sleep with the Indian servants of the estate. These difficult years of his upbringing will mark the life and literary production of José María Arguedas, who many years later will express his gratitude for his stepmother's abuse, because it allowed him to understand the situation of the peasants and Indians whose sufferings he shared. In 1919 he makes a long journey on horseback, arriving in Lima after six days for a vacation; the following year he will visit the capital once again for a short stay.

Tired of the abuse of their stepmother and stepbrother, Pablo, whom Arguedas calls the second-in-command in the village, José María and his brother Arístides take refuge in July of 1921 on the Viseca hacienda, in the house of an uncle. There, Arguedas will recall later, he will be welcomed by the natives as one of their own. In the following years, because of his father's unstable life, he has to live and study in Puquio, Ayacucho, Cangallo, Ica, Mollendo, Arequipa, and Cuzco, finally establishing himself in Abancay.

Due to the constant moves and journeys, in 1926 José María enrolls somewhat belatedly as a resident student for his first year in the San Luis Gonzaga de Ica high school. In this school on the coast, he will feel for the first time the difference between the people of the coast and those from the mountains. In 1928 he transfers to Huancayo and attends Santa Isabel high school for his third year of secondary school. There Arguedas initiates his literary career in Antorcha, the literary magazine put out by the students of that school. He will finish his last two years of secondary education in Lima, with constant journeys to Yauyos to visit his father.

In 1931 he returns to Lima and enrolls in the School of Liberal Arts at the Universidad Nacional Mayor in San Marcos. During these college years he will live with his brother Aristides. In 1932 José María's father dies, leaving his sons without economic support. This obliges José María to look for a job, and in October of that year he begins working at the post office in Lima, where he establishes his permanent residence.

In 1935 he wins second prize in the international contest sponsored by the Revista Americana of Buenos Aires for his book Agua [Water]. The following year he is named a delegate of the junior class and initiates the publication of the magazine Palabra, in collaboration with Alberto Tauro, Augusto Tamayo Vargas, and Alvarado Sánchez, among others. In 1937 he finishes his studies in literature. However, difficult months await him. Arguedas participates in a student protest against General Camoratta, an envoy of Mussolini. Arguedas is arrested and sent to El Sexto Prison for several months, including two months in prison and a month and a half in the hospital. Because of his incarceration, he loses his job at the post office.

Even though Arguedas finished his university studies, he never graduated, though he did prepare a thesis titled “La canción popular mestiza: Su valor poético y sus posibilidades” [The Popular Mestizo Song: Its Poetic Value and Possibilities], which he apparently never presented. For his doctorate he prepared “El problema del idioma en el Perú y la poesía de la sierra y la costa” [The Language Problem in Peru, and the Poetry of the Mountains and the Coast).

In 1939 he enters the teaching profession as a professor of Spanish and Geography in the Mateo Pumacahua national high school for boys in Sicuani, Cuzco. That same year he meets Father Lira, a promulgator of Andean oral culture. He also marries Celia Bustamante Vernal, whom he had met years earlier, along with her sister Alicia. The two women directed the Peña Pancho Fierro, an art gallery and club where many writers, artists, and intellectuals of the moment gathered. Two years later he will return to Lima, invited to collaborate on the reform of the secondary education curriculum. The following year he travels to Mexico as a representative of Peruvian teaching faculty at the Interamerican Indigenist Conference in Pátzcuaro. This same year he will be appointed professor in the Alfonso Ugarte national high school and subsequently in Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe high school, where he will remain until 1948.

In 1947 he is appointed Conservator General of folklore in the Ministry of Education. In 1948 he begins working at the Mariano Melgar high school in Lima, a job from which he is suspended, accused of being a communist.

In 1950 he completes his studies in anthropology, which he had begun years earlier in the newly established Department of Anthropology in San Marcos. This same year he will be promoted to Head of the section of Folklore, Fine Arts, and Purchasing through 1952, a job he will combine with the teaching of ethnology and Quechua in the National Pedagogical Institute for boys. In 1951 he travels to La Paz, Bolivia, as Peruvian observer at the Labor Conference, and in May he travels to Cuzco on a special mission for the Ministry of Education to preside over and form the commission that prepared the new general guidelines for the ceremony of the festival of Inti Raymi.

In 1953 he assumes the position of head of ethnological studies at the Museum of Culture. He goes to Chile, commissioned to attend the first week of the American Folklore Conference as member and secretary of the Interamerican Folklore Committee, based in Peru and presided over by Luis E. Valcárcel. He publishes the journal Folklore Americano, an organ of said committee. Due to reorganization, he gives up his professorship in the Enrique Guzmán y Valle (La Cantuta) central normal school for boys. President Manuel A. Odría names him Director of Culture, History, and Archaeology in August, but he turns down the offer. Instead, he goes to Puquio to do research in the field of ethnology. In 1955 he wins the El Nacional Prize for his story “La muerte de los hermanos Arango.” In 1956 he travels again to Puquio with social scientists François Bourricaud and Josafat Roel Pineda.

In 1958 he wins the Javier Prado Prize for contributions to culture in the ethnology category for his Bachelor of Arts thesis, “The Evolution of Indian Communities.” He travels to Europe for the first time on a UNESCO fellowship to do research in ethnology for seven months in Spain and France. He is appointed professor in the Department of Ethnology at the University of San Marcos, a position he will hold until 1968. In 1959 he is awarded the Ricardo Palma National Prize for Cultural Achievement for his novel Los ríos profundos, published a year earlier. The following year he travels to Buenos Aires to attend the Third American Book Fair. A year later he goes to Guatemala to do research on popular art. In 1962 he will be hired part-time by the Agrarian University at La Molina. He attends the First Colloquium of Iberoamerican and German Writers, organized by the journal Humboldt, in West Berlin. This same year he is awarded the Ricardo Palma Prize for his novel El Sexto, which is based on his experiences in the penitentiary of the same name. The following year he will be appointed director of the House of Culture of Peru. He earns his doctorate in ethnology with his thesis “Las comunidades de España y el Perú.” In 1964 he will be appointed associate professor at the university in La Molina. The journal Cultura y Pueblo appears, directed by Arguedas and Francisco Izquierdo Ríos. He resigns from his position as director of the House of Culture. He travels to Mexico as a representative of the Ministry of Education to attend the inauguration of various museums in Mexico City. That same year he receives the Palmas Magisteriales, the highest honor given by the Peruvian nation to a teacher. He assumes the directorship of the National Museum of History. He also publishes his most ambitious novel, Todas las sangres.

The year 1965 is critical for Arguedas, who in that year divorces Celia Bustamante, his companion and principal support for more than twenty-five years. He participates in the Colloquium of Latin American Writers in Geneva. After much time spent trying to obtain a visa to visit the United States—which was repeatedly denied because of his leftist tendencies—he is finally invited by the U.S. Department of State to visit several North American universities. He also travels to Chile and France and then participates in the First Conference of Peruvian Narrators, in Arequipa, where he is offended by the negative criticism of Todas las sangres by some of the participants in the conference.

In 1966 Arguedas is appointed a full-time professor at La Molina. He travels to Chile on three occasions. He attends the 37th International Conference of Americanists in Argentina, then goes to Uruguay. He makes his first attempt at suicide in the restroom at the offices of the Director of the National Museum of History.

In 1967 he travels to Puno to do research on the festival of the Virgen de la Candelaria and to participate on the jury of a folklore contest. He attends the Second Latin American Conference of Writers in Mexico City; then he travels to Chile to participate in another international conference of writers, then to Vienna for a meeting of anthropologists. At the end of November, in Lima, he presides over the meeting of experts convoked by UNESCO to launch its program of studies on Latin American culture. He marries Sybila Arredondo, whom he had met years earlier in Chile.

In 1968 he is appointed Head of the Department of Sociology at the Agrarian University at La Molina. He travels to Cuba to serve on the jury for the important Casa de las Américas Prize. Peru awards him the newly created Inca Garcilaso de la Vega Prize. This year and the next he will travel to Chile on several occasions, in part because of his wife and in part to continue his treatment with the psychiatrist Lola Hoffman, who according to Arguedas, has been helping him with his psychological problems. In 1969 he writes his last novel, for which he had been doing research in Chimbote for several years. The novel is left unfinished when Arguedas realizes that he will not be able to finish it, or that the only way to finish it will be to kill the author. On November 29, in his office at the Agrarian University in La Molina, Arguedas shoots himself in the temple. He dies on December 2 after several days of suffering. His wake at the University and the funeral procession to El Angel cemetery in Lima on the day of his burial will be occasions of homage offered by the multitudes in whose defense Arguedas had dedicated his entire life.


The written production of José María Arguedas is quite extensive and covers several genres, fields, and periods: the novel, the short story, poetry (generally written in Quechua with the author's own translation into Spanish), the compilation and publication of myths and texts of popular Andean culture, the translation of Quechua texts, works on ethnology, articles on the popular art, music, and dances of the Andes, and articles of literary criticism. To all of this we could add the abundant correspondence, of which several volumes have been published in recent years.

As we have already seen, Arguedas begins his career in literature and cultural diffusion early on in literary magazines in high school and later at the university, but it is with the publication of Agua (1935) that he begins to be known and recognized by readers and literary critics. The publication of this first book coincides with the publication of La serpiente de oro [The Golden Serpent] by Ciro Alegría, the most important novelist of the moment and one whose work, like Arguedas's, will also be devoted to narrating the experiences of the peasants and Indians of the northern zone of Peru, not only in the above-mentioned novel but also in later works such as Los perros hambrientos [The Hungry Dogs] (1938) and El mundo es ancho y ajeno [Broad and Alien is the World] (1941). Arguedas's first book is still regarded as belonging to the Indigenist literary movement of the 1920s. However, in the stories included in this first book one can already note a distancing from earlier Indigenist narrative. The natives represented in these stories are no longer the same as those portrayed by López Albujar or Ventura García Calderón in their works of the previous decade. With these stories, we see the beginning of the apprenticeship and representation of a reality that apparently was carefully planned from the beginning by Arguedas: to move from Peruvian reality at its most minimal entity, then to go about progressively resolving problems connected to the representation of that entity, dealing first with the conflicts of the Indians or tenant farmers against the bosses of the village, then the province, the state, the nation, and finally the international situation. From the stories included in this first volume, 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: the child of white parentage, though he lives among the Indians and speaks and feels as they do, discovers that he's still a white man among Indians.

In his first novel, Yawar Fiesta (1941), Arguedas broadens the representational spectrum of the narrative conflict to an entire village. The plot is spun around the conflicts arising between two factions of a mountain village when the government prohibits the establishment of an annual bullfight and the two groups are divided in their opinions concerning this matter. One group of liberals supports the government's decree, believing that this bullfight represents the exploitation of the Indian by the whites of the region. Stylistically, Arguedas attempts to represent the Quechua language; he includes a large number of Quechua words and uses Quechua syntax. However, he still conserves some of the techniques used by the earlier indigenist writers, appending for instance a glossary of terms so the reader can better understand the novel. Despite these problems, the critics regard it as the most faithful representation of the indigenous population.

After the publication of Yawar Fiesta in 1941, Arguedas does not publish another novel until 1954, when he comes out with the short novel Diamantes y pedernales. The critical establishment has erroneously claimed that this is an unproductive period in Arguedas's writing. However, as we can see by the chronology presented earlier, Arguedas is quite active during these years; not only is he teaching in secondary schools, institutes, and universities, but he is also publishing a number of articles in journals and newspapers, carrying out official duties, and collecting popular stories that he publishes in 1937 (Mitos, leyendas y cuentos peruanos [Peruvian Myths, Legends, and Stories]) and in 1949 (Canciones y cuentos del pueblo quechua [Songs and Stories of the Quechua People]). During these years he returns to the university and earns a degree in anthropology. Undoubtedly, José María Arguedas was preparing himself during those years to undertake the writing of the work that would mark him definitively as one of the great Peruvian writers of the twentieth century.

In 1958 readers and critics are unanimous in their positive reception of Los ríos profundos. The years that Arguedas refers to as his “bedeviled struggle with language” have produced their fruit: not in vain has Arguedas spent his time studying the Andean past and its artistic manifestations; not in vain has he been translating oral narratives; not in vain has he told time and time again the story that he so poetically pours into this novel. The lapses that have caused him to be categorized with the earlier Indigenist movement and that marred to some extent Arguedas's earlier works have now disappeared in this novel. Arguedas has translated and created a language that breathes poetry, magic, music, myths, universal Andean problems, and the Quechua language itself without any detectable intervention of the translator because the translator is also the author.

It could be said that Los ríos profundos has certain features of an autobiographical novel. The child with problems of cultural identity whom he had presented in the stories of his first book becomes in this novel the child Ernesto, who identifies with the Indians from the villages in which he has lived or visited with the itinerant lawyer who is his father. The problems grow worse when Ernesto is left behind as a resident student in a Catholic school in Abancay. From the perspective of this fourteen-year-old adolescent, Arguedas presents the problems of a community larger than that of the stories or the earlier novel.

The final decade of Arguedas's life will be quite intense, due to the recognition of his work at the national and international level. Not only does he publish his most important works, but he participates in many cultural activities both at the national and international arena. The months Arguedas spent in El Sexto Prison in 1937 will serve him as the subject of the novel he publishes in 1961, which bears as title the name of this gloomy prison.

In 1962, before publishing the novel that Arguedas regarded as his most important, he publishes an epic poem written in Quechua (with Spanish translation), Túpac Amaru kamaq taytan-chisman; haylli-taki./A nuestro padre creador Túpac Amaru; himno-canción. Two years later Todas las sangres appears; this is Arguedas's favorite novel, because in it, as he would say the following year in the Conference of Narrators in Arequipa, he was representing all of Peru and the great powers that manage small countries such as this one. In this novel, Arguedas broadens the representational spectrum to include the entire nation. The conflicts that we had seen in his previous works become more complex and problematical. Undoubtedly, it is a novel of great scope in which Arguedas once again sets out to defend the cause of the natives and the exploited. The disappointment that Arguedas suffers when it is imputed that his novel does not represent the national reality he was trying to represent will inspire him to undertake the writing of a new novel of far greater scope and a much greater problematic: El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo.2


The author committed suicide after (though not immediately after) “finishing” his novel El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo, which was published posthumously (1971). Consequently, it was organized, in part, by his widow, by his friend the poet Emilio Adolfo Westphalen, and by the Argentine publisher Gonzalo Losada (we will have more to say about this matter later). We wonder if this fact does not change the meaning of the work.

The stunning death of José María Arguedas by his own hand is an inevitable topic for anyone studying his last novel. It is truly difficult to avoid this fact, especially since the work deals with the theme of suicide at great length. The problems confronting the critic in interpreting Arguedas's last novel derive from the reading of the “Diaries” as autobiographical discourse, without questioning the very nature of said discourse as belonging to that genre. My intention here is, in the first place, to try to establish the “original” text of the novel, which I regard as extremely important for anyone who wishes to come up with a coherent interpretation. In the second place, I intend to provide a reading of the novel in which the discourse of the “Diaries” as autobiography will be called into question, and third, I intend to study their function within the overall structure of the novel.

In the version of the novel we are using, which reproduces the first Losada edition (1971), the editor, Eve-Marie Fell, acknowledges that given its posthumous character, the novel might well contain errors. She refers in particular to the speech Arguedas gave in Lima on receiving the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega Prize in 1968, in which he asks that it be printed as the prologue to the novel but instead it appears as part of the “Epilogue.” I think it is relevant to point out other aspects of this problem.3

Certainly, the final instructions of the author were not respected, and it is not clear who authorized the publication of the novel as we know it. The edition that we know has an “Epilogue” that includes Arguedas's letter to the editor Gonzalo Losada with his instructions for the publication of the novel, which read as follows:

Moreover, if you accept The Fox from Up Above and the Fox from Down Belowas is and keep to your decision to put out an edition immediately, I ask you to please insert by way of prologue the short speech I made when they gave me the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega Prize, and to let my widow, Sybila (steel and dove), and my friend Emilio Adolfo Westphalen take charge of revising the proofs and advising you on the edition. … To [him] and to the violinist Máximo Damián Huamani, of San Diego de Ishua, I fearfully dedicate this maimed and uneven narrative.

(p. 263; emphasis added)

The only instruction that was carried out was that referring to the dedication. The novel appeared with an “Epilogue” that included the aforementioned letter to Gonzalo Losada; the letter to the Rector of the Agrarian University and to the students; a “Separate Note” addressed to the Rector and students; the final note written on the same day he shot himself (November 28, 1969), explaining why he chose that day to commit suicide; and the speech “I Am Not an Acculturated Man,” which Arguedas had asked be included as the prologue to the novel. Obviously, all of these documents bear the initials of José María Arguedas.

From the letter cited, it is clear that Arguedas did not request that the final letters and notes be included as an epilogue to the novel; it is also clear that we are reading a version that alters not only the desire of the author but also the structure and meaning of the novel and, consequently, any interpretation made of it.

In short, my reading wishes to be more faithful to the desires of the author with respect to his novel. That is, I want to provide a reading of The Foxes that will eliminate the letters and notes from the “Epilogue” and place the speech where Arguedas wanted it: as the prologue to the novel. Although I recognize that after having read this epilogue it is difficult to free oneself from it, I believe that if we are able to do so, it will give us a new reading of Arguedas's novel.

Much of the criticism on Arguedas's work in general observes that many of Arguedas's writings are based on “true” reality, and that the circumstances surrounding some of his characters, most notably Ernesto of the novel Los ríos profundos (1958), bear a close resemblance to the life of José María Arguedas himself, who, because of his particular concept of the literary work and through interviews and newspaper accounts, contributed to creating this impression.

Frequently cited is the polemic between Arguedas and the Peruvian writer Sebastián Salazar Bondy, which took place at the First Conference of Peruvian Narrators (1965) in the city of Arequipa, in which Arguedas protested when Salazar, referring to his recent novel Todas las sangres (1964), called it a “verbal reality.” For Arguedas, this novel was the product of his personal experiences, and it represented the problems of Peruvian national reality.

For the majority of critics, Arguedas was a writer who did not concern himself much about narrative techniques; moreover, they regard him as an intuitive writer. This image of Arguedas, along with everything spoken by the first-person narrator of the “Diaries” in the novel we are analyzing, has caused the critics to take the discourse of the narrator of the “Diaries” as autobiography. Here I intend to call such an assumption into question.


The critics have assumed that the so-called “Diaries” in the novel really belong to the genre of “private diaries,” that is to say, that they belong to that intimate genre that is generally included within the larger genre known as autobiography. However, if we view the characteristics of diaries as discursive genre, we can easily disprove that the “Diaries” in the novel of this Peruvian writer are such.

In the first place, as Roger Cardinal (1990: 77) has said, in a diary the author proceeds with the story of his life day by day, and the account that he makes refers to an immediate past, generally what occurs on the day in which he is writing. That is to say, in a diary we don't write about things from a distant past. Nor do we speak of the future in a diary. We usually speak about ourselves in a diary. Arguedas's “Diaries” are completely the opposite of what we have described. The author of Yawar Fiesta (1941) is clearly speaking of the moment in which he is writing the “Diaries,” but he also speaks of events that occurred in a distant past even as he moves into the future. Arguedas corrects, re-reads, orders, and selects his “Diaries.” In the process of writing the “Diaries,” the narrator constantly says or writes: “I'm going to re-read this,” and this method of writing becomes even clearer in the “Last Diary?,” in which Arguedas adds parenthetically “(Excerpts selected and corrected in Lima, October 28).” However, the date of the first entry in this “Diary” is August 20, 1969. The author has corrected his “Diary” for the last time more than two months after having written it. It might be well to wonder, then: Why does a person who's writing a private diary feel the need to correct it constantly? This leads us to the following point.

The foregoing is sufficient to allow us to say that Arguedas corrected his “Diaries” so often because for him they weren't diaries. I mean that Arguedas did not conceive these as autobiography but as fiction.

Following the French theorist Philippe Lejeune in his 1989 study on autobiography, and in particular the part dedicated to the diary, we find that in order for a diary to be a real diary—that is, autobiography—it has to fit a pattern in which the author is equivalent to the narrator as well as to the character represented in said diary. That's how we've been reading Arguedas's “Diaries.” But a careful reading tells us that this is not the case. In Arguedas's novel, the author is not the equivalent of the narrator nor of the character; the one who says “I” in this novel is not Arguedas.

It's true that the narrator refers to actions and characters that have or might have reality as reference. The narrator refers to persons, mentions the names of well-known writers, making us think that the narrator is the author.

As I said earlier, Arguedas corrects his “Diaries” so often because he conceived them as fiction and meant to publish them, as he says frequently in those “Diaries.” Thus, in the “First Diary” of May 11 he says, “Yesterday I wrote four pages. I wrote them as therapy, but not without thinking they might be read.” This is just one instance of the many times he refers to the possibility of seeing the “Diaries” published, and that's what happens. In issue number 6 (April-June 1968) of the journal Amaru, he published the “First Diary” as the initial chapter of his novel in progress.

It is well known that this first chapter of his novel caused the argument between Arguedas and Julio Cortázar, who, on reading this “First Diary,” felt offended by what the Peruvian narrator says about him and other Latin American writers of the moment, such as Vargas Llosa, with whom he personally had a cordial relationship.

Cortázar criticized José María Arguedas in an interview he gave to Life magazine, which appeared on April 7, 1969. Arguedas responded in the Peruvian newspaper El Comercio on June 1 of that same year. In that article, the Peruvian narrator refers to the “First Diary” as a “chapter sui generis of the novel I am currently writing.” With this, it is clearly shown that Arguedas had planned these “Diaries” as fiction and not autobiography.


As we have said, all the critics assume that the narrator and the character in the “Diaries” can be identified with the flesh-and-blood Arguedas. Vargas Llosa, in his (1980) article “Literatura y suicidio: El caso de Arguedas,” goes so far as to say, among other things, that the “Diaries” are signed by the author, which couldn't be farther from the truth; in none of the “Diaries” does the name of the narrator appear in a manner that can be associated with the author. There is a first-person narrator, an “I” who remembers and speaks, but nowhere do we find a name that would identify him.

This confusion derives precisely from the fact that Arguedas deliberately declined to name the narrator of the “Diaries,” which makes it difficult to determine who is saying “I” in the text. Quite clearly, what has conditioned the reading of the “Diaries” as autobiography is the fact that the editors have included in the epilogue a letter addressed to the Argentine publisher Gonzalo Losada, a letter to the Rector of the Agrarian University, and some notes that are indeed signed by Arguedas, but which were not included in the plan of the novel. It is this epilogue that has contributed to creating the autobiographical character of the “Diaries,” and it is this that makes Vargas Llosa say that the texts are signed by Arguedas and that the writer committed suicide almost immediately after writing the final pages of his novel. In fact, Arguedas had given up all hope of finishing his novel and wrote nothing after July of 1969, and he tells his brother this in a letter written in Valparaíso (Chile) and dated on August 18, 1969. Arguedas writes: “I write to you because very soon I will be there with you; I haven't written anything for nearly six weeks.” The last thing Arguedas wrote was a note prior to shooting himself. It is a small note in which he explains why he has chosen that particular day to commit suicide. This note is signed by the author. But, as we have said, Arguedas did not ask that these notes be included in the novel, unless he left different instructions for his wife and friends that we don't know about. Therefore, I reaffirm that the inclusion of the letters and notes that were not part of the author's plan for The Foxes has distorted his true intention to create the “Diaries” as fiction.

On the other hand, it is known that the narrator or narrators of the part of the novel that does not correspond to the “Diaries” are the mythological foxes whom Arguedas has taken from the narration of the Quechua manuscript compiled in the province of Huarochirí by the priest Francisco de Avila at the end of the sixteenth century, a manuscript that Arguedas translated and published with the title Gods and Men of Huarochirí. These mythic foxes appear in the novel as foxes, but they also have the power to turn themselves into characters in the narrative.4

If the mythic foxes are the narrators of the “hervores,” or chapters, it is well to ask why, at the end of the first chapter (“First Diary”) and as part of it, the foxes show up speaking. Could the character/narrator/author have been transfigured and divided into the mythic foxes? I believe this is an important matter that helps determine the discursive nature of the “Diaries.”

This first “Diary” was published during the lifetime of the author, and in that version we also have this dialogue of the foxes, but that dialogue appears in a different font than the text of the “Diary” itself. On the other hand, in the 1971 edition of the novel, Arguedas has changed the font of the “Diaries” to match that of the dialogues. This means that it was an action done by the author with a definite purpose. Besides, in the dialogue, without any transition at all, the foxes pick up the subject of the interrupted story that the first-person narrator is telling about Fidela. For all these reasons, I am prompted to say that the narrator or narrators of the “Diaries” are also the foxes personified in that “I” of the “Diaries.” Given the mythic character imposed on the novel, there is no inconsistency in assuming that this is so. If the foxes are not the narrators of the “Diaries,” this causes an additional problem in the structure of the novel.

For Vargas Llosa, this novel would make no sense if the author Arguedas had not committed suicide.5 For the author of La guerra del fin del mundo, it is the suicide of the author, who for him is the same person as the narrator and the character, that gives validity to the discourse of the novel and especially of the “Diaries,” since that narrator has been talking all through them of his desire to commit suicide. This interpretation results from assuming that the “Diaries” are autobiography.

It is true that it is very difficult to disassociate the novelistic discourse of El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo from the life of the author because of the special circumstances of this case. However, I believe that we would have a quite different perspective on this novel if we could stop reading the “Diaries” it contains as the autobiography of the author. In that way we will be able to avoid what Vargas Llosa, in his effort to construct for himself an image to his liking, has called the final act of blackmail by Arguedas.


  1. This bio-bibliography is based on the “Cronología” prepared by Mildred Merino de Zela for the 1978 edition of Los ríos profundos and on several interviews given by the author.

  2. I have used the first edition (1971) as well as the critical edition (1990) of José María Arguedas's El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo. However, all quotations are from the latter.

  3. For a better understanding of this point, see the letter from Arguedas to Gonzalo Losada, with the indications for the printing of the novel, included in the “Epilogue” to the novel.

  4. For a study on the use of Andean mythology in the novel, see the article by Sara Castro-Klarén in this volume and also that of Ana María Gazzolo, “La corriente mítica en El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo by José María Arguedas.” See also Martín Lienhard, Cultura popular andina y forma novelesca: Zorros y danzantes en la última novela de Arguedas, 212.

  5. Mario Vargas Llosa has published several articles on Arguedas and one on this novel in particular, “Literatura y suicidio: El caso de Arguedas (El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo).” He has compiled his essays in his 1996 book, La utopía arcaica: José María Arguedas y las ficciones del indigenismo.

Works Cited

Abbott, H. Porter. 1984. Diary Fiction: Writing as Fiction. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Arguedas, José María. 1978. Los ríos profundos. Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho.

———. 1971. El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo. Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada.

———. 1990. El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo. Edición Crítica, coord. Eve-Marie Fell. Colección Archivos, 14. Madrid: CSIC.

Arredondo de Arguedas, Sybila. 1990. “El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo en la correspondencia de Arguedas.” In José María Arguedas, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo. Edición Crítica, coord. Eve-Marie Fell, 275-95. Colección Archivos, 14. Madrid: CSIC.

Cardinal, Roger. 1990. “Unlocking the Diary.” Comparative Criticism 12: 71-87.

Cornejo Polar, Antonio. 1973. Los universos narrativos de José María Arguedas. Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada.

Fell, Eve-Marie. 1990. “Dossier.” In José María Arguedas, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo. Edición Crítica, coord. Eve-Marie Fell, 371-443. Colección Archivos, 14. Madrid: CSIC.

Forgues, Roland. 1990. “Por qué bailan los zorros.” In José María Arguedas, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo. Edición Crítica, coord. Eve-Marie Fell, 307-15. Colección Archivos, 14. Madrid: CSIC.

Gazzolo, Ana María. 1989. “La corriente mítica en El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo de José María Arguedas.” Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos 469-70 (July-August): 43-72.

Lejeune, Philippe. 1989. On Autobiography. Ed. Paul John Eakin, trans. Katherine Leary. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lienhard, Martín. 1981. Cultura popular andina y forma novelesca: Zorros y danzantes en la última novela de Arguedas. Lima: Latinoamericana Editores/Tarea.

Ortega, Julio. 1970. “José María Arguedas.” Revista Iberoamericana 36, no. 70: 77-86.

———. 1984. “A Book on Death.” In Poetics of Change: The New Spanish-American Narrative, trans. Galen D. Greaser, 183-89. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Rouillón, José Luis. 1990. “La luz que nadie apagará: Aproximaciones al mito y al cristianismo del último Arguedas.” In José María Arguedas, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo. Edición Crítica, coord. Eve-Marie Fell, 341-59. Colección Archivos, 14. Madrid: CSIC.

Rowe, William. 1990. “Deseo, escritura y fuerzas productivas.” In José María Arguedas, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo. Edición Crítica, coord. Eve-Marie Fell, 333-40. Colección Archivos, 14. Madrid: CSIC.

Vargas Llosa, Mario. 1980. “Literatura y suicidio: El caso de Arguedas (El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo).” Revista Iberoamericana 110-11: 3-28.

———. 1996. La utopía arcaica: José María Arguedas y las ficciones del Indigenismo. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Sara Castro-Klarén (essay date 2000)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6917

SOURCE: Castro-Klarén, Sara. ‘“Like a Pig, When He's Thinkin’: Arguedas on Affect and on Becoming an Animal.” In The Fox from Up Above and the Fox from Down Below, edited by Julio Ortega and Christian Fernandez, pp. 307-323. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Castro-Klarén argues that Arguedas's engagement with Quechua myths and his conclusion that there cannot be harmony between the consciousness of the Indian myths and the consciousness of the modern world.]

With the air he fights, Brother, with the darkness he boxes;
he don't light the lamp. … Then in a little while he squeezes me
like snake or punches me, givin' me bloody nose. …
He looks at my blood from over there, from the wall,
like a pig, when he's thinkin(1)


When El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo first appeared in 1971, most readers of the book already knew that its author, José María Arguedas (1911-1969), had committed suicide in November of 1969 while trying to write the book. It was also well known that the published text of the “novel” would include Arguedas's own chronicle of his march to suicide in the form of “Diaries.” Thus the reading of this posthumous novel was then, as it is now, prefaced by expectations traditionally attached to the confessional autobiography. This autobiographical angle was, however, not surprising, for all of Arguedas's previous narrative had been read in line with the explicit autobiographical markers inserted in the famous short stories of Agua (1935), Amor Mundo y todos los cuentos de Arguedas (1967), and most singularly, his master work, Los ríos profundos (1958). The enigma surrounding The Foxes devolved then not so much on the autobiographical nature of the “novel” as it did on the mystery of the “real” cause of the author's suicide. The sense of puzzlement was even greater in view of the fact that The Foxes was an unfinished novel. This text had come to an end because of the very impossibility embedded in its own writing.

As an unfinished text, this truncated novel presented large and important problems of legibility for any reader, but these problems seemed even more severe in light of the fact that Arguedas's ascendancy to the pantheon of Peruvian and Latin American letters had been predicated on his capacity to achieve high degrees of legibility. Arguedas had put into play an original combination of strong, moving narrative prose with lyrical renderings of subjectivity and landscapes. His narrative captured the depth and complexity of the heterogeneous and conflictive realities that make up Andean experience and history. There is no question that The Foxes was and continues to be a challenging text. But now, with a greater variety of tools at our disposal and at a moment when the disorderly text has become part of the familiar, the truncated aspects of the narrative line, the multiplicity of the narrative voices, and even the subterranean connections between the “Diaries” and the fiction can be thought of as stimulants for the reader to embark, with Arguedas, on the search for yet unknown paradigms of feeling and knowing.

Arguedas's lifeworks span the novel, the ethnographic text, the short story, and poetry. The latter he wrote mainly in Quechua. However, such generic and linguistic classification of his writing practices belies the fundamental character of Arguedas's textual and artistic production, for his chief contribution to thought is his meditation on the problem of cultural contact and conflict. He is specially concerned with the crosscurrent of literacy in the face of oral modes of creation and communication. He records and considers with ambivalent feelings the conflict, struggle, competition, accommodation, and transformation that the violence of cultural conquest and resistance brings about. To put it in Bakhtinian terms, Arguedas's texts are all located in and about the combat zone in which all aspects of daily life are interconnected with the struggle between the Andean cultures and the successive invading waves of European forms of life and thought.

In Arguedas, o, La utopía de la lengua (1984), Alberto Escobar concludes that in The Foxes, Arguedas, departing from his previous position in Todas las sangres (1964), argues without ambivalence for “the right to difference: the right to be different, each in his own style” (Escobar 1984: 232). Escobar adds that “this subversion leans towards a collective rather than an individual rebellion, for one can easily perceive an appeal to ‘man as man's brother’” (232).2 Many other readers of The Foxes have written from various perspectives on the question of difference, a difference that always stems from the place and meaning of the indigenous Andean cultures in Peru after the Spanish conquest.3 Indeed, Alberto Moreiras has recently (1997) advanced a reading of the novel as a “rejection of the ideology of cultural reconciliation … [for] at the cultural level there can be no conciliation without forced subordination” (95). In this line of argument, even suicide can be wrapped up in the project of putting an end to the “machine of war” that is transculturation (96). For Moreiras, the novel depicts a postsymbolic world, a limit world, a generalized horizon of loss (100). In this sense, Moreiras extends Julio Ortega's reading of the novel as a book on death.4

Nevertheless, we are considering a book, a symbolic representation, and not death or love itself. Arguedas knew himself to be facing the imminence of death and love, and he placed writing between himself and death in order to write death and in so doing postpone its coming. However, the fascination that The Foxes exerts on the reader stems from the very struggle with death that Arguedas conveys in both the “Diaries” and the fiction as well as something else. There is something else that haunts the book, that smells of an unnamable difference, and that is much more than the “right to be different.” The book appears as a field sowed with the purple and white lilies of death and with the pollen of the ayaq-zapatilla. The major characters—Don Esteban, Moncada, the prostitutes—struggle visibly with death in the beloved hope of pushing beyond it. Chimbote itself appears as the place of agony of entire species—anchovy, pelicans, serranos (highlanders). Even cemeteries come to an end, and the poor cross the desert in a funeral procession to relocate the crosses of the graves of their dead. The endless sand dunes of the port are drenched in the sweat of the fish-meal factories. The stench of death is everywhere.

Ortega sees death as the chief impulse of the writing. He posits the necessity of a “functioning continuity between the confession and the fiction, between the fragmented autobiography and the expository chronicle” (1984: 186). Highly sensitive to the poetic dimensions of the text, Ortega detects that a “delirious discourse is at the center of the work in progress” (188). There is an impulse toward vertigo, a desire that the narrated chronicle, pushed as it is to the limits, can no longer express. For Ortega, to say more would be to be able to say it all, and if that were the case, this text would not stand as it does, on the verge.

The crisis that drives the book to the verge of not being is, according to Arguedas, long-standing. In The Foxes, Arguedas spins a triple entwined thread that combines his life in crisis, the Peruvian national crisis of modernity as poverty, and a newfound inability to find language for his narrative project. In his own self-diagnosis, he traces this crisis of knowledge and power to a “childhood wound” that first manifested itself in 1944 in an inability to write, when he found it impossible to “put the substance of things into words” (p. 9). He was delivered from this stoppage by the satiety of sex with a young, fat, zamba prostitute. The encounter restored “the subtle and very complex touch my body and soul needed” (p. 9).

Throughout the book the linkage between desire and writing makes repeated and sustained appearances. Not unlike a detective story, at the very moment of revelation—of the nature of the wound, “that poison of mine” (p. 23), or the kind of mutilation suffered (p. 9)—the text is either interrupted or it abruptly changes course. There is a constant aversion, a shutting down of vision before the horrific. Arguedas is repeatedly repelled at the sight of the object of knowledge, which is the object of desire. The scene in which Fidela rapes the child Arguedas is emblematic of this aversion to seeing. From his bed, the big dough trough in which the dough rose, the child senses Fidela making her way toward him. She places her hand on his belly. Her fingers are like fire. He lies in complete silence, expectant. The narrative breaks off here and Arguedas addresses João Guimarães Rosa, the great Brazilian author of Grande sertão, veredas (1956) to tell him: “I saw, brother João” (p. 24). A few lines below, the revelation is denied. We are returned to the darkest point in the labyrinth when he “clarifies” by adding: “No, João, I did not see anything” (p. 25).

The mystery of the sexual wound remains, and as the episode with Fidela ends, it makes way for the first appearance of the foxes as commentators on the “cursed, arcane sweetness. … The poison of Catholic Christians” (p. 25), discussed only a few lines above in the first “Diary.” Are the foxes to provide the meditation that holds the answer to the riddle? After all, these are not common foxes, they are the Fox from Up Above and the Fox from Down Below, cosmogonic figures in the ancient Andean world of reciprocal relations between the world above—hanan—and the world below—urin. True to their function and figure in the Huarochirí myths,5 these foxes do not disappoint. As interpreters and commentators, they take up the topic: the boy's rape. Making an allusion to Chaupi Ñamca, the insatiable and seductive deity of the Huarochirí myths, the Fox from Down Below determines that this matter falls under his purview: “Those boys get confused by unfamiliar sex. … The prostitute's ‘pussy’ doesn't belong to anybody; it's of this world right here, of my land. Mudflower's what they call them. In her ‘pussy’ fear appears and confidence too” (p. 26).

However, it is important to remember here, that Chaupi Ñamca is not a prostitute, and the implied conflation between the ancient deity and Fidela works once again as a form of occlusion rather than disclosure. More germane to the story of the child Arguedas and Fidela would be the mythic fact that Chaupi Ñamca is Pariacaca's sister. She calls herself “maker of people” (Anonymous 1991: 70).6 In ancient times, Chaupi Ñamca used to roam around in human form and had abundant sex with other deities, but she never found any of them especially good (78) until she met a man who longed to have a bigger penis and had implored the male deity Rucana Coto (finger-shaped mountain) for help. Chaupi Ñamca declared: “Only this man, alone of all the other huacas, is a real man. I'll stay with this one for ever.” So she turned into stone and stayed for ever in Mama (78). The connection between the story of Fidela, the rape, and the foxes is obviously one of sexual appetites and insecurities. However there is an important difference established by the linkage between Fidela and Chaupi Ñamca. While the deity's sexual appetite makes life fertile on the dry coastal valley, Fidela's rape inaugurates sex as desired poison and it is thus connected with death.

The foxes take up their task as commentators empowered with a sort of millennial power/knowledge. However, soon after they claim certain discursive and knowledge territories, their potential is squelched. Nevertheless, their presence remains paradoxical and full of potential. While they serve as a point of immediate occlusion on the rape of the boy and the poison of the writer Arguedas, the foxes also point to the chief intertext of The Foxes, that is, the Huarochirí myths, which Arguedas translated right after he finished Todas las sangres (1964) and at the time when he began spending summers in Supe, a small port near Chimbote.

The foxes in the novel remain undeveloped. They prove distracting and mysterious to the author himself. In one of his moments of “dryness” or infertility, he wonders: “why on earth did I put such difficult foxes into the novel?” (p. 88). Nevertheless, the presence of the foxes does unleash the weight of the writing damned up by a force unknown to the writer. They, like Chimbote (p. 83), became part of the weight of the unknown that pushes and pressures for exits but finds only blind spots. Arguedas does indeed not know why he has placed the Huarochirí foxes in the novel, although he expects their activity in the text to produce a kind of leavening effect. Indeed, some critics have even tried to ascribe narrative presence to one of the foxes.7 Others have seen in the dancing, acrobatic figure of the highly zoomorphic Diego a sort of impersonation of the Fox from Down Below (Gazzolo 1989: 61). In fact, Diego's boasting of an intuitive rather than a rational knowledge, which some critics think borders on turning him into a deity, has been used to support the idea that Diego is a figure in which Arguedas may be attempting a double syncretism by which hanan and urin as well as the contemporaneous and the ancient would come together (Gazzolo 1989: 62).

Nothing could be further from the effect of the foxes in the novel, for the foxes' figuration stems from the creative-destructive powers of the Huarochirí deities. These deities are not “mythic” beings in the sense that the structuralist hermeneutics of “myth” has accustomed us to think, nor do they ever perform syncretic or Ovidian metamorphoses. As we shall see below, what haunts Arguedas's text is the transformation of the deities who, by way of Becoming Other, also maintain the difference.

It is my thesis that in his reading and translation of the Huarochirí myths Arguedas encountered in full force the wisdom and the knowing modalities of the ancients whose world he had worshiped, at a distance, in the very nature and beauty of the Quechua language and culture, but most especially in the configuration of the realm of the sacred. Written down in an almost precontact Quechua, the shamanic power of the myths and the language impressed Arguedas with a blinding intensity. He registers this blindness and insight as a doubled uneasiness and despair when confronting the uncertainties of sex and the blank page. Somehow, in translating the myths, Arguedas discovered, or rather saw, a previously veiled “truth” in the Huarochirí deities and their exploits of sexual abundance, creation, and destruction. Such a revelation is secretly acknowledged in the sickness of writing as impossibility. Writing past struggles of death and life as if these two forces were separate things is no longer possible for the author of Deep Rivers. After seeing what the Huarochirí texts tell about the avatars of the deities, their transformative powers and love relations, Arguedas can only write exploring his compulsion to suicide regarding death-life as a third term. Life-death becomes a term of its own, a gnostic position beyond our customary (European) death/life opposition.

In the “Second Diary,” Arguedas writes of his writer's block, of his fear. He dreads the idea of having to write about what he knows only through emotion and intellect. He prefers to know with his whole body. He feels disabled now that he cannot take in the world as he once learned of the fly's buzzing at the very moment when his ear was barely taking shape in his body (p. 84).8 He longs for the time when, in the magnitude of the body, the world was one in time and space. He seems to speak of a prelinguistic paradise untouched by the classifications and separations of the rationality of the adult world (p. 84). He is also afraid of what the writing of the foxes might reveal, and it is this foreboding of the mystery as well as of the desire to know the riddle of the foxes that drives the writing to its inconclusiveness.

In the remaining pages I will try to show the internal and necessary connection between the diaries and the fictional texts in The Foxes. I will show that the foxes gather a galvanizing and radicalizing force already present but only poetically acknowledged in Arguedas's previous writing. They embody a creative force imbued with potentially devastating effects, which the reading in Quechua of the Huarochirí myths unleashed for Arguedas, over and above his body-soul, his camac, and literally performed a pachacuti9 on him. That force is the “idea” or the “concept,” for want of a better word in English, of “becoming an animal,” of inhabiting modes of being that are not strictly human and that are central to the articulation of affect in Arguedas's sense of the self-world and in the Huarochirí myths.10


In his introduction to the English translation of the Huarochirí myths,11 Frank Salomon writes that in Andean religion “worship generally focused on sacred beings peculiar to particular kin groups, villages, mountains [and] canals” (Anonymous 1991: 4). Religious particularism lies at the heart of Andean myth. The content of myth is only available “by a route that lies through the study of what particular places or mummies meant” (4). Thus the Huarochirí myths have to be understood in terms of “grass-roots geography and genealogy” (4). They read a geographical, concrete space and not a metaphysical horizon. The unity of the text is achieved (perhaps on the part of the priests called yamcas) in an effort to locate the historically “diverse huacas and their cults in Paria Caca's and Chaupi Ñamca's regional hierarchy and genealogy” (4).

The yamcas, and later the poet-mythographers of Huarochirí,12 sought to communicate with the avatars of the chief regional huacas: Paria Caca (a male huaca) and Chaupi Ñamca (a female huaca). The narratives of Huarochirí take us into the world of Andean religion and most specially into the realm of the huacas. The huacas were vibrant deities that inhabited concrete places or objects: springs, lakes, rocks, caves, precious or “ugly” monstrous objects, mummies. Garcilaso de la Vega, Inca, says that “Huaca is applied to any temple … to the sepulchers set up in the fields … to all those things which for their beauty or excellence stand above other things of the same kind, such as a rose, an apple or a pippin. … On the other hand they give the name huaca to ugly and monstrous things … the great serpents of the Antis” (1966, 1: 76-77).13 Individuals and even collectivities, such as the Uru in Bolivia, can become huacas. Huaca is, then, “any material thing that manifest[s] the superhuman” (Anonymous 1991: 17). I would add that haucas are a manifestation of the nonhuman, for they embody the power of bordering onto another dimension of being, the power of the anomalous.

At the center of the history of the Huarochirí huacas there is always a story of powerful, earth-shaking transformation. The Huarochirí yamcas tell the story of several pachacuti, the story of the earth (pacha) turned over (cuti). These are tales of becoming, a passing from animal into human, from human into mineral, without ever performing an Ovidian metamorphosis but rather affecting a becoming in the sense that Deleuze and Guattari theorize14 or, better yet, in the sense that Arguedas's intensely agonized writing conveys with the memorializing of the huayronqos (p. 22), the delving into the ayaq sapatillan, the sense-field of pigness (pp. 158-59), the singing of the cascades, the swaying message of the ima sapra (p. 23). In a narrative of passage, in a text centered on the struggle between two irresistible attractions—death and life—the non-human becoming at the heart of the Huarochirí huacas both disrupted and oriented Arguedas's blind search for a language and a narrative structure that could capture the immense collective becoming going on in Chimbote—a pachacuti—as well as his own becoming into mysterious zones of consciousness.

Arguedas's wish to infuse his writing, the word itself, with “the substance of things” (the non-human matter of which things are made) is related to the concept of camac. This Andean concept, like huaca, pacha, mallqui, amaru, and many others, is without equivalent in European thought. Camac has been likened to “soul,” a sort of Platonic essence. The evangelizing priests who wrote the first Quechua-Spanish dictionaries had great difficulties rendering camac into Spanish. Camac is fundamentally attached to the huacas' capacity to “create” things other than themselves as well as to effect upon themselves becomings that transform everything around them. Paria Caca, the fivefold deity, is a mountain. Paria Caca first appeared as five eggs that became five falcons which in turn became five men. These becomings constitute the foundation of the five human groups that appear as the main collective protagonists in the myths. Salomon prefers to understand camac as “a being abounding in energy as physical as electricity or body warmth, not an abstraction or a mental archetype” (Anonymous 1991: 16). He further explains that “huacas could be camac to great or small categories of being” (16). Camac is, then, “an all-embracing function as the vitalizer of worldwide realities, while local huacas animate smaller entities [and] ordinary beings could be camasca to different degrees” (l6). A shaman would be an ancha camasca person, a very powerful being. Indeed, in the Huarochirí myths, several men boast of their vitalizer power by speaking of their power of speed and flight, inasmuch as they identify themselves as condor shaman and falcon shaman.

From the above it is clear that Arguedas's debility, his weakness before the blank page, stems from a loss of camac, for he cannot revitalize the words with the substance of the things themselves. He relates that in both of his encounters with Black prostitutes he felt the return of the vitalizer to his being. Imbued with camac, Arguedas finds the words that in The Foxes have become life itself. As if inhabiting the orbit of a camasca, Arguedas, in the guise of a contemporary shaman, seeks the vitalizer in the huacas around him. For him pigs, huayronqos, frogs, serpents, Diego, Esteban, Moncada, Maxwell, and Crispin's guitar music are energized beings whose presence makes the world vibrant, luminous, inhabitable. When they are not immediately, that is, physically available, as in the case of the pine tree of Arequipa, he makes their power manifest in writing: “From nearby one cannot clearly discern [its] height, but only note [its] majesty and hear that subterranean sound, which apparently I alone perceived. I spoke to [it] respectfully. … I kept hearing [its] voice, which is the deepest, the most meaningful I have ever heard in any other thing or in any other place” (pp. 184-85; my translation).15 By means of a supreme act of recollection the memory of the becoming invades the moment of writing and it is as if it were possible to partake of the tree's knowledge of “the stuff the heavenly bodies are made of” (p. 185). The tree transmits love and knowledge in a musical coding. Such music for Arguedas overpowers in wisdom, intensity, and transparency anything Bach or Vivaldi could have composed, because it penetrates, in a dreamlike fashion (“so dreamily penetrating”) “the stuff we're all made of, which, on contact with this shadow, is pierced with delight, totally” (p. 185).

In their reflection on vampires, Deleuze and Guattari argue that “structuralism does not account for these becomings. … It sees becomings as a phenomenon of degradation representing a deviation from the true order and pertaining to the adventures of diachrony” (1987: 237). Thus the Huarochirí texts should probably not even be referred to as “myths,” for when we do so we invite structural hermeneutics to deploy the idea of the magic as well as the notion of a totalizing grid of permutations in which each transformation speaks of the structure that makes the permutations possible. Camac-Frog, camac-Maxwell, camac-pine-tree, and camac-high-altitude-silence should be thought of rather as irreducible dynamism, as “anomic” phenomena that “myth recapitulates in its own terms in order to curb them” (237). The tree's knowledge and affect move across elemental categories—vegetable to human—by virtue of a musical coding that circulates in an irresistible alternate current capable of overcoming the structures of the rational world-self.

In the second appearance of the foxes they compare modes of knowledge. They find that the word operates by breaking things apart (“desmenuza”; p. 52: “must shatter”), while the silence of the mountains and the song of the ducks in the highland lakes give one the whole world to understand-be-hold in a single instance of spacetime (pacha). “The mountain's silence and shadow transform it into music that sinks down into everything there is” (p. 53). As Deleuze and Guattari point out, this becoming is not one of resemblance, imitation, or correspondence. Nor is it a metamorphosis or filiation (1987: 239). It is becoming that leaps across categories and species. It is not imaginary but rather “material,” for “what is real is the becoming itself” (238). This becoming of the silence into music that sinks into all that there is, is not a dream nor is it a phantasy. It concerns alliances, the alliances that encompass Arguedas's strange joinings of Isaiah-frog, Esteban-pig, Arguedas-pig, Moncada-pig, Maxwell-highlander, Arguedas-waterfall. For Arguedas, as for Deleuze and Guattari, there is “a block of becoming that snaps up the wasp and the orchid, but from which no wasp-orchid can ever descend” (238).

In the phenomenon of thinking as if one were a pig, in the scene in which Don Esteban looks at the blood his blow to Jesusa's nose has splattered all over the wall, there occurs a moment of consciousness affected by expansion, occupation, and contagion with multiplicity. This is the realm of the shaman, the realm of affect that Arguedas accesses in the call of the frog, the flight of the huayronqo, the sounds of a pig's throat, the profound pig-pleasure of his body in movement (p. 159). These becomings belong to the realm of pachacuti. In the Diaries, Arguedas speaks of his own sense of interior and physical crumbling down (“derrumbe”). He feels as if he is being dragged and carried away by a torrential flood, as if a huayco (an avalanche) had fallen on him. The writer is under the spell of affect, for “affect is not a personal feeling, it is rather the effectuation of the power of the pack that throws the self into an upheaval and makes it reel” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 240).

The Huarochirí manuscript presented Arguedas with a full display of the world of the shaman, the world of affect, the world in which an “incredible feeling of an unknown nature” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 240) bears a hidden link to the telling of the world, to his own craft as a “writer,” as the world's (pacha) story teller.16 Arguedas had been writing by making use of shamanic modes of knowledge. However—and I think this is key to understanding his eventual suicide—he had not really known on what powers he had been drawing until he read the shamanic texts in Quechua. The Huarochirí poets make evident the powerful relation of the word with the institution of the sacred as well as the links of knowing with affect. Such revelation proved too powerful. It was so overwhelming that it had to be buried in the inability to write “it.”

In an unusual crossing of paths, the French theorists write that if a writer is a sorcerer, it is because writing is a becoming that is not becoming a writer, but becoming-rat, becoming-insect (Kafka), becoming-whale (Moby Dick), becoming-wolf. They add: “Many suicides by writers are explained by these unnatural participations, these unnatural nuptials” (240). It can be concluded, then, that in The Foxes Arguedas was shamanistically trying to operate a becoming-Chimbote, by devolving into the creatures of the mire, by performing an involution into the “zorra” Chaupi Ñamca and the huaca who loved her, into the vitalizer that remained for all to touch in her petrified form (Anonymous 1991: 78).

In the “Last Diary?” Arguedas hurries to complete the novel by sketching the topics of the chapter that was not to be. In it, having come closer to an understanding of the overall project of his writing based on an intricate shuttle between the diaries and the fiction, Arguedas projects the mad zambo coming to a comprehensive vision of Chimbote, that is to say, the world-pacha. Arguedas delegates to the zambo the task of ascertaining the condition of man and all non-humans because he is the only one who can conceive of the totality of the world-pacha. But the madman cannot really attain the power of prophecy necessary to understand the Chimbote-pachacuti. The alliance of the becoming that Chimbote would be cannot happen, for the ancient oracle huacas derived their authority from the “capacity of transforming visions into action” (McCormack 1991: 306) and not from a delirious or mad discourse. Thus the last scene belongs to the foxes, for as proper Andean deities, theirs alone is the power of prophecy. However, these foxes, unlike the Andean huacas of yesterday, seem lost. They frantically dance, they run up and down to the ends of hanan and urin, dancing, holding on top of their heads rotting cakes of cow manure. Although the huacas seem to have fallen silent for want of an appropriate shaman through whose words and becomings they may speak, it is by means of this faltering image of the foxes that Arguedas attempts one last becoming, one in which he simultaneously is and is not at the “top of Bone Cross dune” where no human has yet arrived.17


  1. The first part of the title of this essay, “Like a pig, when he's thinkin',” is the English translation of the phrase spoken by Jesusa, Don Esteban's wife, about how Don Esteban behaves when he beats her at night. Jesusa's narration of Don Esteban's abuse and fury is embedded in the dialogue that she sustains with the Brother, a dialogue that in turn appears within Don Esteban's own monologue that occurs as he plays his bugle at the market. Jesusa tells the Brother that “for more than a year, now, he had been waking up at night half-suffocated, kicking the boxes and walls and finally kicking her. … With the air he fights, Brother, with the darkness he boxes” (p. 165). It is important to have here the full context of the phrase quoted, for it is not Arguedas speaking of himself as a pig, but rather Jesusa's characterization of Don Esteban. See Arguedas 1990.

  2. Alberto Escobar, in Arguedas, o, La utopía de la lengua (1984), makes a distinction between the first part of Arguedas's work, in which language, the creation of a “new” language—a Spanish infused with certain expressive capacities of Quechua—would constitute a vehicle for access to universal linguistic and social values, and the full plurality of languages and discourses to be found in his posthumous novel. “[Arguedas] fue un enamorado del quechua, un gozador de su riqueza expresiva, un ser dotado con una sensibililad muy fina para los matices del habla. Si de otra parte se suma su formación de etnólogo y su interés crucial por el tema del cambio cultural, tenemos facilmente configuradas las condiciones que hacen de Arguedas un incansable sostenedor del caracter multicultural y plurilingüe del Perú” [Arguedas loved and admired Quechua. He enjoyed the expressive richness of the language. He was gifted with an immense sensitivity for the nuances of spoken Quechua. If to his linguistic gift we were to add his training as an ethnologist and his crucial interest in the topic of cultural change, we would easily have configured the conditions that bring Arguedas to his indefatigable support for the multicultural and plurilingual character of Peru] (70). The tight relationship between language and culture was of course not lost on Arguedas. Thus his early meditation on the plurilingual and pluridiscursive conception of Peru, the original force in the production of the “new” mode of expression, comes full circle in The Foxes, a text in which the diversity of language and speech is seen in full conflict.

  3. Leaving aside Angel Rama's theory of a “transculturated literature” because of its impracticability (one would have to have a thorough knowledge of Quechua culture), Martin Lienhard studied “las formas que adopta el pensamiento andino en Los zorros y las consecuencias que provoca su introducción en el tejido narrativo” [the forms that Andean though adopt in The Foxes and the consequences caused by their insertion in the narrative weave] (1981: 18). Lienhard founds his reading of The Foxes on Mikhail Bakhtin's notions of dialogism and especially on his concept of the carnivalization of literature. “Bakhtin … había estudiado las tensiones estructurales que provocaron en una parte de la novelística europea, ciertos elementos de la cultura cómica popular” [Bakhtin … had studied the structural tensions that certain elements of comic popular culture caused in the European novel) (19). For Lienhard, Bakhtin's ability to ascertain the role played by oral popular culture in the genesis of the modern European novel opens the way for a similar project in understanding how oral Andean culture intervenes in the novelistic forms textualized in The Foxes. See Martin Lienhard 1981; see also Angel Rama 1982.

    Also in disagreement with Angel Rama's general theory of transculturation, Alberto Moreiras, sagaciously, holds that the plurivalence of The Foxes spells out the end or rather the untenable condition of the theory of transculturation as first proposed by Fernando Ortiz in his Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azúcar (1973), and later expounded by Angel Rama. For Moreiras, the Andean text signals the end of “ethonographic surrealism” because it no longer offers the possibility of the conciliation of opposites. For him, the foxes speak “radically or primarily a writing of dysfunction” (85), of incalculable loss (93). The foxes reveal that magical realism is “inexorably dependent upon the subordination of indigenous cultures to an always already Western hegemonic machine of transculturation; to modernization itself” (101). Moreiras does not cite Arguedas, who in the “Diaries” says almost the same thing about magical realism and Alejo Carpentier's viewpoint on Indians. Arguedas resents Carpentier's assumed capacity to “explain” to “us” the meaning of “our” own culture. It is also interesting to see that Moreiras would agree with Escobar, and both would in turn disagree with Lienhard, whose reading of the novel through the coordinates of popular Andean culture is not quite as far from transculturation as it would appear to be. See Alberto Moreiras 1997, 84-111.

  4. See Julio Ortega, “A Book on Death,” a chapter in his Poetics of Change: The New Spanish-American Novel (1984). Ortega sees the novel and the diaries as a fervent exorcism of the demons that Arguedas himself mentions. For Ortega, the work seldom if ever achieves the vertigo of poetry. It remains in the dark despite the fact that “the central impulse of the work appeals to its poetic possibilities” (187).

  5. The Huarochirí Manuscript records the local pre-Hispanic religious traditions in Quechua. It tells of the mountain Paria Caca who emerged to vanquish and expel through rain and devastation the fire deities of antiquity. The manuscript also tells the story of Chaupi Ñamca, the fertility deity who finally decided to stay in the region after she found a man with a phallus large enough to satisfy her. In chapter 5, the foxes—one from Down Below and one from Up Above—meet while the deity Huayta Curi is sleeping. They tell the story of a very wise man, a villca, who is terribly sick. No one can identify his sickness. But according to one of the foxes, the man's disease has to do with his wife. While she was popping corn, a grain of corn popped from the griddle and got into her vagina. The foxes continue telling stories of desire while Huayta Curi sleeps and the myth resumes the story of Huayta Curi. Francisco de Avila, the clerical prosecutor in the area, sponsored the collection of these testimonies of the ancient Andean gods from his parishioners in order to persecute those who still worshiped the Andean deities. In 1589(?), Avila composed a Tratado y relación de los errores falsos dioses y otras supersticiones y ritos diabólicos en que vivían antiguamente los indios de las provincias de Huarocheri, Mama y Chaclla y hoy también viven engañados con gran perdición de sus almas. Arguedas translated these manuscripts in 1966. See José María Arguedas and Pierre Duviols 1966.

  6. See Anonymous 1991.

  7. In a detailed study of the textual intersection of the myth of Huarochirí and the deployment of the foxes' discursiveness in the novel, Ana María Gazzolo would like to prove that the narration of chapter I can be ascribed to one of the foxes. However, she realizes that even a suggestion of such narrative performance requires stretching the textual facts. “La sugerencia de que el primer capítulo es un relato del zorro de abajo supone la inserción de un nuevo código: el narrador oral se ha disfrazado, ha pasado a manejar algunos recursos propios de la escritura, entre los que está el encubrirse” [The suggestion that the first chapter is a story told by the Fox from Down Below assumes the insertion of a new code: the oral narrator has disguised himself, he has begun to deploy tools that belong to writing, one of which is to hide himself]. See Ana María Gazzolo 1989: 52. This is a very worthwhile study of the textual manifestations of the “voice” of the Huarochirí foxes in Arguedas's novel. Its chief shortcoming stems from the fact that the critic is working with a structuralist understanding of “myth” as well as with the idea of a “primitive consciousness” as distinct and separate, in time, from modern consciousness, as if modern meant entirely rational and bourgeois modes of knowing. For more on the limitations of conceptualizing myth within Lévi-Strauss's paradigm, see Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari 1987: 235-38.

  8. The Spanish reads: “el zumbar de la mosca que uno percibe apenas el oído se forma” (Arguedas 1990: 81).

  9. Pacha is the Quechua word for “the world.” It means the world and time together. It also means the earth and the earth as a female deity. A pacha cuti is the idea of the world turned over. It generally connotes total devastation.

  10. See Arguedas and Duviols 1966: 9-15.

  11. See Anonymous 1991: 1-38.

  12. “Poet-mythographer” is a term that I take from Sabine MacCormack and use to make a distinction between the yamcas, or shamans, of pre-Hispanic Huarochirí and the “informants”—poet-mythographers—of Francisco de Avila. See MacCormack 1991: 285.

  13. See Garcilaso de la Vega 1965.

  14. See “1730: Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming Imperceptible,” in Deleuze and Guattari 1987: 232-310.

  15. The Spanish has “su” in reference to the pine tree. I have kept the nonpersonal, the nonhuman “it” in the translation precisely because what huacas do is to become or to communicate across the boundaries that our classificatory system separates.

  16. In this regard, there is no question that the storytelling powers and the obviously transformative power of Carmen Taripha are also shamanic powers. Like the Huarochirí informants, she told her stories to the local priest, and his living room “would be transformed into caves, woodlands, punas, and valleys where one could hear the sound of the snake's slithering … the half-joking, half-cruel speech of the fox, the mush-mouthed voice of the bear” (p. 16).

  17. The huacas in ancient Andean religion held a powerful place as oracles. Sabine MacCormack writes that the “capacity of transforming visions into action and of speaking words of authority was an essential aspect of the exercise of power and sovereignty as perceived in the Andes” (1991: 306). Vision and conversation with the deities was fundamental to ruling the empire. She adds: “The Inca thus made his power real and concrete by conversing with the huacas. He was the channel through which their energy was mediated to his subjects” (1991: 308).

Works Cited

Anonymous. 1991. The Huarochirí Manuscript: A Testament of Ancient and Colonial Andean Religion. Trans. Frank Salomon and George L. Urioste, annotations and introductory essay by Frank Salomon, transcription by George L. Urioste. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Arguedas, José María. 1990. El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo. Edición Crítica, coord. Eve-Marie Fell. Colección Archivos, 14. Madrid: CSIS.

Arguedas, José María, and Pierre Duviols, eds. 1966. Dioses y hombres de Huarochirí: Narración quechua recogida por Francisco de Avila [1598?]. Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. and forward by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Escobar, Alberto. 1984. Arguedas, o, La utopía de la lengua. Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos.

Garcilaso de la Vega. 1965. Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru, Part One. Trans. Harold V. Livermore. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Gazzolo, Ana María. 1989. “La corriente mítica en El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo de José María Arguedas.” Cuadernos Hispanoamericanos 469-70 (July-August): 43-72.

Lienhard, Martin. 1981. Cultura popular andina y forma novelesca: Zorros y danzantes en la última novela de Arguedas. Lima: Latinoamericana Editores/Tarea.

MacCormack, Sabine. 1991. Religion in the Andes: Vision and Imagination in Early Colonial Peru. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Moreiras, Alberto. 1997. “The End of Magical Realism: José María Arguedas's Passionate Signifier (El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo).” The Journal of Narrative Technique 27, no. 1 (winter): 84-111.

Ortega, Julio. 1984. “A Book on Death.” In Poetics of Change: The New Spanish-American Narrative, trans. Galen D. Greaser, 183-89. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Ortiz, Fernando. 1973. Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y del azúcar. Barcelona: Editorial Ariel.

Rama, Angel. 1982. Transculturación narrativa en América Latina. México: Siglo Veintiuno Editores.

Priscilla Archibald (essay date 2002)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3697

SOURCE: Archibald, Priscilla. “Gender and Mestizaje in the Andes.” In Mixing Race, Mixing Culture: Inter-American Literary Dialogues, edited by Monika Kemp and Debra J. Rosenthal, pp. 103-21. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.

[In the following excerpt, Archibald explores Arguedas's tendency to use mestizo characters as symbols of merging influences, and sexual lust and impropriety as symbolic of the Andean migration to the coast with a “redemptive anarchy” that was transforming Peru.]


Increasingly, scholars look toward novelist and anthropologist José María Arguedas for help in addressing the new dimensions of Andean society. The most prominent Andean actor in Arguedas' anthropological work is the mestizo. After attending “El primer congreso internacional de peruanistas” [“The First International Congress of Peruvianists”] in 1952, Arguedas expressed disappointment with its limited focus on lo indigenista and lo hispanista. Once again the mestizo was left to the margins of Andean history, figuring ambiguously in the shadows of what were designated as the two primary Andean actors. This omission comments on the mestizo's illegitimacy and on the persistence of the strictly binary terms of colonial ideology. As the suspicion that has historically surrounded the mestizo suggests, illegitimacy possesses enormous subversive potential. Rather like underground figures, Arguedas comments that they inspire debate and controversy, but no official study. He remarks on the incongruity of this exclusion in a society where mestizos increasingly represent a majority of the population and are, he believes, its most active protagonists. Arguedas stresses the urgency of this issue with unusual severity. He writes that “el estudio del mestizo es uno de los más importantes de los que la antropología está obligada a emprender en el Perú” (1975:2) [“attention to the mestizo is one of the most important studies that anthropology should undertake”]. This apprehension of the increasingly pivotal social role played by the mestizo is overwhelmingly relevant to contemporary Peru, and certainly counts among Arguedas' most important anthropological contributions.

Arguedas not only promoted the study of mestizos, but his own writing is the product of a profoundly mestizo consciousness. It is this consciousness that has allowed him to give expression to a reality that seems to elude articulation. The historian Nelson Manrique comments on this quality of Arguedas' work:

Creo que uno de los hechos centrales que han multiplicado la vigencia de Arguedas es que, de alguna manera, sentimos que él expresa problemas fundamentales, que tienen que ver con nuestra propia identidad. Es decir que no habría ese problema si, para entender qué es lo andino, bastara con que nos hiciésemos la introspección. Pero precisamente la imposibilidad de entendernos sólo mirando hacia adentro, hace per cibir que en Arguedas hay un conjunto de elementos que se nos escapan y que son tanto más complejos, porque no es simplemente que Argueas sea la voz de los indígenas. …

(1991: 57)

[I believe that one of the central factors that has multiplied the relevance of Arguedas is that, in some way, we feel that he expresses fundamental problems which are related to our own identity. That is to say that this problem would not exist if, in order to understand what it means to be Andean, introspection was enough. But precisely the impossibility of understanding ourselves by looking within, makes it clear that in Arguedas there are a group of elements which escape our understanding and which are quite complex because Arguedas is not simply the voice of the Indian. …]

Over the past fifteen years or so scholars have begun to reevaluate Arguedas' intellectual production, pointing to its nearly prophetic quality. Arguedas had previously often been categorized as a nostalgic indigenista writer. There is one aspect of Arguedas' writing, however, that has received very scant critical attention: his representation of sexuality. This representation is not secondary but rather central to his understanding of mestizaje. From the figure of Marcelina in Los ríos profundos to the homosexual rapes in El sexto, to the series of debased sexual practices detailed in Amor mundo, sexuality figures as a central trauma around which narrative activity converges.

Arguedas' most well-known novel, Los ríos profundos, tells the story of the maturation of Ernesto, a boy attending a boarding school in the Andes. The school is responsible for the production of good Peruvian citizens. This takes place not only in school lessons, and in the school games between “Chile” and “Peru,” reliving and correcting the traumatic defeat of the Peruvians in the War of the Pacific in 1883, but also in the unacknowledged yet tolerated sexual abuse of a demented woman, Marcelina, that occurs every night by the schoolboys. At one point in the novel a group of mestiza women lead a rebellion against the privileged whites for hoarding salt. The leader of that rebellion, doña Felipa, is wearing a yellow shawl. The shawl passes from doña Felipa to the demented woman Marcelina—an event that symbolizes the subversion of the heroic narrative about the mestizas. After her death by the plague, Ernesto refers to Marcelina with the epithet of respect, “doña Marcelina,” and feels that he is “casi un heroe” [“almost a hero”]. It is a hideous romance, dating back to the violence and subjugation of the Spanish conquest, and one that according to Arguedas continues to be central to the Andean psyche.

Mario Vargas Llosa comments that Arguedas' narratives display “una fascinación por lo asqueroso” [“a fascination for the disgusting”] (Vargas Llosa 1980:5-28). His comment rings true and addresses a central aspect of Arguedas' writing that many critics, reluctant to relinquish more stabilizing interpretive practices, have often chosen to overlook. Yet it is less as Vargas Llosa intimates, a matter of individual idiosyncrasy, than a confrontation of desire constituted in a violent colonial history. Arguedas addresses the force of ideological fictions, the way they constitute desire and motivate actors. Sexual abuse is a recurring theme in all indigenista writing. Typically, as I have mentioned, it serves as an ideological denunciation of a neo-colonial order, delegitimizing the “false” criollo nationalist. In Arguedas' work sexuality plays a far more complex function. At the end of Los rios profundos, as Ernesto is fleeing from the Andean school, he runs across the hut of two sisters:

La mayor levantó la aguja hacia la luz. … Ví entonces el ano de la niña, y su sexo pequeñito, cubierto de bolsas blancas, de granos enormes de piques; las bolsas blancas colgaban como en el trasero de los chanchos, de los más asqueroso y abandonados de ese valle meloso. … La hermana mayor empezó a afilar un cuchillo.

(1958: 248)

[The older one raised the needle to the light. … Then I saw that the little girl's anus, her little private parts, were covered with enormous, white, insect-bidden swellings; the white sacs hung down as they did from the rear quarters of the filthiest, most abandoned hogs in that treacly valley. … The older sister began to sharpen a knife.

(1978: 227)]

This is a disorienting scene that compresses the grotesque with the gentleness of a sisterly bond. Sexual debasement takes on an endemic quality and is suggestively conflated with the plague that is spreading across the Andes at the novel's conclusion.

In many, perhaps most, of Arguedas' works, sexuality is a force that disrupts a stable social narrative. It is frequently grotesque or disgusting. Before we limit, as does Vargas Llosa, our understanding of this narrative tendency to a matter of Arguedas' personal idiosyncrasy we should keep in mind that, as cultural critic Laura Kipnis writes, “Disgust has a long and complicated history, the context within which should be placed the increasingly strong tendency of the bourgeoisie to want to remove the distasteful from the sight of society. …” (Kipnis 1992:377). Just as the heroic symbol of the yellow shawl is displaced from the mestiza leader to the plague-ridden body of Marcelina, Arguedas it seems cannot sustain high discourse—particularly when dealing with matters of romantic interest. At one point in Los ríos profundos, one of Ernesto's fellow students asks him to write a love letter on his behalf to a criollo town girl. After writing the letter Ernesto is immediately reminded of those indigenous women who do not read or write, “Jacinta o Justina, Malicacha o Felisa” (Arguedas 1985:84), and that cultural heritage rendered voiceless by print culture.

It is not, however, simply a matter of cultural difference that Arguedas portrays. In his representations of sexuality, gender and ethnic differences overlap in highly complex and conflicting ways. Several of the short stories collected in Amor Mundo portray this quite vividly (Arguedas 1967). In “El horno viejo,” a boy's relative forces himself on a woman whose husband is out of town. Not only is he committing incest—she is his aunt by marriage—but the man has insisted that the boy, Santiago, accompany him. Though Santiago is only nine years old, the older man tells him that “[h]as de ser hombre esta noche” [“tonight you must be a man”], and instructs him to listen or watch if he wishes. The scene is further complicated by the fact that the woman's two young boys—friends of Santiago—are sleeping in the same room. Counterposed to the central activity is the sound of Santiago whispering prayers. The juxtaposition of defilement and the sacred provides a sense of shock and incongruity that effectively undermines dominant or high (ideal, sacred) discourse.

Kipnis goes on to clarify the subversive character of “lo asqueroso”:

The power of grossness is predicated on its opposition from and to high discourses, themselves prophylactic against the debasements of the low (the lower classes, vernacular discourses, low culture, shit …). And it is dominant ideology itself that works to enforce and reproduce this opposition—whether in producing class differences, somatic symbols, or culture.


This “power of grossness” is evident throughout Arguedas' narratives. Another short story titled “La huerta” tells the story of a demented chola (mestiza), Marcelina. Marcelina shows her “parte vergonzosa al chico” [“shameful part to the boy”] and says, “Voy a orinar para tíf” [“I am going to urinate for you”]. This is then referred to as “la suciedad sin remedio …” [“dirtiness without remedy”] (26). Why should “dirtiness without remedy” provide such a disruptive and even a liberating effect? Mary Douglas' classic study, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966), offers some insightful suggestions. Douglas writes that “if uncleanness is matter out of place, we must approach it through order. Uncleanness or dirt is that which must not be included if a pattern is to be maintained” (1966:40). In Arguedas' writings, uncleanness or grossness disrupts the “pattern” of the neocolonial order, belying the violence and conflict underlying its overt code of romantic love. Ethnicity and class are key elements in Arguedas' portraits of a degraded sexual atmosphere. As Sara Castro-Klarén points out, the women that Arguedas portrays are generally from lower classes, invariably of mestizo or indigenous origin and nearly always of lower social standing than their male abusers (Castro-Klarén 1989). The disruptive power of grossness in Arguedas shares much in common with Bakhtin's utopian category of the carnivalesque.

While Los ríos profundos tells the story of the maturation of a young man, it might nevertheless be characterized as an anti-bildungsroman. As in most of Arguedas' writing, the traumatic relationship to sexuality and gender trips up the protagonist's accession to subjective unity. This failure to achieve an autonomous subjectivity, however, has a curative function. Subject effects are interrogated in a way that resembles what Julia Kristeva calls “the infinite dissolution of desire” (Kristeva 1987:62). The curative effect of Arguedas' narratives is similar to her description of the psychoanalytic process insofar as it interrogates psychic investments in a way that acknowledges and acquiesces to the subject's constitution in alterity.

There is one notable exception to this tendency in Arguedas' work. In his novel, Todas las sangres, the class, ethnic, and gender tensions that pervade his other portraits of Andean culture are greatly diminished. When the traditional misti (Andean landowner) Don Bruno leads the Indian masses in revolt against the new bourgeois landowner, Arguedas provides the unlikely event of a reformed misti, and a decidedly reactionary version of national authenticity. Plot resolutions of a similar type occur with respect to gender and sexuality. At the beginning of Todas las sangres sexuality is deeply problematic. Not only are the issues of class and ethnicity raised by Don Bruno's past relationship with a servant woman, but once again the specter of the deformed or the grotesque is present by virtue of the fact that she is a dwarf. By the novel's conclusion, however, the fundamental threat of sexuality to subjecthood and social coherence is resolved. Don Bruno eventually marries the mulatta woman he had taken as his lover, redeeming past sins and establishing a social model. To use Doris Sommer's terminology, Todas las sangres is Arguedas' only novel to offer a foundational fiction (Sommers 1988).

Political realities perhaps best account for this compromise on Arguedas' part. Arguedas wrote Todas las sangres in 1963 amidst an atmosphere of social euphoria that accompanied Fernando Belaunde's election as president. For the first time, Peru had a government that promised to be attentive to popular demands. At Belaunde's request, Arguedas assumed the position of the director of the Casa de la Cultura de Peru. Yet Belaunde never challenged the privileges of elite sectors in any serious way, nor did he manage to achieve the strategic support necessary to bring about the social changes he promised. The novel's fantasy of historical continuity is perfectly consistent with this tepid populism. In 1965, Todas las sangres was the focus of a roundtable discussion (Arguedas 1985). The novel was subjected to vituperative criticism, by sociologists in particular. These sociologists complained about the confusing and anachronistic character of the novel. Ironically, thirty-five years later, if Todas las sangres seems flawed it is not because it is confusing but because it is all too tidy. The rich and conflicting ambiguity that pervades Arguedas' other texts is here “cleaned up” and put into order for the sake of a particular nationalist engagement.


Andean emigration to Lima has certainly challenged criollo social imagination. In the 1950s and 1960s scholars referred to the Andean settlements that ringed the city as “cinturones de miseria” [“poverty belts”]. This emigration was viewed as wholly negative, as a loss of Andean culture on the one hand and as a failure to achieve vital modernization on the other. Nowhere is this particular response to the Andean urban presence more clearly illustrated than in the novel, Historia de Mayta, by Mario Vargas Llosa (Vargas Llosa 1984). The novel is set in modern Peru and reads almost like a detective story, attempting to makes sense of a very confusing present by recuperating the past. The narrator undertakes a series of interviews that he hopes will uncover what really happened in the life of a revolutionary twenty-five years earlier. Along the way he comes across many aspects of contemporary Peru, including the Andean urban presence. The narrator comments, “Por momentos, tengo la impresión de no estar en Lima ni en la costa sino en una aldea de los Andes: ojota, polleras, ponchos, chalecos con llamitas bordadas, diálogos en quechua. Viven realament mejor en esta hediondez y en esta mugre que en los caseríos serranos que han abandonado … ?” (Vargas Llosa 1984: 62-63) [“From time to time I have the impression that I'm not in Lima or even on the coast but in some village in the Andes: sandals, Indian skirts, ponchos, vests with llamas embroidered on them, dialogues in Quechua. Do they really live better in this stink and scum than in the mountain villages they have abandoned … ?”]. These Andeans are here clearly out of place and, as the reference to “stink” and “scum” indicates, filth and disorder are inextricably related. Garbage is one of the most prominent themes in The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta: “Y recuerdo, entonces, que hace un año comencé a fabular esta historia mencionando, como la termino, las basuras que van invadiendo los barrios de la capital del Perú” (1984:346) [“I remember that a year ago I began to concoct this story the same way I'm ending it, by speaking about the garbage that's invading every neighborhood in the capital of Peru”] (1986:310). Notwithstanding the fact that in contemporary Peru the state fails to fulfill some of the most basic services—such as garbage collection—the attention to filth is not simply literal. It coincides with what José Matos Mar calls “un nuevo mestizaje de predominante colorido andino” (79) [“a new mestizaje of a predominantly Andean color”]. Matos Mar describes how this Andean presence has “reducido a los sectores medios y opulentos a una situación de insularidad en sus barrios residenciales” (76) [“reduced the middle and opulent sectors to a situation of insularity in their residential neighborhoods”]. Peppered with words such as “invasión” [“invasion”] and “la capture” [“the capture”], Matos Mar celebrates the subversive character of Andean emigration. Ever the representative of the hegemonic order for Vargas Llosa by contrast these emigrants are simply out of place. Unlike Arguedas, where disorder frequently has a curative effect, for Vargas Llosa it is highly dystopic, disrupting the dominant ideologies with which he views the world.

Given Vargas Llosa's ideological leanings it is not surprising perhaps that he consistently misreads Arguedas. Since Andean culture for Vargas Llosa is “primitive,” it follows that a revindication of Andean culture would necessarily be a nostalgic gesture. Arguedas' work, however, stands as a powerful critique of the binary terms of neo-colonial ideology. His final novel, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo, deals specifically with the urban reality of modern Peru, so drastically transformed by Andean emigration. It takes place in the coastal town of Chimbote where the population, due to a booming fishmeal industry, grew from four thousand to one hundred thousand almost overnight. The text alternates between the author's suicide diaries and the narration about Chimbote—establishing an irreducible heterogeneity. This heterogeneity is furthered by other aspects of the text, namely the conjunction of coastal and Andean culture. Also, Arguedas' representation of sexuality continues to resist containment by dominant discourses. The narration about Chimbote begins in a brothel. The brothel is a stage for the racial diversity of urban Peru, the place where a new mestizaje, as Matos Mar calls it, takes form. Once again the way that mestizaje coincides with an underside of sexuality precludes a sense of social and discursive propriety. It is precisely this subversion of propriety that offers social promise. In a letter to anthropologist John Murra, Arguedas comments about his final work and conveys the type of redemptive anarchy he felt the new forces represent: “Si alcanzo a mejorar, podré escribir una narración sobre Chimbote y Supe que será como sorber en un licor bien fuerte la sustancia del Perú hirviente de estos días, su ebullición y los materiales quemantes con que el licor está formado” (Arguedas 1990:380) [“If I manage to get better, I will be able to write a text about Chimbote and Supe that will be like sipping in a very strong liquor the boiling substance of Peru these days, its bubbling quality and the burning ingredients with which the liquor is formed”].

Works Cited

Alegría, Ciro. El mundo es ancho y ajeno. 1941. Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 1983.

Arguedas, José María. Amor Mundo. Montevideo: Area Editorial, 1967.

———. Deep Rivers. Translated by F. H. Barraclough. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978.

———. El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo. Ed. by Eve-Marie Fell. Nanterre: Signatarios Aeuerdo Archibos, 1990.

———. Formación de una cultura nacional indoamericana. 5th ed. México: Sigloveintiuno editores, 1975.

———. Los ríos profundos. Madrid: Editorial Planeta-Agostini, 1985.

———. El sexto. Lima: Libreria J. Mejía Baca y Tip. Santa Rosa, 1961.

———. Todas las sangres. Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada, 1964.

Burt, Jo-Marie and Cesar Espejo. “The Struggles of a Self-Built Community.” NACLA: Report on the Americas XXVIII (4) (1995): 19-25.

Castro-Klarén, Sara. Escritura, transgresión y sujeto en la literatura latinoamericana. Tlahuapan, Puebla: Premia, 1989.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge, 1966.

García Calderón, Ventura. La venganza del cóndor 1923. Lima: Peisa, 1987.

Gramsei, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1971.

Icaza, Jorge. El chulla Romero y Flores. 2nd ed. Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada, 1958.

———. Huasipungo. Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada, 1952.

Kipnis, Laura. “(Male) Desire and (Female) Disgust: Reading Hustler.” In Cultural Studies. Edited by Lawrence Grossberg et al. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Kristeva, Julia. Tales of Love. Translated by Leon Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

Laclau, Ernesto and Chantal Mouffe. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. 4th ed. London: Verso, 1985.

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Arguedas, José María (Vol. 10)