Arguedas, José María 1911–1969
Arguedas was a Peruvian novelist, short story writer, poet, and ethnologist. He began his literary career as a regionalist, writing in the "indigenista" tradition of Latin American writers who sought to create a native culture free of European intellectual domination. His later work, however, surpasses that of his fellow regionalists through his mastery of literary technique, particularly in the areas of point of view, language, and characterization. He took his own life in 1969.
For more than three decades José María Arguedas steadily wove new colors into his work. He produced a Peruvian mosaic which reflects the nuances of changing literary, sociological, and philosophical thought. It is this constantly flowing creative process which stands out in the total literary production of Arguedas….
The brooding presence of Arguedas's native Andean environment hovers over his first writings: Agua, 1935, a simple collection of three stories. At the same time his deep sensibility and his anger against feudal repression place him immediately with writers of social protest, even if his initial literary efforts could not keep pace with his determination to denounce the injustice. (p. 225)
The crest of Peru's regionalism belongs to the years 1930 to 1945, and in his initial stage of literary development, Arguedas struck the dominant chords of contemporary literature in his country. He used the primary elements of local settings and social protest, to which he added his own complete identification with the Quechua mind. His stories from Agua possess dramatic force, particularly because of the personal involvement of the narrator; at the same time these early attempts suffer from an overflow of intensity which the young Arguedas does not temper by control of the structure. In Yawar fiesta, written as a traditional exterior narrative, Arguedas holds the shuttle more firmly as the threads form their design. Dialogue is interspersed by descriptive passages; plot unfolds in measure; bitter anger at the Indians' plight is held in check so as to permit greater insight into the general picture. Based on local customs and life styles, Yawar fiesta is the Arguedas work which fits most easily into the mold of accepted regionalism.
Still cautious in assessing his own abilities, Arguedas proceeded on a slow and winding course. He carried along with him the seeds of his early regionalism, husbanding them during a long pause which lasted into the next decade…. Two decades have added polish and facility to the writing, and [Diamantes y pedernales] serves as a transition piece, as though the current is picking up momentum just before it flows into new environments.
After years of anticipation, Arguedas reached the culmination of his artistic creation in Los ríos profundos, 1958. Fundamentally autobiographical, the interior world of a sensitive boy is the author's main material, but he goes effortlessly from inner contemplation to participation in the erupting violence of the surroundings. (pp. 225-26)
The omnipresence of the Andean environment is fragmented through the style that Arguedas has developed. Making use of dissociation of time techniques, the novel flows easily. Free from structural difficulties, the dialogue, the action, and the fluid thoughts of the boy's nostalgia are kept in balance. (p. 226)
Los ríos profundos, while still an "indigenista"-regional novel, has moved at the same time into the realm of an interior novel…. No Peruvian work in this vein touches the fiber of Los ríos profundos with its interior vision, its constant flow of the subconscious that mingles with reality.
At the height of his artistic power Arguedas chose to deviate from this literary route and to shift to political deliberations. El Sexto, 1961, is a journalistic novel—like so many in Latin American literature—although Arguedas attempts to balance the reporter's details with art. (pp. 226-27)
In El Sexto Arguedas tried to paint a humanity capable of triumphing over surrounding brutality. Unfortunately, faceless...
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[El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo] refers to indio-mythology (cf. Dioses y hombres de Huarochiri, tr. by Arguedas, where this specific myth is given). "Above" and "below" are Coast and Sierra. "Below" is Chimbote, the fecund, mad, hectic, pernicious and crude new town, a harbor north of Lima where the fishmeal industry has come to have its capitalistic paroxysms. To it flock the unemployed indios from the Andes, as well as others who try, founder, die—or succeed—at the cost of losing what Arguedas considered their essential purity and goodness. "Above" is little touched upon (El zorro can be considered the counterpart of Arguedas's Yawar fiesta or Todas las sangres: the Coast reached up into the Sierra; here, the Sierra comes down). Ultimately, this novel describes the destruction of the very myths that have always been the substance of Arguedas's fiction: the noble indio who possesses a patria versus the rootless minor or major capitalist, domestic or foreign, mestizo or blanco.
The book alternates between diaries Arguedas kept—on the novel, his life, literature, Peru, et cetera (they contain the famous attack on Cortázar's cosmopolitanism)—and the narrative parts, some of them astounding in their fascination, scenes one could never have imagined. Yet, there are also incoherences that leave the reader blinking and groping in desperate attempts to follow, to understand. The novel is incomplete, of course—the last diary is called "Ultimo diario?"—yet I believe it to be the best Arguedas wrote (together with Yawar fiesta). An epilogue comprises his last letters, to publisher, university, friends and his acceptance speech when receiving the Inca Garcilaso Prize in 1968.
Julio Ortega has made the best observation: this is a novel written to defeat death; but death won. All in all, a novel replete with defects, as is all Arguedas's fiction, but defects one feels ashamed to point out, for one feels that by criticizing one again destroys life, that of the author's memory and perhaps of a vital myth. El zorro is in parts deeply moving and disturbing: it proves that writing can be living, or even death. Arguedas was a very great man, and this book proves it. (p. 630)
Wolfgang A. Luchting, in Books Abroad (copyright 1972 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 46, No. 4, Autumn, 1972.
The time spanned by [Relatos completos] reveals Arguedas perfecting the art of revealing contradictory emotions. The total effect of each story is the result of a series of antitheses stable throughout Arguedas's prose. Through the eyes of an orphaned child or alienated adolescent the reader participates in a reality at once magical and cruel. Although each Andean village is controlled by a vicious landowner, the Indians inject the consciousness of another mode of being in which the environment contains gods who are themselves artists. Just as Arguedas contrasts the beauty of music with death, he also presents a narrative world in which the consummation of love is as possible as its betrayal. (pp. 72-3)
M. E. Davis, in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 1, Winter, 1977.