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Arguedas, José María 1911–1969

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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.

Phyllis Rodriguez-Peralta

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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 prisoners, the constant cacophony of political dissension, and the obvious division of art and politics lessen his success. It is clear, however, that Arguedas intends to enter new currents of literary endeavor. The material for this novel was blocked out years beforehand, but Arguedas did not write the definitive version until 1961 Like Diamantes y pedernales before the polished Los ríos profundos, the limited sphere of conflict in El Sexto is a rehearsal for the all-encompassing Todas las sangres of 1964.

Arguedas' last novel is a vast sociological document which focuses on the latent unrest in all social strata of Peruvian society…. Todas las sangres is the completion of Arguedas' social mission. Originally cast in the regional mold, his work has retained only its outlines as Arguedas follows the path of Peruvian reality. (p. 227)

It is evident that Arguedas wished to present his sociophilosophic study with artistic care and to avoid the separation between art and politics of El Sexto. Perhaps this accounts for the extensive use of stylized pageantry which often produces a stilted artificiality at odds with the author's purpose….

Todas las sangres goes beyond tragedy to explore solutions. To emphasize his intent, Arguedas suppresses the intimate, nostalgic air of past works. The novel is explicit and penetrating…. (p. 228)

Arguedas did not enter the sordidly vicious, chaotic world of current Peruvian novelists. He returned to the genre of the short story in his final publication, a collection called Amor Mundo y todos los cuentos, 1967. The familiar Andean environment provides a backdrop—with the exception of one narrative—but dialogue is often the structural base. How succinct these stories are in comparison to those of earlier collections! The technical ability of Arguedas, which followed a progression of "cuento" to short novel to successive forms of the novel itself, flourishes in these later short stories….

Nurtured almost exclusively in Peruvian soil, Arguedas was able to absorb the changing attitudes circulating in his environment, and thus, to transcend the confines of his original regionalism as he moved into considerations of contemporary Peru. Over the years his writing shows a gradual suppression of the regional in favor of the racial and the social. But the evolving perspectives of his prose must be understood in the context of his regional roots.

An eventual adjustment to the Indian reality is a thread which runs through all his writings. It is based on his deep affection and respect for the race. The Indian as focal point … belongs to the "indigenista" literature…. The figure of the Indian coexisting with nature is always present, even though this has become less dominant in the recent works of Arguedas. [Arguedas deplores] the aspects of feudalism which bind the Indian, and [he paints] his rejection from the life of his own country in vivid and in muted colors. (p. 229)

[Arguedas] deals with [the Indian's] suffering realistically and stresses [his] unspoiled greatness. He calls for the reader's admiration and respect but not his commiseration. And he delves ever deeper into the sociological and economic reasons behind the Indian's plight….

There is a distinct feeling in Arguedas' last three novels of having emerged into contemporary times. This is due as much to style as to content….

The presence of nature has always been an inherent part of Peruvian literature, and Peru's finest regional writers have mirrored the cosmic mystery and grandeur of the Andean panorama. Arguedas' use of telluric imagery which links the forces of nature and man reflects the influence of this descriptive style…. (p. 230)

While the descriptive passages of Arguedas offer great beauty, they also indicate a continuous change in perspective. Indeed, Arguedas' modulations in handling his description provide another thread for following his transition into the stream of contemporary literature. Initially in his stories he interspersed paragraphs of description in the expected manner, although he was never the omniscient author describing the contemplation of the Indian. (pp. 230-31)

Towering over all Arguedas' prose is his belief in the creative capacity of the Quechua people and the beauty and richness of the Quechua language…. His constant preoccupation with the speech of the Indians in his literary works emphasizes his love of authenticity in language. For the bilingual Arguedas it was impossible to convey the essence of the Indian in either traditional Spanish or in a dialect concocted for picturesque effects. Indeed his laborious search for a valid style of speech inserts a unique tone in his writing…. By the time Arguedas reaches his major novels, the intertwining of Quechua and Spanish is handled so magnificently that the reader himself is aware of the psychological and artistic distinctions of the language…. (p. 231)

In his early works [Arguedas] exhibits the primary weakness of the Latin American regionalists who concentrate on the "paisaje" or on the action at the expense of any character development. Conversely, Los ríos profundos, while still in the frame of an "indigenista"-regional novel, is actually based on character portrait. The first-person format and the exquisite use of techniques of interior vision give an intimate picture of the sensitive, intense Ernesto…. However, when Arguedas reaches the epic proportions of Todas las sangres, with its vast mural of multiple characters, there is an inescapable tendency toward mass anonymous figures, and the detailed political analyses obscure characterization even more. The purpose has taken precedence over the literary.

Throughout the changing patterns and perspectives of his translucent prose, Arguedas has interpreted the social turmoil of his time. The measure of the man's spirit shows itself in his ability to clothe his urgent message in coeval folds, and thus he remains contemporary from the 1930's to the present without sacrifice of his originality. (p. 232)

Phyllis Rodriguez-Peralta, "The Literary Progression of José María Arguedas," in Hispania (©1972 The American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, Inc.), May, 1972, pp. 225-33.

Wolfgang A. Luchting

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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.

M. E. Davis

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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.

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