Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1459
First published: Desierto de piedra, 1925 (English translation, 1928)
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Regional romance
Time of work: Early twentieth century
Locale: Rocky tablelands of northern Argentina
Don Pedro Pablo (Pepablo) Ontiveros, an Argentine landowner
Midas Ontiveros, his nephew
Marcela, the daughter of Midas
Hector, her brothers
Alfonso Puentes, son of a neighboring farmer
Roque Carpio, a gaucho murderer and outlaw
Froilan Palacios, an overseer
Dona Silvestre, his wife
One foggy April morning, a weary gaucho stopped at the house of Dona Silvestre and her husband, Froilan Palacios, an overseer on a ranch owned by old Pedro Pablo Ontiveros. The traveler's pallid face showed that he had recently been in prison. After receiving meat and bread, he betrayed his familiarity with the region around Real de San Eloy by starting out for the town of Canteros over a trail unknown to most of the natives.
Early the next morning, near the main ranch house on the Ontiveros estate, he found a girl's bare footprints in the sand by the river. A short time later, a boy appeared. He was Aquiles, a grandnephew of old Pepablo as everyone called Don Pedro. The boy said that the tracks had been made by his sister, Marcela. The traveler introduced himself as Juan-without-a-Country, but when he stopped at the tavern in Canteros, old Pepablo recognized him as Roque Carpio, a gaucho exiled to the Argentine penal colony at Ushuaia for killing his unfaithful wife twenty-five years before.
With old Pepablo was his nephew Midas. A failure in Buenos Aires, Midas had brought his daughter, Marcela, his sons, Aquiles and Hector, and his mother-in-law, Dona Claudia, to live on Pepablo's run-down ranch. Marcela wished to restore the property with the help of Leopolda, the mannish wife of Overseer Difunto. Pepablo scoffed at her plan. Hard work was for gringos like his Spanish neighbor, Isidro Puentes, ambitious owner of a farm which had once belonged to Roque Carpio.
The old man did admire Marcela, however, and gradually turned the ranch over to her management. While searching for missing cattle, she had left the footprints seen by Roque. She found her cows in Puentes' barley field. The gringo, hoping to arrange a match between her and his son Alfonso, had let the starving animals graze. Marcela scorned Alfonso, partly because the neatness of Puentes' farm, in contrast with Pepablo's establishment, hurt her pride. Once, however, she asked his help when she ran a thorn into her arm.
Increasing drought brought death to Pepablo's cattle. Aquiles and Hector tried to bring rain by staking out a toad in the patio. A storm came, washing out Puentes' barley fields. Pepablo was delighted. When the gringo took advantage of the rainwater to drown burrowing hares that had been ruining his fields, Marcela wanted to follow his example. Pepablo was, however, too proud to imitate a gringo. Besides, the hares provided food for his dogs.
Marcela then suggested that they round up the remaining cattle and drive them to higher pastures. Pepablo promised her half the calves that could be saved. The score of neighbors she invited to the roundup spent the night at the house of Froilan Palacios at Real de San Eloy. Roque Carpio joined them for a cup of mate before he went home through a howling storm, leaving Marcela convinced that city dwellers were weak in contrast to rugged country people. A conversation she overheard later made her suspect that Roque was stealing and branding cattle.
Snow fell. Marcela hired Don Tertulio, a bonesetter and local treasure seeker, to make some repairs at the ranch house. At the feast of San Pedro and San Pablo, Pepablo was to carry the cross in the religious procession. When Marcela discovered that rats had eaten his best shoes, she got him a new pair. They were so stiff that Pepablo slipped them off during dinner, and the dogs gnawed them.
Midas, meanwhile, had been busy with a scheme to make church candles from beeswax. Failing in that venture, he threatened to take his family back to Buenos Aires. As a bribe, Pepablo unearthed some money he had hoarded and set his nephew up as an antique dealer. That project also failed. Midas' next plan was to cut down the algarrobo trees which were Pepablo's special pride and sell the timber. By cajolery and threats, he secured the old man's permission to fell the trees, but the sound of the woodsmen's axes was more than Pepablo could stand. He died, leaving the house and the trees to Midas and the rest of his property to Marcela.
Midas promptly sold his share to Puentes and moved his family to the overseer's house at Real de San Eloy. Marcela hoped that life on that rugged tableland would purge their blood of city-created decadence. After discharging Froilan, whom she suspected of conniving with Roque, she herself ran the ranch.
Froilan, with Dona Silvestre and their daughter Monica, opened a tavern and store. Roque and Midas were among his customers, and Midas discussed his grandiose schemes with the outlaw. He once asked Roque, jokingly, why he did not carry some girl away to one of his mountain caves.
The question turned Roque's thoughts to a plan to win Marcela. He killed a cow, making the death seem like the work of a mountain lion, so that Marcela would organize a lion hunt. His plan to steal her away at that time, however, was frustrated by the arrival of Meliton Bazan, a famous hunter who stirred Roque to rivalry by his claim that he carried only two cartridges because he never saw more than two lions at a time. During the hunt, Roque and Meliton each killed a lion. Alfonso Puentes shot Roque's dog in order to protect three cubs Marcela wanted. Only Marcela's quick defense saved the young man from the gaucho's fury. Roque left in anger.
STONE DESERT—translated from the original DESIERTA DE PIEDRA in 1928—has been for Latin American readers a favorite among the thirty-two titles written by this most prolific of Argentine novelists. Afraid that his origins in Cordoba might handicap his sales, Gustavo Adolfo Martinez Zuviria hid his identity under a pen name when he published his first novel in 1911. Since that time his books, written under the name of Hugo Wast, have sold more than two million copies, with some three hundred editions in Spanish and seventy others in translation. In STONE DESERT, Marcela speaks for the writer when she voices her opinion that a return to nature is the best cure for decadent city life. The novel also expresses the author's belief that the hope for Argentina lies in the toil of hardworking immigrants, combined with a change in the attitude of the country's easygoing, wasteful citizens.
Although not considered Wast's best novel, STONE DESERT is remarkable for the number of themes that it handles well. One such theme has rarely been treated elsewhere in Latin American novels; namely, the alleged economic superiority of foreign immigrants to Latin America over the natives. This allegation is heard from Southern Brazil (where Italians, Portuguese, Japanese, Germans, Poles, and Lebanese have shown notable energy), to Venezuela (where Italians, Spaniards, and Portugese have done the same), to Uruguay and Argentina, where immigrants have renovated entire areas. In STONE DESERT, Wast portrays the hard work done by Peninsular Spaniards in a far-off and rocky corner of the Argentine Republic. STONE DESERT is one of the few Latin American novels to treat the important subject of ethnic minorities in Latin America and the contribution to their adopted lands.
Wast's novel is unusual in other ways. It is one of the relatively few Argentine novels set in the "lost" Northwest of the country, where Argentina fuses into Bolivia and Chile in the high, windy, cold, stony, and dun-brown Puna Atacama. STONE DESERT also reflects the fact that Latin America's true vitality has sprung from the country and nourished the city. This has been notable in Argentine history, from the dictatorial days of Juan Manuel de Rosas to Juan Peron and has been at times a dominant note in national literature, including Argentina's two masterworks, MARTIN FIERRO, and Domingo Sarmiento's great FACUNDO (although the latter views rural Argentina as a vigorous, barbaric drawback to progress and civilization).
It is noteworthy, then, that STONE DESERT has also treated so many other themes, such as the nostalgic return home of Roque Carpio; the superstition of country folk (for example, the staking out of the toad in the patio to bring rain); the ruggedness of rural Argentines compared to city-dwelling "portenos," or inhabitants of Buenos Aires; and the return to nature as a cure for the decadence of urbanites.