Alberto the Poet captures the sympathy of the reader at the beginning of the book. A thinker rather than a doer, he must survive through his intelligence and wit in the rough school environment. He nevertheless proves disappointing in the end. He reveals the Circle’s secrets presumably to avenge his friend Ricardo’s death; he then, however, withdraws all charges—making it possible for school officials to close the investigation—revealing a selfish and cowardly nature. Alberto also disenchants the reader when he befriends and romances Teresa, whom he visits to deliver a message from her boyfriend, the Slave, who is unable to make the rendezvous in person because he has been grounded. The role of the bourgeois intellectual, the novel suggests, is to take the easy way out even if it means, as in this case, to be a traitor.
Jaguar, a petty thief and delinquent, impresses the reader with his strength, and with his control and leadership over the other boys. When he kills the Slave, he does so to protect the honor code of the Circle; yet, ironically, he is punished in the end not by the system itself but by his fellow cadets. Jaguar emerges as the only cadet with a firm set of laudable values and a willingness to suffer for the sake of a principle. At the end of the novel he rehabilitates himself, marries, and begins a life of middle-class respectability.
Ricardo the Slave is the professional victim, serving as prey even to his best friend, Alberto. His reactions, and even his fate, are somewhat predictable, insofar as he serves as the scapegoat for all that is wrong or goes wrong within the school. He is not, however, without some redeeming nobility. He informs, not because he is a coward and wants revenge against his abusers but because he wants to be away from the school, even for a short time, to see Teresa, who has shown him tenderness and humanity.
Gamboa, the rigid disciplinarian and stoic good soldier is, deep down, a decent, just, and loving individual, devoted to his family and to the best ideals of a military life. The book reveals, nevertheless, that there is no room for such individuals in the army, except in some remote region of the country where they cannot threaten the system or, even inadvertently, expose the corruption within it.
Teresa, the only developed female character of the novel, has no distinct personality and is not a very believable human being. In fact, she seems to exist, in part, to join and perhaps equalize emotionally the three principal characters of the novel, Alberto, Jaguar, and the Slave, and to serve as the desirable “nice girl” counterpoint in the otherwise rather raunchy sexual fantasies of the adolescent boys.
Porfirio Cava (pohr-FEE-ree-oh KAH-vah), a cadet in the Leoncio Prado Military Academy in Lima, Peru. A highlander with a peasant background, he has chosen to attend the academy because he plans a career in the military. He is one of four members of “the Circle,” a group of cadets formed for mutual protection and support. After a losing roll of the dice, he is obligated to steal a chemistry examination for the Circle. During the late-night theft, he accidentally breaks a window. This evidence, coupled with information supplied by the informant Arana, leads to his court-martial and expulsion, ending his chance for a career in the military and the concomitant improvement in economic and social status.
Alberto Fernández Temple
Alberto Fernández Temple (ahl-BEHR-toh fehr-NAHN-dehs TEHM -pleh), the Poet, the bourgeois intellectual...
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of the Circle, a cadet whose wit and skill at writing love letters and pornographic stories are admired by the other cadets. His father is a womanizer and his mother a complainer. Like his father, Alberto is preoccupied with women. First he was infatuated with Helena; after she broke off their relationship, his grades suffered and his father sent him to the academy to teach him discipline. Alberto has his first sexual experience with Golden Toes, the prostitute who has serviced half of his class. At the request of Ricardo, who cannot get a pass, he agrees to meet with Teresa. He takes her to see films, is smitten, and continues to date her. Sustaining a friendship with Ricardo and a relationship with Teresa troubles his conscience. When Ricardo is murdered, Alberto is so overwhelmed with guilt that he denounces the murderer before Lieutenant Gamboa. Academy officials ignore the facts, and nothing is done. As the novel ends, Alberto has finished the academy with high marks, has received a gift from his father as a reward, and will probably go to the United States to study engineering. Influenced by his circle of bourgeois friends outside the academy, he drops Teresa and begins dating Marcela. He probably will repeat his father’s philandering ways.
Jaguar (hah-GHWAHR), the leader of the Circle, a violent, fearless cadet who shows his class how to stand up to and beat the system. Before entering the academy, he fell in love with Teresa, but after an argument, they went their separate ways. Poor, his father dead, and his mother old, Jaguar was living with the criminal Skinny Higueras and was leading a life of crime until most of his cohorts were caught during a robbery attempt. After going without food and sleeping in the open, Jaguar finally turned to his godfather, who put him to work in exchange for room and board. With the help of his godfather’s wife (whom he had to satisfy sexually), Jaguar has entered the academy, where he has become a natural leader and fighter. He organizes the class and his followers to resist the upperclassmen. He teaches them that there are no moral limits to protecting the group. When Cava is betrayed, Jaguar murders the betrayer, Arana. Jaguar’s subsequent ostracism from the group, however, makes him aware of how lonely Arana must have been. Remorseful, Jaguar confesses his crime, but the academy is not interested. In the end, he marries Teresa.
Ricardo Arana (rree-KAHR-doh ah-RAHN-ah), the Slave, a timid and shy cadet whom the other cadets ostracize. He has been reared by his mother and his Aunt Adelina in the regional town of Chiclayo; his father was absent during his early upbringing. Suddenly uprooted from this environment and brought to Lima, where his mother moved to live with his father again, Ricardo learned to avoid his father and most social interaction. His father concluded that Ricardo was a mama’s boy, ill-adapted to face the world, and saw the military academy as a remedy for these shortcomings in his son. Ricardo has willingly agreed to enroll, but he is not accepted by the other cadets. They make fun of him, abuse him, and exploit his unwillingness to fight back. He finds some solace in his friendship with Alberto and is infatuated with Teresa. Having been confined to the academy, he becomes so desperate for a pass to see his mother that he informs the authorities that Cava stole the examination. In revenge, Ricardo is murdered in an “accident” during a field exercise. The authorities cover up the incident and blame the death on the cadet himself.
Boa, a cadet who sexually molests chickens and his dog Skimpy. He is a member of the Circle and a loyal follower of its leader, Jaguar.
Lieutenant Gamboa (gahm-BOH-ah), a tough, no-nonsense, model officer who believes in a fair and consistent application of the rules and discipline. He reports the murder but finds his career threatened by superiors, who cover up the scandal.
Teresa (teh-REH-sah), a young woman whose interest in Ricardo and Alberto probably results from their higher economic and social background. She finally marries Jaguar.
Mr. Arana Mr. Arana differs from Alberto's father only slightly. He does not treat his wife well, abandons her for stretches of time, and has many girlfriends. He is an absent father to Ricardo, the Slave, and blames his wife for Ricardo's fault. When Ricardo has been shot and lies dying in the hospital, Mr. Arana moans to Alberto about the challenge he has had to face in making Ricardo a man: ‘‘It hasn't been easy to make a man out of him. He's my only son.’’ Mr. Arana wants to believe the Academy did him good, that it undid all that his wife and Aunt Adeline did to emasculate young Ricardo. Mr. Arana does everything but consider his role in Ricardo's upbringing, especially his failure to ever appreciate Ricardo. In fact, Mr. Arana constantly insulted Ricardo as if he were not there, saying, ''he acts like a girl.’’ Mr. Arana represents the worst kind of father.
Ricardo Arana Ricardo, in terms of the machismo of Peruvian society, is a degenerate. Faced with the bravest boy in grade school, ''he was not afraid ... all he felt was a complete discouragement and resignation.’’ From this moment on, Ricardo adopted a humble and subservient attitude and employed passive-aggressive strategies with his father and other macho performers. This personality wins him the designation of Slave by the Jaguar, who makes use of his natural subservience.
Ricardo's inability to play silly games and to feel fear of his fellow humans as well as his desire to protect his mother from his misogynistic father mark him as someone destined to die. Ricardo makes men aware of the fallibility of their machismo behavior. Thus, Ricardo carries incredible symbolic weight and can be interpreted according to many patterns. Ricardo represents the existentialist stranger, the man who speaks the truth in Plato's cave. As in that parable, he must die. Ricardo can be read as a Christ figure who dies for the sins of the boys at the hands of their high priest. His death serves as a possible means of salvation for those willing to reflect. However, Ricardo's death does not bring salvation but allows the boys to continue to play at being men.
Arrospide Arrospide, a rich white kid from Miraflores (like Alberto), intends to survive the Academy with good marks and in good standing with his peers. Based on these goals, Arrospide willingly accepts the thankless role of Brigadier of the first section for all three years. He allows The Circle liberty and simply goes with the flow. In the end, he leads the coup against the Jaguar with relish. By destroying the Jaguar, whether or not the rumor Curly started is true, Arrospide becomes the leader of the first section in name and spirit just in time for graduation.
The Boa See Valdivieso
Porfirio Cava ‘‘Cava had been born and brought up in the mountains, cold weather was nothing new to him; it was fear that was giving him goose pimples.’’ The fear stalking Cava is the fear of failure both to please the Jaguar and to survive the academy; it is the fear of being unable to handle a situation forced upon him. If he doesn't survive the academy, he is destined to live the life of a peasant. If he does survive, he hopes to climb the social ladder however slightly through a career in the military. Fate is against him in the most iconographic sense—he rolls the dice and lands a ''four.'' ''Get going,'' the Jaguar commands. Cava must steal the answers to the upcoming chemistry exam for the other three members of The Circle and for whoever else wants to buy them.
Cava, an Indian, wins respect by being a part of The Circle. Thus, even an avowed racist like the Boa forgives him for being Indian and befriends him. Cava plays the role of The Circle's peddler in the section. He arranges the selling of items stolen from other cadets in other sections to fellow cadets who want to pass inspection. Cava has a special hatred for the French teacher, Mr. Fontana. Consequently, Cava makes French class hell for Fontana. He thinks Fontana is gay and relentlessly disrupts class. The Boa and the other cadets both approve of and follow Cava's lead.
Curly A member of The Circle who partakes in the gang bangs and acts of bestiality described by the Boa. He witnesses the Jaguar's vow, ‘‘if I get screwed, everybody gets screwed.’’ Upon this basis, the section labels the Jaguar a squealer when Gamboa ransacks the barracks for misdemeanors.
Albert Fernandez One of the protagonists, Alberto, earned his nickname when he began writing letters and pornographic stories for money. The Poet shares his origination from a comfortable white middle-class family in Miraflores with the brigadier, Arrospide. However, inside the academy, such a background does not mean much. Only the esteem of one's fellow cadets brings merit. Along with being a narrator of his own life and contemporary events, the Poet brings about the maj or event of the novel by underhandedly pursuing his friend's girl. While he does not find Teresa beautiful, the Poet admires her intelligence and enjoys the attention she gives him. It is the attention a poor girl gives to anyone sporting the equipage of a higher station in society.
The Poet, as the most conscious and articulate character, receives the most scrutiny because he is the most revealed. Consequently, the evidence never substantiates his claim on reliability and masculinity. This uncertainty begins with his introduction when he confusingly attempts to mislead and seek advice from a man he does not respect, Lt. Huarina. Again and again, the Poet will behave in a manner that clashes with the code of honor and machismo he is supposed to be learning. For example, real men brag about sexual exploits that they actually have. Instead, both in his pornographic writing and when he talks about the prostitute, Golden Toes, ''no one suspected that he knew about [Golden Toes] because he repeated anecdotes he had been told and invented all kinds of lurid stories.’’ Pained adolescence and the demands of military machismo excuse such lying behavior, but for the Poet they become a habit that spills into civilian life.
At his duplicitous worst, the Poet never corrects the Slave in his idea that the two of them are friends. Instead, the Poet tries to make a man of the Slave and hides the truth about his relations with Teresa. This act of cowardice haunts him when he is forced to console the Slave's father with lies about how great the Slave was. Finally, with such a compromised integrity and tortured by doubt, he cannot challenge Jaguar using truth as an instrument. Indeed, Jaguar easily dupes him with a story just as the Colonel blackmailed the Poet with his pornographic stories. The Poet represents a theory of literature—stories change and make up reality until it is difficult to discern what is real and what is story.
Like the Slave, the Poet exists as an existential stranger. He never entirely bends to the wishes of The Circle and they punish him by denying access to the exam answers. Instead of bending to those around him, the Poet deludes himself and others with his stories and letters. He assumes the role of the fool in Jaguar's court or his Cave. He produces the fantasies that distract and amuse the cadets and, in return, the Poet is unharmed. He serves his purpose but it is without purpose. When Alberto finds purpose—love, friendship, truth—it is too late because he has cried wolf too many times with his stories. In fact, Alberto is not even sure if he believes that Jaguar killed Ricardo.
Lieutenant Gamboa Lieutenant Gamboa represents the ideal soldier. All the cadets stand in awe of him. He is their role model. His notion of justice and military propriety is based on the book of regulations that he has memorized. His attempt to enforce those regulations when the Poet squeals brings him exile in Juliaca.
Flaco Higueras Flaco, known as Skinny, is a thief who helps Jaguar help his mother with household expenses. Skinny also teaches Jaguar how to survive in the world of machismo.
Lieutenant Remigio Huarina Among the cadets and officers, Huarina fosters little respect. ‘‘He was small and weak, his voice when he gave commands made everyone laugh.'' In addition, his punishments are arbitrary; Huarina invented ''the punishment lottery'' by which cadets are randomly punished depending on where they stand in formation. In the black and white world of the military, nobody respects arbitrary gray.
When the Slave decides to stand up to the world, he goes to Huarina and squeals on Cava. Huarina seizes the information with enthusiasm hoping that he will win some respect. Huarina gains in standing and represents the classic situation of the victory of the undeserving. Gamboa, the man with the most integrity, gains exile—Huarina, a promotion.
The Jaguar Central and South American ranchers mistakenly view the largest member of the American cat family, the endangered jaguar (once honored as a god among pre-Columbian Peruvians), as a pest. They believe that the jaguar eats their cattle, scientific evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. A forest and savanna creature, the jaguar wears a coat ranging from yellow to rust red with black rosettes. The jaguar is a fitting namesake for the story's most powerful and mysterious personality.
The Jaguar works in the shadows as his stalking of Cava shows from the start. Cava, when returning from his hunt, sees ''a dark shape loom[ing] up in front of him.'' The Jaguar, with ''big pale feet with long dirty toenails’’ and hands ‘‘like two white claws,’’ takes Cava's prey, the exam answers. Such characteristic actions prompt Boa to say ‘‘the devil must have a face like the Jaguar's, the same kind of smile, the same sharp horns.’’ But it is the Jaguar's laugh that really gets people.
The Jaguar's effort to make men out of his fellow cadets is done, as all evil intentions are, for his own benefit. Therefore, he represents the man-making tool that parents believe resides inside the academy. However, the Jaguar—and the parents behind him—never realize that boys like Alberto and Ricardo must act for themselves, find their own identities and their own manhood. It was the Jaguar' s paternal impatience, more than any thing else, that made him confess to being the cause of Ricardo's death. According to the Jaguar, ''we'' all killed him.
Marcela Like Helena, the young woman who dumps and humiliates Alberto, Marcela is a member of Alberto's social class. Cementing the idea that Alberto willingly imitates his Don Juan-esque father, Marcela is an anagram for the name of Alberto's mother, Carmela. Marcela signifies that Alberto will occupy an important position in Peruvian society like his parents and his grandparents.
The Negro See Vallano
The Poet See Alberto Fernandez
Skinny See Flaco Higueras
The Slave See Ricardo Arana
Teresa Within the masculine discourse of the barracks, there are two types of woman. The first, Golden Toes, is the whore upon whom the aspiring soldier can practice his lust. The other is the virgin. Teresa represents the virgin who is to be protected in times of war and maintained by a proper husband in times of peace. The Slave, the Jaguar, and the Poet compete for the love of Teresa. Thus, although she simply goes to school, works, and cleans house, Teresa is a major moving force in the novel and in the world of boys. Teresa also allows for an examination of class in Peruvian society; the Jaguar wins her hand at the end, thus allowing him to move up the social ladder and occupy a position as a clerk in a bank.
Valdivieso In South America, the largest of the boa or boidae, the anaconda, are known to measure twenty feet. Legends have grown up about boas and the people of the Amazon basin are wary of the creatures. The character Boa is named for this South American reptile. A snake can also symbolize the phallus. The Boa, who has a ‘‘huge body, a deep voice, a shock of greasy hair over a narrow face,’’ embodies the animal nature of young males and their awakening sexual preoccupations. He always wins the puerile physical contests the first section holds to pass the time—especially masturbatory races judged by Paulino. In terms of the novel, the Boa represents the perfect cadet: his irreproachable loyalty and physical abilities makes him an ideal soldier; his lackluster intelligence enables him to follow orders; and his genuine love of life make him a pleasurable person to live with. Even though he is a narrator, beyond the Boa's reflections on life in the Academy he does not move the plot. Instead, he tells readers about previous actions The Circle, of which he is a prominent member, has choreographed and he also recounts the physical exploits of other cadets.
The Boa expresses the racism of Peruvian society through his comments on Indians and peasants. He tells how he had to make an exception for Cava—an Indian from the mountains—with great difficulty. Otherwise, the Boa regards blacks, Indians, or mixed breeds as inferior. The Boa, as his name suggests, is an animal. He has sex with chickens and then roasts them. He cruelly manipulates a dog's affections and even maims the animal for disturbing him during an inspection. Just like a snake, he never quite accepts the Jaguar as his master and often fantasizes about killing him—stealthily as would a snake. However, the Jaguar has tamed him as a charmer tames a snake, using the tune of violence. The Boa, at his most eloquent, recollects the fights The Circle has engaged in with the Jaguar at the lead.
Vallano Unlike Cava, Vallano, a black cadet, cannot escape the overt racism of the lighter-hued Peruvians. They call him ‘‘The Negro’’ and describe him in stereotypical fashion, saying, ‘‘like all Negroes, you can tell it from his eyes, what eyes, what fear, what jumping around’’ or, the oft-repeated, ‘‘who can trust a Negro.’’ With such a name, a physical name not unlike the animal names, it is not surprising that Vallano is a sympathizer of The Circle although he is not a member. Still, they recognize the Negro as the only "real" student. For this reason, the Poet deals with him as often as possible. The Poet, after the Jaguar turns him down, offers a few letters for a certain number of points on the chemistry exam. During the exam, Vallano is the only student described as working through the questions.
Vallano makes a huge contribution to the culture of the Fifth Section when he brings a pornographic story back from town. Eleodora's Pleasures becomes the favorite reading of every member of the section. When Vallano started the story out he found himself out of business because the Poet started selling his own stories. From that moment on, pornographic tales become an intrinsic and sophisticated component of life in the barracks.