Themes and Meanings
The novel is a scathing critique of the hypocrisy and corruption of Peruvian society in general, of which the Leoncio Prado is a microcosm, and of its military establishment in particular. The events of the book transpire during the real dictatorship of General Manuel Odría, who ruled Peru for eight years beginning in 1948, after a military coup. Although the novel appeared several years after the Odría regime, its publication touched a raw nerve; the novel was attacked as antipatriotic and, presumably, several copies of it were burned in the courtyard of the Leoncio Prado.
The novel is also about growing up; about honor, loyalty, bravery, and love. The group of adolescent boys whose stay at the school the book chronicles, is a cross section of Peruvian—and Latin American—society, from a sociological and political perspective. The boys will grow up, which in the novel means that they will fulfill the roles that society has designed for them. There will be no surprises, and not one of the boys will ever overcome his assigned task. This sense of fatalism pervades the novel; growing up means coming to terms with this reality, conforming to one’s fate. The first-year recruits, the “dogs” of the novel’s original Spanish title (literally the city and the dogs), receive from Jaguar the impetus to challenge their script; he offers to protect them from the system that seeks to humiliate those at the bottom of an inevitably cruel hierarchical structure. The boys accept his leadership and its benefits only when he is strong; the moment he needs their help and support, they turn on him and break their dependence—in preparation for life outside the school—on what is, after all, a lower-class boy.
According to Lt. Gamboa, half the boys are sent to the academy ‘‘so they won't be gangsters ... and the other half, so they won't turn out to be fairies. It's their parents' fault.’’ Gamboa's comment leads to a discussion about the difference between soldiers and cadets. Soldiers can be physically beaten until they are so civilized an Indian only appears to be Indian. Cadets, which cannot be so abused, are not quite so accomplished but they do learn one thing: being a man depends on whether a boy is s—— or he s—. In military terms, the ultimate sign of manhood is murder. However, his parents determine the degree of a boy's success either by letting him grow up—like Tico or Skinny—or telling him to become a man. Towards that end, parents send their boys to an academy where the boys must negotiate a paradox. They are expected to be soldier-like men but they are not soldiers, they are not killers.
The Slave does not succeed in becoming a man because the deck is stacked against him. He has a nearly Freudian relationship with his mother, indicated by his awareness of her kissing him on the lips: ‘‘Why does she kiss me on the mouth?’’ He learns the hard way that his parents are merely separated and suddenly sees ''his mother and a man were ... kissing.’’ Slave, in undeclared rebellion, refuses to kiss his father. Later, he tries to defend his mother against being beat up. He loses and is unable to fight another man again; he is impotent. Such docility causes his father to send him to the military academy where he hopes they will make ''a man out of him.’’ His father blames the mother, declaring, ''There's nothing like a woman to ruin a boy's life''.
In contrast to the Slave, the Poet does not take his mother's side. He does kiss his father's cheek. Consequently, Poet's father acknowledges him: ‘‘He's a man now.’’ Thereafter, Poet imitates his father's attitude toward his mother by neglecting her. The Jaguar is successful because he has no father to compete with and is acknowledged early on as a man. His aunt ensures his success as a man by sleeping with him—s——other people is an essential component of being a man. Skinny helps by teaching Jaguar how to manipulate others and how to...
(The entire section is 1,582 words.)