The brutal novel The Villagers flows swiftly. Technically, it is one of the better Spanish American novels. Its virtues are legion, as are its defects, and among the former are interesting dialogue, bitter irony, sardonic humor, interesting plot, effective use of detail, exposure of social injustice, and crispness of style with short sentences that get to the point. The Villagers presents the Ecuadoran Andes so clearly that readers see them in stark detail, hear the sounds of the sierra, and experience the odors, temperature changes, and direction of the night wind. The Villagers’ crowning virtue is its defense of Ecuador’s oppressed Indians. For this reason the novel has been considered Jorge Icaza’s most significant novel. It helped launch the cycle of indianista novels, which are devoted to telling the story of the Indians. The novel’s protagonist is not only an Indian but also the Indian, who is characterized collectively but clearly, even to the peculiar flavor of his Spanish.
Decay is a prominent and depressing note in The Villagers, with its frequent images of garbage, filth, mold, slime, and rotten meat. Trash, dirt, and profanity are always present; everything is sloppy and unkempt, reflecting life’s hopelessness. Depression is thus a constant note, accentuated by dismal mountain fogs, clammy cold, foul speech, and superstition. Soroche (altitude sickness) occasionally strikes, as do other afflictions. Alcoholism is the Indian’s bane, for the huasipunguero abandons everything—chickens, corn, potatoes, children—for alcohol.
The characters in the novel generally fail to change or develop. At the novel’s end, they are almost the same personalities and characters that they were at its start. The principal exception is the Indian community itself, for “from all corners of the soul, from every pore, grow the secret rebellions of a slave.” Icaza also implies that the mestizo or mulatto in Ecuador suffers from a psychological inferiority complex.
The latter villains, unfortunately, are crudely drawn. Don Alfonso Pereira is a second-rate Simon Legree, a consistent rascal, self-server, hypocrite, and uncomplicated brute from start to finish. He snarls, curses, and brutalizes Indians but cringes from those above him. The priest is worse; he is so utterly depraved as to be comical. He extorts money from hungry Indians, sells passages out of Purgatory or burial plots “close to Heaven” at alarming prices, builds a lucrative trucking business on ill-gotten money, and commits ridiculous rascalities too numerous to mention, including the drunken rape of Juana. Referred to as the Cassocked One, the priest is a symbol of Icaza’s disenchantment with religion, and it is puzzling that this caricature has not aroused disdain or even criticism from many generations of students, professors, and other readers.
Other ogres in The Villagers are wealthy people, businessmen, whites, property owners, and gringo capitalists. The gringos careen about in Cadillacs, oblivious to Indians; they relish money and lack human feelings. It is possible that they were grotesquely overdrawn by Icaza to appeal only to readers blinded by prejudice, but it should also be recalled that the novel was intended as a tirade against the social injustice that then blighted Ecuador. Icaza possibly had the illusion that his novel would bring a better life to the Indians, but initially his work was better received and lauded abroad than it was in his own country. In any event, Icaza exposed the plight of Ecuador’s peons and also the decay of the rural aristocrats, who had left the work of their ancestors to live luxuriously in the city. The novel also promotes the conflict of the races, namely the indigenous peoples against the whites. White aristocrats are portrayed as hard, unfeeling,...
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and cruel. They are contemptuous of Indians and exploit the poor. Some critics feel that Icaza’s work had political motivations; others compare him to John Steinbeck and consider him a social reformer.
No one in The Villagers apparently wishes to live in the country, since life in Quito is much richer. The countryside is backward, isolated, and uncomfortable; the city is cultured and far superior. Nature is unattractive; its beauties are not mentioned and not extolled. Nature’s dangers are stressed, however, such as the scene in which a man dies horribly by drowning in mud. Little interest is shown in animals, birds, and plants. The novel is almost devoid of color. Tints of sunrises, sunsets, mountains, skies, fields, or towns are generally lacking, and even the grayness of the constant mountain mist is assumed rather than described. The author’s treatment of color is a deliberate stylistic device to increase the feeling of dismal hopelessness.
Although of Spanish origin and comfortable background, Icaza decided as a youth to champion Ecuador’s poor of all races. Having attracted international attention, his novel eventually won acceptance in Ecuador and undoubtedly helped the Indian. It has therefore helped to implement some social reform and to attract attention to the cause of the indigenous peoples of the region. Thus, as have other novels written with the intention of provoking reform, the novel has succeeded, through its literary readability, in making considerable impact on its society.