I’m now less convinced than I was before of Antonio Melis’s argument that “the writings of Arguedas should be considered as an integrated totality (i.e. without the constraint of barriers such as genre)” (xi). Or rather, what’s striking when comparing Arguedas’s work across different genres is the way in which he adopts such very different voices depending on whether he is writing a novel, anthropology, or poetry. Perhaps they are different strategies. But some are surely more successful than others.
If Arguedas’s anthropological writing repeats the Western ethnographic gaze, by contrast his poetry constitutes a full-blown performance of indigeneity.
Written in Quechua, then translated usually by Arguedas himself into Spanish, his poetic output is distinguished by its passion and commitment. And this is true even when the theme is far from Arguedas’s customary Peruvian concerns, as in his brief declarations of solidarity with Cuba and with the North Vietnamese.
At the same time, it is rather formulaic, especially in these latter two poems. It’s as though they were Arguedas’s minimal gesture to the international issues preoccupying intellectuals in the late 1960s. The poem to the Vietnamese is entitled “Qollana Vietnam Llaqtaman,” translated as “Ofrenda al pueblo de Vietnam,” “Offering to the People of Vietnam”: this is an offering of due devotion paid to a cause that is not Arguedas’s own.
Arguedas is also perhaps paying the price of admission to a community of intellectuals with pretensions to universality. In which case it is worth noting that it is as a Quechua speaker that Arguedas is seeking entry to this exclusive club. Arguedas wants to ensure Quechua is recognized as a language of artistic and intellectual creation.
Another of these poems also turns to the intellectuals. Here, directly so: “Huk Doctorkunaman Qayay” or “Appeal to some Doctors” is addressed to Carlos Cueto Fernandini and John V. Murra; Cueto Fernandini occupied a series of prestigious posts, including the directorship of the National Library, while John Murra was a Cornell-based anthropologist, and close friend of Arguedas’s.
“Appeal to some Doctors” begins by acknowledging the way in which indigenous knowledge is ignored: “They say that we no longer know anything, that we are backwardness, that they have to change our heads for other, better ones” (253). It continues by negating such assertions, arguing for indigenous knowledge of nature, plants, and suffering.
But it ends by returning to the theme of ignorance, to an unforeseeable future in the fact of modernization:
We do not know exactly what will happen. Let death makes its way towards us; let these strangers come. We will be on our guard waiting for them; we are the children of the father of all the rivers, of the father of all the mountains. Is it that the world is now worthless, my little brother the doctor? (257)
So Arguedas here fully assumes a subjectivity defined by ethnicity and language: “we are the children.” And he shares in their anxious, guarded wait for what the future brings.
This declaration of identity, taking on an indigenous “nosotros” is even more marked in “Tupac Amaru kamac taytanchisman (Haylli-taki),” “To our Creator Father Túpac Amaru (Hymn-Song),” in which Arguedas declares “We are alive, we still are!” as a kind of phatic expression to link a grammatical subject (“we”) to ontology and also to history (467). “We still are!” “¡Somos todavía!” “¡Kachkaniraqkun!” (467). The Peruvian congress took up this declaration as the title for its recent edition of Arguedas’s “essential works”: ¡Kachkaniraqmi! ¡Sigo siendo!.
Finally, though, in “Jetman, Haylli,” “Ode to the Jet,” Arguedas envisages a modernity in which Quechua, and an indigenous cosmovision, have fully appropriated the fruit of Western technology:
Here I am in this world, sitting most comfortably, on a fiery steed,
Iron alight, whiter than white, made by man’s hand, swimming in the wind.
Yes. “Jet” is its name. (75)
The price, or perhaps the advantage, of this techno-indigenism is a blasphemous denial of gods both native and Christian, and an affirmation of the divinity of mankind: “God is man, man is God” (75).
But is there not a still more serious disadvantage in making of Quechua a majoritarian language, albeit in a written form that can have only the smallest of audiences, and so giving up on the project to inflict a minoritarian insurrection on the colonizers’ Spanish?