It takes a while for Rosario Castellanos’s first novel, Balún Canán, to get going. The plot, such as it is, emerges only slowly as the un-named child narrator (a young girl, seven years old) gives us glimpses into her world as the daughter of a landlord family, the Argüellos, in 1930s Chiapas. The narrator’s anonymity indicates, among other things, how easily she is overlooked: it’s her younger brother, Mario, who is son and heir to the country estate and the family name. But this gives the girl a certain freedom as, guided by her indigenous nana, she explores the sights and sounds of the town of Comitán, and is given a window onto both traditional Indian beliefs and contemporary White anxieties. And these anxieties are what gradually gives the novel shape, for it turns out that we are in a time of transition: the landowners are losing their sway as the post-revolutionary government of Lázaro Cárdenas promotes land reform and indigenous education. With the state and the law apparently on their side, farmworkers and servants are less likely to be so docile. Concerned about the rumours he’s hearing from the countryside, and taking with him an illegitimate nephew, Ernesto, to fulfill the requirement to provide a teacher for the Indians in his care, the patriarch César Argüello sets out with his family to the ancestral domain, Chactajal. It is here that the story will finally pick up speed, even if the ultimate dénouement is back in Comitán.
But it is in the countryside where the new balance of forces is most evident. Even the journey to the Argüello estate proves unusually arduous. The weather is against them, and a local village refuses to give them shelter. They have to ford a river in flood, and then Ernesto shoots a deer, in defiance (or ignorance) of native custom. In short, the prospects are ominous, and even the fiesta to welcome the family to their estate is tinged with suspicion and threat: the child narrator notes “among the shadows, the hostile gaze of those who had not wanted to attend” (71). And so, from bad to worse as the local people make unprecedented demands on the owners of the manor house, demands that are now backed up by the state in the person of a visiting agrarian inspector. The inspector is not in a mood to be swayed by such hospitality as the house can offer, even though (or perhaps because) he’s greeted as César’s stepson, possibly his illegitimate child. The report the family receive is that what he tells the Indians is that “they no longer had a boss. That they were the ones who owned the property, that they had no obligation to work for anyone else. And he sent them a signal, by raising a closed fist” (134). So however much César tries to maintain his equilibrium, the reality that his power is rapidly fraying is clear for all to see. Moreover, in a social landscape that, for the Argüellos, is defined by treason and betrayal, not the least of the challenges to his authority come from within the family itself. Ernesto, for instance, is a loose cannon who is not entirely to be trusted however much he fantasizes himself as a potential heir or even saviour of the family fortunes. And César’s wife, Zoraida, increasingly berates him for losing his grip and showing insufficient firmness against indigenous lèse-majesté.
Zoraida is in fact one of the novel’s most interesting characters. She herself was raised in poverty, so senses how much she has at stake in the struggle to maintain the social divide between white and indigenous, landowner and peon. No wonder perhaps that it is she who most powerfully and venomously articulates both the racism and the sexism that structure and (purportedly) justify it. She upbraids her husband for not being, in essence, “man enough” to defend a patrimony to which she herself has only a relatively recent claim. She is determined, moreover, that all this should be passed on to her younger child and only son, Mario. In many ways she’s a signally unsympathetic figure, although at the same time the reasons why she adopts the attitudes she does are eminently understandable. The same goes for Ernesto, a similarly complex character whose struggle with his own illegitimacy and uncertain social standing the novel takes pains to delineate without ever asking us to absolve him for his stupidity or his cruelty. Indeed, in short, perhaps Castellanos’s most impressive achievement is to have sketched out a world that is full of shades of gray and ambivalence (for on the other side, the indigenous agitator Felipe is no saint, least of all in his wife’s eyes) without ever equivocating on fundamental issues of inequality and justice. Guided often by the most marginal members of a corrupt and hitherto complacent local aristocracy, we chart their decline with empathy but not a trace of nostalgia or absolution. The novel enjoins us neither to forget their humanity nor to forgive the inhumanities of the system to which they are indebted.