From the opening of Jorge Icaza’s novel Huasipungo, set in early twentieth-century Ecuador, the landowner, Alfonso Pereira, is presented as treading on precarious ground. He has stormed out of his house in bad humour, faced with problems that are both familial and financial: his daughter is pregnant with her indigenous boyfriend; and meanwhile he is also faced with debts and unpaid taxes. His head filled with these concerns, he is about to cross the street only to be nearly run over by a car that leaves him “trying to regain his balance on the edge of the pavement” (9). And indeed, the story that follows is the tale of Pereira’s attempts to “regain his balance” even if they involve ever-more extreme measures and grotesque abuses of the people who live on his land. Balance remains in short supply even at the end.

Pereira is presented as an almost comic character: flustered and maladroit; in over his head in the management of his family and his estate. But it is soon clear that there is a not-so-funny side to this cartoon buffoonery. On the advice of his uncle (and major creditor), Pereiras travels to his hacienda in the highlands, reluctant wife and daughter in tow, where he will, with yet more borrowed money, buy up land–and the indigenous that come with it–to build a road to the capital. The plan is to smooth the way for a firm of US prospectors, led by one “Mr Chapy,” who are apparently interested in extracting lumber from the interior–though in fact they are rather more keen on the possibility of drilling for oil. With the payout that ensues, Pereira hopes that his troubles will be at an end. And the novel shows that he will stop at nothing to ensure this happy resolution.

On the journey to the highlands, the road still as-yet unbuilt, Pereira and his family find themselves stymied by a muddy path that not even their mules can traverse. The landowner therefore calls on the indigenous servants, for them to become literally beasts of burden by carrying the Pereiras on their backs. Still persecuted by anxiety about his own troubles, and so utterly thoughtless of the weight he is placing on others’ shoulders, Pereira gives a start and causes the man carrying him to lose his footing and tumble to the ground. “Stupid Indian!” [“¡Indio pendejo!”], the master cries out “hopelessly” [“desesperado”], digging his spurs into the man’s ribs (14). His self-absorption and helplessness are hardly a joking matter now.

The name of the man who has to bear this humiliating punishment is Andrés Chiliquinga, and as the story unfolds he becomes exemplary of the suffering that the indigenous are forced to endure in the name of the landowner’s zeal to recover his economic balance, and of the gringos’ promise to bring modernization and development. Andrés first endures a horrific injury while helping to clear the land. Then his wife dies an agonizing death after eating the rotten meat that, with Pereira’s refusal to dole out the customary recompense for their otherwise unpaid labour, is all that the indigenous have to subsist on. And once the road is finally built, both he and his son die trying to protect their “huasipungo,” their small parcel of land, and its hut from being torn down to make room for the houses and offices that Mr Chapy proposes to build in their place.

In the face of all this oppression, the indigenous do not go down without a fight, rallying around the slogan “¡Ñucanchic huasipungo!”: “Our huasipungo.” And the final lines of the book suggests that this cry will resonate around the Andes. But here, at least, their cause is hopeless. But even in his victory, or perhaps especially in his victory, Pereira remains as precariously perched as ever: standing on a wall alongside Mr Chapy to look out over “the vast plain of the highlands” (113), he is once again carried away with emotion and ends up falling down once more amid “clouds of dust” to the laughter of his gringo companion (114). “We know not where we are treading” [“no sabemos donde pisamos”] is the moral he draws from this, which could be a reference to the subterranean deposits that have been driving this entire enterprise. But it may also be a delayed glimpse of the fact that, in clearing the indigenous from the land and speeding up the transition from feudalism to a capitalism dominated by foreign corporations, the hapless Pereira has simply been undermining the ground from under his own feet.

In trying to secure his position, he has achieved the opposite: he has destroyed his future by neglecting to recognize the immense indigenous contribution to the good fortune he has taken for granted. Now who will carry him through the mud?

Una comunidad abstracta and Te Faruru

Te Faruru

In the past year or two, the young Ecuadorian writer who goes by the name of Salvador Izquierdo has published two works of what I hesitate to call fiction: Una comunidad abstracta (2015) and Te Faruru (2016). Each is intriguing and frustrating in equal measure, though the frustration itself is part of Izquierdo’s strategy. Indeed, the more frustrating of the two–the later, longer Te Fararu–is also the more interesting precisely because it outright refuses any simple resolution.

The manifest content of the two books is similar. They consist of a lengthy series of often very short paragraphs detailing facts or offering hypotheses about literary and artistic figures, texts and performances, essentially from modernism to the present. Often the form these paragraphs take is short quotations by or about the figures under discussion. So we have brief (sometimes absolutely telegraphic) musings from or about everyone from Paul Gauguin or Hart Crane to Henry Miller, Elisabeth Bishop, Juan Carlos Onetti, Jean-Luc Goddard, and Susan Sontag, along with a host of other, more obscure denizens or hangers on from the international artistic demi-monde.

The links established among the multitude of characters that thus populate each book are often at first sight tangential, almost random associations. Artists who feature (or don’t) in a book entitled Fifty Twentieth-Century Artists You Should Know (Picasso, twice, but not Ana Mendieta or Robert Crumb). Authors who changed their names (Comte de Lautréamont, George Orwell, Pablo Neruda). Writers or actors who went bald (Philip Larkin, Alfonso Reyes, Ed Harris). Men named Robert (Rauschenberg, Capa, Graves). People who came from, visited, or may have visited, Vancouver (Bill Reid, Malcolm Lowry, Kurt Vonnegut). People from or with some connection to Uruguay, however minimal (Josephine Baker, Joaquín Torres García, Martin Amis). The narrator of Una comunidad abstracta tells us that “it’s not me who’s making these connections” (58). But collectively they begin to establish patterns that respond to the particular preoccupations of this shadowy compiler of apparent trivia: people who had a child at the age of 24 (Robert Hughes, David Bowie, Bob Dylan); “I mention it,” the narrator tells us, “because, whatever else separates us, I too had a child when I was 24” (49).

“What have I said about myself?” asks the narrator of Una comunidad abstracta (86). The answer is both “not much” and “a fair bit.” This is someone concerned with the process of translation, in all its meanings, and in establishing facts while worrying as much about their accuracy as about their relevance: “Errors in books or errors within myself?” he asks about the possibility of mistakes (86). But to “err” is also to deviate, to roam, to travel (and so also to translate). These are definitely “errant” books, which roam widely with no obvious destination or purpose.

Ultimately, Una comunidad abstracta ends up being something of (quite literally) a shaggy dog tale. It seems to revolve around a lost dog, called Fito: “I write these little paragraphs [. . .] for Fito.” But this is both too neat and too unsatisfactory a key to the endless perambulations, meanderings, and circumlocutions that characterize the book. Indeed, surely it’s at best an alibi, or a metaphor for everything else that also escapes such attempts to put an end to the chain of connections and apparent coincidences. Te Faruru hints more directly at what else may lay beyond or beneath the imperfect search for order, for putting everything in its place.

In this more recent book, the narrator (although really nothing is ever narrated) may or may not be the same as in the previous one. But he shares many of the same obsessions. And he shares a little more, too, above all in a series of long footnotes that take up more space on the page as the book progresses. It is in one of these notes, for instance, that he tells us of a grandmother who once gave him a book by Eduardo Galeano, dedicating it to a “great reader” (113)–a compliment, however, that the narrator wishes quickly to disown. And another footnote tells us of a former literature teacher who also gave him a book, this time the collected works of Cavafy, inscribed to an “exceptional person” (126)–but he has to admit that he has lost touch with the teacher, and hasn’t returned to any of the authors he read with her.

In these footnotes, then, Te Faruru‘s reluctant narrator struggles with the slogan “Don’t Look Back” that otherwise reverberates through the main text, in all its various versions from Lot’s Wife to Orpheus to Bob Dylan and Pennebacker’s documentary. After all, the footnotes themselves interrupt the onward flow of the connections and interconnections that comprise the text, each point linked to the other by little more than free association with no attempt to dwell on any moment in particular: “Now I think of it” is otherwise the book’s refrain, like an exercise in ADHD. But in the footnotes lurks the shadow of something that the narrator can’t think about and can’t help thinking at one at the same time. Something that demands a narrator, however much our guide denies that this is what he is: “To relate what I don’t want to relate I’d have to begin much further back, I’d have to put together a story [or history–historia], I’d have to look back, and I don’t feel up to it” (131). Or later: “Again, I’d have to relate certain things that are neither here nor there [que no vienen al caso aquí]. It would be better to come up with a narrative, but I’m no narrator” (141).

But it may just be that the footnotes are pointing out something that’s present also in the main text. For all the injunctions to keep looking ahead, in fact it, too, is full of repetitions and returns. Its last line, after all, declares that “here, where there is nothing but repetition, the same thing happens” (157). And not only does its apparently random flow of consciousness incessantly revisit the same preoccupations, but the themes to which it returns often themselves deal with going back: Odysseus’s voyage home to Ithaca; and perhaps above all, Torres García’s return to Uruguay after 43 years away. For the narrator’s secret may well, it seems, have something to do with “what happened in Montevideo. To relate that episode in narrative form would shrink what I am holding on to in my memory, which wants to stay there, undisturbed [quieto]” (151). We can doubt, however, that this memory is really so quiet, so undisturbing. For it seems to be what sets in train the entire sequence of fragments that constitutes the book.

The book’s title, “Te Faruru,” is taken from a series of woodcuts made by Gauguin in the South Pacific. It means, we are told, “Here we make love” in the Maori language (81). But Izquierdo’s text is much more restless and unsettled than this title at first sight implies. The book seems to be telling us something, but we don’t know what–and perhaps neither does its author, let alone its (anti-)narrator. Or maybe all that matters is the movement itself, and by willfully frustrating us the text is warning against the childlike impulse to “connect the dots to come up with a figure that at the outset seems hidden” (23). Any story, any narrative, would ultimately be a trap, as arbitrary and at best merely fortuitous as any of the other relations and relatings that constitute these two books. So if we are to make (or find) love, it must be in the context of this uncertainty of the “neither here nor there,” of a concatenation of circumstances and encounters, errors and deviations, in which we happen to find (or lose) ourselves.