El mundo es ancho y ajeno II


The second half of Ciro Alegría’s El mundo es ancho y ajeno is much more fragmented and dislocated than the first. This is evident even on a formal level: each chapter is shorter; we jump between storylines, often never to return; there are also temporal leaps and breathless attempts to catch up with the plot. At times, especially towards the end, it even feels as though the novel is simply running out of steam. After so much effort spent lyrically evoking the rhythms of communal life in the Andes, once the community breaks up and many of its inhabitants disperse to the four corners of Peru, Alegría only has time and energy for quick vignettes, snapshots of the indigenous people’s precarious destinies once they have been forced off their ancestral lands. Some of the former comuneros find themselves elsewhere in the Andes, either on other haciendas or in the mines; others become involved in the hard and exploitative work of harvesting coca in the foothills or rubber in the rainforest. And when the book turns to update us on the whereabouts of prodigal son Benito Castro, we get a sense of life in the coastal capital and its port, Callao, and then of Castro’s subsequent military career. But this last narrative is especially truncated: we gallop through half a dozen years of military service in two pages (489-90). It is as though a clock were ticking, faster and faster, counting down breathlessly to an apocalyptic final dénouement. The old order is ending, and we barely have time to witness its final destruction, as on the novel’s final page the state brutally represses a short-lived insurrection from Rumi’s former inhabitants.

In other words, it is as though the form of the novel itself were no longer able to contain or adequately portray its ostensible subject. In fact, perhaps it never was able to do so. If El mundo es ancho y ajeno is really, as a young Mario Vargas Llosa argued eloquently shortly after Alegría’s death in 1967, Peru’s belated foundational novel, this is a foundation that is also in some sense the end of the line. It is impossible, this book’s hurried and fragmentary second half suggests, to write the national allegory of a nation whose abiding principles are the refusal to admit that half its citizens are subjects, and the brutal curtailment of any narratives they might try to construct. Or rather, the only possible story to be told, then, is the tale of indigenous destruction from the point of view of those responsible for it. The indigenista project, exemplified by Alegría himself, of telling that tale (or any other) from the other side, is doomed from the outset.

So for all the apparent realism of Alegría’s style (Vargas Llosa describes the novel as “an epic history, told with impressionistic language and strictly realist setting: an American synthesis of Victor Hugo and Zola”), it is worth attending also to the book’s metafictional moments, which are relatively few and far between but striking when they come up. Very early on, for instance, a self-reflexive narrative voice intervenes into a description of Rumi’s mayor Rosendo Maqui and his relationship with his adoptive son, curtailing and forestalling further explanation: “We, who have broader responsibilities than Maqui does, although they are undoubtedly less important, will explain what has to be explained in due time. For the moment we do not think it opportune to clarify anything…” (34). It is many hundreds of pages later before the narrative returns to the issue, and it does so through a rather strange denial of narratorial agency, with the argument that the reader should now be able to put two and two together: “We, for our part, should recall that we postponed any explanation of the mayor’s attitude towards Benito regarding his exile from the community. Now, having seen their lives over many years, we believe the matter to be clarified by the facts themselves in all their ramifications and origins” (450). So the narrator interjects, but only so as to claim that his role is somehow superfluous. It is as though the novel were marking his voice, pointing to the narrator’s existence as a standpoint outside and beyond the indigenous community, but at the same time trying to cancel it out, to suggest that here the narrative speaks for itself.

There is a similar anxiety and ambivalence at another point that is also surely self-reflexive, a passage that features three benevolent outsiders, collectively described as “odd dandies.” In fact, despite the strangeness of their manners and dress, they are serranos (highlanders) who have spent a long time on the coast and have now returned in search of local colour (to “cazar paisajes” [480]). For all three are in the business of representation, if in different ways: they are a folklorist, a writer, and a painter. We meet them amid festivities celebrated in the provincial capital. Two former Rumi inhabitants are also at the festival, and they, too, are identified in terms of their roles as cultural producers: Amadeo Illas is a storyteller, and Demetrio Sumallacta, a flautist. All this almost sounds like the set-up for a joke–”A folklorist, a writer, and a painter meet a storyteller and a flautist in a bar”–but what it leads to instead is some awkward philosophizing about the role of art and its relationship to social justice. It is hard to tell the extent to which this awkwardness is part of Alegría’s satire of these dandy do-gooders, and how much it is inherent in the novelist’s own uncertainties and faltering self-expression. It is as though he were trying to suggest a framework within which to read his novel, but at the same time distancing himself from it.

The discussion is prompted by a long tale, told by Illas, about a fox who is (literally) outfoxed by a rabbit. The fox wants to eat the rabbit, but time and again he is forced to endure one humiliation after another thanks to his prey’s quick-witted trickery. At the end, the fox is convinced that the rabbit is dead, and therefore that somehow he has triumphed, but in fact the rabbit has simply managed to escape the predator’s notice. The fox cannot even recognize him when he sees him. The three dandies listen intently to this telling and offer their interpretations: “I’d dare claim that it’s symbolic,” says one, “and that in it the fox represents the overseer, and the rabbit, the Indian. And so the Indian gains his revenge, in literary form at least.” Listening to all this, the flautist, Demetrio, is bemused. “He didn’t know if that’s what the story represented, but, really, he liked the fact that for once the poor rabbit defeated the cunning and arrogant fox.” (480). And yet, in El mundo es ancho y ajeno it is the Indian who is at every turn outwitted where he is not outgunned. So perhaps this is a book that accords more with the view of the painter, who quotes the nineteenth-century Ecuadorian essayist Juan Montalvo: “If I were to write a book about the Indian, it would make America weep” (481). If an indigenist novel cannot affirm the triumph of indigenous culture (in literary form at least), it should perhaps dedicate itself to denunciation via a claim on the reader’s affects and emotions. In any case, the writer chips in, “I say that culture cannot be detached from an operative conception of justice” (483). Listening to all this, half-drunk, the flautist Demetrio is still not sure what to say. But asked to play a tune, he gives them a song about a piece of chaff waiting for the rain, much to the delight of his listeners: “That straw is hard and long-suffering like the campesino, with whom the comparison is apt,” says the writer (484).

The dandies are well-intentioned. Whatever else he thinks, Demetrio is impressed that they speak well of the indigenous, and listening to them talk of “justice” and “mankind” alongside “Indian” makes his “heart warm” (485). But they are also condescending and high-faluting, and ultimately a little useless and pathetic. Daring us to identify him with these figures, Alegría seems to recognize that their discussion does not exactly provide the basis for a literature that would denounce and take revenge on the ongoing sufferings of Peru’s indigenous communities, just as the novel was already perhaps a form unfit for the purpose of representing Peru to itself. But for the time being, it was the best he had.

El mundo es ancho y ajeno I


Almost exactly halfway through Ciro Alegría’s renowned El mundo es ancho y ajeno comes a turning point, as the members of the indigenous community that is the Peruvian novel’s focus are forced to leave their village of Rumi, in the northern highlands. This day has long been coming, as the culmination of a fabricated legal claim from a neighbouring landlord (named Don Alvaro Amenábar), but also as the latest stage in the centuries-old and apparently inexorable process of what Marx called primitive accumulation and what geographer David Harvey terms accumulation by dispossession. Lands held in common are enclosed and privatized; the people once tied to these lands are then “freed” to become wage labourers, in this case for a mining project that the landlord hopes to establish nearby. Backed by the force of the state and a legal system shown to be absolutely corrupt, capital assimilates and privatizes common goods as it undoes social structures that have existed since time immemorial.

Alegría stresses the indigenous people’s relationship to the earth, not least in a lyrical chapter devoted to the maize and wheat harvests, which concludes that “community life acquires a palpable air of peace and uniformity and takes on its true meaning in its work on the land. Sowing, cultivation, and harvest are the veritable axis of its existence” (159). To be torn from their lands, then, implies the death of the community. And yet there are already signs of a capacity (and willingness) to change and adapt: their mayor, Rosendo Maqui, has led a project to construct a school: “Then we’ll be able to send the best kids to study… So that they may be doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers… We desperately need Indians who can listen to us, who can teach us and defend us” (154). So another side of the tragedy of their forced dispossession is that the community also have to abandon the half-built schoolhouse. But if they can rebuild and encourage at least some of the next generation to move on from the land, they might ensure that in the future they (or other indigenous communities) might win the right to stay put.

As well as being the tale of the community en masse, Alegría’s novel also undertakes frequent digressions to tell the stories of the people who comprise it or come in and out. For instance, there is a whole minor subplot about Rosendo Maqui’s grandson, Augusto, and his tentative flirtation with a young shepherdess called Marguicha. There is Nasha Suro, the witch or fortune teller, whose father had also been credited with special powers and who had once cured the landlord’s father. Or there is the unlikely pairing of sober villager Doroteo Quispe, known for his prayers, and the bandit El Fiero Vásquez, who bonds with Quispe in his eagerness to learn one of these prayers. Then there is the travelling salesman, El Mágico, who turns out to use his mobility and knowledge of the community to spy for Don Alvaro.

The central figure is perhaps Rosendo himself, the wise leader who is described early on as a “man with traces of mountain” (12). Maqui calls the community to order and negotiates on their behalf in the local town, at the same time as he tries to keep tabs on what the landlord Amenábar is up to. As such, he both records and organizes the struggle against the process by which the community is dispossessed. But there is something more. We are also told that, with his wife, he has adopted a child born to a local woman impregnated by a passing soldier during the War of the Pacific. This son, named Benito Castro and now grown up, is doubly distant from Rosendo’s lineage: both adopted and mestizo (mixed). Over the course of the narrative of the first half of the book, he is (to boot) almost entirely absent from the community. But it is suggested that the circumstances in which he left Rumi were a matter of disgrace affecting Rosendo as much as Benito himself: the “austere mayor” scarcely wants to remember the “one time” that he had “given up being just” (34). Here, the shadowy narrative voice that crops up periodically as the book proceeds now appeals directly to the novel’s readers, promising that all will be revealed in good time, and establishing Castro’s absence as a trauma haunting the entire first half of the narrative.

At this moment of crisis or point of inflection, then, it is no doubt time for the prodigal (step)son to return.

Balún Canán II

Balún Canán cover

The seeds of the disaster sown or foreseen in the first half of Balún Canán are well and truly reaped in the second. Characters drop like flies: the illegitimate nephew Ernesto, cousin Matilde, and ultimately even the son and prospective heir Mario. Meanwhile, the country estate is devoured by fire and the family forced to retreat to the relative safety of Comitán, only for the patriarch César to head off to the regional capital, Tuxtla. Here he bakes in a flea-bitten hotel room with a broken fan as he futilely seeks an audience with the Governor of Chiapas. What’s more, in Tuxtla “it’s hard to distinguish, at first sight, between a señor and anyone else”; in fact “there aren’t really any señores in the strict sense of the term” (229). The whole hierarchical system has shifted, and César finds himself rather nearer the bottom of the pecking order than he would like. But why bother even to save the ancestral estate when, in Comitán, without him, the family is falling apart and coming to what might as well be a dead end. Which is not even the worst of all possible worlds. For family friend Jaime Rovelo, it’s better that the son die than that he turn against all the family stands for, as his own son has with his “belief in these new theories, Communism or whatever you call it” (231).

But there is little to nothing in the way of triumphalism in the novel. Indeed, it ends with a predominant tone of shame and even guilt. For finally the older daughter, whose presence in the novel has been otherwise almost spectral, not only takes up the reins of the narration again in the final section but also intervenes in the plot itself. Or perhaps she does. She hides the key to the chapel in which the children are due to have their first communion. Scared off by the priest and by a prevailing Christian discourse of fire and brimstone (“You need to know the essential thing: That there is a hell” [249]), Mario has told his sister that he doesn’t want to take communion (255). So by misplacing the key, she’s acting on his behalf. But Mario, always weak (and if it weren’t for the fact that he’s the designated Argüello heir, as much of a non-entity as his un-named sister), takes a turn for the worse, causing consternation in the household. In his delirium, apparently he keeps returning to what his sister has done. His mother reports, without understanding or really taking him seriously: “I don’t know what he’s saying about a key. All night he was saying the same thing over and over” (262). So the daughter seems to feel that she is responsible for his decline and (ultimately) death. “It’s not Mario,” she says by his coffin, “It’s my guilt that’s rotting away at the bottom of that box” (277). And then she asks to go to family tomb, where she leaves the chapel key while saying a prayer, not so much to God as to the forefathers with whom Mario will now be in perpetuity, “that they be good” with him, “that they play with him, that they spend time with him. Because now that I know the taste of loneliness I don’t want him to have to try it” (283). The book ends, then, with a double scene of mis/recognition. Out on the street, the narrator thinks that she sees her old nurse, but it turns out that she’s wrong and that “all Indians have the same face” (285). Back in the house, she then inscribes Mario’s name on any surface to hand, bricks, walls, a notebook, “because Mario is far away. And I’d like to ask him for forgiveness” (286).

But if this is the daughter’s intervention into the plot, her belated grasp at subjectivity as she acts on behalf of her brother only (perhaps) to provoke his final sickness, then it’s strangely equivocal. For it is something like a hidden plot, an action that goes almost totally unseen. The mother, after all, is convinced that the cause of her son’s illness and death is witchcraft: the Indians back at the ranch have cast some kind of spell over him. The reader may attribute his decline to something more mundane, such as appendicitis. His sister’s responsibility, and her shame and guilt, escape and silently defy both possibilities. What, in any case, is the source of her guilt? Is it that she has caused his death? That she has allowed him to die without the blessing of a first communion? Or simply that she has left him on his own, albeit in the name of freeing him from both the institution of the church and the weight of inheritance, of an older and more deeply embedded shame: the guilt pertaining to the entire class of white landowners. The sister then cannot escape her own shame, the disgraceful fact that she is no longer able to recognize the woman who suckled her, prayed for her, and raised her. She has to live with that guilt and betrayal, and she has to bear it without Mario by her side, and without its even being noted or acknowledged by anyone else around her. The daughter, the un-named narrator, has finally assumed her role as a sense of conscience that will forever, Cassandra-like, be silenced or ignored.