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José María Arguedas

Deep Rivers

Category: Fiction | Published: 1956 | Review Added: 05-09-2010

Rating: 3 - Worth reading

José María Arguedas is held by some critics to be the unsung master of South American literature. Born in Peru of European descent, but brought up among Quechua-speaking Indians, he certainly has a different cultural perspective from most Latin American literati. Nevertheless, I wasn't convinced on the evidence of Deep Rivers of a major literary talent.

The novel describes, in the first person, a series of episodes from the schooldays of Ernesto, a boy who, like Arguedas, spent his early childhood mostly among Indians. The novel opens with a visit with his father, an itinerant country lawyer, to the father's miserly old cousin in Cuzco. Ernesto is subsequently sent to school in Abancay, where he witnesses a revolt among peasant women over the price of salt, spends a lot of time spinning tops, visits the tempestuous nearby river, observes army parades, and finally witnesses the arrival of plague.

According to critics, the theme of Deep Rivers is the incompatibility between the simple but deep, nature-loving mindset of the Indians, and the brutal yet supposedly "civilising" influence of the Spanish conquerors. Ernesto is placed among Spanish speakers in the school, but his soul belongs to the Quechua-speaking communities of his upbringing.

Critics emphasise the loneliness that Ernesto supposedly feels as a consequence of his difference from the other schoolchildren. But I feel they overstate this aspect of his character. Ernesto has numerous friends at the school, including at least one other boy who speaks Quechua. Although Ernesto feels separate from many of his classmates, he is not bullied, can stand up for himself, and seems to be respected by most of his peers. Could it be that many readers infer Ernesto's angst from the author's own experience, rather than from the text of the novel?

The book is written in a very simple, even naive, style, with little analysis of events' deep significance: episodes are merely reported, along with the narrator's immediate reactions to them; but there is no standing back and viewing them from the point of view of a wiser adult. Except for in the well-written early chapters, where poetic description of the mountains and the city of Cuzco predominates, the prose consists of short sentences, with constant staccato cutting between scenes that I found irritating. The dialogue is portentous but dull, conveying few differences in character between its many participants; I found none of the novel's personalities compelling, intriguing or particularly vivid. Frequently, Ernesto reports his own feelings and impulses, but does not trace any emotional thread through them, or explain his motivation: he decides to go down to a river or up a mountain, or to visit such-and-such a person, but doesn't tell us why.

In summary, Arguedas seems to have interesting things to say, but I didn't feel he says them particularly skillfully. I found it hard to distil a clear theme from the novel - rather, it seemed to me a series of fictionalised autobiographical sketches, reported without much narrative coherence or artistry.

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