Jose Maria Arguedas
Translated by Frances Horning Barraclough
University of Pittsburgh Press ($19.95)
by Peter Ritter
The Peruvian writer José María Arguedas shot himself in the head on November 29, 1969 in his office at the Agrarian University in La Molina. Ever considerate, he planned his death so that it would not disrupt the university's schedule. He also left behind what must be the most ambitious suicide note in history: precisely detailed directions for his funeral, along with a diary of his descent into melancholy and the unfinished manuscript of his final novel, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below). The author's preparation for his felo de se, it seemed, was also his life's work.
Normally, the posthumous publishing of a fragmentary manuscript after a writer's suicide is a vaguely unsavory endeavor, like vultures trying to pluck profit off a corpse (consider Hemingway's True At First Light). Arguedas's novel is a special case, however; first, because the author fully intended it to be read after his death, and second, because Arguedas is a neglected master of Latin American fiction. Once compared with Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Arguedas has, in the quarter century following his death, been reduced to a footnote. This first English translation of his final work is, then, less an attempt to capitalize on the writer's genius than a welcome and long-overdue effort to introduce it to readers outside of Peru.
The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below is also something of a coup given the messy state in which the author abandoned his work (equal in every way to the messy way in which he abandoned his life). Less a novel than an accumulation of novelistic elements, Arguedas's cri de coueralso includes long sections of "diary," in which the author expands on the various thematic threads of his story, recalls his traumatic childhood, offers his thoughts on Peruvian culture, and outlines his reasons for suicide. "I'm writing these pages because I've been told to the point of satiety that if I can manage to write, I will regain my sanity," he explains in the first of these entries. "But since I have not been able to write on the topics chosen and elaborated, whether small or ambitious, I am going to write on the only one that attracts me—this one of how I did not succeed in killing myself and how I am now wracking my brains looking for a way to liquidate myself decently . . ."
It's apparent early in The Foxes that Arguedas had already come to see his situation as a struggle between the earthly pursuit of his work and the temptation of an easy exit. These same polar forces define the novel, which the author envisioned as a reflection of his personal torment upon the canvas of Peruvian society. The title, taken from a Quechua myth which Arguedas had earlier translated, refers to the opposite mythical symbols of life and death, as well as those of modernity and Peruvian tradition. What Arguedas finds in both his own life and in the changing Peru of the 1960's is a world pulled apart at the seams by two Furies, one representing metamorphosis and the other oblivion.
The stage for the novel itself is Chimbote, which, in 1969, was the largest fishing port in the world. It is also representative of a society in painful transition: during the capitalist boom of the '60s, millions of peasants had streamed out of the Andes to coastal towns like Chimbote. Because they did not speak Spanish and had no skills, the Quechua peasants were relegated to the fringes of society, settling in vast, putrefying shantytowns and taking dangerous work in coal mines or in fisheries. Arguedas, who spent years living in Chimbote, offers a sprawling sociological portrait of its inhabitants: prosperous fisherman, mad preachers, whores, naive American priests, pig farmers, small-time bosses, and dignified squatters from the hinterlands. Arguedas, who was an ardent socialist (his wife was later jailed for her connection to Sendero Luminoso), finds examples in this bewildering cross-section of the various ideological factions fighting to control Peru's heart: the liberation theology of the priests, the messianistic faith of the Andean squatters, and the reigning capitalism of the bosses.
Arguedas was no ideologue himself, however. For all the fervor of his socialist rhetoric, he is primarily concerned in The Foxes with illuminating the existence of Peru's multitude (as a young man, the author spent years with Andean Indians, and later became a well-known ethnographer). The result is a sort of cultural anthropology, written in the loose, profane tongue of the people. Each character, from the mad Indian street preacher Moncada to the unionizing pig farmer Don Gregorio, speaks in a distinct dialect—a correlative, in Arguedas's conception, for the cacophony resulting from the clash of traditional and modern Peruvian culture. If there is any lingua franca to unite these disparate voices Arguedas suggests, it must be that of solidarity, the vocabulary of the oppressed in response to assimilation and poverty. Incomplete as it is, The Foxes stands as a link between magical realism and historical materialism—in other words, a passionate polemic clothed in myth.
Given the vernacular intricacies of Arguedas's work, Barraclough's translation is something of a miracle (imagine trying to render Finnegans Wake in Chinese). Somewhat less successful is the deluge of academic commentary accompanying this critical edition. While much of the context is welcome—one needs a working knowledge of Peruvian history and language to make even half-sense of Arguedas's writing—the drawn-out argument that the author's suicide was a meta-fictional gambit necessary to complete the novel rings oddly false after the profusion of life that Arguedas actually committed to the page. The author says as much as needs be on the matter through his foolish, obscenely alive pig farmer: "A dead man, when he speeds up the livin', so to speak, it's a legitimate right."
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001