Ciro A. Sandoval, Sandra Boschetto-Sandoval, eds. Jose Maria Arguedas: Reconsiderations for Latin American Cultural Studies. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1998. xlii + 312 pp. $23.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-89680-200-1.
Reviewed by Karen Racine (Valparaiso University)
Published on H-LatAm (April, 1999)
A Provincial of this World: Jose Maria Arguedas and an Ambivalent Indigenismo
Ciro A. Sandoval and Sandra Boschetto-Sandoval have succeeded in doing the nearly impossible--compiling edited articles of a consistently high standard to be challenging enough to satisfy specialists while remaining accessible to the educated general reader. Their achievement is all the more remarkable when one notes that the subject, essentially intellectual history, has an undeserved reputation of being the ultimate in dry reading. There is none of that brand here. These twelve articles are well-chosen, carefully-arranged and, when taken in order, provide the reader with enough cross-references to allow the various authors' arguments to be appreciated even if one has little or no familiarity with Arguedas' works themselves. In these pages, both Arguedas himself and his Andean world view are brought into focus so that the reader can see how he is part of a centuries-old cultural tradition and, at the same time, a modern response to the industrializing pressures of the twentieth century. After the academics have said their piece, the editors chose to give the last word to Pedro Lastra, emeritus professor of Spanish at SUNY Stony Brook, who was a personal friend of Arguedas, thus reinforcing the humanity of the writer himself. Lastra's fond memories leave the reader with an image of Arguedas as emotionally conflicted, perhaps even mercurial, yet utterly devoted to ideas and to his beloved Andean world.
Jose Maria Arguedas was born in 1911 and spent his early years traveling rural Peru with his itinerant lawyer father. When his stepmother refused to allow Jose Maria to eat in the main house with her family, the young boy instead shared his meals with the mainly Indian servants, a situation which he later believed contributed to the ambivalence he felt toward both Perus; Arguedas was not born into the indigenous world, yet felt an intense emotional attachment to all that it represented for his country (p. xxii). Like the more famous Mexican indigenista Jose Vasconcelos, Arguedas also envisioned a Peruvian cosmic race, yet, as a writer and man of letters, he wanted it to be based on language rather than race (p. xxiii). He was influenced by the Marxist ideas of Jose Carlos Mariategui, and had first hand knowledge of the real life conditions in rural areas, something that set him apart from others in the indigenista literary movement. In the 1950s, Arguedas entered a doctoral program in anthropology at the University of San Marcos (which was partially supported by Cornell) and came up with a thesis which was as novel as it was controversial--essentially he argued that Andean acculturation to the West was a political and ideological choice and not something that was inevitable or destined to happen (p. 12). In Arguedas' works, the cultural mestizo was the hero, the major social actor and "potential agent of Andean redemption" (p. 17). He was by turns a novelist, an ethnographer, a government bureaucrat, and an educator. When he died a suicide in 1969, Arguedas left behind a major body of writing, including his most well-known novels Los rios profundos (translated to English as Deep Rivers), El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo, and La agonia de Rasu-Niti, and a whole series of questions to occupy academics for years to come.
The contributors to this anthology, like the editors, are literary and cultural critics based in various language departments at universities in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and Italy. Each seeks to illuminate a certain facet of Arguedas and his work, thus giving an indication of the breadth of his activities and hinting at the unique role of the intellectual in Latin American societies. Priscilla Archibald writes about Arguedas and the emergence of anthropological methodology, linking the expansion of Cornell University's Andean field studies with more aggressively interventionist development models and capitalist expansion. Claudette Kemper Columbus uses the trickster motif popularized by cultural anthropologists to analyze Arguedas' last novel El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo; she too makes it clear that Arguedas' works contain substantial and complex critiques of socio-economic conditions, although they are often dismissed as mere folklore or tales of fantasy. William Rowe discusses Arguedas' ethnographic attention to music, both in his prose itself and in the actual content of his words as Arguedas tried to capture the sounds of the Andes in his stories. Rowe argues that Arguedas, in his attempt to find an alternative to Western rationalism, saw music as a paradigm for the ebb and flow of the actual world and tried to capture its essence in the eponymous river of Los rios profundos (p. 39). Rowe's article is interesting, perhaps all the more so for the work it might stimulate others to do; the turn to mysticism and neo-Pythagorean influences is pronounced throughout Latin America in the inter-war years, and it would be valuable to place Arguedas in that larger context. In fact, Arguedas is often lumped in with writers of the indigenista tradition in Peru (and even Mexico), yet full-length comparison of his life and work with that of contemporary Cuban ethnographer and musicologist Fernando Ortiz might be more revealing.
Although technical language has been kept to a minimum, the least generally accessible articles will be those that are more theoretical in nature, dealing with postmodernism, neomodernism, vanguardism, tropes, deconstruction, and subaltern realities because there is a level of assumed knowledge that the general reader may not possess. Nevertheless, the majority of the articles are insightful and the best provide a real glimpse into the nature of the struggle within the man himself. Ciro Sandoval and Sandra Boschetto-Sandoval write about "the gestation of Andean cultural revindication," meaning that Arguedas' shared the postmoderns' disenchantment with politics and rationality (p. 146). Their study interprets the example of the three-storyed prison in El Sexto as a metaphor for corrupt society. John Landreau's fascinating article addresses autobiographical issues in Arguedas' work, mainly through an analysis of his habitual employment of an outsider as narrator. This literary mode may be an extension, even a justification, of Arguedas' own self-appointed role as cultural mediator between two worlds (p. 89). Landreau sketches the autobiographical elements in his subject's writing, while at the same time pointing out details that Arguedas conveniently forgot or exaggerated, making this a valuable companion piece to the novels themselves.
Several articles, reflecting the recent growth in literary analysis of cultural production in indigenous languages, discuss Arguedas' conflicted relationship with Quechua. If, as previously stated, Arguedas believed that Peru's survival depended on its ability to become a culturally mestizo nation based on language not race, the need to spread the use of Quechua, therefore, had to assume a place of centrality in his national vision. Martin Leinhard writes about the mini-boom in Quechua poetry sparked by Arguedas, yet realistically points out that the audience for such work is infinitesimal and confined to a small urban elite. Rita DeGrandis writes that Arguedas naively believed it was possible to return to a state of purity when transliterating Quechua folktales, yet found himself unavoidably contaminating its essence because of the Andean language's fundamental orality (p. 63). This is an important point, and a criticism that is often hurled not only at twentieth century Peruvian indigenistas but at all intellectuals who seek to join worlds less literate and cosmopolitan than their own. It may not be possible to convey accurately and in its totality the mental world of an indigenous oral tradition to a text-based urban audience that does not have any meaningful experience with that reality. In turn, then, this begs the question with which Arguedas himself was centrally concerned: "why write?" Of course, one writes to understand, and these articles clearly indicate that Jose Maria Arguedas was not unaware of the unresolvable contradictions in his beliefs and his literary activities, yet he felt himself compelled to write. He described himself as "a provincial of this world,"--a man who was passionately devoted to his beloved Andes, and felt that Peru's experience contained something of value for people the world over (p. 30). Because so much of Arguedas' attention was consumed with reconciling Peru's place in the modern world, and because his work reveals his concern with the supranational tendencies of the twentieth century, the articles in the anthology raise unanswered questions about Arguedas' place in world literature, and in the stream of global intellectual history.
Ciro A. Sandoval, Sandra Boschetto-Sandoval, and the contributors to this anthology make it clear that Jose Maria Arguedas is too often dismissed as a mere indigenista, a middle-class intellectual who romanticized rural life and wrote harmless folktales. Instead, these articles draw out the impressive breadth of the man's life work, variously depicting him as a writer, a poet, an anthropologist, an ethnologist, and a public activist who occasionally worked as a government bureaucrat. His ideas are revealed to be complex, and even more consciously-constructed than even Arguedas himself liked to admit.
The volume should stimulate interest in the ideas and activities, not only of Arguedas, but also the work of other Latin American writers, anthropologists and social critics. There could be no higher compliment to both the editors themselves and Ohio University's impressive series of monographs on International Studies.
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Karen Racine. Review of Sandoval, Ciro A.; Boschetto-Sandoval, Sandra, eds., Jose Maria Arguedas: Reconsiderations for Latin American Cultural Studies.
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