‘The Indians cling with blind and morbid love to this scrap of land which is lent to them in exchange for the work which they give to the hacienda. What’s more: in their ignorance they believe that it is their own property. You know. There they put up their thatched huts, farm their little smallholdings, raise their animals.’
‘Sentimentalities! We must overcome all difficulties no matter how hard they may be. The Indians… What? What do the Indians matter to us? To put it better… They must… They must be important TO US… Of course… They can form a very important factor in the business. The arms… The work…’
In 1930s Ecuador, building a road through the jungle should have brought prosperity and modernity to the local Indians, but landowner Don Alfonso only thinks of using it to increase his personal wealth. He robs them first of their labour then of their huasipungos (small plots of land allocated to tenant farmers by the hacienda/large estate owner in exchange for work), causing them to revolt and be massacred. (A more accurate spelling in English orthography would be ‘wasipungo’).
Icaza was maybe the greatest Ecuadorian author of the 1900s. ‘Huasipungo’ needs to be seen in the context of the indigenista movement (which was influential across the arts spectrum), which highlighted the oppression and struggles of the indigenous people. Its themes are exploitation by big landowners and gringos, racism (including the racism of the mixed-race mestizos against those with more Indian blood than themselves), class struggle, and the venal, collaborationist church which functions as part of the power structure and has been bribed into using the faith as a weapon against the indigenous.
The casually inhuman treatment of the natives as if they are not people is quite shocking. For example, in one incident, cattle invade the corn fields during the night. Don Alfonso thinks he’s a hero just because he had to get up in the middle of the night to do something about it! To reward himself, he rapes a powerless indigenous girl. They are basically treated like property, even the indentured labourers. These have been subjected to forced labour under the very real threat of losing their land.
Fuelled by chicha, a fermented corn drink (which is doled out to them like medicine), they are forced to drive the road through a marsh, against the engineer’s advice, leading to a horrific death.
The Ecuadorian Spanish spoken by the indigenous people is not too hard to follow, but is obviously influenced by their native Quechua which only has the vowels a, i, u, so that their Spanish loses its e and o vowels. The Indians tend to speak as a chorus almost like in a Greek tragedy. They are an integral part of the country, while the whites seem out of place and slightly ridiculous.
This important and engaging novel shows in black and white the long shadow that colonialism cast over Ecuador.
ICAZA, Jorge (1906-79), Huasipungo, Madrid, Cátedra, 2013 (originally published 1934), ISBN 978-84-376-1251-5
Icaza, Jorge: The Villagers
His entire crop gone in payment of the fine, Hori passed one month on the meagre stocks he had somehow scraped together. But with the beginning of June the situation became desperate: five mouths to feed and not a crumb in the house. Already heavily in debt, another loan was ruled out. Nor could he take up work as a hired hand: his own cane crop now under irrigation claimed all his time. The irony of it! Even to do his own work, his body first needed food.
I chose this one as it was recommended to me in an Indian bookshop as the greatest novel in Hindi (perhaps the only great novel?) To tell the truth I found it rather hard to get into, compared with all the wonderful imaginative novels that Indians are writing in English, some of which are among my very favourite works. It is set in rural India and details the hero’s family’s endless misfortune and battles with the ugly, exploitative landlord class. I found it hard to connect with this milieu, but it is definitely worth reading to grasp the oppressed, unfair life of Indian peasants. Even so, it’s a mystery to me why Hindi is apparently so neglected by its own writers. Its place is in films and songs, but where are all the novelists? Writing in English, apparently! Or just not translated?
PREMCHAND (1880-1936): Godan: a novel of peasant India, translated by Jai Ratan & P. Lal, Jaico Publishing House, Mumbai, 2002, ISBN 9788172242190
(originally published in Hindi, गोदान, 1936)