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Book 75: Ecuador (Spanish) – Huasipungo = The Villagers (Jorge ICAZA)

‘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…’
[my translation]

 

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

In English:
Icaza, Jorge: The Villagers

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Book 69: Chile (Spanish) – Eva Luna (Isabel ALLENDE)

“Do you touch yourself with your hands?”
“Yes…”
“Often, child?”
“Every day.”
“Every day! How many times?”
“I don’t keep count… Many times…”
“That is a grave offence in the eyes of God!”
“I didn’t know, Father. And if I put gloves on, is it still a sin?”
“Gloves! But what are you saying, you fool? Are you trying to make fun of me?”
“No, no…” I murmured, terrified, working out that in any event it would be very difficult to wash my face, brush my teeth or scratch with gloves on.
“Promise that you will never do that again. Purity and innocence are the best virtues in a girl. You will say fifty Hail Marys in penitence so that God will forgive you.”
“I can’t, Father!” I replied, because I only knew how to count up to twenty.
“What do you mean, you can’t!” roared the priest, and a rain of saliva crossed the confession box and fell down on me. I ran out.
[my translation]

 

I love the magical realist novels of Isabel Allende, and I had read almost all of them, except for some reason this one. Isabel’s father was the cousin of leftist Chilean president Salvador Allende who was overthrown and killed in a CIA-backed military coup in 1973, leading to an ugly dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet. The skinny country is one of my favourites in the world – the landscapes are stunningly beautiful and I found the people lovely, so I still find it inexplicable how some of them could treat their fellow citizens so brutally during the military dictatorship.
Eva Luna is a born story-teller, a South American Scheherazade; she tells the story of her family, which she decorates with whimsical fantasies (unless she is recounting reality). She is in love with a guerrilla fighter living in the mountains. Her life passes through encounters with a Thousand and One Nights cast of strange characters.

The novel is full of bizarre and sometimes funny characters and situations. But there is so much reality in their unrealness. Despite the dark and rocky personal and political history it covers, it is made palatable – more than palatable, delicious – by the resilience and humour shown.

I didn’t find it as perfect as The House of the Spirits (La Casa de los espíritus), one of my favourite books, but the writing is beautiful and I still loved it.

 

ALLENDE, Isabel (1942 – ), Eva Luna, Barcelona, Plaza & Janes, 1991, ISBN 84-01-42268-X

Book 49: Venezuela (Spanish) – Doña Bárbara (Rómulo GALLEGOS)

Arid lands, riven by ravines and cut by cracks. Thin cattle, with downcast eyes, were here and there, with a barely believable desperation, licking at the slopes and wastelands of this sad spot. On the ground the skeletons of those that had already succumbed were bleaching, sacrifices of the saltpeter earth which had seized them until starvation, forgetting food; and great flocks of turkey vultures hovered over the stench of the carrion.

[my translation]

 

This is the classic novel of the Venezuelan Llanos (plains, prairies, steppes). It is one of those novels where the landscape seems to be the main character. But the grasslands are peopled by several memorable characters (even if their names seem a bit TOO obvious to contemporary ears) – the saintly would-be moderniser Dr. Santos, his nemesis the barbarous Doña Bárbara, the evil cardboard-cutout gringo with the unlikely moniker of Mr. Danger, and the ’child of nature’ Marisela, on whom Santos performs an Eliza Doolittle-like transformation into a polished lady. The setting is the lawless (yes, that includes the judges and lawyers) cattle country where rustling is a way of life, sanctioned by tradition and ubiquity. There is a Machiavellian power struggle between the great landowners, especially the cousins Dr. Santos and Doña Bárbara, by fair means and foul (and fowl!) Santos’ plan to fence off the llanos is inevitable but will see the llaneros’ way of life fade into history.
Doña Bárbara is an alpha female who dabbles in magic. No doubt if it was written today we would find a more sympathetic portrayal of the women (and city folk). We shouldn’t fall into the trap of extracting a work from the time when it was written. Nevertheless, both of the women are powerful (Doña Bárbara as much so as any of the men) in what must have been a man’s world.
While Gallegos sees the inevitability of progress, he is deeply nostalgic for the disappearing way of life of which he has a profound understanding. His attitude towards the burghers of Caracas reminded me of “Clancy of the Overflow” by the Australian bush poet Banjo Paterson:

 

“…And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended
And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.
I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy
ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall…”

 

While I think it would be wrong to see this as an early work of magical realism – there is plenty of magic, as practised by Doña Bárbara, in an overwhelmingly superstitions cultural world – the fact that this seminal work is so largely ignored by English readers is a tragedy that leaves a big hole in their knowledge of Latin American literature. The plot is not at all unrealistic.
The author himself is a fascinating character who became President of Venezuela.

 

GALLEGOS, Rómulo (1884 – 1969), Doña Bárbara, Madrid: Cátedra, 2014 [originally published 1929], ISBN 978-83-376-1539-4

 

Book 47: Peru (Spanish) – Lituma en los Andes = Lituma in the Andes, (translated as) Death in the Andes (Mario VARGAS LLOSA)

I felt like I had to peruse something by the great writer Vargas Llosa for his country. In a way it is a murder mystery set at the time of the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) insurgency, a vicious countryside-based Marxist movement which had almost played itself out by the time I visited the country in 1994 (the book was first published the year before). Lituma is a police chief in a god-forsaken outpost in the Andes. He comes from the coast and sometimes seems to know less about his fellow countrymen from the mountains than the Danish professor in the story, or even than the present writer! His off-sider, Tomás, is a fascinating mixture of naivety and a ghastly past. To pass their time, Tomás comically retells his own murder and flight with a prostitute – the contrast between his idealism and her cynical realism really is hilarious. (Though once or twice it’s the other way round; he tells her, “This country is too dangerous to trust the banks; the best safe is your own mattress”.) These two representatives of their government in the area are not only totally alienated from the people they are supposed to protect, they are so woefully under-resourced that they live in constant fear of the Senderistas, even more so than the locals do. A ludicrous example is when a man comes from the nearby mine to ask (or rather demand) help, bearing an order from Lituma’s superiors – since the latter have almost no possibilities to communicate. Lituma is overwhelmed by the difficulties of understanding the locals’ culture and language. His post is really irrelevant to them, and they are so fearful of the Senderistas that it is almost impossible for him to learn anything from them. So, what happened to the missing people? Was it the obvious culprit, the Senderistas, the bruja (’witch’) and her bacchanalian husband, or something much more fundamental?

Right from the beginning we meet the gulf between city and country. Throughout it all, the local mountain people seem unmoved, unchanged and mute.

Lituma’s powerless is symbolised by a huayco (landslide):

 

The sky had become even darker and despite it being only early evening it was like nighttime. As if in a dream, he saw a vizcacha as big as a rabbit jump out from among the stones and run past him petrified, heading uphill; its ears were pricked up and it jumped without knowing where, finally staggering away. Lituma tried to get up but couldn’t even do that. Was it an earthquake? Was he going to die flattened by one of those boulders bounding past, rolling, leaping, colliding with each other, splitting and shattering apart right and left, thundering excruciatingly? Animals have a sixth sense, they can smell catastrophes, the little vizcacha had fled like that from its hutch because it smelled the end of the world. “Forgive me my trespasses” he cried. “I don’t want to end like this, damn it!.” He was crouching and crawling, plastered against the rock; rolling to the right, to the left and overhead, went clumps of earth, rocks of all imaginable shapes and sizes, and he felt that the rock was shuddering with the impact of the projectiles crashing and ricocheting into it. How much could it take? He had the feeling that an enormous rock, rolling down from the heights of the Cordillera, was heading straight for the rock that was protecting his back, plummeting onto it, pulverising it, and himself with it, in a second. (my translation).

 

I loved Vargas Llosa’s twist on several ancient legends – Theseus and the Minotaur (with an original variation on the ball of string!), Dionysus and his wild women, even Don Quixote. A masterful mystery, both of the missing men and of cultural misunderstanding.

 

VARGAS LLOSA, Mario (1936 – ), Lituma en los Andes, Barcelona: Planeta, 2010, ISBN 978-84-08-09416-6

 

Book 35: Argentina (Spanish) – El beso de la mujer araña = The Kiss of the Spider Woman (Manuel PUIG)

In her we see that she has something outré about her, that she’s a woman like no other. She seems very young, hardly more than twenty-five, the petite face a little catlike, the nose small and pert, the form of her face is… round rather than oval, the forehead wide, the cheeks large too but then falling to a point, like those of a cat.
[my translation]

 

This one was due to a late change in plans. I was going to write about Borges’ amazing Ficciones which is a collection of fantastic, deep and intricate short stories, but now I’ve decided to see if I can find a novel from every country to read. (I was also accepting short stories and epics, so I’ll have to choose a couple of new titles for some countries I’ve already read to catch up).
While this is certainly a novel, in a way you could consider Puig’s book as a series of short stories, linked by a framing narrative as in the Thousand Nights and One Night for example, although the frame is much more prominent here. (Only one and a bit of these stories made it into the great movie of this novel -filmed for some reason in Brazil, though the book is set in Buenos Aires – the first one, a story of a Nazi romance, along with a short appearance by the Spider Woman herself. As far as we are concerned, the Spider Woman is the gay man Molina, and he intoxicatingly relates the stories, in the manner of film synopses, to his cellmate, Valentín. For we are in prison, although it takes a while for us to realise this (unlike in the movie, where the bars are the first thing we see); Molina is in for “corruption of minors”, Valentín is a political prisoner. Each of them is a cosmic mistake: one a woman in a man’s body, the other a martyr who doesn’t want to be a hero. Each of them in fact, with differing degrees of willingness and success, attempts in turn to entrap the other. Molina, who has been apolitical until now, surprisingly turns out to be the stronger of the two.
When one of the pair is released, the authorities’ notes on the minutiae of his actions, as detailed as those of an entomologist studying a spider, are chilling.
One thing I found a little strange is the extensive Burton-like footnotes about the theoretical and psychological aspects of homosexuality, which go on for pages and were presumably placed by the author. Somehow they don’t seem necessary or appropriate in a novel.
Kiss of the Spider woman is a tour de force of storytelling and dialogue, powerful and thought-provoking.

 

PUIG, Manuel (1932 – 1990), El beso de la mujer araña, Barcelona, Biblioteca de Bolsillo, 1994 (first published 1976), ISBN 884-322-3026-X