Huasipungo: Jorge Icaza. Dennis Dobson, 15/-.
Broad and Alien is the World: Giro Alegria. Merlin Press, 18/-.
In the nineteenth century, the Spanish American novel was realist, often concerned with the explosive social problems of the continent. The Modernist movement of ’98 largely diverted this absorption with human problems into a concern with form and style which has lasted well into the present century. The flow of novels charged with consciousness of oppression and injustice has been little more than a trickle, dammed by indirect political and social censorship. However, of the small group of writers who have produced work of distinction both as literature and as protest, both Icaza and Alegria are important and illuminating. Both are Andean nevolists, and both are deeply moved by the condition of the highland Indians; the subject peasantry, utterly excluded from the national life of their countries.
Icaza was the outstanding member of the group of Quito writers of the 1930’s, and Huasipungo may be regarded as a document of the oppression of the Indian peons in the Ecuadorean Sierra. A landlord determines to build a road to his estates, to exploit its forests. A big work-party of Indians is recruited, with false promises and priestly assistance. Pushing the road high into the mountains, and across a marsh, many of the Indians die. The following harvest is poor, and the landlord withholds his customary assistance in grain. The Indians starve. Finally, a new saw-mill requires the destruction of their homes, and a group revolt. They kill some of their overseers, and are themselves slaughtered by troops brought in to quell the uprising.
The Andean society Icaza describes has not changed in the years since he wrote. The condition of the Sierra Indians remains as tragic today. From personal experience, this reviewer could supply parallels to many of the incidents graphically described in Huasipungo. The landowner, his financier uncle and the mestizo overseers accurately represent the attitude of the white and near-white upper class towards the land and its indigenous inhabitants. The land is there to be despoiled, to be mined, rather than exploited systematically; the Indians are a commodity they grow from the land and are of it. They live in conditions inferior to the livestock of the estate. Their demands are utterly unheeded. Their only strength lies in their numerical superiority, for which they are feared. Icaza allows some sign of protest at this attitude—the engineer assumes that Don Alfonso’s road is to be built without loss of life and is surprised, though acquiescent when the landowner orders the investment of a score or so Indian lives so that the road may traverse a marsh. But barbaric exploitation and insensibility remain, now as then, the norm. Icaza’s world is entirely without hope. In his savage, staccato sketch of Indian life in the Sierra, few characters emerge in their own right. The peasants are drawn impersonally, their revolt is a gesture of despair rather than a real movement of defiance. But within these deliberate limits, Huasipungo is an entirely coherent work. By adroit
Alegria too is concerned with the struggle of the Indian peasants against the landowning aristocracy, but his novel is quite different in style and focus from Huasipungo. Icaza’s technique is impressionist—he creates a crude, vivid, but accurate image of the unspeakable misery of the Indians. Alegria by contrast is meticulously realist, and panoramic in scale. And whereas Huasipungo describes the situation of depressed tenants and sharecroppers, Alegria deals with the most fortunate of the Indians, those grouped in the independent landholding communities which—despite pressure from the whites—have retained elements of their pre-Columbian freedom and culture. The first 250 pages of Broad and Alien is the World contain an absorbing account of the life of such an agricultural community in Peru. Then, the community’s existence is threatened by a neighbouring landowner whose servile Indians resemble those of Huasipungo. The importance, and impotence, of the law is revealed, and the villagers are dispossessed of their ancestral land. They found a new village at a higher altitude, endure the colder weather of the higher land. They sow crops in the inferior soil and slowly adjust themselves to the new environment. The change is too much for some, and we see the various plights of the migrants: the coca picker in the lowland forest, the rubber collector in the Amazon jungle, the agricultural worker in the coastlands, the Army recruit. All who leave the village want to return; few can. Enslavement through debt or legal chicanery tie them to wherever they settle. The venerable leader of the community dies in jail. The struggle between the dominant rancher and the free Indians intensifies. Overseers, police and militia attack the community, and the slaughter is as complete as that which ends Huasipungo.
Alegria’s book gives a much fuller and more varied account of Andean society than Icaza, but the basic features remain the same. Even though his Indians are free landowners their vulnerability is almost as great as that of the huasipungeros. The independent communities that still remain in the Andes have survived as much by chance as by the strength of their legal position. Those that have maintained their customs and their land intact are usually the most isolated. More, ownership of land does not in itself make an Indian truly free and independent. No Indian can have recourse to any part of the outside world except through mestizo or white intermediaries. His wife cannot be buried except by the “white” priest; he cannot buy or sell in the market without being subject to the taxation and control of “white” municipal authorities. Above all, no justice can be obtained without the services of a lawyer, and without a “white” judge presiding. Even the efforts of a sympathetic lawyer are often, as in Broad and Alien is the World, of no avail, since at so many stages down the line corruption and banditry can destroy the Indians’ case.