Barcelona. Alfaguara, Real Academia Española-Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española, 2023. 422 pages.
In Peruvian culture, José María Arguedas (1911-1969) is a crucial figure whose words and ideas continue reverberating in present-day Peru. Thus, publishing a commemorative edition of his novel Los ríos profundos is a wise and valuable undertaking. Coordinated by the Peruvian Academy of Language and the Association of Academies of the Spanish Language, this edition was presented at the IX International Congress of the Spanish Language in Cádiz in March 2023.
Thanks to Arguedas’s contributions to the fields of literature, social sciences, and Quechua language studies, his entire works can be read as a vast reflection on Peru as a nation. Above all else, he hoped Peru could become an integrated country, proud of its Andean past and cultural diversity. Nonetheless, the work of this writer from Andahuaylas depicts a land divided in two: one part is Andean with Quechua origins, and the another is Hispanic, a result of the Spanish conquest. These worlds are foreign to one another and in conflict within the national imaginary and, precisely for this reason, they must live side by side and in dialogue in order to foster a more harmonious and inclusive process of mestizaje.
An initial illustration of the above is Arguedas’s “Warma kuyay,” from Agua, his first book of short stories published in 1935. Here we meet Ernesto, Arguedas’s best alter ego, for the first time. Ernesto eventually becomes the protagonist of Los ríos profundos (1958), a novel characterized by two moments: on the one hand, the protagonist’s childhood and his most intimate reflections about his absent father and, on the other hand, his painful experience as a student in a religious boarding school. In each of these moments, we see Ernesto maintaining his lyrical, magical relationship with the Andean world and its rich mythology. The existing breach between the Hispanic and Indigenous worlds is embodied by the protagonist, a provincial mestizo boy who comes from a middle-class, educated background. But, despite an awareness of his own privilege based on his social status, Ernesto will do the unspeakable to avoid betraying his ties to the Indigenous world, a people and culture for which he feels deep affection. In this light, the novel can be read as the protagonist’s struggle to recover a cosmic unity promised by pre-Columbian gods who were defeated in the conquest. Through this struggle, he confronts the painful reality of Peru—a reality marked by feudalism and the exploitation of the Indigenous world. In this context, a scene at the beginning of the novel is revealing when, for the first time, Ernesto sees Incan walls in the city of Cuzco with walls the Spanish built on top of them. He says:
I touched the stone with my hands, following the line, which was as undulating and unpredictable as a river, where the blocks of stone were joined. In the dark street, in the silence, the wall appeared to be palms of my hands… Then I remembered the Quechua songs which continually repeat one pathetic phrase: yawar mayu, “bloody river”; yawar unu, “bloody water.” (Trans. Frances Barraclough, UT Press, 2002)
Consequently, as the story unfolds, Ernesto discovers that this magical and enchanted Andean world in which he had always been happy is also a world “filled with monsters and fire,” as a result of the painful inheritance of an altered Andean Indigenous world after the Spanish conquest in the sixteenth century.
“JOSÉ MARÍA ARGUEDAS DELIVERED AN INTIMATE AND GENUINE PORTRAIT OF THE ANDEAN WORLD TO A BROADER PERUVIAN READERSHIP. READING THE EXTRAORDINARY PROSE OF LOS RÍOS PROFUNDOS ALLOWS READERS TO EXPERIENCE IT”
Los ríos profundos is one of the greatest coming-of-age novels in Peruvian literature. The novel presents, in a way both tender and heartbreaking, a decisive moment in Ernesto’s life: his realization of who he is as an individual. Ernesto not only feels nostalgia for the Indigenous world of his childhood; he also carries with him the magic and mystery of a living natural world that nourishes his spirit and informs his coming of age. In this context, two matters mark (and rip apart) his discovery of the adult world in the novel: on the one hand, the contradictions surrounding him, in which white people look down on Indigenous people and wield excessive violence over them; and, on the other hand, his realization of the urgent need for a dialogue enabling the two cultures to coexist in the future.
This new edition of Los ríos profundos comes with an excellent collection of essays by the director of the Spanish Royal Academy, Santiago Muñoz Machado (“El ideal de la diversidad”), and writers Mario Vargas Llosa (“José María Arguedas”) and Sergio Ramírez (“El cauce mágico de Los ríos profundos”). Also included are studies by Marco Martos Carrera (“Modernidad y tradición en Los ríos profundos”), Ricardo González Vigil (“Transculturación de la novela de aprendizaje”), Alonso Cueto (“Los ríos profundos: Una geografía de la intimidad”), Françoise Perus (“¡No, José María Arguedas no vivió en vano…!”), and Rodolfo Cerrón-Palomino (“El corpus léxico nativo de Los ríos profundos de Arguedas”). The volume also includes a bibliography on Arguedas’s works and a substantial glossary of terms used in the novel.
It’s also worth noting that this essential edition of Los ríos profundos is part of a broader series of commemorative editions inaugurated with a 2005 edition of Don Quixote celebrating four centuries since its publication. This was followed by the publication of Cien años de soledad (2007), La región más transparente (2008), Pablo Neruda: Antología general (2010), Gabriela Mistral en verso y prosa (2010), La ciudad y los perros (2012), Rubén Darío: Del símbolo a la realidad (2016), La colmena (2016), Borges esencial (2017), Yo el Supremo (2017), Rayuela (2019), El Señor Presidente (2020), and Martí en su universo: Una antología (2021).
José María Arguedas delivered an intimate and genuine portrait of the Andean world to a broader Peruvian readership. Reading the extraordinary prose of Los ríos profundos—always imaginative, always unsettling—allows readers to experience it. Further, if today’s Peru is still a divided country as a consequence of its historical past, then Arguedas’s words continue to call on us to undertake a pending task: forging a restorative and harmonious mestizaje capable of constructing a new identity that is more inclusive for Peru as a nation.
Translated by Amy Olen
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee