Analysis of Rómulo Gallegos’s Canaima

Canaima takes place along the Orinoco River, deep in the Venezuelan jungle of the early 20th century. It poetically illustrates the region’s exotic natural beauty while telling a story that is at once as romantic as it is political. The novel’s author, Rómulo Gallegos (1884–1969), was an essayist, novelist, and statesman who led a distinguished career in public service. Among other positions, he served as president of Venezuela and is considered one of its most important political and literary figures.

Along with Gallegos’s Doña Bárbara (1929) and Cantaclaro (1931), Canaima is one of the most significant works in Venezuela’s literary canon. The three books, which may be read as a trilogy, all take place in the nation’s rural backlands, forming a complete picture of the undeveloped plains and lush tropical jungle. Each novel depicts the classic struggle between civilization and barbarism, a clash frequently represented in works written in the early stages of nation building in Latin America’s postindependence period. Gallegos clearly articulates his preference in this conflict: His novels’ heroes invariably symbolize civilization, consistently triumphing over the untamed wilds—in both their human and environmental forms. Like many intellectual elites of his time, Gallegos looked to Europe as a model for Venezuela, advocating a “civilizing mission” for his relatively undeveloped young nation.

Canaima narrates the journey of its main character, Marcos Vargas, who leaves the city for an adventure in the backlands. He arrives in the Orinoco river basin, where he eventually disappears to live among the Indians. As in Gallegos’s other works, the protagonist represents the Europeanized city dweller who battles with the forces of unchecked rural power, in this case the uncivilized and ruthless Ardavines family. Vargas is a fascinating character, and it is interesting to compare him with the better-known hero of Gallegos’s Doña Bárbara, Santos Luzardo. While both embody the educated, citified voice of “reason,” the former clearly represents a more nuanced, conflicted, and passionate version of the latter. The relatively two-dimensional Luzardo travels to the plains simply to conquer and domesticate the backlands, while Vargas journeys not only to dominate but also to learn from the Indians and to fall in love. As Jorge Ruffinelli, a scholar and literary critic who teaches at the University of Uruguay, observes in Latin American Writers, the author’s writings evolved over time, gradually reflecting a greater appreciation for the “natural” elements of his native land: “In the course of his career, Gallegos turned away from the stereotypical racist European point of view in favor of a more complex understanding of the autochthonous elements of the American experience.” In this sense, Canaima emerges as a more complex portrayal of Venezuelan life in the early 20th century than its more famous counterpart, Doña Bárbara, and many consider it Gallegos’s finest novel.

The book illustrates several of the region’s social and political conflicts of the time, including the corrupt legal justice system and abuses of workers by local bosses. Vargas challenges the lawlessness of the backlands, always fighting for righteous justice. He also has relationships with three women: Aracelis, Maigualida, and Aymara. He eventually fathers a son by the latter, an Indian woman who represents his decision to go into the forest and live among the natives. In the end, however, civilization again conquers the “barbaric” countryside, as the novel ends with Vargas sending his son to the city to be educated by his “civilized” friend Gabriel Ureña.

Although the author was raised in the city of Caracas, and he wrote Canaima while in exile in Spain, his novel effectively captures the linguistic, cultural, and societal relationships of the Venezuelan countryside. Gallegos’s works are considered among the greatest expressions of the regional novel, a subgenre that played an important role in Latin American literature in the first half of the 20th century, according to scholar Melvin S. Arrington, Jr. Rich with colloquialisms and indigenous idioms, Canaima is one of the most vivid expressions of Venezuelan rural life of its day. At the same time, the novel has a timeless, universal appeal and has been translated into numerous languages. Many of the socioeconomic realities depicted remain as unchanged today as the natural setting that surrounds the book’s characters, and Canaima continues to be an important and highly relevant literary work.

Carrera, Gustavo Luis, ed. Canaima ante la crítica. Caracas: Monte Avila Editores Latinoamericana, 1995.
Gallegos, Rómulo. Canaima. Caracas: Monte Avila Editores, 1977.
———. Canaima. Translated by Will Kirkland. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996. ———. Canaima. Translated by Jaime Tello. Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis

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