Generally regarded as the finest novel of José María Arguedas (1911–69), Deep Rivers marks a break with his earlier work, for in it the Peruvian author abandons conventional realism in favor of a lyrical manner more appropriate for communicating the Andean magical-religious worldview, as well as the love and tenderness he learned as a child raised among the Quechua people. Another significant evolution in the author’s style, present in this novel, is his translating into the medium of Spanish the sensibilité of people expressing themselves in Quechua, the indigenous language. Arguedas wrote in correct Spanish but managed to communicate Andean thought.
The novel portrays Peru as immersed in a new paradigm, one of modernization and turmoil, and concentrates on the situation of a young boy pulled grievously in two different directions, the indigenous and the Western. Composing a representation of himself as a child, Arguedas mirrors his experiences through a recreation of a boy’s narrative voice and worldview. The novel raises an important issue, that of intercultural and bicultural children who, unable to cope with difference, desperately long to belong and to be just like everyone else.
Ernesto, the adolescent protagonist and main narrator of Deep Rivers, is cut off from the beloved indigenous world of his childhood when he is sent to a church-run boarding school to receive the education that will supposedly equip and enable him to take his place in white society. Thus uprooted, he rejects the European world to which he belongs by birth and identifies affectively with the indigenous people among whom he had spent the happiest period of his childhood.
The Catholic Church–run school, whose value system is that of the landowning class it serves, stands as a microcosm of Andean society at large, and it is no wonder that Ernesto finds himself alienated in its oppressive atmosphere. Moreover, during the process of self-definition, the boy painfully feels a vast gulf between the world he longs for and the world in which he actually lives. In spite of this, he is able to recharge himself emotionally by listening to Quechua music in the town’s native quarter and by making trips into the countryside to renew his bonds with nature and his human and sincere love for the Pachachaca River. These excursions become a magnificent vehicle for insights into Andean culture, for through them not only does the novel abound in observations on Quechuan music, language, folklore, and rituals, but it conveys how magical-religious thought functions by showing it at work at the level of Ernesto’s subjective experiences.
Music is a constant theme in Arguedas’s fiction, regarded as a privileged space in which matter is transformed into meaning and emotion. Music functions as an indispensable element of Arguedas’s vision of the world. In the novel, Ernesto’s attachment to music is so intense that the boy wonders if the song of the calandra larks can be composed of the same matter he is made of, and if it comes from the same widespread world of human beings he has been thrown into. At the same time, nature is understood as life itself. Indeed, Ernesto’s relationship with music and his identification with the Pachachaca River provide some of the most beautiful passages in the book. Ernesto is an interstitial character living between two cultures and two languages, and as such he acts as a bridge between two worlds. Being aware of the fact that he is crossing borders, at times he senses that he lacks real roots and feels a deep sense of alienation.
As Ernesto confusedly adapts to his new circumstances, his perspective is ambivalent. He is partially absorbed into ruling society, for though he feels he is different, he has inherited many of the attitudes of his class. His teachers and classmates embrace him mostly as one of their own, although he is sometimes referred to as “the little stranger,” “the fool,” or “the little Indian who looks white.” Furthermore, his experiences conspire to undermine his faith in indigenous values by calling into question their effectiveness in the world of the European culture. Not only does he see the Quechua people marginalized and humiliated at every turn, but even the magical forces of nature seem to lose their power when they come into conflict with Western culture.
In the latter part of the novel, however, a series of events occur that once again estrange Ernesto from the European world, forever consolidating his allegiance to the Quechua people. First, the chicheras (female vendors of maize beer) challenge the established dominant social order by breaking into the government salt warehouses and distributing the contents among the poor. Then, following an outbreak of plague, the colonos (hacienda tenant laborers) shake off their servility and become mobilized. Believing the plague to be supernatural and that it can be destroyed only by religious means, they march on the town to demand that a special mass be said for them and to force the authorities to comply with their wishes. In a triumphal climax, Ernesto and the Quechua are able to convert their suffering into cultural resistance. Indeed, in Deep Rivers the reader observes the emergence of a counter-hegemonic order represented by the chicheras, the colonos, Quechuan music and rituals, and the Pachachaca River. These elements, ignored and marginalized by those who hold the power (the priest who is the school director, the owner of the farm property where the Quechua people work, and the army that tries to repress the popular uprising), finally constitute a subversive paradigm, hegemonic in its own right.
The novel thus ends with a victory of the Andean population over the social order, a triumph that is paralleled on the internal plane by Ernesto’s unreserved adherence to the Quechua ethos. His identification with the chicheras and the colonos against his own kind is much more than solidarity with the underprivileged, since his faith in the Quechuan values he has been raised to live by depends on the outcome of the conflict between the two ways of life. In more than one sense, his personal salvation hinges on the ability of the Quechua people to assert the validity of their culture by asserting themselves socially. With the victory of the colonos, Ernesto’s rooting is vindicated.
Nevertheless, the ending is somewhat ambiguous. Even if Ernesto appears to have resolved his inner conflict by embracing Quechua culture with complete faith in its effectiveness, he clearly faces a future full of tensions, since he must live by its values in the “alien” world of European dominance. Thus, somehow Deep Rivers is a sort of rite of passage novel that stops at the point of change, when a new stage is about to begin in the character’s evolution and growth.
The end may be regarded as the utopian vision of a dystopian reality. At the same time, however, Ernesto’s deep faith in the Quechua culture reflects Arguedas’s own confidence in the ability of that culture not only to survive, but, with increasing migration to the cities of the coast, to spread beyond its traditional geographical boundaries, to permeate and change the character of Peruvian society as a whole.
It is rather difficult to find another Latin American novel that has come near the intensity with which Arguedas portrayed the indigenous and bicultural people in Deep Rivers, depicting their dual surroundings, profound knowledge of good and evil, and tragic sense of life as beautiful and yet undermined by sorrow, in addition to the deep love they feel for one another, for nature, and for the whole universe. In Arguedas’s view, indigenous Andean culture is not a static reality; on the contrary, it is pregnant with ideas of change and, hence, in a process of continuous redefinition with regard to its complex relationships to tradition and modernity.
Arguedas read and interpreted modernity from within Andean cultural reality. The author rejected the notion that the knowledge embodied in the Quechua oral culture—its music, rituals, and myths—is inferior to, or less valuable than, the knowledge associated with writing and reading in the Western tradition. His concept of literature is, for critics and readers alike, a fascinating and profoundly precious legacy.