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Alcides Arguedas: Raza de Bronce [Race of Bronze]

rguedas was very sympathetic to the Bolivian Indians and their plight and this, his best-known novel, clearly shows it. It is divided into two parts. The first is called El Valle (The Valley) and concerns a journey made by a group of Indians to buy seed. The second part is called El Yermo (The Wasteland) and concerns life on the ranch where the Indians live and work. The book starts with the engagement of Wata-Wara and Agiali before Agiali and a few other men set off. Times are hard and the men struggle to find food. But Arguedas shows their journey as something of an epic journey, as they confront the often hostile though beautiful landscape of the altiplano. The hostility is caused by the melting glaciers which will suddenly bring torrents sweeping down from the hills, creating rivers where none existed before and trapping and killing people and animals. The leader of the group, Manuno, sees his donkey swept away as the group tries to cross such a river and, when he goes after it, he too is swept away. For the group this is a double tragedy as Manuno carried the forty pesos given to him by the boss to buy the seed and if they lose that, they will be in serious trouble. Indeed, one of them even considers running away, abandoning home, wife and family, to avoid such a punishment. Fortunately, with the help of a local Indian, they do find Manuno’s body and the money is still in the purse tied around his neck. The few whites that they do meet – they refer to them simply as los otros (the others) – are far from sympathetic.

After their return, we learn more about their treatment by the whites. Arguedas tells us of the often brutal exploitation of the Indians by the whites and how their land has been stolen. We learn that they are forced to buy their goods from the boss’ (Pantojo) shop at highly inflated prices and that he has found that woven goods sell, so he has the women weave, which allows him to make money and select the most attractive women for his personal pleasure. On Agiali’s return, we learn that Wata-Wara has been so selected. When he finds out, Agiali is furious and hits Wata-Wara for not resisting, though she clearly had no choice. The couple make up and eventually get married. Much of the plot of this second part illustrates the difficulties facing the Indians, both in terms of survival, because of the difficult climatic conditions, but also because of the cruelty of Pantojo. For example, we see him arriving with a group of friends and the Indians rush out to greet him, playing their traditional instruments. He is tired and annoyed and, instead of welcoming their greeting, sets about them with a heavy stick, hitting them in the face and badly wounding some of them. In another example, he imposes his cattle on their land, telling them that they have to feed his cattle at their expense. When one Indian complains, saying that they don’t even have enough to feed their own, he says that that is not his problem and if they don’t like it they can leave. One of the older Indians says that he will therefore leave, after collecting his harvest, and again Pantojo savagely brutalises him.

It is not just about the social and economic conditions they face. We even get comments on the ecological conditions. The local lake is being over-exploited. The fish are being over-fished and the best fish species has almost been fished out. The plants round the edge are being cut down, which is also causing harm to the lake’s edge and the birds are being shot for food so that they are dying out. There is a plot as well, involving Wata-Wara and Agiali. Pantojo and his friends find Wata-Wara attractive and this has tragic consequences for all concerned. Arguedas tells a good story but it is his concern for the treatment of the Indians that is most apparent and he paints a very sympathetic portrait of the Indians, their culture, their way of life and the harsh conditions they face. And you can read this novel in Slovenian but not in English.

Publishing history

First published 1919 by Prometeo
No English translation
First French translation as Race de bronze by Plon 1960
Also available in Slovenian, Romanian, Czech and Chinese