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Ciro Alegría: El mundo es ancho y ajeno (Broad and Alien Is the World)

Before the Latin American boom, this novel was considered one of the classics of Latin American literature. It still is and remains in print in Spanish, English and several other languages. However, its fame, like that of other earlier Latin Americans novels, has been eclipsed by the boom writers. Of course, it does not use magic realism nor have the other elements that made the boom writers so successful throughout the world. What it is is a superbly well-written novel, with a rich cast of characters, a strong political message and lots of local colour.

Alegría was very sympathetic towards the native population of Peru. They were all too often exploited by the rich and powerful landowners of Spanish origin, not least because they often did not speak Spanish, did not understand the legal system and could easily be tricked or forced to give up their rights. This is what happens in this book. Alegría shows a respectable, hard-working community of natives, who grow their crops, breed their cattle and live simple lives. Of course, they have their own customs and superstitions and their own language (Quechua) but all they want is to be allowed to live in peace. However, the rich landowners want two things. They want their land, for not much more reason than greed, and they hope to drive the natives off their land so that they are forced to work as cheap labour in the landowners’ mines or industrial plants. To achieve this, they use violence and they use bribery and corruption. The unfortunate native population is virtually helpless against this and, when they appeal to higher authorities in Lima or elsewhere, the landowners are easily able to bribe the authorities to accept their point of view.

This story is set in an Andean village called Rumi. The mayor is called Rosendo Maqui. He is a good man, who is very concerned about the welfare of his village and its inhabitants. The book starts with him returning from a journey. He sees a snake and tries to catch it but fails to do so. This will bring him bad luck. The first piece of bad luck occurs when he enters the village and learns that his wife, Pascuala, has died. He will have much worst luck later. We learn much about the background of what happens in the village, in particular how they are despised by the whites. Rosendo, for example, wants to set up a school but is unable to do so. We also learn of the history, such as the typhoid outbreak and various wars which the natives did not understand but in which they had to fight. During one civil war, various bandits would arrive in the village and one of them raped a woman in the village. She gave birth to a boy and this child, Benito Castro, has been brought up by Rosenda and Pascuala. We later learn that he left the village after committing a crime but he will return to play a key role.

The local landowner, Don Álvaro Amenábar, has started legal proceedings against them to take their village and its lands. The village is defended by a public defender, Bismarck Ruíz, who has left his wife and is living with his girlfriend. He assures them that they will win their suit. Other key characters we meet at this stage include”Magic” Julio Contreras, a travelling salesman, who will betray them, and Fiero Vásquez, the local bandit. He had been a good man but, as we learn, had become a bandit. He had been attacked by an unknown man and killed him in self-defence. He had fled, to escape the police but, when he returned, he found that his wife had been imprisoned and raped and his son had died. He will also play a key role in the book. Of course, things go wrong with the suit. Don Álvaro Amenábar bribes the judges, bribes Bismarck Ruíz and pays false witnesses, including”Magic” Julio Contreras. He wins the lawsuit. The villagers have to leave the village and go to Yanañahui, a remote area on a hilltop, where it will be difficult both to grow crops and breed cattle.

But things get worse. The cattle leave and return to Rumi and Don Álvaro Amenábar’s men seize them and refuse to return them. When Rosendo takes back one of his cows, he is arrested and thrown into prison. He shares a cell with Fiero Vásquez. When Fiero plans an escape, Rosendo refuses to participate but he is blamed for not notifying the guards of Fiero’s escape and beaten to death. Meanwhile, many of the other villagers have left, to work elsewhere or to become bandits. Benito Castro, whom we have seen earlier, has travelled around, serving in the army, working as a fisherman and doing other odd jobs. He now wants to go home but is unaware of events. When he does go home, he learns what has happened. He organises the villagers, though not without some opposition. However, Don Álvaro Amenábar has his eye on the new lands, not least because he wants the villagers to work on his lands and, once again, conflict ensues, with the villagers outnumbered and outarmed. Where can they go? they ask. The world is wide, they are told. Yes, they reply but also alien.

This is a very simple outline of the plot which is far more complex and detailed, though all the time shows the injustices and cruelties suffered by the native population. Alegría tells a superb story and gives us a wonderful portrait of life in the Peruvian Andes. There is a large cast, all rich characters, good, bad and ugly, though Alegría does not hide in the slightest whose side he is on. It is something of a pity that novels like this have been somewhat buried under the reputation of the boom writers, as this novel and others like it are still very readable. They were, of course, the precursors of the boom writers and influenced them to a considerable degree. Fortunately, this one is readily available in Spanish and English.

Publishing history

First published in 1941 by Ercilla
First published in English by Farrar & Rinehart/Merlin in 1941
Translated by Harriet de Onís (Farrar & Rinehart edition), by Mike Gonzalez (Merlin edition)