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José María Arguedas: Los ríos profundos (Deep Waters)

José María Arguedas’ mother died when he was two and. half. His father remarried but his stepmother already had three children from a previous marriage, so Arguedas was essentially left to the Indian servants, from whom he learned their language (Quechua) and culture. Eventually, when he was older, his father took him on his travels around Peru. This novel is based on those travels.

Arguedas wrote his poetry in Quechua and planned to write his novels in Quechua but was dissuaded from so doing by his publisher. Nevertheless, when writing in Spanish, he deliberately used Quechua syntax in his Spanish for Quechua speakers which, for Spanish speakers, looked odd.

We first meet father – Gabriel – and son – Ernesto, aged fourteen – when Gabriel decides to travel to his home town of Cuzco, which Ernesto had never visited. Gabriel has an issue with someone known only as the Old Man. The Old Man used to be Gabriel’s clerk but has now made it on his own and there is clearly bad blood between, though we never know why, only that Gabriel says he is the Antichrist.

Ernesto is really impressed by Cuzco and its Inca walls, which, he says, seem to have a life of their own. Gabriel is proud of his home town and proud to show it to his son but still has his issues with the Old Man. They continue their travels.

Gabriel is a travelling lawyer, going to towns where there is no lawyer, offering his services. He is the sort who cannot settle down and they visit 200 different towns, before finally reaching Abancay. The one thing that has struck Ernesto in their travels is the cruelty he sees towards animals, particularly the wholesale and random killing of birds. He will see this cruelty later in Abancay.

In Abancay, Gabriel again finds it difficult to get clients, not least because there are relatively few land disputes – his bread and butter – as most of the land is owned by one family. Gabriel is persuaded to leave and go to Chalhuanca, leaving Ernesto behind. Ernesto is sent to a religious school.

Much of the novel concerns his time at the religious school. Like boarding schools everywhere (there are boarders and day boys), it has its ups and downs. Ernesto has two problems. Firstly, though of Spanish ancestry, he has been brought up by the Indians, feels sympathetic to them and speaks their language. However, he is not one of them, so he does not really fit in with either group. Secondly, he is not from Abancay – nearly all the other boys are from the region – so is considered an outsider and, indeed, is nicknamed stranger by some of the boys.

Initially, he is very solitary. He goes off on long walks on his own and does not have any friends. As in all boarding schools, there is a hierarchy among the boys with the tough boys ruling the roost. Inevitably there are a lot of fights and we read a lot about them, including fights that were threatened but never took place. Ernesto is inevitably involved.

One of the key events is the arrival of the zumbayllu. One of the boys makes them and gives one to Ernesto, who is really fascinated by it. It is a spinning top but, when put into operation, it makes a buzzing noise like an insect. It comes to have a symbolic role in this book. Firstly, Ernesto believes it can send out messages over long distances and he believes it can send one to his father. Secondly, it help brings the boys together, who are all fascinated by it. Thirdly, it clearly has some ritual significance for Ernesto. It will appear throughout the book.

As well as his struggle to fit in we follow his relationships with the priests, generally good but with the occasional problems and with the opposite sex, where, like most boys of his age, he struggles.

We also see his feeling for the Indian population, towards whom he feels much sympathy. We see this particularly in two instances. The first involves a simple-minded Indian woman. A priest has taken her in to the school, to help her. However, some of the boys take sexual advantage of her, particularly a large boy nicknamed Wig, who is obsessed with her and abuses her. Ernesto is sympathetic and tries to help her.

The second is the salt rebellion. Salt is in short supply and the powers-that-be refuse to make it available. The local women organise a rebellion to get some, led by the fierce Doña Felipa, a local bar owner, who has two husbands and two rifles. She and her fellow rebels seize the salt and distribute it.

This is a huge event in the town and some of the boys, Ernesto in particular, follow it. Indeed, when the women go out to a neighbouring area to distribute the salt, Ernesto follows them. He is severely punished on return, as the priests inevitably support the forces of law and order. The boys, of course, consider him a hero.

The army and guardia civil are called in but Doña Felipa is too shrewd for them and escapes. The army is sent into the mountains to find her but without success. One of her husbands takes over the bar but he is soon muscled out. A harpist who sings a revolutionary song about her is arrested and many of the women who participated in the revolt are flogged.

It is an epidemic (called variously, plague, typhus and simply fever) that calls a temporary halt to the school and Ernesto fears he has it, when he helps the feeble-minded woman who may or may not have it.

Arguedas writes a beautiful lyrical story about his life. That he is a poet is plain to see. His love for the native culture is also plain to see and the book is full of Quechua phrases and words (a glossary is included). Each of the characters, particularly the boys in the school, is his own person, each one different, with his own traits and peculiarities. Mario Vargas Llosa praised it as one of the great Peruvian novels.

Publishing history

First published 1958 by Losada
First English translation by University of Texas Press in 1978
Translated by Frances Horning Barraclough