When novelist Mario Vargas Llosa led street protests recently against President Alan Garcia's drive to nationalize private banks, the writer wasn't doing much out of the ordinary. Latin America poets, artists and film makers frequently express their political feelings in public forums.
In Peru, the connection between life and letters is a live one. President Garcia charted his political course in a book called "A Different Future," and Vice President Luis Alberto Sanchez, 86, is the author of more than 50 books.
Two of Peru's political giants, Victor Haya de la Torre and Jose Carlos Mariategui were both prolific writers. The former founded the ruling American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA) party, while the latter fathered Peru's Communist Party and authored the classic work, "Seven Essays on the Peruvian Reality."
Current political turmoil here has given rise to renewed interest in the writings of the late Jose Maria Arguedas, the noted novelist and anthropologist. Much of that curiosity springs from his compassion and understanding for Peru's Indians and peasants, the central protagonists of his works.
Since 1980, when Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas took up arms against the state, 10,000 people have died, most of them innocent victims caught in the crossfire between the guerrillas and the military in the Ayacucho region of the central Andes.
The insurgency springs from Peru's enormous social inequalities. Sub-Saharan poverty continues to ravage Andean villages where the diet of 2 million Indians is 40% below acceptable levels and where 99% of the rural population lacks running water and drainage. In Lima, where hundreds of thousands of Andean refugees live in crowded shantytowns, infant malnutrition and misery exist alongside luxury restaurants and affluent suburbs.
Sendero Luminoso militants are university students and impoverished youths recruited from Andean villages and Lima shantytowns. Their tactics are brutal, their style authoritarian, and their ideology a blend of Maoist communism and Andean messianism.
Since Ayacucho is a military zone off limits to reporters, and the guerrillas rarely give press interviews, little is known about what transpires in the highlands. All the more reason why readers are delving into Arguedas' works for some knowledge about the life styles of Quechua-speaking Andean peasants.
Born in the Andean town of Andahuaylas in 1911, Arguedas lost his mother as a youngster and was raised by Indian servants. He learned Quechua from them, imbibed their traditions and learned to appreciate their folklore and way of thinking. While traveling through the Andes with his father, an itinerant country lawyer, the young Arguedas deepened his empathy for the sufferings and hopes of the Indians. More than any other Peruvian writer, Arguedas made a strong and lasting option for the humble and oppressed. Two of his novels, "Deep Rivers" and "Yawar Fiesta" ("Blood Fiesta") are available in English through the University of Texas Pan American series.
"Deep Rivers" is a moving, autobiographical account of Arguedas' childhood experiences. The author uses the memories of Ernesto, the narrator, to evoke the profound realities of Andean life. Ernesto, absorbing the animism of the Indians, looks upon hills, rivers and the ancient stones of Incan fortresses as living beings, open to mystery and fraught with symbolism.
"Whenever he describes flowers, insects, stones and streams, Arguedas' language takes on its best temper, its most successful rhythm," wrote Vargas Llosa in an afterward to the English edition. "His vocabulary . . . joins the most delicate and fragile of words, speaks intimately, becomes sweetly musical, and elates the reader with his impassioned imagery."
Ernesto assumes the Indian's magical thinking, cherishes their tenderness, shares their resentments and exalts their communitarian way of life. But his surrealistic remembrances turn sour when he recalls the unctuous Father Rector, head of his boarding school, given to preaching resignation to the Indians. The townspeople venerate the curate as a saint, but Ernesto sees in him a mixture of kindness and violence, an archetype of the conquering Spaniards who left a legacy of grace and sin, paternal love and exploitation.
One of the high points in "Deep Rivers" is the rebellion of the Indian market women at Abancay. The women, angered at local merchants for hoarding salt, stage a revolt, confiscate the salt from a warehouse and distribute it to the needy. Townspeople hurl insults at the rebels, but Ernesto joins their march, singing a protest song in Quechua with them.
Similar themes, including the white man's plunder of the Indians' land, run through "Yawar Fiesta," considered by Vargas Llosa as Arguedas' best novel. He based it on his experiences as a youth growing up during the 1930s in the town of Puquio, Ayacucho, an area now convulsed by the guerrilla war.
"Yawar Fiesta's" protagonists are Indians, landowners, mestizos (half breeds) and migrants to the capital city. The story culminates in a bloody bullfight, a symbol of the Indians' struggle against outside domination.
Arguedas' last novel, "El Zorro de Arriba, el Zorro de Abajo" ("The Fox From Above, the Fox From Below") is a soul-wrenching account of the Indians' migration to the coastal fishing city of Chimbote. Unable to cope with the culture clashes, the Andean migrant sinks into despair and misery, dulling his senses with cheap whiskey.
"Arguedas feared that all of Peru would become a gigantic Chimbote," said Cesar Levano, a Lima journalist, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. "He experienced both the country's tragedy and his own. The road of this collective tragedy passed through him and it crushed him."
Arguedas shot himself to death in 1969, the last of several suicide attempts. A previous one occurred while he attended a writers conference in Mexico City. He tried to hurl himself through an open window in a hotel, but his colleagues, including Juan Rulfo, the Mexican novelist, restrained him.
Levano, author of the book, "Arguedas, a Tragic Sense of Life," said his colleague and close friend bore psychological scars from childhood related to his racial background. "Even though he was a mestizo and not an Indian, he suffered deep personal conflicts. Once he fell in love with a girl in Ica. They fought, and she called him a serrano (literally a highlander). It hit him so hard that his parents had to come from the sierra and subject him to a series of psychiatric treatments."
Since last May, further interest in Arguedas has been spurred by the arrest and trial of his widow, Sybila Arredondo, on charges of terrorism. Arredondo, a Chilean, has spoken openly about her sympathies with the Shining Path guerrillas in magazine interviews, but denies participating in any violence. Authorities accused her of links to specific terrorist actions in Lima. Arredondo was declared not guilty on Nov. 4 after serving 15 months for her alleged activities with the Shining Path guerrillas. She was released from prison on Nov. 7.
Arguedas himself never accepted the extremist Maoist philosophy his widow would later embrace, even though Shining Path ideologues claim the late novelist as their precursor. Arguedas expressed hopes for the reformist government of Fernando Belaunde in the early 1960s which he served as head of the National Cultural Institute. The reforms failed to materialize, but Arguedas never went beyond cultivating a warm regard for the Cuban revolution, which he eulogized in a poem. "This would indicate his distance from the Maoist doctrine of the Shining Path guerrillas," said Levano. "They are bitterly opposed to Castro and his revolution."
As time passes the Peru that Jose Maria Arguedas knew best is changing. When he was a boy, 70% of the country's population--then 5 million--lived in the Andes. Peru's population is now 20 million, and half live on the coast, with the remainder divided between the mountains and the jungle.
The assimilation of the Indian into the life of the city continues to be a bitter experience, but not always as hopeless as Arguedas predicted. As for the future of the country, it's anybody's guess--as unpredictable, some would say, as the next Shining Path bombing, or a president nationalizing the banks, or a novelist leading a social protest.