A few times, while constructing my list for the 52 Country Challenge, I've added a book out of duty and not joy. The last time was for my book selection for Thailand, "Monsoon Country." Yes, it was a serious novel written by a Thai on the social conditions on his country, yes, it was one of the few books I could find in English that didn't have more to do with sexcapades on Pattaya, blah, blah, blah. I read it as I picked it: dutifully, and without joy. It doesn't necessarily have to be that way. My very next book, "From the Land of Green Ghosts" has turned out to be one of the surprise hits of the year. I think that's because Thweee's details on life in Burma as a member of the ****tribe were so particular, yet he also managed to find the univesral (the imperious grandfather, the embittered, disillusioned father) in his memoir of finding himself almost by chance a rebel against the government. There was also a subtle thread of humor in the story; he finds the absurd in how he, the most clumsy of dissidents, found himself with a rifle in his hand.
I knew when I started reading my books for South America, that I was missing a big piece of the puzzle; the story of the many indigenous people of the continent. It's touched upon in "The Disappearance of Irene dos Santos" and in "Un Mundo para Julius", but it's a sidebar and not really the focus of either of these novels. And so I decided to read "Huasipungo", since it's considered one of the great protest novels of the early part of the twentieth century, an example of "Indigenist" literature, the novels of brutal social realism that preceded the novels of magical realism that became so popular later in the century. I was hoping that this novel, considered one of Ecuador's great classics, would transcend the genre of proletarian literature and offer me something more.
I was disappointed. I should have known better, since I read continual comparisons of Icaza to Steinbeck and "The Grapes of Wrath." Well, I don't care much for Steinbeck, not even for the "Grapes of Wrath." It's worthy--very worthy. And like Steinbeck's classic, it's clunkily written, devoid of humor, and so intent on describing the horrors of the people being crushed by the gears of social change that they cease being people at all, but are reduced to mere archtypes.
That doesn't mean the novel is without interest or merit. It's the story of Don Alfonso Pereira who, in debt to his uncle, decides to attract an American business to his country holdings by clearing the huasipungos--the villagers huts--out of his land and using the enslaved labor of these people to build a road for a proposed timber deal.
The beginning was promising. The reader feels a bit sorry for the don; he's trapped by the loans that his uncle is pressing him on, and his daughter is pregnant by one of the villagers, though she won't say reveal the name of the father. He's got a bit of a personality, even though it seems more inept and put-upon than anything else. Then there's the porter, Andres, who loves his wife and son, and rebels from the landlord's demands to the extent of running away from the work gang each night to sleep in his own bed. Unfortunately, the don soon is soon reduced to a whip-cracking caricature, and Andres is either noble--or very, very stupid. The most interesting part of the book is when Icaza enters into the collective thoughts of the Indians, or has pages long almost stream of conscious conversations, which reveal the mixture of callous disregard and fatalism, mixed with a spark of exhausted pity, that represent the villagers reactions when half of the village is swept away by a river or poisoned by the spoiled meat of an oxen disinterred and eaten by the starving villagers. In this respect, "Huasipungo" reminds me very much of "The Grapes of Wrath", particularly in the interim chapters that Steinbeck intersperses with his tale of the Joad family, where Steinbeck strives to gives a more sweeping portrait of the plight of the Oakies. Some people love that. I find it more than a bit self-conscious and earnest and ultimately, maybe a bit condescending.
So I don't know. Should an author, however worthy his purpose, enter into the minds of an oppressed minority? At the time, there were very few Indian novelists in Ecuador; even now I found it difficult to find a Ecuadorian novelist with a non-Spanish background. Should an author attempt to speak for those who have no voice? Again, I don't have an answer. I do know that this novel stirred up a great deal of protest, by those who felt that it was either an incomplete picture, or revelled in the harsh brutalities described. Izaca's depiction of a callous Catholic Church-- complete with rapist priests who would squeeze every last coin out of an impoverished people even during the cold fiscal transaction to bury them--also caused an outcry. This proletarian novel was particularly popular in Russia; Icaza was later honored as Ecuador's ambassador to the Soviet Union. Though the conditions Icaza excoriated still exist in many parts of the world, including Latin America, it's more of a period piece than a a work of literature.
N.B> There's a fascinating forward by Dulsey on the difficulties of translating the book in English, which wass not attempted until the early 1960's.