The protagonist in José María Arguedas’ “Deep Rivers” begins with the premise that the mountain town of Cusco, Peru is “the big city.” As an orphan raised by servants, 14-year old Ernesto is thrilled to be embarking on a journey of discovery with his vagabond father. As they journey to Cusco, through the country, and ultimately to the town of where Ernesto is placed in a Catholic boarding school, Ernesto watches his father in muted awe, soaking in the opportunity to watch as the stories he has heard seem poised to spring to life. When his father decides Ernesto must stay in a town they had stopped in and enter a Catholic boarding school while father heads off in search of a fleeting employment opportunity in a neighboring town, Ernesto is once again stuck, an uncomfortable add-on to the lives of the boarding school children. Against this backdrop, the novel examines the classic themes of youthful anxiety and yearning, the massive hole left by an absentee father, and the coming of age of a young man.
Arguedas wrote in a Spanish-Quechua (the language of the indigenous people of the Peruvian highlands) hybrid that makes direct translations somewhat difficult, and in places, we are left with imperfect descriptions or else the original Quechua words, which come to have meaning to the reader by their context as the story pushes forward. He also draws heavily on his own upbringing and experiences in describing Ernesto’s journey to manhood. Remarkably, these deeply personal emotions, packaged as they are in Arguedas’ unique language, resonate with crystal clarity.
The goals of the characters and the struggles they face are familiar in the broadest senses: a fast-talking lawyer who can’t seem to settle down looking for employment; a son, searching for a connection to his father, recognizing the need to at some point develop his own destiny; young men in a carefully regulated environment seek to break free of the walls — both real and perceived — that rise up around them; and indigenous people struggling to retain their customs and traditions in the face of stinging repression from the interloping, ruling westerners they now serve. That all of these themes are so familiar speaks to the universality of Arguedas’ story. The way that he weaves them together clearly shows his mastery for the art of the novel.
Above all else, Ernesto’s experiences as a boy who can’t quite find his way to manhood represents Arguedas’ finest achievement. The rigidly structured social scene at the boarding school highlights the struggles and conquests of sheltered teenage boys as effectively as Golding handles the topics in “Lord of the Flies.” The agonizing angst, always well below the surface, that Ernesto wrestles with in his interactions with dominant (usually) male figures — both those in positions of authority and those who are his peers — shapes the entire narrative. Ernesto cannot replace his father, but he remains subjugated to the ideal of the father figure.
Breaking free the only way those in his position can, in his imagination, Ernesto creates opportunities for heroism in dreams and fantasies, or else inserts into everyday experiences a heightened level of importance to satisfy his growing cravings for fulfillment. He fails to understand the dynamics of sexual attraction — in part because of the solitary and perverse exposure to sex he experiences around the latrines at night. In fact, Ernesto’s understanding of the role of women in his world can best be described as confused. He has memories of the women who raised him, and therefore seems not to share the fear of a woman in control that grips the local authorities after the salt raids; but Ernesto also has no idea how to interact with women, as illustrated by the clumsy encounters he has with the “idiot” and with the local girls he seeks only to appease the older boys. The result of these brilliantly illustrated, if familiar, themes is a novel worth adding to the existing coming-of-age canon.
As “doubts best ally” notes, as the story progresses, Ernesto goes from passive observer to active participant in the world around him, just as the local events are thrust into turmoil. The changes in the character, and the brilliantly developed setting within which they happen, make the collision of events and the final conclusion of the book both rewarding to the reader, and entirely appropriate for the story.
The major issues with which Ernesto struggles, and his failures, even to the end, to find his place, seem to be more than just coincidence when one considers Arguedas’ own struggles and eventual suicide. However, the incisive treatment Arguedas gives to the neuroses of adolescence and the enduring struggle to fit in seem to suggest an understanding beyond simply living through them. The struggle that gets less direct treatment but underlies the entire story — race relations and the quest for equality — is the one ultimately believed to be most responsible for Arguedas’ ultimate fate.