Book Review: Deep Rivers

When I first picked up the book Deep Rivers by José María Arguedas, I was fascinated that it was originally written in Quechua—not Spanish. Even though the author was born into an upper class, Spanish-speaking family in Andahuaylas, Peru, Arguedas spent most of his childhood being cared for by Quechua-speaking servants. This background gave him the unique advantage of seeing the world from the perspectives of both the oppressors and the oppressed. And this semi-autobiographical book shows us how he interpreted these two views.

Ernesto, the main character and narrator of Deep Rivers, is closely connected with his country and its people. He visits or mentions many different cities—so many that I found myself needing to write them all down and check their locations on a map. It amazed me that he could get from town to town so easily and how detailed his descriptions were. The towns and, of course, the rivers, seemed to be alive to him. He notices things that most of us would miss, such as the sound of the spinning top, or the way the Inca walls in Cusco seemed to talk to him, or the green color of a still pool on the Pachachaca River when compared to the yellow cliffs of the surrounding ravine. 

And Ernesto—just like Arguedas himself—is comfortable with both the Indigenous as well as the more affluent people that he encounters. He easily moves between the Spanish and Quechua languages, cultures, and behaviors. In the boarding school, his classmates are the sons of very rich families as well as poor scholarship students. He seems to understand and befriend both.  But he also seems to have a desire to defend the downtrodden and oppressed Indigenous and mixed-race people. He sees a hierarchy of people: first the rich, usually white; then the cholos, who are of mixed heritage but have adopted the ways of the whites; the colonos, who are Indians who belong to a hacienda; the mestizos of mixed heritage; and finally the pure Indians, such as the Runa, Chanka and other Indigenous groups who usually live in the rural areas. He explains the different places they all take in the society he sees. His view is from about seventy years ago and I think some of this has changed, but I found it fascinating to read about the subtle and not so subtle racism that he experienced.

There were some parts of the book that were difficult for me to read. The scenes of violence and fighting between the boys at the school reminded me of Lord of the Flies. The horrible way the poor “idiot woman” was treated by both the boys and the priests was a reoccurring shock.  In my mind’s eye many of the scenes are dark—or have a dark background—even if they are taking place in the daytime.   

I read this book just before and during my fall 2022 trip to Peru with members of the ATA Board. I found myself looking at people we encountered and wondering where they might fit in Arquedas’ hierarchy. But what struck me most was the landscapes that we drove through, the colors of the flowers, the lush (and some not so lush) farms, and areas where sheep and llamas were grazing. Everything seemed more vivid than I remembered from my last trip twelve years ago. And compared to my (now somewhat faded) memories of my first trip in 1980, it was like going from a black and white movie to magical technicolor. Anyone considering a trip to Peru would benefit from reading Deep Rivers for the deepened awareness Arguedas shares with his readers.

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