Yawar Fiesta, by José María Arguedas

After last month’s rather abortive beginning to my Latin American Readalong (which was because Paradiso turned out to be one of the most ridiculously densely-written novels I’ve come across in a long while (and not at all short either)), here’s February’s book, just in time.

The Yawar Fiesta of the title is a festive bullfight held in the town of Puquio, up in the Peruvian mountains. The bullfight is a traditional Indian affair, for which the bravest Indians get liquored up beforehand and then all go into the ring with the bull to test their machismo (and therefore the superiority of their ayllu [district / community]), leading usually to a fair few of them getting killed, before putting an end to the bull, not with any namby-pamby swords or banderillas, but with a stick of dynamite. The plot involves the government wishing to outlaw this barbaric spectacle for the good of the Indians themselves, and replace it with some more respectable style of bullfighting – you know, with a proper toreador and that sort of thing. Naturally, the Indians aren’t really interested in this.

Arguedas’ real concern, however, is the inter-relations within the community, its historic development etc., which is all explained in the build-up to the fight. On the one side we have the Indians; on the other the government, as represented by the subprefect, yet these two sides never speak: their conversation is entirely mediated through two other groups: the elders of the town (white Spanish, descendants of those who took the land off the Indians in the first place, and who now exploit the Indians population), and the Indians who have travelled down to Lima, become educated and returned. In essence, while being opposed to the Indians by their position, the elders really want the traditional bullfight to go ahead, and only pretend they do not to the subprefect, for they enjoy the sight of blood like anyone; and the students, while being Indians, oppose their bullfight, because they see it as a means of the exploitative landlords keeping the Indians in a barbaric state. Hence, not much understanding all round.

You may not be entirely surprised from all this to learn that Arguedas, who grew up in Puquio, was trained as an anthropologist. The novel does at times read more or less like an anthropological study – it is full of Quechua words and terms; though, to be fair, an anthropological study which builds to a nice climax.

Next month: José Donoso’s Curfew.

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4 thoughts on “Yawar Fiesta, by José María Arguedas

  1. The complicated community relations you describe make me think I might enjoy this, a nice surprise since I knew essentially nothing about this novel before reading your post. I have an aunt and an uncle who live in Peru as missionaries, but I have yet to visit them even though I’d love to get to know the country a bit. I’m not the missionary type myself, of course, so no worries.

  2. In the University of Texas Press edition (which I imagine, without checking, is the only English edition), there’s also a 40-page anthropological essay by José María Arguedas about Puquio, which I admit I haven’t read yet.

    He’s meant to be an important influence on Vargas Llosa, particularly The Green House.

  3. A friend of mine’s sister worked for Dutch ambassador of Peru in the 70’s. She’s lived throughout South America and said that Peru has the best pickpockets on the continent.

    Her husband was forever returning home with slits in his trousers where the thief had used a knife to gain easier access to the contents of his pockets. He never noticed anything and the operation was achieved without cutting the flesh.

    Her advice was to always carry some loose change as pickpockets with knives can get narky if there’s nothing in the pockets and might decide to discover where the wallet with the serious cash is hidden.

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