Canaima, by Rómulo Gallegos

Rómulo Gallegos was a Venezuelan writer who later went on to become, for a short time, Venezuelan president. His most famous work is Doña Bárbara, which is considered something of an early Latin-American classic. Naturally I read Canaima instead.

Canaima belongs to the regionalist school of Latin-American writing prevalent in the 1920s and 1930s, in which writers described the local life and colour of the part of South America they were living in. In this sense, Canaima is about the Orinoco river; – in fact, so much are the early pages just a description of the Orinoco river, that I was beginning to wonder if there was going to be a plot at all. There is; but as the novel progresses, so we move slowly from the mouth of the Orinoco back towards its source.

The plot is the same basic plot as the two other regionalist classics I’ve read: Ricardo Güiraldes’ Don Segundo Sombra and José Eustasio Rivera’s The Vortex: – a young man, passing through life’s travails, learns what it is to be a man. This involves such things as maintaining face and honour, not accepting undue gifts, defending one woman’s, avenging one’s friends / father, loving one’s mother. (It also involves other such James-Bond attributes as always winning at cards). Gallegos goes on at length, particularly towards the end, about the concept of the Macho Man, of which our hero becomes – in a too-lengthy epilogue – the admired epitome. As a cynical Briton brought up with a scepticism towards such ideas of manliness, I’ll admit I found this all incredibly tiresome.

Canaima seems in particular to owe a lot of The Vortex (cf. my previous review of that work). There is this same transition, as our hero Marcos Vargas goes up the Orinoco, from the world of plains to the dark cover of the jungle – they both must leave civil society and head off into the great forest because of a “murder” (undertaken, of course, for manly reasons) – where all our macho heroes are off to be exploited in the rubber industry. Once it enters the jungle however, Gallegos’ work has less of the feel than Eustacio Rivera’s of a 1960s trip, even though our hero does take hallucinogenic drugs, start hanging-out with the indigenous people, and manages to discover some mystical truth about himself (what this was precisely, I’m not sure – something again about how to be a man). There’s much interspersed social commentary as well, as Gallegos envisions the end of a world dominated by the de facto power of regional caciques; and of course, he goes on a bit about the evils of the rubber industry (though not nearly to the extent of Eustasio Rivera). Still, they both appear to have done their research.

My edition came with lots of useful footnotes. For instance, where Gallegos gives the Spanish names of myriad plants, the footnotes gives the taxonomical Latin version, which was a great help in my understanding of the text.

Canaima, by the way, is some sort of Manichean concept of evil; as opposed to some other concept, whose name I forgot, of the good. I forget now what its importance in the novel was.

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