Sunday, October 25, 2009

Book Review : Broad And Alien Is The World - Ciro Alegria*****

One of the best things about reading, and especially about really good authors, is that you are transported into places and situations that you could never experience otherwise, and Alegria's 1941 novel about the destruction of Indian communities in Peru at the start of the 20th Century does exactly that, he takes you into the heart and soul of an Indian community and allows you to live alongside them.

Broad And Alien starts off in a gentle pastoral manner, the Indians (always represented as a community and never as a tribe) live in harmony with the land, growing what they can, raising animals and trading with other communities. Rosendo Maquis is the wise elected leader of the community, he dispenses his well considered wisdom for the benefit of the community and in a style that reminded me of Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. Maquis leads the community, asking for nothing except the continuation of what they have always had. The Indians though are threatened by the greed of the ranchers who hold the lands around them and resort to various underhand and illegal means to expand their own holdings at the expense of the community.

Maquis employs a lawyer to assist them, but he is weak and avaricious and does little to halt the rancher's dubious legal land grab and eventually the community are forced off their ancestral lands into a much smaller and less fertile area.

Broad And Alien Is The World also refers to the diaspora that happens as the Indians are driven from their homes, many of the young men decide to go out into the world to seek a better life. Alegria gives graphic and brutal descriptions of the lives that many Indians led as debt slaves in coca plantations, mines and searching for rubber in the jungles of Peru.

This story is endlessly sad and stirring, Alegria was a political activist who squarely blamed the white land owners for the misery that the Peruvian Indians endured, he was twice jailed and eventually exiled to Chile. His deep understanding of Indian community life shines through in this splendid novel, the Indians are presented as real people, there and both good and bad amongst them, they live hard lives and want for little except to be left alone with their lot.

BALITW is as harsh a depiction of injustice and greed as you will read, but mostly told in a pastoral manner with many interludes as community members add their own memories and stories. In Rosendo Maquis, Alegria has created a great character, full of necessary common sense and wisdom, calm and peaceful, a man who is is strong in his community yet frail and lost in wider world.

A very good book, it is on the 1001 Books list so I'll reserve it for anyone else doing the marathon reading project.

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