Broad and Alien Is the World - Ciro Alegría
This novel, set in the early decades of the twentieth century, charts part of the long, bitter struggle of the Indians of the community of Rumi to keep their lands and their independence. It begins with them happily cultivating and herding, but unaware of what’s happening outside their highlands; then -- by legal fiction, political maneuvering, economic finagles, dirty tricks, and outright violence -- the large landowners, police, and politicians attempt to take the Indians’ land and, more importantly, enslave the Indians themselves by forced conscription or hereditary debt-bondage. It’s a painful story, as it charts the defeats and sufferings of the community; it can’t end very well, but one positive development is the people’s increasing awareness of their real situation and understanding of the way things work in their country; they’re hardly better able to resist the overwhelming force ranged against them than before, but it’s better not to have to struggle blindly.

The novel is distinguished by passages of wonderful lyricism as Ciro Alegría celebrates agriculture and the love of the land. This is what’s worth starving, struggling, and dying for; all the attempts to earn a living by those who leave the land just emphasize that nothing brings happiness but cultivation, working one’s own community lands. The story is told from the point of view of a number of the members of the community. On the whole, Alegría succeeds in both distinguishing them as individual characters and avoiding romanticizing them: he does have a few ill-advised generalizations about "the soul" of "the Indian of the mountains", but mostly his characters are people, with occasional mystical thoughts and more commonly practical concerns. (There are a couple of passages where stand-ins for the author appear, in the form of folklorists and artists who take an interest in the Indians, with a sympathetic though faintly patronizing attitude -- this is certainly an improvement over the outright contempt that nearly all the other white people express; Alegría may be satirizing himself a bit.)

The novel loses focus somewhat in the scenes that are set away from the highlands of Rumi; the author wanted to describe all the suffering in the entire country, and crams in too much narration and too many rapid events. Yet these things are important, as brought into focus through Benito Castro, the one man who managed to return to Rumi after leaving, traveling through the entire country, and learning to read. It’s only fitting that Benito, with his wide new understanding, becomes mayor; in the beginning, the mayor was Rosendo Maqui, who understood the old way of life very deeply.

The one great flaw in the novel is its attitude toward women. None of the important point-of-view characters are women, and none (however minor) plays a positive, active role; females are hindrances, victims, objects of lust, or embodiments of the "life force" ("Which is better, the earth or woman?" is a question that’s raised and can’t really be answered because there is not much difference between them.)

Whatever criticisms I may have of this novel, they don’t diminish my opinion that it’s remarkable, memorable, and a real achievement.