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Ian H. Birchall

Broad and Alien is the World

(April 1975)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.77, April 1976, pp.31-32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Broad and Alien is the World
Ciro Alegria
Merlin, £2.50

OVER THE last few years people on the left have talked a lot about the ‘revolutionary peasants of the Third World’. It was splendid to bask in the glory of their struggles, much more pleasant than the mundane jobs that had to be done at home.

But most of us had a pretty vague picture of what these ‘revolutionary peasants’ actually looked like. If we tried to conjure up a picture of them, all we got was a cross between Che Guevara and a Vietnamese on a bicycle, with maybe a touch of Oxfam advert thrown in.

We should therefore be grateful to Merlin Press for republishing a novel which puts some flesh and blood on to the bones. The price is a bit high, but make sure your library gets it.

Ciro Alegria, a left-wing politician and novelist from Peru, died in 1967 after spending over thirty years in exile. He wrote this novel in 1941. It tells of an Indian community in Peru. The peasants own the land in common, and they run their own affairs. Decisions are made by an assembly of villagers, who elect their officials. Their hopes are modest – to build a school, for example. Otherwise all they ask is to be left alone.

But the forces of ‘progress’ outside will not leave them alone. The Indians are robbed of their land by a legal fraud; those who resist are massacred. One young man who goes to work on a rubber plantation has his eyesight destroyed by burning rubber. At the end all that is left of the community is ruins:

‘The fallen, broken roofs revealed the inside of the houses, where grass and even bushes were growing ... around the village, where the planted fields had formerly been, weeds and a yellowish grass now flourished.’

Alegria does not idealise the peasants. The narrow confines of their life have stunted them in many ways. They are superstitious and ignorant; when they learn there is a war with Chile, they think Chile is a general’s name. And the bandit Fiero Vasquez, who joins forces with the villagers, is no Romantic Robin Hood:

‘He robbed the rich, but when he was hard pressed, he robbed the poor too.’

The Indians are fatalists. They say:

‘The rich are always rich, and for all its weight money never comes down. And if it does come down, it falls on the ground so that the poor man has to grovel to get it.’

But legends of revolt still live among them; in the evenings they tell stories of risings against oppression from more than forty years ago.

And when they have to fight, they do. They go down to defeat, but the questions they ask will be asked again and again, from Peru to Vietnam. As Rosendo Maqui, mayor of the village imprisoned as an ‘agitator’, asks in jail:

‘What was the meaning of justice? What was the meaning of the law? He had always despised them because he had known them only in the form of abuses and taxes: despoilment, fines, collections. Now he felt in his own flesh that it attacked the most perfect expression of life, the body of man.’

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Last updated: 21.3.2008