José María Arguedas Altamirano (18 January 1911 – 2 December 1969) was a Peruvian novelist, poet, and anthropologist. Arguedas was an author of Spanish descent, with a rare fluency in the native Quechua language, gained by living in two Quechua households from the age of 7 to 11 - first in the indigenous servant quarters of his step-mother's home, then escaping her "perverse and cruel" son, with an indigenous family approved by his father - who wrote novels, short stories, and poems in both Spanish and Quechua.
Generally remembered as one of the most notable figures of 20th-century Peruvian literature, Arguedas is especially recognized for his intimate portrayals of indigenous Andean culture. Key in his desire to depict indigenous expression and perspective more authentically was his creation of a new language that blended Spanish and Quechua and premiered in his debut novel Yawar Fiesta.
Despite a dearth of translations into English, the critic Martin Seymour-Smith has dubbed Arguedas "the greatest novelist of our time," who wrote "some of the most powerful prose that the world has known."
Jose Maria Arguedas was born in Andahuaylas, a province in the southern Peruvian Andes. He was born into a well-off family, but his mother died when he was two years old. Because of the absence of his father, a lawyer who traveled frequently, and his bad relationship with his step-mother and step-brother, he comforted himself in the care of the family's indigenous servants, allowing him to immerse himself in the language and customs of the Andes, which came to form an important part of his personality. He went to primary school in San Juan de Lucana, Puquio, and Abancay, and completed his secondary studies in Ica, Huancayo, and Lima.
He began studying at National University of San Marcos (Lima) in 1931; there he graduated with a degree in Literature. He later took up studies in Ethnology, receiving his degree in 1957 and his doctorate in 1963. Between 1937 and 1938 he was sent to prison for protesting an envoy sent to Peru by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
Arguedas also worked for the Ministry of Education, where he put into practice his interests in preserving and promoting Peruvian culture, in particular traditional Andean music and dance. He was the director of the Casa de la Cultura (1963) and of the National Museum of History (1964–1966).
Arguedas shot himself on November 29, 1969 in his office at the Agrarian University in La Molina, leaving behind very specific instructions for his funeral, a diary depicting his depression, and a final unfinished manuscript, The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below.
This work includes portions of Arguedas’s diary, memories of his distressing childhood, thoughts on Peruvian culture, and his reasons for suicide. He depicts his struggle between his desire to authentically illuminate the life of the Andean Indians and his personal anguish trapping him in depression:
The title of the book originates in a Quechua myth that Arguedas translated into Spanish earlier in his life. “El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo” refers to the Quechua symbols for life and death, and modernity and tradition.
Arguedas began his literary career by writing short stories about the indigenous environment familiar to him from his childhood. He wrote in a Spanish highly influenced by Quechua syntax and vocabulary.
By the time he published his first novel in 1941, Yawar Fiesta ("Blood Fest"), he had begun to explore the theme that would interest him for the rest of his career: the clash between Western "civilization" and the Indigenous"traditional" way of life. He was thus considered part of the indigenista movement in South American literature, and continued to explore this theme in his next two books Los ríos profundos ("Deep Rivers," 1958) and Todas las Sangres ("All the Bloods," 1964). Yet he also was conscious of the simplistic portrayal of the indigenous peoples in other "indigenista" literature and worked hard to give the Andean Indians a true voice in his works. This effort was not always successful as some critics contend that Arguedas portrayed Indian characters as too gentle and childlike. Another theme in Arguedas' writing is the struggle of mestizos of Indian-Spanish descent and their navigation between the two seemingly separate parts of their identity. Many of his works also depicted the violence and exploitation of race relations in Peru's small rural towns and haciendas.
Arguedas was moderately optimistic about the possibility of a rapprochement between the forces of "tradition" and the forces of "modernity" until the 1960s when he became more pessimistic. In his last (unfinished) work, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo ("The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below," 1969), he abandoned the realism of his earlier works for a more postmodern approach. This novel expressed his despair, caused by his fear that the "primitive" ways of the Indians could not survive the onslaught of modern technology and capitalism. At the same time that Arguedas was becoming more pessimistic about race relations in his country, younger Peruvian intellectuals became increasingly militant, often criticizing his work in harsh terms for his poetic, romanticized treatment of indigenous and rural life. An instance of the debate that ensued can be seen in the famous Mesa redonda sobre Todas las Sangres (Roundtable on All the Bloods) of 1965, in which Arguedas's penultimate novel was the object of blunt criticism from several social scientists at the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos.
Arguedas wrote his poems in Quechua and later translated them into Spanish.