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Critical Essay by Charles Rossman
SOURCE: "Mario Vargas Llosa's The Green House: Modernist Novel from Peru," in The Modernists, Studies in a Literary Phenomenon: Essays in Honor of Harry T. Moore, edited by Lawrence B. Gamache and Ian S. MacNiven, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1987, pp. 261-74.
In the following essay, Rossman studies The Green House as a modernist novel.
Mario Vargas Llosa spent the first nine years of his life outside his native Peru, in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Then, in 1945, he moved with his family to Piura, a provincial town in the coastal desert some five hundred miles north of Lima and nearly a thousand miles from his birthplace far to the south, Arequipa. The family spent only a year in Piura before moving on to Lima. Nevertheless, Vargas Llosa remembers that year as the most formative period of his life.
In Piura, a startling new world engraved itself on the nine-year-old's imagination. There he had his first glimpse of the ocean and of the dunes of blowing, desert sands. There he was intrigued by the sights and sounds of the Mangachería, a tough neighborhood where many of the people lived in mud huts but where, nevertheless, a vivid nightlife of bars and musicians flourished. Above all, the young Vargas Llosa's imagination was piqued by a mysterious, green house on the sandy outskirts of town, a building that lay strangely silent by day but exploded with music and laughter after dark, when it attracted numerous male visitors.
Seven years later, in 1952, Vargas Llosa returned with his family to Piura for a second year of residence. The Mangachería was still there, of course, as was the mysterious green house. But whereas the house had fascinated the nine-year-old, necessarily a distant observer, with a kind of mythical aura, the same green building revealed itself to the sixteen-year-old, who visited it as a patron, as merely a tawdry brothel. As Vargas Llosa has put it, the "green palace of the dunes" now appeared as "primitive and very poor, the dream-mansion was merely a cheap whorehouse."
A decade later, Vargas Llosa derived the title of his second novel, The Green House, from that Piuran brothel. In addition, both the "green house" and the Mangachería appear as major settings of the novel. The other major locales of The Green House—the jungles and rivers of the Peruvian Amazon region—similarly reflect Vargas Llosa's own experiences.
Vargas Llosa first visited the Peruvian jungle in 1958. He had finished his studies at the University of San Marcos in Lima and was looking forward to graduate work at the University of Madrid when Juan Comas, a Mexican anthropologist, arrived in Lima. Comas had come to organize a four-week expedition to study the Indians living along the Amazon headwaters of Peru. Vargas Llosa became intrigued by the project and joined Comas's small group. Traveling by hydroplane and canoe, the adventurers made their way to the region of the Aguaruna and Huambisa tribes by the Upper Marañon river, and to Santa María de Nieva, a small outpost of civilization amidst the jungle. Both the Upper Marañon and Santa María de Nieva later became settings of The Green House, as did Iquitos, the largest settlement in the Peruvian jungle.
It was unusual, in 1958, for a youth from coastal Lima, with Vargas Llosa's background, to want to visit the jungle. Not surprisingly, the excursion jolted him. "There I discovered a face of my country completely unknown to me…. There I discovered that Peru was not only a country of the twentieth century … but that Peru was also part of the Middle Ages and the Stone Age." As with his visit to Piura at the age of nine, Vargas Llosa's experiences in the jungle abruptly and permanently transformed his consciousness.
According to Vargas Llosa's own account, after completing his first novel, The City and the Dogs (1962) [La ciudad y los perros, published in English as The Time of the Hero] he thought that it might be less exhausting to write two novels simultaneously, rather than undertake another single work. He reasoned that he could avoid the fatiguing concentration required for a single book by alternating between two different projects. The two narratives that he undertook dealt with, respectively, his memories of Piura—the "green house" and the Mangachería—and of the Amazon jungle.
After a time, Vargas Llosa reports, the characters from one narrative began to intrude into the other. The two novels sought to invade one another, with characters, situations, and settings overlapping and intertwining. Eventually, he conceded to the mandates of the two fictional worlds that refused to be kept separate. He decided to blend them, to write a single novel that would draw on both strands of his experience, the desert coast and the jungle.
While forging his newly unified novel, Vargas Llosa read everything in the libraries of Paris, where he was then living, that dealt with the Peruvian jungles. He absorbed everything in print about the Indians, rivers, trees, birds, and animals of the Amazon. He haunted museums and zoological gardens. Nevertheless, when he finished a draft of the novel in 1964, he felt compelled to return to Peru for a second trip to the jungle to verify his impressions. In the tradition of Balzac, Zola, Flaubert, and the Joyce of Ulysses, Vargas Llosa took great pains to render the realistic surface of The Green House with factual accuracy.
Within a year of his return to the jungle, Vargas Llosa finished the fourth and last version of The Green House. The book was published in Barcelona in March 1966 and met with stunning success. The Green House captured three important literary prizes: the Spanish Critics' Award for 1967 (which The City and the Dogs had also won in 1963), Peru's own National Award for the Novel, and grandest of all, the Rómulo Gallegos Award. The Rómulo Gallegos Award was a special prize given by the National Institute of Culture and Fine Arts in Venezuela to "the best novel written in the Spanish language during a five-year period," and it carried with it a cash stipend of twenty-two thousand dollars. When Vargas Llosa accepted the prize in Caracas on the night of 4 August 1967, the thirty-one-year-old author became an instant celebrity.
As his acceptance speech, Vargas Llosa delivered an impassioned manifesto concerning the writer's relationship to society. The speech, published as "Literature is Fire," begins with a moving evocation of an almost forgotten Peruvian poet, Oquendo de Amat, who had died in Spain some thirty years before. What interests Vargas Llosa, in particular, is Oquendo de Amat's neglect by his own countrymen. He regards Oquendo de Amat's fate—the hostility and indifference that he suffered—as typical of the relationship between the Latin-American writer and his culture.
"Literature is Fire" carries the argument a bold step further. Regardless of the responses an artist provokes, says Vargas Llosa, even in an ideal society that has rid itself of injustice and that nourishes the artists in its midst, the writer's necessary task is to be perpetually unsatisfied with reality. By his very nature, the writer is a rebel, a professional malcontent. "The writer's very reason for being is protest, contradiction and criticism."
"Literature is Fire," then, expounds a theory of the social value of literature. As Vargas Llosa sees it, literature exposes human and social imperfections to enable their improvement. By depicting unpleasant realities, literature compels readers to acknowledge what they prefer to ignore, thereby activating their ethical wills. Such was Vargas Llosa's goal with The City and the Dogs, in fact, although that book neither conveys a simple, didactic message nor recommends an explicit course of action. The Green House similarly depicts a corruption that afflicts individuals and institutions alike, and that leads to acute human suffering. The reader not only perceives these events, but necessarily evaluates them: we are forced, owing to the book's disjunctions of time, place, and even character, to discover the causes of actions and to assess their consequences.
Whereas The City and the Dogs involves three narrative strands, a basic time-span of only a few months, and two principal settings, The Green House recounts five separate histories embracing some forty years and set in three far-flung locations: Piura, Santa María de Nieva, and the jungle rivers. The separate histories do not unfold one at a time in chronological sequence. Rather, each is divided into numerous fragments that recur throughout the book in a consistent pattern, first a fragment of story number one, then a fragment of story number two, and so forth, rather like a narrative braid.
Ultimately, the exclusivity of each strand in the braid, of each narrative history, collapses. Characters from one sequence become intertwined in the other personal histories, and characters from one setting also appear in other often remote settings, sometimes with different names. Some narrative sequences are approximately simultaneous, while others reveal widely separated phases of the same lives. Altogether, the five narratives of The Green House are dispersed among seventy-two distinct episodes, many of which are further fragmented by flashbacks, sometimes occurring in mid-sentence.
One of the reader's main tasks in The Green House, then, is merely to discern the five distinct narratives as continuous and unified, a task considerably complicated by the fact that the individual narratives gradually blend and intertwine. Moreover, Vargas Llosa has set perceptual traps, has posed barricades to understanding, such as pairs of characters with the same name, or the same character appearing with different names, or two different bordellos both called the "Green House." The reader must reorder and unify the various events and settings, the different times, the diverse characters from disparate social classes, and the odd, frequently misleading bits of information, in order to discover, ultimately, the complex whole that the five interwoven strands create.
Following are brief summaries, rearranged in chronological sequence, of the five separate histories in the order that they recur throughout the novel:
1. Bonifacia and the Sergeant, in Santa María de Nieva: Bonifacia, an Indian girl, is one of the oldest pupils at a small missionary school in Santa María de Nieva. Bonifacia takes pity on two Aguaruna Indian girls who have been forcibly brought to the mission to receive a "Christian education." She helps all the girls escape. The nuns, shocked by Bonifacia's ungrateful behavior, expel her. Adrift in the village without family or means, Bonifacia is taken in by Nieves the river pilot, his woman, Lalita, and their children. A Sergeant of the civil guard proposes that Bonifacia and he marry upon his return from a jungle trip in search of rubber bandits. Because Nieves has once worked for the bandits, the Sergeant finds it his painful duty to arrest his friend. Nieves goes to prison, and the Sergeant and Bonifacia, newlyweds, leave the jungle to begin married life in his distant hometown, Piura.
2. Fushía, in the Santiago-Marañon river area: Fushía escapes from jail in Brazil and flees to Iquitos in Peru's Amazon basin. There he gains the confidence of Don Fabio and his boss, Julio Reátegui, local governor and wealthy rubber trader. Fushía runs off with some of Reátegui's money and goods, and with Lalita, a fifteen-year-old girl. Fushía and Lalita hide out on an isolated island, which Fushía uses as a base to steal rubber from the Indians who normally sell to Reátegui. Eventually, Lalita runs away with Nieves, a river pilot who works for Fushía, and they establish a home in Santa María de Nieva (which Bonifacia and the Sergeant visit years later, in another narrative strand). Fushía, who has contracted leprosy, is taken to a leper colony by his friend, Aquilino, who continues to visit Fushía until he is too old to make the difficult river journey.
3. Anselmo and the original Green House in Piura: The first scene depicts Piura in the early 1920s as a sandy and quiet place that visitors find too isolated and sleepy. One day, Anselmo rides into town on muleback. At first, Anselmo does little more than drink, eye the women boldly, and gossip about the townspeople. Then Anselmo suddenly builds a brothel called the Green House, on the sand dunes outside of town. Customers flock to it, but Father García excoriates it as the work of the devil. Anselmo cannot contain his passion for Antonia, a sixteen-year-old blind waif, and he carries her off to become his lover and the mother of his child. Antonia dies in childbirth, provoking the wrath of Father García and a group of citizens who burn the Green House. After a long decline and a terrible drunkenness, Anselmo ends up as a peaceful harp player in the chica bars of Mangachería. Years pass, and Anselmo, nearly blind, becomes a beloved member of a popular musical group that performs in the Green House, a brothel owned by Anselmo's daughter, Chunguita. Over the years, the reality of the original Green House becomes shrouded in legend. People wonder if it really existed.
4. Jum, in numerous jungle settings: Corporal Delgado goes on a furlough, taking the new recruit, Nieves, as his river pilot. They plunder an Indian village, Urakusa, and when the Indians attack in defense, Nieves escapes (he shows up as a refugee on Fushía's island, in another narrative strand). Delgado, his captain, and Reátegui set out to punish the Indians, both for the attack and for attempting to form a rubber cooperative, rather than sell to Reátegui at exploitative prices. They whip the men, rape the women, beat the Indian's leader, Jum, and steal Jum's young daughter. The daughter is left at the nuns' school in Santa María de Nieva—it is Bonifacia. Jum is left hanging by his wrists—alive, but whipped and with his head shaved—near the dock in Santa María de Nieva to serve as a warning to other Indians who might get ideas about cooperatives.
5. The Unconquerables and the second Green House: Lituma returns to Piura after ten years in the civil guard, bringing with him the woman, Bonifacia, whom he married in Santa María de Nieva. He falls in with his old gang of toughs, called the Unconquerables, and lands a job as a sergeant in the Piuran police force. One of the Unconquerables, Josefino, vows to seduce Lituma's wife. One night while drinking at the Green House, Lituma challenges a braggart to Russian roulette. The braggart kills himself, Lituma goes to prison in Lima, and Bonifacia is left behind, pregnant. Josefino succeeds with her. They live together a while, and Bonifacia has an abortion. Josefino eventually abandons her, and she becomes a prostitute in the Green House, where she is called "Wildflower" because of her jungle origin, and where she is working when Lituma returns from prison. Lituma gets his revenge by beating up Josefino and scorning Bonifacia.
Each of these five narratives has its unique perspective, tone, and style. The most conventional sequence is the first, that of Bonifacia and the Sergeant in Santa María de Nieva, which is told from an orthodox, third-person perspective. The narrator clearly identifies setting and speakers, uses quotation marks to indicate speech, describes a speaker's manner and appearance, but rigorously confines himself to objective presentation of what can be observed and heard. Here are the opening words of the first sequence:
A door slammed, the Mother Superior raised her face from her desk, Sister Angélica burst into the office like a meteor, her livid hands fell onto the back of a chair.
"What's wrong, Sister Angélica? Why do you look that way?"
"They've run away, Mother!" Sister Angélica stammered. "There isn't a single one of them left, God save us."
This is the stuff of the traditional novel, and the reader, on familiar ground, quickly becomes oriented. Even in this sequence, however, the mode soon becomes more elaborate. In the first fragment of the sequence, a paragraph of commentary, inserted without warning or transition into an intensely dramatic moment, calmly describes the geographical setting of Santa María de Nieva in a style reminiscent of a travel guide, after which the dramatic scene, taking no notice of the intrusion, continues. In successive fragments of this sequence, more and more of these descriptions intrude, until they develop into a contrapuntal narrative. While Bonifacia is being questioned by the nuns about the escape of the pupils in the main narrative, the contrapuntal insertions dramatize that very escape.
The fifth sequence treats the Unconquerables and the second Green House in a variation of this technique. We again have an objective, third-person narrator who presents the scene in a traditional fashion, again limiting his own knowledge to what any observer might note. The variation consists of frequent cutaways, in cinematic style, to simultaneous events relevant to the main scene, or to past events that respond to allusions in the main scene. For example, when Chunguita and the band describe the fatal game of Russian roulette to Wildflower, the narrative rapidly shuttles from the present in the Green House, to the night of the killing, and back. All scenes from any time or setting are narrated in the present, as though they are occurring for the first time. The effect of simultaneity is something like the literary equivalent of a musical chord.
The second sequence, recounting the history of Fushía, elaborates the techniques of cutaway and flashback. As before, a typical fragment will begin in the conventional third person. But two specific variations intrude. First, a narrator speaks in summary fashion, blending commentary, narrative, and quotation, without bothering to identify speakers or use quotation marks. For example:
He had gone to school and that was why the Turk had given him a job in his warehouse. He kept accounts, Aquilino, in some big books called debits and credits. And even though he was honest in those days, he was already dreaming about getting rich. How he used to save, old man, he ate only one meal a day, no cigarettes, no drinking. He wanted a little capital to set up a business.
The voice here is nearly that of Fushía himself, except that Fushía is referred to in the third person: "How he used to save, old man." A conventional narrative would recast these words as: "How I used to save, old man,' said Fushía," using quotation marks to indicate a specific speaker. Vargas Llosa has blended narrator and character, using the voice of the character but the perspective of a third-person narrator.
The second narrative variation in Fushía's otherwise orthodox third-person sequence is the abrupt flashback in mid-conversation. For example:
"But you already told me about that when we left the island, Fushía," Aquilino said. "I want to hear how you escaped."
"With this picklock," Chango said. "Iricuo made it from the wire on his cot. We tried it out and it can open the door without any noise…."
Here Aquilino is quizzing Fushía about his past as the two navigate the Marañon en route to the leper's island. The first paragraph poses Aquilino's question about how Fushía escaped the Brazilian jail. The second paragraph replies by taking us directly back to the jail and to the words of one of Fushía's cellmates, Chango. Chango is presumably answering a similar question posed years before by Fushía himself.
The most innovative sequence, and the most demanding of the reader, is the fourth, the history of Jum and the soldiers in the jungle. This sequence employs an elaborate version of the blended narrator-character that often appears in the Fushía narrative. Here is a typical instance: "Julio Reátegui wipes his forehead, looks at his interpreter; he had gone against the authorities, that was not right and he would pay for it: translate it for him. The clearing at Urakusa is small and triangular…." Description, commentary, and dialogue are here blended, undistinguished by quotation marks or discriminating pronouns. "He had gone against the authorities," one finally understands, is Reátegui's remark to an interpreter, but directed to an Indian being whipped.
Speeches by individual characters are even more difficult to distinguish in passages like this: "The officer turns to the Sergeant, was that business about the girl true? and Jum, girl!, very violently, shit! and Fats sh-h-h, the Lieutenant was speaking, and the Sergeant shush, who could tell, they stole girls every day here, it could be true." Here the Lieutenant asks the Sergeant whether Jum's complaint that the soldiers have stolen his daughter is true. Jum angrily butts in to reiterate the word "girl" and utter the epithet "shit." Fats and the Sergeant both attempt to calm Jum (read, for example: "And the Sergeant also urged Jum, 'Shush'"). The sergeant then replies to the Lieutenant's question: "who could tell, they stole girls every day." At their most elusive, the voices in such passages mingle nearly indistinguishably, a chorus of human voices seemingly detached from explicit human sources.
The question naturally arises: Why has Vargas Llosa fragmented his narrative sequences, violated chronological order, exploded personalities and events throughout dozens of brief episodes, and narrated the whole in a variety of difficult styles? That is, why has he made it difficult for the reader to apprehend even the surface facts of his novel, and what relationship does that difficulty have to the meaning of those facts?
One explanation for the intricacies of form and technique in The Green House is historical. The 1960s were a time in Latin-American fiction when writers consciously sought to forge a new novel. Writers in the movement known as the "boom" in Latin-American fiction—such men as Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, José Lezama Lima, and Vargas Llosa himself—were impressed by the technical innovations that had transformed European and North-American fiction into a high art form. The "boom" novelists repudiated the naïve realism, pious moralizing, and flowery style that characterized many of their Latin-American predecessors. They turned instead toward such models as Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, André Gide, Franz Kafka, James Joyce, and William Faulkner. Hence, the major "boom" novels of the 1960s are all consciously experimental: Cortázar's Hopscotch, Fuentes's The Death of Artemio Cruz, Vargas Llosa's The Green House, García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Lezama Lima's Paradise, to cite only the most obvious examples.
But aside from whatever literary movements and historical precedents nourished the technical innovations of The Green House, the reader must evaluate the effectiveness of the novel's particular and unique formal qualities. At times, a reader may in fact experience the elaboration of technique in The Green House as an exuberant self-indulgence on the author's part, as verbal pyrotechnics for their own sake. But on closer examination, The Green House proves vastly more successful than most experimental fiction. Vargas Llosa possesses the necessary combination of skills—his compelling vision and his power with language—that enables technical virtuosity to achieve thematic significance.
For example, Vargas Llosa's techniques both express and evoke a particular attitude toward his characters. The five sequences, seventy-two episodes, transmuting styles, and elusive voices do not recount the histories of discrete "personalities," in the tradition of the nineteenth-century novel. Unlike the classical Bildungsroman, for instance, which traces the evolution of a unique self responding to its environment, The Green House deals with clusters of people who simultaneously shape one another while forming a transcendent, supra-personal whole. Vargas Llosa has explained: "What I've done is almost totally suppress individual personalities, and tried to present collective personalities, that is to say, groups of people who belong to, and embody, various different realities." By dividing his story into dozens of achronological and nonsequential episodes set in scattered locales, Vargas Llosa has rendered human beings as less a matter of "selves," of unique psychological entities, than of aspects and functions of a social milieu. His characters are living intersections in a complex network of the intersecting paths of human beings and cultural forces. The effect of impersonality is heightened by Vargas Llosa's presentation of character from the outside. He rarely registers the thoughts or feelings of a character. Rather, he confines the reader to external appearances, to what a character says and does. As Vargas Llosa himself has put it, his novel is "basically a description of acts."
As a corollary to his conception of character as more impersonal function than subjective self, another effect of Vargas Llosa's disjointed chronologies is their exposure of the ironies of the will and its fate. For example, Fushía recites the story of his youthful escape from prison and his subsequent schemes to become rich and powerful as, ironically, he floats downstream under cover of darkness, a crippled fugitive who will spend the rest of his days in dependence and poverty in a leper colony. As another example, we see Bonifacia as a prostitute in the Green House before we experience either the Sergeant's love for her, their joyous wedding, or their hopes for the future as they leave for Piura from the jungle. Similarly, we learn that Antonia has died even before we discover that Anselmo has captured her out of irresistible love.
Such inversions of chronology poignantly underscore the gulf between human designs and ultimate consequences. Because we know the end of a process before learning of its antecedents, we rarely build up expectations about the future of a character or the repercussions of an action. Instead, we ponder the reversals of fortune that plague all but the powerful and the lucky. In particular, the poor, the powerless, and the primitive—that is, half-breeds, children, women, and Indians—can rarely implement their desires. Indeed, their hopes and expectations often seem pathetically irrelevant both to the causal forces at work and to the final results. A reader observes the unfolding destinies of these submerged people as arbitrary conclusions to incidental desires.
Perhaps the chief effect of the technical variety of The Green House is the reader's detachment from the characters. To be sure, Vargas Llosa's narrative methods compel the reader's energetic and alert participation in the novel. Yet the fractured narratives and shifting perspectives prevent deep emotional involvement with the characters. The point becomes clearer if we compare The Green House, once more, to the classical novel of the nineteenth century.
The nineteenth-century novel typically immersed the reader in the evolving subjective life of the hero or heroine. One result was that the distance between character and reader often became very slight. One thinks, above all, of how Charles Dickens's characters routinely provoked sympathetic laughter and tears. The Green House extends a counter tradition that also springs from the nineteenth century, chiefly in the work of Gustave Flaubert, in which characters are treated more objectively, increasing the distance between a character and reader. Vargas Llosa severely limits the reader's emotional involvement with the characters. We are curious, sometimes shocked and touched, occasionally outraged at cruelty and injustice. But our reactions are to circumstances, events, and forces rather than to individuals with whom we have learned to empathize. Vargas Llosa's techniques make reading The Green House more an intellectual than an emotional experience. We watch, experience a surge of feeling, then interpret and judge.
Among those things that we perceive and judge is the impact of the unequal distribution of power. Individuals and groups exploit one another in ascending order of power, from children, women, and Indians on up through the military and the Church to the civil government and the wealthy (often, of course, the same people). One sustained illustration is the Catholic Church, as exemplified by the nuns at the mission school in Santa María de Nieva. The mission school also vividly demonstrates the distinction between human intentions and eventual consequences. From the nuns' point of view, the school is an outpost of civilization and Christian virtues amidst heathen savages. They bring religion and education to a lucky group of Indian girls. From the reader's perspective, the nuns form an unconscious alliance with the military and the governing class to eradicate Indian culture and provide Peruvian society with sufficient washerwomen, household servants, and prostitutes.
As the novel opens, a river launch with five civil guards and two nuns arrives at the Indian village of Chicais. They find the village deserted, but they wait. A group of Aguarunas soon arrives: two men, an old woman with sagging breasts, two little girls and a small boy, all three naked. Although the nuns fastidiously insist that the soldiers should not steal a loose chicken, it becomes clear that they plan to take the girls, even if they must steal them with armed force. A violent scene develops. The Indian men are held at gun point while the nuns recite the rosary and the soldiers kidnap the kicking, clawing girls. The old woman goes into a frenzy, twisting and moaning. The last we see of her, she is prostrate in the sand, her head slumped forward in defeat, weeping with shock and grief.
Later, two of the guards, Shorty and the Sergeant, disapprove of their own actions. But the rest of the soldiers are offended by their companions' doubts. They justify the nuns' behavior with a variety of prejudices about the Indians, ranging from their diets to their religious beliefs. When that doesn't convince Shorty, the soldiers threaten him with physical violence. The nuns, of course, believe that they are improving the Indians, helping to "incorporate those girls into the civilized world," while they also "gain a few souls for God."
The reader sees more than do the soldiers or the nuns. We are struck by the moral blindness of invoking God's commandment against stealing a chicken, in the very act of stealing a mother's two daughters. And we soon learn what it really means to "incorporate those girls into the civilized world." This is made quite clear in the opening section of book two, when Julio Reátegui visits the school in search of servants for his wife and a friend. The nuns momentarily balk, but eventually they concede to power and patronage. After all, Reátegui is the governor and his wife is a strong financial supporter of the school. Therefore, Reátegui leaves with one servant girl and has the nuns' permission to take Bonifacia, as well. He leaves her behind out of mercy for her fearful reluctance.
The opening scene incorporates many themes developed throughout the book; the violation of motherhood and family, often in the name of Christian principles; the smug ethnocentricism that enables such violations simply by regarding Indians as subhumans with no familial bonds; the use of "legitimate" force (the government, the Church) to coerce people without recourse; the overt abduction of humans to fulfill purposes not their own. Abduction, in particular, is a commonplace in The Green House. Nieves is abducted to serve in the army. Jum is abducted to teach all Indians a lesson. Bonifacia and the other girls are brought to the school for a Christian education. Indian women by the score are stolen to serve the sexual pleasures of Fushía and his band. Antonia is carried off by Anselmo. Repeatedly, people with power simply capture those without who might be of use to them.
The fate of lower-class women aptly symbolizes much of the social order in The Green House. Fushía comments early in the book that a poor woman will usually end up "a washerwoman, a whore, or a servant." But we discover as the book proceeds that Fushía has been too generous in describing a woman's options. Even if she escapes whoredom and becomes a washerwoman or a servant, she is unlikely to escape sexual exploitation. To illustrate:
There … drunken soldiers station themselves at dawn and dusk. Washerwomen coming back from the river, servant girls from the Buenos Aires district on their way to market are caught by groups of soldiers and thrown down on the sand, their skirts are lifted over their heads, their legs are opened, and one after another the soldiers have them and run away.
Although women suffer special abuse, their abstract circumstances are similar to those of all people at the bottom of the social pyramid. All are exploited by someone with greater power, all are treated unfeelingly like utilitarian objects. Even the soldier-rapists described above may have been forcibly "recruited" into the army to serve the interests of the rich and powerful.
Reátegui, at the top of the pyramid, is vastly different from the soldier-rapists. Except where Indians are concerned, his methods of exploitation have been refined well beyond the crudity of overt rape. With a smile, smooth talk, and assurances of respect and future favors, Reátegui can extract a servant from the nuns, obedience from the military officers, and loyalty from Don Fabio, his hand-picked successor as governor. His victims often conspire in their own exploitation, in hopes of some profit of their own. If rape is a fundamental metaphor for social relationships in The Green House, so is prostitution. The selling of self and the accommodation of principles to power are endemic. It is entirely appropriate that a pair of brothels should give the novel its name, and that a prostitute should be its heroine.
The most pathetic victims of institutionalized exploitation in The Green House are those who, like the Poet and Lieutenant Gamboa in The City and the Dogs, expect social justice. They must painfully learn that power over others is the reality, that suffering and brutality are the price of power, and that injustice is the rule.
For example, Jum continues to demand justice, even though he hardly understands the white man's system of government. He knows, spontaneously, that he has been wronged by the soldiers who laid waste his village, raped the Indian wives before the eyes of their anguished husbands, themselves beaten into submission, stole his daughter, and left him, whipped and tortured, hanging above a river dock. Time after time, Jum lodges complaints with the officials. But government officials regard him as a mere nuisance. One even cynically suggests that he file a written protest with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Lima. Finally, Jum simply disappears, without authorial explanation.
Nieves the pilot believes most innocently in the justice of the "system" and is the one most injured by his faith. He is abducted into the army, escapes, and joins Fushía as his pilot. Later, Nieves abandons Fushía, taking Lalita and her child with him. They make their way to Santa María de Nieva, where they establish a home. That home is disrupted when the soldiers go into the jungle after Fushía and discover that Nieves has worked with the rubber bandits. Nieves refuses to escape arrest, even though the Sergeant and Lalita beg him to flee.
Nieves has twice fled previous situations that threatened him—the army and Fushía. But he loves his family too much to spend the rest of his life running. Instead, he decides to rely on the justice, honesty, and good will of the authorities, of "the sisters, the Lieutenant, the governor, too," as he puts it. He reasons that he has been a mere pilot, rather than a major member of the outlaw group. He will serve his time—which he expects to be only a few months—and return to his family. As it happens, the authorities throw the book at him (just as the nuns showed Bonifacia no mercy), seizing on him as scapegoat. He spends years in prison, and he never sees Lalita or his children again. After his release from prison, which the reader learns about casually through a conversation, Nieves quietly disappears from the novel, like Jum, without explanatory comment.
These examples reveal that justice in The Green House is a sentimental trick of consciousness, an idea incidental to events. Individual acts of kindness offer the only hint of redemption in a world given over, for the most part, to rapacity. Bonifacia, for instance, is spared from rape in the jungle and, later, from life as an unwilling servant by the sympathy of Reátegui. When she is expelled from the mission school for helping the pupils escape, Lalita and Nieves take her into their home. Bonifacia's own effort to free the pupils, however inept or misguided, is itself an act of kindness. So is Aquilino's gift of yellow cloth to Bonifacia, from which she makes her wedding dress, as is the month that he devotes to transporting Fushía down-river to the leper colony. Most charitable of all is Juana Baura, the sick and impoverished washerwoman who first provides a home for the orphan, Antonia, then for Antonia's own daughter, Chunguita. Such acts of kindness, spontaneous and unrewarded, underscore the pervasive heartlessness of the social world of The Green House. Yet they also demonstrate that individual human beings can be more than predators.
The Green House, like The City and the Dogs, portrays a bleak vision of social reality. Also like The City and the Dogs, that vision is morally complex. We see the rife corruption, the abuse of powerless individuals, and the needlessness of much human suffering. But we cannot easily point fingers of blame at specific individuals. Guilt seems oddly impersonal and collective, something that transcends individuals and accrues to the whole network of human activities. Caught up in the quest for money and power, like Fushía, or in the urge to impose a deeply inconsistent morality, like the nuns, or in the throes of uncontainable passion, like Anselmo or even the soldier-rapists, most of the people in The Green House are so elemental and unreflective that all moral considerations, not just the idea of justice, strike us as largely incidental to human activity that is essentially amoral. Individuals do not entirely escape responsibility, of course, especially Julio Reátegui, who is at the pinnacle of wealth and power and therefore is subject to the least social coercion. Still, The Green House indicts the entire social and economic system, rather than individuals. That system, The Green House makes clear, offers little more than the law of the jungle or the ethics of the brothel as standards of behavior.
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