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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Fox From Up Above
and the Fox From Down Below

José María Arguedas

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To purchase The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below

Title: The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below
Author: José María Arguedas
Genre: Novel
Written: (1971) (Eng. 2000)
Length: 326 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below - US
El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo - US
The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below - UK
The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below - Canada
Le renard d'en haut et le renard d'en bas - France
Der Fuchs von oben und der Fuchs von unten - Deutschland
La volpe di sopra e la volpe di sotto - Italia
El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo - España
  • Spanish title: El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo
  • Translated by Frances Horning Barraclough
  • Completed in 1969, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo was first published posthumously, in 1971

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Our Assessment:

B+ : vivid; bursting in all directions

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Chasqui . (30:2) 11/2001 John J. Hassett
Int'l Fiction Review . (30:1-2) 2003 Alfonso González
Le Monde diplomatique . 3/2023 Ernest London

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Fox from Up Above and the Fox from Down Below presents a serious challenge to even the most sophisticated reader. In it we confront a truncated narrative and a multiplicity of narrators circumscribed by a narrative world in which the line between the fictional and the autobiographical is blurry at best. In addition the reader must face an onslaught of competing discourses, of all which reflect the complex nature of Peruvian reality as seen by one of its most insightful commentators. (...) The Fox from Up Above and the Fox from Down Below is as much about the creative process, the insecurities of the writer, and the difficult pursuit of the ever elusive word as it is about the negative aspects of an unbridled industrialization and modernization. (...) Arguedas has succeeded in creating a narrative world that gnaws at the reader long after he has closed the book." - John J. Hassett, Chasqui

  • "Since this work was published posthumously, and it was organized in part by Arguedas's widow and others, the introduction and the critical commentaries that follow it are essential. Without them, we would be lost with respect to the arrangement of the novel and much of its significance. (...) There is a constant effort to make the novel available to an English-speaking audience. Besides the glossary, there are numerous footnotes explaining regionalisms and other potential problem words. The translation flows smoothly for the most part, though the reader may at times be surprised by the alternation of British and American English" - Alfonso González, International Fiction Review

  • "C’est par la langue, par les langues, qu’il restitue ces rapports d’oppression, donnant à entendre ces bouleversements par des paroles bousculées : castillan métissé de quechua, argot des bas-fonds, espagnol plus policé des Yankees. Dans ce roman posthume que préface Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, la syntaxe bancale, la conjugaison et la prononciation approximatives des personnages témoignent du tragique et de la violence des situations autant que les récits, montrant combien les conquérants exigent que « la nation vaincue renonce à son âme » et adopte celle des vainqueurs. Rosana Orihuela, la traductrice, a fait preuve d’une attention toute particulière pour restituer ce complexe dispositif." - Ernest London, Le Monde diplomatique

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[Note: This review is based on the German translation by Matthias Strobel, Der Fuchs von oben und der Fuchs von unten (Wagenbach, 2019), though the original Spanish was also consulted; all translations are mine (whereby I utilized both Google Translate and DeepL to draft the translations). Frances Horning Barraclough's translation (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000) is regrettably hard to come by and I have not seen; it apparently also includes supporting material which I have not been able to consider in this review.]

       The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below is a novel, but begins with, of all things, excerpts from the author's diary. The first entry is dated 10 May 1968, and begins with Arguedas noting that: "En abril de 1966, hace ya algo más de dos años, intenté suicidarme" ('In April, 1966, a little over two years ago, I tried to commit suicide'). Given that it is almost impossible to come to this book without knowing that Arguedas would, in fact, be a successful suicide in 1969, leaving this novel unfinished (or, perhaps better put: unpolished) one can easily be led to suspect that the novel is a kind of extended suicide letter. Suicide does continue to preöccupy the author (and, eventually, its pursuit takes over: a 1969 letter to his publisher -- also included as part of the novel-proper -- concludes with a P.S. in which he explains: "Dedicaré no sé cuantos días o semanas a encontrar una forma de irme bien de entre los vivos" ('I am dedicating the coming days and weeks to finding a good way to leave the living')), but this is only one aspect of what amounts to a kind of framing-device for the novel, the diary entries and then assorted other supporting material chronicling the writing of the novel.
       The sections presenting the "balbuciente diario" ('stammering diary') only take up a relatively small (if prominent) part of the novel, the author stepping in to remark on the writing of the novel and the difficulties he has writing (and living). These parts are marked by uncertainty, from the early expression of doubt and worry: "¿No podré seguir escribiendo más?" ('Will I not be able to write any more?') to the final diary-section, titled: '¿Ultimo diario?' ('Final Diary ?').
       He's told that writing is therapeutic -- but here as well even the attempt drifts to having the real-world, close-to-home preöccupation assert itself:

Escribo estas páginas porque se me ha dicho hasta la saciedad que si logro escribir recuperaré la sanidad. Pero como no he podido escribir sobre los temas elegidos, elaborados, pequeños o muy ambiciosos, voy a escribir sobre el único que me atrae: esto de cómo no pude matarme y cómo ahora me devano los sesos buscando una forma de liquidarme con decencia, molestando lo menos posible a quienes lamentarán mi desaparición y a quienes esa desaparición les causará alguna forma de placer.

[I am writing these pages because I have been told ad nauseam that if I can write I will recover my sanity. But since I have not been able to write about the chosen, elaborate, small or very ambitious topics, I am going to write about the only one that appeals to me: of how I could not kill myself and how I am now racking my brains looking for a way to kill myself with decency, disturbing as little as possible those who will regret my disappearance and those to whom that disappearance will cause some form of pleasure.]
       Arguedas mulls over his identity and status as writer, with sections of the diaries considering other Latin American authors; an amusing passage has him critical of Julio Cortázar and how he's handling his just-then new-found 'flamboyant' fame, basically also telling Cortázar to get off his high horse (or rather, his "gran centauro rosado" ('great pink centaur').) Arguedas makes much of being down-to-earth; repeatedly he proudly calls himself "un escritor provincial" ('a provincial author') -- though it is an expansive concept for him (and, indeed, in yet another passage where he calls out Cortázar he suggests: "Todos somos provincianos, don Julio (Cortázar). Provinciano de las naciones y provincianos de lo supranacional" ('We are all provincials, Don Julio (Cortázar). Provincial of nations and provincial of the supranational').
       He presents himself as a real-world writer:
lo repito ahora, que soy provinciano de este mundo, que he aprendido menos de los libros que en las diferencias que hay, que he sentido y visto, entre un grillo y un alcalde quechua, entre un pescador del mar y un pescador del Titicaca, entre un oboe, un penacho de totora, la picadura de un piojo blanco y el penacho de la caña de azúcar: entre quienes, como Pariacaca, nacieron de cinco huevos de águila y aquellos que aparecieron de una liendre aldeana, de una común liendre, de la que tan súbitamente salta la vida. Y este saber, claro, tiene, tanto como el predominantemente erudito, sus círculos y profundidades.

[I repeat it now, that I am a provincial of this world, that I have learned less from books than from the differences that exist, that I have felt and seen, between a cricket and a Quechua mayor, between a fisherman from the sea and a fisherman from Titicaca, between an oboe, the plume of a totora reed, the bite of a white louse, and a plume of sugar cane: between those who, like Pariacaca, were born from five eagle eggs and those who appeared from a village nit, from a common nit, from which life leaps so suddenly. And this knowledge, of course, has its circles and depths, just as the predominantly erudite does.]
       The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below as a whole -- complete with these diary-excerpts, as well as as some letters and other odds and ends -- is a novel, but within it, stripping away the meta-fictional parts, is a work that is more obviously fiction, the novel that Arguedas is trying to write. He only succeeds in chunks -- admitting that he struggles to fit it together (which is where the meta-fictional commentary also comes in handy, helping to bind it together), as he continues to face that familiar authorial dilemma, of how to represent the real world in writing.
       The foxes of the title come from native Peruvian myths, though Arguedas has shaped them to his own purposes. The locale of the novel is modern Chimbóte, an actual port city where the leading industry is the processing of anchovies into fishmeal; it represents the rapid capitalist modernization that happened in Peru, drawing 'serranos', villagers from the Andes, down to the coast:
siguen bajando a buscar trabajo a Chimbóte; también vienen de la selva, atravesando trochas y montes, ríos callados de tan caudalosos.

[they continue to come down to Chimbóte to look for work; they also come from the jungle, crossing trails and mountains, rivers that flow silently because they are so mighty.]
       Arguedas is critical of this uprooting and the coöpting of the workers from 'above', and the vast social and cultural changes that come with this shift. The capitalist machinery is well-greased -- "Más obreros largamos de las fábricas más llegan de la sierra" ('The more workers leave the factories, the more come down from the mountains'), as those in power note --, with the mountain-villagers made into consumers, tied into the capitalist system:
Les pagaremos unos cientos y hasta miles de soles y ¡carajete! como no saben tener tanta plata, también les haremos gastar en borracheras y después en putas y también en hacer sus casitas propias que tanto adoran estos pobrecitos.

[We pay them a few hundred or even thousands of soles and, carajete! since they do not know what to do with so much money, we also get them to spend on booze and then on whores and then on building their own little houses that these poor people adore so much.]
       The two foxes engage in commentary in places in the novel, short exchanges (breaking also into Quechua at times) -- including one where the fox from above points out:
El individuo que pretendió quitarse la vida y escribe este libro era de arriba; tiene aún ima sapra sacudiéndose bajo su pecho.

[The individual who pretended to take his own life and writes this book was from above; he still has ima sapra beating under his chest.]
       The chapters that take place in Chimbóte -- between the diary-entries, and the occasional fox-dialogue -- offer scenes and events from the city, but as Arguedas also notes, he has difficulty coming to grips with it. So also there is limited unity of action or characters, as chapters present entirely new and different episodes and characters, all in an effort to capture this place and these conditions.
       'Fox' -- 'zorro' -- also has another meaning here, as Arguedas suggests in describing the local prostitutes, as: "Casi todas permanecían con las piernas abiertas, mostrando el sexo, la “zorra”, afeitada o no" ('Almost all of them kept their legs apart, showing their sex, the "fox", shaved or not'), and this applies to Chimbóte itself as well, as one character puts it, looking over the city's great bay:
Ésa es la gran “zorra” ahora, mar de Chimbóte -- dijo --. Era un espejo, ahora es la puta más generosa “zorra” que huele a podrido.

["That's the great "fox" now, sea of Chimbóte," he said. "She was a mirror, now she is the most generous, rotten-smelling cunt."]
       But, as a stutterer reminds him:
De-de de’sa “zo-zo-zorra” vives, maricón -- le contestó el Tarta --. Vi-vi-vive la patria.

["That, faggot, is the cunt," Tarta responded, "off which the entire country lives."]
       For all the enormous wealth it generates, it comes at a cost -- of which the fetid stench in the air is a constant and inescapable reminder.
       The various episodes provide different insights into life in Chimbóte. A vivid one has the locals marching with crosses on their shoulders as they move these markers of the dead to new cemetery-grounds -- yet another uprooting of sorts. The most successful of the industrialists, Braschi -- 'el culemacho' -- remains an unseen figure, but his influence extends throughout. There are also religious figures -- including Father Cardozo, who looks toward the revolution, whose role models he sees as Christ and Che Guevara .....
       Arguedas struggles putting together his picture of Chimbóte -- and writes about his struggles. He has the foxes address one of the basic problems:
EL ZORRO DE ABAJO: ¿Entiendes bien lo que digo y cuento?
EL ZORRO DE ARRIBA: Confundes un poco las cosas.
EL ZORRO DE ABAJO: La palabra es más precisa y por eso puede confundir.

[THE FOX BELOW: Do you understand well what I say and tell?
THE FOX ABOVE: You're confusing things a bit.
THE FOX BELOW: The word is more precise and that is why it can confuse.]
       Arguedas keeps coming up against the inadequacy (over-adequacy ?) of words -- all that the writer has at his disposal -- to express what he wants to describe and relate. This is reflected also in the language used in the text: he occasionally falls back on Quechua, while many of the characters struggle to express themselves in proper Spanish -- not just the stammerer; quite a bit of the speech is in dialect of sorts.
       Arguedas is disappointed in not achieving what he set out to do. Looking back, he finds:
El primer capítulo es tibión y enredado ... Pretendía un muestrario cabalgata, atizado de realidades y símbolos, el que miro por los ojos de los Zorros desde la cumbre de Cruz de Hueso adonde ningún humano ha llegado ni yo tampoco ... Debía ser anudado y exprimido en la Segunda Parte.

[The first chapter is tepid and entangled ... I wanted to write a cavalcade sampler, stoked by realities and symbols, the ones I see through the eyes of the Foxes from the summit of Cruz de Hueso that no human has ever reached, and which I haven't either .... It was to be knotted and squeezed together in the Second Part.]
       Still, he presents a vivid, often striking picture. His own struggles -- with writing, with living -- contribute to the sense of near-hopelessness, given the magnitude of what is being faced -- the idea that: "No hay escape" ('There's no escape') from the powers that be and the (industrialist-capitalist) machinery they have put in place.
       The framing-story, as it were, of Arguedas considering and then planning his suicide adds another layer to the whole novel, complicating the whole thing. His matter-of-fact tone as he makes his final plans is deeply disturbing:
Obtuve en Chile un revólver calibre 22. Lo he probado. Funciona. Está bien. No será fácil elegir el día, hacerlo.

[I obtained a .22 caliber revolver in Chile. I have tested it. It works. That's good. It won't be easy to choose the day, when to do it.]
       There's also the suicide note, and his note explaining why he chose the day he did -- timing it so as not to inconvenience the students and faculty at the university .....
       The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below is, in a number of ways, a difficult work, but much of it is quite remarkable. If, in most ways, it does not come together as a conventional novel (beyond the simplest of arcs of the author-committing-suicide angle), it is deeply layered, with a lot here to unpack. Questions of language and writing are significant throughout, but Arguedas also addresses the personal in describing life in Chimbóte -- and what has been and is being lost by the abandonment of life 'above'.
       It makes for fascinating reading, and a fascinating document about modern Peru -- and it is also an impressive last and very personal (again, in several ways) testament of an important and talented author.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 September 2023

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The Fox From Up Above and the Fox From Down Below: Reviews: José María Arguedas: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Peruvian autor José María Arguedas lived 1911 to 1969.

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© 2023 the complete review

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