Rómulo Gallegos, whose complete name was Rómulo Angel del Monte Carmelo Gallegos Freire, was born in Caracas, Venezuela, on 2 August 1884; he died in the same city on 5 April 1969. He was respected and admired for his written works, especially his widely read novel Doña Bárbara (1929), and for his activities as a teacher and politician.
In 1897 he experienced a strong religious calling and was on the point of entering the priesthood; later he became an agnostic with deep social preoccupations. In line with the philosophic trends of his time, above all with positivism, he became a freethinker and denounced the clerical life, calling for the removal of power and influence from the Catholic church. He advocated a collection of ideas influenced by Max Nordau, Angel María Ganivet, Ernest Renan, and especially Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Also while young, he began to study law but gave it up during his first years at the university.
In 1909, with some friends of his generation, he founded the magazine La alborada (The First Dawn of Day), in which he published articles and essays that analyzed the Venezuelan social and cultural reality with a strong reformist zeal. His renown as an educator came from these essays and his later work as a teacher. Most of his numerous essays dedicated to educational questions and an examination of society have been collected in Una posición en la vida (A Posture in Life, 1954).
Gallegos' ideas on politics, society, and education were products of the current predominant philosophic trends and of his country's political situation. From the nineteenth century until well into the twentieth, Venezuela was governed by authoritarian regimes. In 1899, following a short civil war, the army controlled the nation. In 1909, Juan Vincente Gómez' dictatorship began; it was to last until his death in 1935. During this period of political repression, Venezuela used its oil wealth to modernize and experienced even more rapid development in the two decades that followed Gomez' death. The country underwent an urbanization process, especially in Caracas, which became a megalopolis, losing the provincial flavor it had possessed in the nineteenth century. The country's industry and its highway network expanded during this economic boom.
On Gomez' death, other military men took his place, but in 1948, because of a coup d'état that permitted a brief period of democratic rule, Gallegos was elected president of the republic by an overwhelming majority of votes. However, popular backing was no guarantee of his tenure in the presidency; nine months after taking office, he was overthrown by the military, and the ten-year dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez began. Gallegos lived in exile in Cuba and Mexico, making numerous visits to Central America, the United States, and Europe.
Military oppression in Venezuela and his overthrow as president increased Gallegos' political preachings and his protests against armed regimes, which he criticized as obstacles to the free and integral development of Spanish America. Gallegos' intellectual formation partook of the humanist tradition that defends spiritual values and that was given voice at the beginning of the century by José Enrique Rodó's Ariel (1900). The "arielist generation" of writers broke off from the modernists and from the exaggerated cult of French parnasse aesthetics, focusing instead on the theme of the American reality in literature and thought. Their concern was mainly with issues of a spiritual or, in some cases, political nature, but Gallegos also took the social dimension into account, especially when farmland conflicts were involved.
When Gallegos entered wholeheartedly into political life and rose to the presidency of Venezuela, he had already written and published his most important novels. Gallegos said that there had been "a loan from letters to politics, with no fixed repayment date" (Una posición en la vida, p. 383). The object that had been lent was himself. From 1948 on, he did not write as prolifically as before. He wrote a novel on a Cuban theme, La brizna de paja en el viento (Straw in the Wind, 1952) and another, on Mexico, La tierra bajo los pies (Land Underfoot, which appeared posthumously in 1971).
Gallegos' first two novels, Reinaldo Solar (first published in 1920 as El último Solar [The Last Solar]) and La trepadora (The Creeper, 1925), are the early, uncertain creations of an author who was to become a self-confident narrator with a well-defined style. In these novels Gallegos displayed several characteristics that later were developed in his major works and transformed into constant and dominant elements. For example, Gallegos often used characters and dramatic situations as symbols, extending this practice to the very titles of his novels. The original title El último Solar referred both to a person · the book dealt with the last of a family line · and to the family's property (solar means a plot of land, a rural property). In the case of the other novel, a trepadora is a parasitic plant that fixes itself to a wall or a tree trunk and lives with the support of such an object while also strengthening it. Symbolically, the relationship that the plant establishes alludes to certain human behavior. The symbolic nature of both people and events becomes a weakness of Gallegos' novels when it limits the free development of his characters.
In 1949 Gallegos discussed his symbolic bent, justifying it as necessary to the creation of meaningful characters within the concrete reality of Venezuela. He said: "I am not just a plain creator of human cases, of those which may arise in my country, or any other . . . but I do point out generically characteristic aspects that as a Venezuelan hurt or please me (Una posición en la vida, pp. 403-404). Yet Gallegos' bent for symbols and stereotypes arises not only from a direct vision of reality and the need to find meaning in it, but also to some themes from past literature, above all, one that contrasts civilization with barbarism, an opposition that forms the dramatic and ideological basis of Doña Bárbara and that originated with the Argentine Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, whose book Civilización i barbarie (1845) carried the title in English translation Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants. Sarmiento identified civilization with Europe and barbarism with the Spanish-American countries.
In Reinaldo Solar, Gallegos summarizes the experience of his generation, or at least that of the young writers closest to him who had started La alborada. The characters of the novel are modeled on his friends, and Gallegos sketches a living and true portrait of the psychological and intellectual atmosphere of those years. The book is the novelistic equivalent of the essays published in La alborada; his characters are writers and artists, and Gallegos frequently cites the names of Thomas à Kempis, Renan, Leo Tolstoy, Rousseau, Friedrich Nietzsche, Nordau, Cesare Lombroso, Lord Byron, Émile Zola, the authors he read. One of the novel's most powerful themes is the return to nature, with a strong Rousseauistic flavor. The objective is not social but individual, inspired by the romantic movement. Reinaldo Solar writes a novel and speaks the first lines aloud: "(He) was going to look there, in mother nature's bosom, for the way to reconstruct the moral being, like a plant which, deformed by culture, returns to the jungle to recover the vigor of its original savage state."
Gallegos' social optimism comes into the open in La trepadora, an allegorical vision of the patchwork of Venezuelan society. A rich landowner's illegitimate son, born to a humble coffee picker on the estate, feels a burning ambition for revenge; he gains social position and marries the daughter of a rich family. Their child, Victoria, bears the features of both parents, which reflect the social groups that Gallegos defines and characterizes: the "barbarism" of her illegitimate and lowborn father and the "civilization" of her wealthy mother. This novel may seem to be an example of class struggle, because it depicts an antagonism between landowners and laborers; however, that social vision is complicated by a racial ideology that sees Spanish America as a melting pot in which the genuine American is the result of a mixture of races with different and defined features and idiosyncrasies. In this racial vision, the Hispanic and Creole groups are dominant, while the natives make up the lower classes. Gallegos explained his intention: "I did not want to depict class struggle as the standpoint of La trepadora, rather that it should be a portrait of the formation of a people."
Beginning in 1922, Gallegos was a teacher at the secondary level. This experience led him to explore child psychology and the educational needs of Venezuela. Along with other Latin American writers after 1900, Gallegos constantly called for more education and greater support for the arts, with Europe as the model. His anti-North American stance was not so much a response to the expansionist policy of the United States as it was opposition to the pragmatism and materialism upon which, as he saw it, its culture was based. In the course of many lectures delivered in the United States, Gallegos strongly urged the development of a humanistic culture that was not to be formulated upon a quantitative or technical basis. For Gallegos, the machine (symbol of technological progress in the United States), instead of lightening the workload of the proletariat, provides more profits for the bosses and therefore becomes an enemy of the people. He also underlined the fetishism of higher education in the United States: the importance placed upon the university from which a student graduates turns a human being into merchandise in the labor market, with a higher or lower price according to the "trademark." Gallegos demanded that instruction be replaced by education, and he distinguished between humanist and technical culture, attributing to the latter and its defenders an antihumanist attitude that endangers the very existence of humanity. The antinomy of technology versus humanism is parallel and complementary to the theme of civilization versus barbarism.
As much as it is a novel of ideas, Doña Bárbara is a story of strong characters who personify contradictory values in a struggle that illustrates socioeconomic change throughout the Venezuelan countryside, from the wild and barren latifundio (a large, neglected estate) to the "civilized" small holding. It has been said that Doña Bárbara is the novel of the Venezuelan plains that best explains the region and its inhabitants during the time when Spanish-American cultures were concerned with their national identities and with the larger Latin American identity. Gallegos' Canaima (Canaima, 1935) could be called a novel of the jungle, to round out the geographical varieties in Venezuela. In both areas, until well into the twentieth century the latifundio dominated: the landowner played the part of a feudal lord, and the peasants were his vassals, as if they were in the Middle Ages and the era of independence were nothing more than an aborted dream. In Doña Bárbara, Gallegos joins the ideas of Sarmiento (civilization versus barbarism) and Juan Bautista Alberdi (to govern is to populate, to populate is to civilize) with the national stereotypes visualized through folklore. He characterizes the plainsmen as belonging to an "emphatic race" much given to speech making. He portrays the barbed-wire fence as a symbol of the division of property: it marks the beginning of the "civilization of the plains" and becomes a "civilizing innovation."
A strange element in this novel is at the same time the main feature of its originality: the feudal lord is not a man but a woman. Doña Bárbara encapsulates in her symbolic name the strength and regressive tendency that it represents. She is known as the "strong woman of Arauca," the "man eater," and "the sorceress." As if she were something to be feared by men, the Spanish-American woman was (and still is) socially and politically relegated. That a woman is the main character in the novel makes her doubly to be feared. Tension builds when Santos Luzardo arrives, determined to defend both his right to a small property he had inherited and, by implication, the right to civilization. Santos' name is his badge: he is an emissary of good (santos, saints) symbolically illuminated by a light that burns (luz, light; ardo, I burn). The symbolism of the names goes further: one of the accomplices of Doña Bárbara is a North American called Mister Danger.
When Doña Bárbara begins her personal war against Santos Luzardo, anything goes, even seduction. She had been raped in her adolescence, and although she has a strong desire to revenge herself and to destroy the male-dominated world, Doña Bárbara is a sensual woman, and she feels a complex attraction toward her incorruptible adversary, Santos. However, neither open violence nor witchcraft are sufficient to overcome such a powerful opponent, and because of Gallegos' faith in the progress of which Santos is the symbol, he has to be the overwhelming victor.
The novel is narrated in a compelling descriptive manner that presents a coherent design of characters and events. Its prose is rich and varied, flexible and expressive. Its main strength lies in the development of the plot and the intense changes in the condition of the characters; its meaning is not so simple and schematic as may be supposed. The characters experience real growth and form dynamic relationships. In Don Quixote, Sancho Panza absorbs idealism from his boss, while Don Quixote is influenced by Sancho's pragmatic character; a similar phenomenon occurs between Doña Bárbara and Santos. She shows herself capable of unexpected acts of abnegation · for example, in the end she disappears in order to resolve the struggle · and Santos, in turn, begins to feel a slight and perverse pleasure in savagery. During the rodeo, when the young bulls are castrated, Santos feels the barbaric impulse of brute force in action and thinks to himself: "After all, barbarism has its delights, and is something beautiful that is worth experiencing; it is the fullness of man rebelling against all limits." A dialogue between civilization and barbarism is established that makes more complex and interesting what was initially a Manichaean opposition.
This "impure" version of the dichotomy can be explained by the fact that European-influenced Spanish-American writers were shaken by the World War I and, ten years later, the rise of fascism, periods during which the face of barbarism showed itself where apparently civilization existed. Before this crisis of faith in Europe, Gallegos had very clearly proposed that Latin America should be inspired by Europe; America was considered "young," and Europe a "mature" continent and therefore wiser. Said Gallegos:
Our model is Europe, which in the age of culture means
maturity. America is virgin jungle, unexplored and untilled soil,
empty land, desert, illiteracy, barbarism, barren and solitary
instinct, lacking in principles, discipline and ideals. Europe is
civilization, and civilization means tilled fields, population, roads,
industry, culture, social discipline, social conscience, social
(Un posición en la vida, pp. 85-86)
Gallegos added that his concept of Europe referred to "Europe as the cultural ideal," that is, to the idealization that Latin Americans had made of the Old World, as well as to "the inevitable spiritual penetration of culture as represented by Europe" in the coarse Spanish-American soil.
The dramatic force of Doña Bárbara comes from the struggle between values embedded in its characters, the unusual narrative drive that stands in contrast with the modernist and pedantic prose of the time, and its social and cultural preoccupations. The novel was rapidly and extensively disseminated throughout the continent and was quickly translated into eight different languages. At last, in Doña Bárbara, along with La vorágine (The Vortex, 1924) by the Colombian José Eustacio Rivera and Don Segundo Sombra (1926) by the Argentine Ricardo Guiraldes, Spanish America had produced novels that presented her conflicts, her goals, and her desires to leave her defeats behind.
In 1928 Gallegos delivered Doña Bárbara to a publishing house owned by a relative in Caracas. (The original title of the work was "La coronela" (The Colonel.) But, dissatisfied with his achievement, he destroyed what had been printed and stopped publication. He left for Europe and even tried to throw the original manuscript overboard. He finished the work in Bologna, and it was published in 1929 in Barcelona as a limited edition paid for by the author. The response to Doña Bárbara was immediate: the critics greeted its appearance with exhilaration, and influential intellectuals like Jorge Mañach hailed it as the great novel that America had been waiting for. A rapid succession of editions followed, and it became one of the most widely read novels in Spanish America. In 1930 it was published in Caracas and in 1931 was translated into English in New York. The doors of various countries opened for Gallegos because of Doña Bárbara, and he was able to live in Spain, especially during his self-imposed exile.
In 1936, with the dictator Gómez dead, Gallegos returned to Venezuela and in the Port of Guaira was met by a mass of people. Eight weeks later he was named secretary of public education, thus gaining the opportunity to put his reformist ideas into practice. However, from the moment that these reforms were announced, Gallegos met with a solid resistance from the educational sector and the press, and because of the heated debate that arose, he had to resign six weeks after taking the post.
During the period of his voluntary exile (1928-1936), Gallegos published two other novels of literary value: Cantaclaro (Cantaclaro, 1934) and Canaima, after which his work never attained the same quality. Cantaclaro is a polyphonic novel, and as did the earlier books, it presents life on the plains from the peculiar psychological perspective that underlies Gallegos' vision of Venezuelan man. He even proposes a theory of the plain: the extreme brightness and the monotony of the landscape form the characters, idiosyncrasies, and linguistic peculiarities of the inhabitants, as well as their characteristic imagination and even an oral literature that emerges spontaneously in the region. Since Gallegos founded his novel upon features of the local popular imagination, Cantaclaro has a poetic, almost lyrical, aura. The characters vary greatly in their activities and are the protagonists of diverse stories, but are united by the singer of tales, who is a kind of popular troubadour dedicated to capturing the lives of those around him with his poetry and music and who, as he crosses the plains, synthesizes and expresses their dramas. These dramas are multidimensional: Payara has a problem of conscience, believing that he maintains an incestuous relationship with Rosángela; Juan, "the plainsman," is a peasant who, on the death of his wife and children, suddenly abandons his peaceful life and becomes a feared criminal; Juan Parao is a rebellious Negro who tries to cause a racial uprising and dreams of the country's independence. The diary of a nomadic bard who roams the plains allows Gallegos to play with legends, customs, and folkloric scenes, turning them into inspired prose. In a literary sense, Cantaclaro is superior to Doña Bárbara in the quality of the writing and its brilliant poetic tone, which place the novel, from a historic and aesthetic point of view, between fin de siècle modernism and naturalist creolism.
The tragic vision of Venezuela that permeates Cantaclaro recurs in Canaima, but this time the setting is the jungle of the Orinoco river valley. In this work Gallegos narrates the life and travels of his character, Marcos Vargas, from his childhood until he disappears to live among the Indians. Gallegos tries to make his leading character the epitome of the region: the macho, instinctive and brutal, though also capable of kindness and a strong desire for justice. Vargas is a soul searcher who carries on an almost superhuman struggle to merge with nature and to learn the "language" that man has lost because of civilization. This effort produces one of the most splendid episodes of all Gallegos' literature: the earthshattering, cosmic encounter between naked man and the jungle during a terrible storm, in the chapter titled "Tormentia" (Storm).
In Canaima, as in Doña Bárbara, justice fights against evil, embodied in a feudal family, the Ardavines, the principal tentacles of whose power are finally cut by Vargas. This novel presents Gallegos' recurring themes: the juxtaposition of civilization and barbarism, of idealism and materialism, and the search for what is firstborn and natural · all wrapped up in a story heavy with symbolism. The major symbolic event occurs at the end of Canaima: Vargas disappears from civilization, bent upon living with an Indian tribe, but he sends his adolescent son to the city, to his alter ego Gabriel Ureña, of whom he begs "that you educate him as you are educating your own sons." In the end, civilization overcomes instinct, and the book creates, although vaguely, the notions that culture consists of the fusion of civilization and barbarism, and that, as a nation, Venezuela should seek its future not in the destruction of one or the other of these elements, but in a balance between them.
In Canaima, Gallegos repeats a narrative conflict that appears in Doña Bárbara (that is, the rebellion of the individual against tyrannical power) but modifies the hero figure: in place of the almost totally positive Santos Luzardo appears the conflicted and passionate Vargas. This can be understood as a correction of the author's vision of Venezuelan reality and, at the same time, as a profound literary advance; Gallegos treats the basic antinomy of his novels less schematically and more richly. The central idea that runs throughout Doña Bárbara finds in Canaima a vein of deeper understanding of the reality of Venezuela and of Spanish America. In the course of his literary career, Gallegos turned away from the stereotypical, racist European point of view in favor of a more complex understanding of the autochthonous elements of the American experience, and the fine result was Canaíma.
While still living in Caracas, Gallegos finished another novel, Pobre negro (Poor Negro, 1937), which lacks the drive of his earlier books, except in its violent war scenes. Novelistic themes reappear, such as an illegitimate son fighting against his father's rich family, but essentially Pobre negro is a fable built around the rebellion against power, with slave uprisings that took place around 1860 as a historical backdrop.
That none of Gallegos' later novels have the quality or importance of the unplanned triptych made up of Doña Bárbara, Cantaclaro, and Canaima can be explained by the author's personal circumstances: the time devoted to politics and, later, a long exile. The meetings, speeches, and daily organizational activities of the Partido Acción Democrática (Democratic Action party) took time and effort away from Gallegos' literary creations; he wrote only some screenplays, one on Joan of Arc. It was during this period from 1935 to his death that Gallegos referred to his activities as "a loan from literature to politics."
In 1942, he published El forastero (The Stranger), an even weaker novel than Pobre negro. A rehash of a tale he had written in the 1920's, it deals with the story of a Russian immigrant who repairs a broken town-hall clock and awakens the people to rise up against the oppressive government. The details are ingenuously symbolic, as if the story were more a fable than a realistic novel. In Sobre la misma tierra (On the Same Land, 1943), the indomitable features of Doña Bárbara are reversed: Remota Montiel, a woman boss from the Guajira zone, is a virgin, lonely and without drive; Gallegos tries to portray her, as the critic Juan Liscano put it in 1968, as the symbol of "an untouched Venezuelan Indian and at the same time overcome by the works of the spirit."
Gallegos' last two novels were written in exile following his presidential downfall. In Havana, Gallegos wrote a story based on the political events that took place at the University of Havana after the fall of the dictator Gerardo Machado: this was La brizna de paja en el viento. The atmosphere of gangsterism in the university had impressed Gallegos. Politicized student groups had degenerated into delinquent mobs that seized on political circumstances as a pretext to gain advantage. This novel presents violent scenes, and the story is built on Gallegos' invariable scheme: the struggle of good against evil, personified by characters usually whittled from a single piece. Perhaps the most unreal aspect of the novel is that the student leader is portrayed with disagreeable traces of barbarism, violence, and criminality; Gallegos openly expressed the ethical disgust he felt toward his character, forgetting that a leader is usually charismatic, attracting for obscure psychological reasons the masses that follow him. Justo Rigores could never have been a leader in real life because all his followers hated him.
Gallegos was never convinced of the worth of his last novel, La tierra bajo los pies; for years he refused to publish it, saying it was not finished. In 1968 the Mexican poet Carlos Pellicer read the manuscript and persuaded Gallegos to complete it, but even then the author did not publish it. It finally appeared in 1971 on the approval of Gallegos' heirs. Set in the state of Michoacán, Mexico, the novel is an attempt to portray the process of social change that came as a result of reforms in the land tenure system from 1920 to 1950. The Mexican Revolution had pulverized the latifundio, without, however, preventing the spread of regional bossism. Together with the legal division of the large estates, the ejidal structure was projected as a form of communal property that was to favor the poor peasants. Once more Gallegos established opposites, even in the names of his characters: "Chano" and "Nacho" are the anagrams that represent opposed but complementary forces. Within the social symbolism so dear to Gallegos, the idea of racial and social improvement reappears in the new generations, with the sons and grandchildren.
It may seem surprising that with only a superficial knowledge of the social and historical circumstances of Cuba and Mexico, Gallegos should dedicate a novel to each of these countries, with an implied deep vision of their problems. However, it must be remembered that Gallegos was not a careful and detailed author, but rather a writer of rapid and torrential prose; for example, the original version of Doña Bárbara was written in twenty-eight days. Gallegos believed that the Spanish-American reality is the same no matter which country is involved. This idea weakened his last two novels; a suspicion of the flaw may have been the reason he withheld publication of Tierra.
In the last ten years of his life, Gallegos received a flood of homages, prizes, and acknowledgments. He was considered a central figure of Spanish-American culture, and when, after his last exile, he returned to Caracas in 1958, he won innumerable distinctions: he was named Illustrious Son of Caracas and received the Venezuelan National Literature Prize; the Order of San Martín, liberator of Argentina; the Alberdi-Sarmiento Prize in Buenos Aires; the Order of the Sun of Peru; the Order of Andrés Bello; and the Cross of the Venezuelan Air Force. In 1960 he was a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature. He received honorary doctorates from various universities, and schools in several Spanish-American countries were named after him.
It is difficult to judge the importance of Gallegos' works in the Venezuelan, Spanish-American, and international literary context, because of the changes in the novel form in recent decades. From a historical point of view, he belongs to the realistic school, with some tendencies toward naturalism; the realists closed the modernist period for good and had nothing to do with the gallacized and gallant style that emphasized form over content. Gallegos' realism reversed the formula: he focused on content and kept to one basic form throughout his career. The structure of his novels is conventional and changes little from book to book; it is based upon the antagonism of two characters who symbolically represent opposing aspects of Venezuelan or Spanish-American life, an opposition that is usually tempered a generation later. Gallegos' novels are relatively rich in vocabulary and syntax, and emotive and emphatic expression abound. For Gallegos the novel was an excellent medium for expressing and formalizing his social preoccupations. He often pointed to his theoretical incapacity as explaining his natural bent toward narrative, which was at times no more than an illustration of the social problems that occupied him and of the ideas he could find no other way to express.
Gallegos' role was that of a writer who, in all good faith, tried to reform social, educational, and political institutions by means of intellectual works. He wished to help in the elimination of backward cultural patterns in which the majority of the people were poor, ill-fed victims of regimes based on force, and he maintained complete faith in progress.
From an aesthetic point of view, Gallegos lacked the artistic flexibility and sensibility necessary to feel the changes in the novel form and to enrich his narratives by adapting himself to those changes. The great lesson of the vanguardists passed by without changing him, as did the new Creole realistic forms (of, for example, Miguel Angel Asturias and Alejo Carpentier) that provided an invaluable element of fantasy, giving rise to what is called "magical realism" and renewing the novel form. His novels do not awaken the same passion today as they did in the 1930's and 1940's. They belong to a period in Spanish America in which each country sought its identity and sowed the seeds of nationalism, grounding their cultures in great literary creations that illuminated their problems. Such novels as Doña Bárbara, Cantaclaro, and Canaima (above all, the first) were precise and effective responses to these spiritual needs. Gallegos' novels are of lasting value because they are genuine expressions of the aesthetic and social problems of his time, and they should be read in that context. As Carlos Fuentes said in 1980: "The same happens with Rómulo Gallegos as with our fathers. First we venerate them; then we detest them; finally we understand them."
From: Ruffinelli, Jorge. "Romulo Gallegos (Freire)." Latin American Writers, edited by Carlos A. Solé, vol. 2, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1989.