José Eustacio Rivera

views updated

José Eustacio Rivera

José Eustacio Rivera (1888-1928) was a Colombian novelist. He brought fresh vision to national literature and with "La vorágine" wrote perhaps the finest novel of the Latin American tropics.

Born in the southern Colombian town of Neiva, José Eustacio Rivera came from a provincial family of modest means. After becoming one of the first graduates of the recently organized teachers' college, he took a degree in law. For several years Rivera combined a law practice with modest literary activities and became a recognized member of Bogotá's urban intelligentsia. Named legal adviser and member of the Venezuela-Colombia Boundary Commission, he traveled first to the plains and then to the Amazon region. Exposed to these less well-known regions of the country, he lived with the Indians, for a time was lost in the jungle, and eventually contracted beriberi. During a period of convalescence he wrote La vorágine (The Vortex), one of the greatest Latin American novels. Its publication in 1924 assured Rivera lasting fame throughout the hemisphere and beyond, and it was translated into English, French, German, and Russian.

The Vortex, a kind of romantic allegory, was also a novel of protest. It was the first realistic description by a Colombian of the cowherders of the plains and the jungle rubber workers. Rivera attempted to arouse humanitarian feelings concerning the exploitation of these people, and he reflected a cultured urban gentleman's frightened vision of the barbarism foisted on them. The story is dominated by the magnificent yet savage setting, in which there is no law other than survival of the fittest.

Arturo Cova, the protagonist of the novel, is an urban man of letters who, forced to flee from Bogotá, encounters the brutal reality of life in the rural areas. Rivera's experience in the Amazonian jungle permits him to describe the tragedy of rubber exploitation. In publicizing the condition of the workers and their degradation at the hands of Colombian and European adventurers, Rivera provides an impassioned image of decay, death, and violence. The Vortex, a work romantic in spirit and poetic in style, strongly suggests that the veneer of civilization is thin. For Rivera, civilization should not be taken for granted.

Gaining swift recognition with his novel, Rivera was widely hailed both at home and abroad. While still enjoying his literary triumph during a trip to the United States, he died prematurely of pneumonia in New York City. He also authored one collection of poetry, Tierra de promisión (1921), and a volume of sonnets and at his death left an unpublished drama in verse.

Further Reading

The only extended critical treatments of Rivera are in Spanish. Literary surveys in English which include passages on Rivera are Arturo Torres-Ríoseco, The Epic of Latin American Literature (1942; rev. ed. 1946), and Jean Franco, The Modern Culture of Latin America: Society and the Artist (1967). □