English exposure to Cumandá
March 07, 2009

Noe O. Vaca ("Ozzie"), a former Ecuadoran educator but now an American citizen living in South Carolina, is spending his later years writing short stories and translating and interpreting English and Spanish. The House of Ecuadoran Culture awarded Vaca the rights to translate a story by Juan León Mera, who was known as the father of Ecuadoran literature.

Cumandá: The Novel of the Ecuadoran Jungle is a love story that has endured more than 130 years of Latin American readership. In its translated version it attempts to educate the English-reading public about the history of the Ecuadoran jungle during the nineteenth century.

The reader is introduced to tribes that hated the European race but practiced Christianity, hated the Europeans and the religion they promoted and those that hated everybody. They simply killed for sport. Mera's story originally was called, Cumandá: Un Drama Entre Salvajes or a "drama among savages."

The setting for the cast of characters, that of the dense Ecuadoran jungle with its entangled lianas and unpredictably turbulent waters, is symbolic of the complexities under which its inhabitants lived. The religious Dominicans at the time were known to be more concerned with building wealth for themselves at the expense of the hard work and even bloodshed of the natives than they were of civilizing them.

What made Cumandá stand out from the natives that surrounded her was described as her face "white and pale," her cheeks "rosy" and her body "delicate."

Cumandá's tribal father, referred to as Tongana, and as the story progresses, Tubon, has a changing attitude regarding her. However, at he beginning of the tale he tells her, "When you behave like a white person I want to treat you with the same hatred I have for them but I am under your beautiful spell." The symbolism in this is left to the reader. One might suggest that she, quite unknowingly, held secrets to life beyond the jungle.

Her restless spirit takes her to a solitary place in the jungle that, lo and behold, is also the favorite place of a mysterious white man--a place where he came to contemplate the idea of God. A series of secret, but, we are told, chaste rendezvous take place between Cumandá and Carlos Orosco, the son of a Dominican priest named Don Domingo whom we find out has a less than savory past.

"Whites, I guess, don't have passionate hearts like we do," Cumandá tells Carlos, but later admits that she has a feeling for him "that is hard to explain." It should be noted that their flowery and basically unspoken love might bore the modern reader more steeped in salacious description but not those inclined to more romantic liaisons. Carlos describes Cumandá as "his poetic inspiration" and defines his soul mate as either a "spirit from the forests (native interpretation) or an "angel"(Christian interpretation).

Cumandá takes her role as a tribal member seriously when she reveals to Carlos that he can't touch her; she is one of the virgins of the feast, a canoe fest in which the leader of all leaders is elected. She convinces him to attend the ceremony even though a white face, besides hers, would not be welcome.

Bingo, Carlos' introduction to Cumandá's father sets in motion a series of attempts at Carlos' life by Cumandá's tribal brothers. It also introduces the presentiment that her duty is to sacrifice herself for her love. In fact, "I will die for you" becomes a poetic refrain, and poetry and song become prominent in Vaca's translation.

Cumandá's tribal mother, a sorceress named Pona, plays a pivotal role in the story. She has no direct influence on her husband but she at one point does foil his attempt to kill Carlos and to alter Cumandá's destiny.

Tongana rather than directly kill Cumandá decides to convince Yahuarmaqui, a man of "white hair" and the elected chief of the fest, to make her his seventh wife. This leads to a chapter Vaca calls "The Escape," a simple title reminiscent of those flashed on the screen in old silent movies at a time when the plot thickens.

At this point the author makes a statement about controlling one's destiny and the foibles of religion. Cumandá, who has in her possession a tube of poison, tosses it into the river after Carlos tells her that as a Christian suicide is forbidden. But if someone else kills you, he says, it's okay; to become a martyr is "not bad at all."

Re-captured, Cumandá undergoes the "skin of the green snake" marriage ceremony which is interesting in its description. According to tribal custom, this puts her in jeopardy of being buried with her husband after his death. (Remember he had "white hair.")

Another escape, a brutal Indian attack, Carlos' capture, Cumandá's and Don Domingo's predicament and the resurrection of Tubon and the priest, lead us to the story's climax and the denouement that follows revealing Cumandá's true identity and Carlos' fate.

A warning and one major criticism that may be said for Vaca's translation is his decision to reveal the entire tale in the book's preface as well as snippets on the book jacket. Mera as well couldn't wait to get the truth out, for a third of the way into the story, he also provides a chapter that tells all. This definitely kills categorizing the tale as a mystery.

Vaca credits the book's cover illustration to one Jorge Hernández Pria and the inside illustrations to Nelson Jácome Viteri. The cover is a perfect depiction of idealized Cumandá. Viteri's pen and ink drawings capture the simplistic telling of the tale.

Title - Cumandá

Author - Juan León Mera (Translated into English by Noe O. Vaca)

Publisher - AuthorHouse/196 pp./first ed. (2-26-08)/ $15.74 at amazon.com

ISBN: 978-1-4343-2599-0

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