The Parana River and its literary expression

By Adolfo Prieto


Jose Diaz

Coordinador comercial

About the book:

This book takes you through a journey across Argentine literature along the Parana River. And it is the river as a path to follow that makes it different from all other chronicles.


The Spaniards of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were so fond of conquest and colonization as they were of the recording and praising of their ventures in chronicles and remembrance poems. In the southern extreme of the new world, the vast territory crossed by the river suspected of leading to the rich country of the White King, was no exception to this Hispanic modality. Martin del Barco Centenera, a clergyman who had joined the Ortiz de Zarate expedition, was the first in taking the region as the main topic of a piece of writing conceived with literary intentions. He sailed up the Parana River, in stages, along the year of 1574, established contact with indigenous peoples and discovered, with predictable amazement, the diversity of the coastal landscape and the endless novelty of the islands. Many years later, in 1602, he drew on this American experience in a long poem that was published in Lisbon entitled Argentina y la conquista del Rio de la Plata: con otros acaecimientos de los Reynos del Peru, Tucuman, y estados del Brasil (In the English version: The Argentine and the Conquest of the River Plate).
The biggest achievement of the poem is the title itself, which gave Argentina its name. But it also resides, perhaps —at no danger of overdoing the praise— in the curious description of a new landscape, as could be offered by someone who was very much a part of the imperial undertaking. In fact, the author offers a detailed inventory of the physical nature and the historical facts that were beginning to populate it. It is clear, however, that these historical facts are narrated as a mere extension of the general history of Spain, and that nature is perceived as yet one more addition to the ever-expanding domains of the metropolis.
This explains the wide and universal spirit in which Del Barco Centenera enumerates the aboriginal tribes that inhabit the shores of the Parana River, or measures the distance in leagues at places where the river broadens, or recounts the day-to-day adventures of the conquerors. The poet is not indifferent to any piece of news, no matter how small, for its greatness arises from the context in which it appears. It is therefore not surprising that the author, feeling part of the imperial geography and history, should claim that the most remote ancestor of the Guarani people was Tubal, son of the biblical patriarch Noah, or that he should give the lines of his poem an affected air in the style of the heroic epic of his century. All the cultural conventions of that period are legitimately mobilized from the perspective with which Del Barco Centenera structures his piece.
Quotes by celebrated authors, themes of moral reflection that were prestigious at the time, an overflow of fantasy on the best tradition of classical historians and naturalists. With regard to the latter, it is worth noticing the easiness with which his rhymed chronicle includes references to the carbuncle, a small animal which “bears a glowing gem on its forehead”; oversized reptiles; mermaids humming sweet lullabies; canes that turn into worms, and then into butterflies and into mice; giants roaming around a scenery of a truly accurate nomenclature.
Overloaded with intentions and heavy hendecasyllables, the piece fits, in essence, into the Spanish conquest literature; but it is the local details, among which stands out the constant presence of the Parana River, that give credit to those pages and grant them an inaugural character that should by no means be disregarded.
Lucia Miranda’s faithfulness to her husband Sebastian Hurtado, which led her to the point of martyrdom, turned out to be a topic of significant vitality and seductive power. From the chronicle by Ruy Diaz de Guzman, and probably through the mediation of the writings of some Jesuit historians, it entered literature. In the eighteenth century, at least two playwrights, the English Thomas Moore (Mangora, King of the Timbusians, or the Faithful Couple, 1718) and the Valencian Manuel Lassala, who in 1784 published a tragedy (Lucia Miranda), took up the subject and disseminated it around Europe, together with the names and vicissitudes of the main characters, and the resonance of a landscape most probably perceived and presented as exotic.
Five years after Lassala’s tragedy came out, Manuel Jose de Lavarden’s Siripo premiered in Buenos Aires. It is not easy to determine nowadays whether the fragments that have survived belong to the original piece written by Lavarden or they belong instead to an adaptation made by another writer many years after the premiere. As they are known today, it is clear that these fragments modify the traditional interpretation of the topic, since they insinuate the existence of a conflict between the mentality and interests of American Indians and those of the Spanish conquistadors.
The argument with which the poet denounces the appropriation process of the Spanish conquest reveals the attitude that the creoles had at the historical moment in which they were preparing to break the political bonds with Spain. The appreciation of the cultural heritage of the country’s native inhabitants, the Great Parana over the Rio de la Plata, the territory and landscape as they were before the conquest, everything aims at a clear political objective.
In line with this, Lavarden himself wrote in 1801 his soon to be famous Oda al Parana (Ode to the Parana River). Although it is true that the poet expresses himself as a Spaniard who is loyal to the Crown, and there is no sign in the poem of an openly revolutionary attitude, the way in which he observes the landscape and connects it to the destiny of a society that is sufficiently differentiated is in itself evidence of the revolutionary mindset that was beginning to take shape. The Parana River, the “sacred river”, is celebrated in its full length, from its source to its mouth, which flows into the ocean, as a deity that provides wealth and protects the peoples who live along its banks.
It is worth reflecting, at this point, on the long time span that stretches from the days of Lavarden’s poem (or the tragedy Siripo) to the days in which Del Barco Centenera and Diaz de Guzman wrote their pieces. Whereas the works of the latter date back to the beginning of the seventeenth century, Lavarden’s work was produced in the transition from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century—almost two hundred years later.
These two chronological extremes reveal a conspicuous gap in the history of the literary reflections on the Parana River and its area of influence. The absence of literary texts bears testimony to the political and social evolution of the colonization movement that so vigorously sailed up the Parana River towards the middle of the sixteenth century only to slow down sixty or seventy years later, and was only represented in a bunch of poor small villages and hamlets. Martin del Barco Centenera was part of that vigorous movement along the Parana River, when it still looked like the natural path into a land abundant in riches that could be easily extracted. When those fantasies embraced by the first explorers vanished, the fate of the colonizing undertaking entered a shadowy existence, and this had an inevitable impact on each and every aspect of social life.
To this almost complete silence of literature in Spanish, i.e., the language of the conquistadors and colonizers of the region, the silence of a possible literature of the subdued aboriginal peoples should be added. In the absence of a written language, we would not be allowed to use the word “literature”, at least in its most conventional sense, to refer to those linguistic expressions that go beyond the mere exchange of social information. However, it seems reasonable to speculate that there was some sort of oral literature, a speculation that is particularly reliable in the case of the Guarani language family, which corresponds to the densest indigenous populations in the banks of the Parana River, who had, at the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, a language that was surprisingly rich in inflexions and expressive resources.
Traces of this oral literature have survived in spite of the strong restrictions that the Jesuit missionaries imposed upon it through their catechizing. It expresses itself openly in the mechanisms of transmission and conservation of myths and legends. These, combined with the power of cultural cohesion displayed by Guarani, a language that has, so far, fought and won all battles against the linguistic siege laid by Spanish, reveals the benefits of taking into consideration facts that are usually ignored when depicting a culture expressed exclusively in the language of its conquerors.
It is in that language that, after such a long parenthesis, new and increasingly frequent literary testimonies are found.

Translated by Mercedes Rego Perlas / Laura Estefanía