Posted: 01/11/2009


Cumanda: The Novel of the Ecuadorian Jungle

by Juan Leon Mera, with translation by Noe O. Vaca

Reviewed by Elaine Hegwood Bowen

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Cumandá: The Novel of the Ecuadorian Jungle
By Elaine Hegwood Bowen

This is a familiar love story, bringing two people together from different cultural backgrounds, and finally the couple meets a tragic end. The story is set in the Ecuadorian jungle, in the middle of revolts from the indigenous tribes. They are revolting against an invading Christian revolution.
But the revolts couldn’t be stopped, and in the province of Chimborazo Ecuador, the family and goods of the rancher Juan Domingo Orosco were destroyed, as revenge for the maltreatment and abuse of the savages.
After the revolts, Orosco converted and became a missionary priest who worked among the tribes. He devoted his life to God, becoming a Dominican friar, whose work centered on converting the jungle natives to Christianity.
He was always accompanied by his son Carlos, who became very fond of a young Indian beauty named Cumandá. She saved the young white man’s life in several situations. Finally because she loved her dear Carlos so much, in another desperate attempt to save his life, she agreed to become the wife of the chief of the Jibaros Yahuarmaqui, so the Jivaros would spare her beloved Carlos.
This is the classic Cumandá: The Novel of the Ecuadorian Jungle, a book newly printed, so that English-speaking readers can enjoy that which Latin Americans have for the last 131 years.
An Ecuadorian native, Noe O. Vaca, loved this story so much as a child that he decided it needed to be shared with the world. “Throughout my life I wondered why one of the most important novels of the 19th century Latin American literature was never offered to English readers,” he said. “Then I thought to myself, ‘let me bring to life for English-speaking readers the tale of star-crossed lovers staged in the lush Amazon jungle.’ The story is a national treasure of my native Ecuador.”
The events, as outlined in Cumandá: The Novel of the Ecuadorian Jungle, and which show the true love between Carlos and Cumandá, help readers to better understand the history and customs of the Ecuadorian Jungle during the 19th Century. At that time Christian missionaries dispersed all over the world in an effort to convert everyone to their religion.
The landscape, villages, lakes and background of Ecuador are brilliantly described, as the book also details the bloody revolts that are taking place. There is also much symbolism in the book, with the dense jungle representing the entangled events of the couple’s lives. But the story could just as well have been written or translated with the 21st Century as the centerpiece – it highlights societal obligations and the complex situations that people who are fighting to stay in love against the norm often face.
“Within the dramatic-tragedy, you’ll find a thoughtful examination of race relations and the assimilation of the indigenous people of Ecuador to a Christian-based society,” says Vaca.
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Elaine Hegwood Bowen Elaine Hegwood Bowen is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago

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