Foxboy: Intimacy and Aesthetics in Andean Stories

By Catherine J. Allen. 2011. Austin: University of Texas Press. 279 pages. ISBN: 978-0-292-72667-3 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Juan Eduardo Wolf, University of Oregon

[Review length: 942 words • Review posted on December 12, 2012]


Some thirty years ago in the highlands of southern Peru, Catherine Allen recorded an oral narrative skillfully told by Erasmo Hualla. In Foxboy, Allen has revisited this performance, illustrating how each portion of the story relates to similar Andean texts as well as to broader aspects of Andean indigenous culture. She has placed her extended Peruvian field experiences in dialogue with a well-grounded set of scholarly writings about the Andes to produce a very engaging and accessible book that serves as an excellent introduction for anyone interested in Andean expressive culture.

Visually, the interior design of the book is attractive, with small illustrations, explanatory insets, and changes in typeface clearly organizing and marking multiple modes of oral performance and scholarly discourse. The University of Texas Press is to be lauded for recognizing the need to print the book in this fashion, since these visual conceits are in keeping with the fact that Allen has modeled the book’s structure on Andean textiles, specifically the type of poncho woven as mirror images that the artisan then stitches together. Following this motif, she has named the opening and closing chapters “fringe” and has sandwiched her exploration of Hualla’s performance within two halves of a fieldwork tale of her own. One of the key features of Hualla’s artistry was his ability to weave two narratives of different genres into one “far-reaching” story – a karu kwintu – and here Allen has illustrated how this aesthetic in oral narrative parallels that of Andean weaving. Metaphorically creating the first half of the poncho is a sexually explicit, humorous yet morally relevant tale about that trickster Fox, a well-known and beloved character in Andean storytelling. The other half of the poncho is formed by a frightening tale about condenados, the restless dead that dwell or roam the highlands living off the fat and flesh of the living. In each of these halves, Allen has connected the principal characters to similar, commonly told stories and has explored Andean modes of thought on topics like numbers and morals as they appear in the narratives.

The author has stitched her analysis of the two tales together with a chapter appropriately titled “Chayrí? And Then?” More than the simple meaning suggested in the literal English translation, Allen has used the Quechua suffix –, which indicates a shift and refocusing in the conversation to the listener. Since the story was told in Quechua, it is not surprising that Allen has given the southern Peruvian variety of this language family a privileged position in her analysis, and students of Quechua will be pleased to find a transcription of the original performance in the text, with additional transcriptions for four other Quechua language stories in the appendices. Where Allen has used English-translated examples from other tales in her analysis, she usually has supplied the Quechua in the footnotes. Those unfamiliar with Andean languages need not worry since Allen has provided thorough English translations as well as a Quechua glossary and guide to pronunciation.

Beyond linguistic curiosity, however, Allen has made the Quechua ubiquitous in the book because the language often provides important insight into the greater worldview that informs the story. Early on, she has examined the past tense marker –sqa that in this variety of Quechua indicates the “particular state of consciousness in which things happened without the speaker’s direct and willful participation” (42). With this marker, the speaker stresses his or her relationship to the narratives being told but does not pass judgment on whether the information is of this space-time or not. Allen tackles that distinction later with her discussion of the terms chiqaq and kwintu. Allen has translated chiqaq as “true” or “straight,” while kwintu is a loan from the Spanish (cuento meaning “story”), but here Allen has interpreted the word as a narrative conceptually peripheral in time and space. The storytellers that Allen interviewed seemed to be excited about categorizing their narratives as one of these two types once Allen initially brought the question to their attention. The distinction gives Allen the opportunity to explain Andean understandings of space-time, called pacha or timpu. These terms encompass the unity of the material and temporal aspects of existence, but they have multiple manifestations: ours and those of beings other than human.

These points, however, are perhaps the more technical side of a book that is full of rich descriptions of characters such as Fox, Bear, and Condor as well as vivid explanations of Andean marriage and sexual relationships. Occasionally, Allen’s writing might read a little too definitive and all-encompassing on these points, opening her up to those criticisms typically leveled at pre-1980s ethnography before the reflexive turn. Here, however, Allen’s anecdotes surrounding the nature of the chiqaq and kwintu distinction may serve as the most obvious response. For example, she has documented how Hualla tested her understanding of these categories by switching his classification of a certain narrative several times. Later, another individual contested Hualla’s final categorization of the tale, illustrating the importance of setting and context in labeling a performance as chiqaq. She complained of “feeling my nice classification of genres slipping out from under me” (116). The ambiguity over the application of the labels is Allen’s way of reminding us that the book reflects her attempt “to participate in an ‘Andean’ kind of listening, to catch connections and relations and sense their emotional weight in what was for me a new context” (177). I believe that Allen intends the book, not as a universal key to understanding Andean oral narrative, but as a heuristic for those attempting to enter into a similar type of participation. As such, Foxboy is highly commendable.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.