Birds without a Nest: A Critical Review

Jordan Robison
Oct 17, 2015 · 9 min read

Clorino Matto de Turner’s Birds without a Nest, written in 1889, was an attempt on her part to make a political statement with her novel. The political statement was concerning the mistreatment of the indigenous people in Peru and how it affected Peru’s progress. Her novel examines the plight of the Andean Native Americans and the abuses they endured in late nineteenth-century Peru. As a member of the indigenismo movement, Matto wanted to romanticize the Andean heritage by giving the indigenous person a full place in Peruvian history. Birds without a Nest is a piece of contemporary nineteenth-century social criticism. Though her book serves better as a period piece that exposes the thought and interpretations of the author and the indigenismo movement in Peru. Matto’s relation to the Andean people is one of contradiction because her intention is to create a sympathetic picture of the Andean person, but she ends up portraying a somewhat racist picture of them. She is concerned with the abuse that the Andean people have endured throughout Peruvian history, but as a race, she paints an ambivalent picture. She presents the Andean characters in her books as friendly naïve, passive and exploited, who act on their emotions without much deep thinking. An example of the author’s ambivalence towards the Andeans is through two of her characters, Fernando & Lucia Marin, both who are supposed to be elite intellectuals, people compassionate for the Andean’s exploitation and they are two of the good guys of the story. Lucia says, “‘…they have not entirely extinguished in Peru that race [the Andean persons] with principles of rectitude and nobleness.’” Don Fernando responds: “‘It is proven that the Indians’ diet has caused their cerebral functions to degenerate,’” (de Turner, 58). Here are two characters presented as sympathetic toward the treatment of the Andeans while maintaining a rather racist attitude. Fernando’s comment on the cerebral functions is intellectual, but today’s reader would find his rationale rather ludicrous. The Andeans are very flat characters in de Turner’s book. Margarita & Rosalia, two Andean characters in her novel, are underdeveloped. They are not really a part of the story. The reader only knows what these characters are feeling but not what they are thinking. An example is when Manuel confesses his love to Margarita. The reader never finds out what Margarita thinks of it. She only reacts based on her emotions as if Manuel’s confession of his love to her is enough. It stirs something in her, but something emotional and not intellectual. The Andeans feel and endure their abuse, but the women are not afraid to ask for help like the characters Marcela. In the book Marcela goes to the Marins to borrow money for the burial service of her mother (Forty pesos) and the quinto (Two hundred pesos). She goes to borrow the money out of necessity based on her feelings as a mother and wife. There is never any evidence of her thought process to make a decision. All the reader sees is emotional reactions. The Andean characters are written to be abused, but they never seem written to be more than that.

The role of the indigenous protagonists, Juan, Marcela, Margarita (though she’s not one hundred percent indigenous), Rosalia, Isidro and Martina is one of suffering. These characters are at the center of this book but again, they are very flat. The indigenous are the birds without a nest. They have no home. The men are emotional as are the women. An example is when Isidro loses his cows and just endures and suffers. Isidro never tries to contemplate what he experiences. All the reader ever sees is the indigenous characters endure their wretched place in Peruvian society. Matto’s unfavorable portrayal of the indigenous persons is coupled with a story that is supposed to be a social critique of indigenous abuses paints a rather contradicting story. She is more concerned with their abuse than anything else.

In Matto’s book, the abuses made on the indigenous Andeans by the Catholic Church are made quite clear. In fact, she was excommunicated from the Catholic Church because of her negative portrayal of the bishop Pascual. In her book, Father Pascual is probably the most evil of all the characters; but he is not the only one. He is one of many authority figures in this book who Matto does not paint a favorable picture. The only somewhat redeeming quality Father Pascual has is that he goes through a slow process of retribution for how he acted in the story. In one part of the story he gets drunk, hits a married woman and fall off his horse. He is a priest who is a womanizer, exploits the indigenous people in any way he can, gluttonous, motivated by lust. He buys into the whole corrupt system of tributes and Andean abuses. The Catholic Church is personified through Father Pascual as exploitative and indifferent. The Andeans owe the church a pongo (or mita), which is unpaid service to the priest, as well as maid service to the house of the elites. The priest never hesitates to get his mita, nor does he show any empathy in the story when the Andeans come short. All of the characters who have power in this book are corrupted by it.

The Hispanic good guys in this story are Don Fernando & Lucia Marin, Petronila, Gasper (a minor character) and Manuel. These people represent an intellectual elite who are also the most civilized characters. The city of Lima, the capital of Peru is represented as the civilized part of society. All of the good guys in this book are either from Peru, or like Fernando & Lucia, end up leaving Killac for Lima in order to escape its corruption. In other words, Lima represents progress. These characters respond correctly to actions of injustice: “When Don Fernando found out that the Killac sexton [Juan] was lying buried in jail, he trembled, more in indignation than in horror,” (de Turner, 98). These people know what is right and what is wrong. However, the bad guys do not.

The Hispanic bad guys in the story are Father Pascual (as already mentioned), Escobedo, Colonel Benitz and Sebastian (the mayor). These are all people corrupted by power. Power in this story is exercised through personal connections. The character Fernando comments on these corrupted individuals: “I am perfectly convinced that the Indian is entirely innocent; but here nothing can be done against the machinations of the mass of the neighbors who constitute the three powers, viz. ecclesiastical, judicial, and political,” (de Turner, 141). Manuel makes a similar comment about Sebastian when he says: “‘Ever since they made your father Governor he has become another person,’” (de Turner, 60). These are also the less educated of the Hispanic. Sebastian is mayor, but the book mentions he had only three years of schooling. Even though Sebastian’s son is good, it seems Sebastian’s position of power has corrupted him almost completely. The Andeans are the exploited as the character Martina explains: “‘We were born slaves of the priests, slaves of the Governor, slaves of the cacique; slaves of everyone who holds the rod of authority,’” (de Turner, 167). The Andeans are left as pawns against these Hispanic bad guys and the aforementioned Hispanic good guys.

The outsiders residing in the rural community are important because they both represent the best and the worse of Peruvian Hispanic society. At the same time, the Andeans are still present as a race separate from the Hispanic race that may never become a part of the society. The good Hispanic characters in this book are the elites who are better educated and think scientifically. Fernando uses a scientific theory to rationalize why the Andean people are so exploited. The good elites are the ones who have ambition to advanced themselves culturally and have a desire for education. The bad elites are the poorly educated, such as Sebastian, who is described earlier in the book as having only three years of education. So, it behooves the indigenous people to go the enlighten members of the elite to be proactive.

This book is useful because it is an early example of social criticism in nineteenth-century literature and helps give a clue as to how life might have been during that time in Peru; but not useful because it’s written poorly and gives the reader only the author’s very biased point of view. The book is helpful in exposing the thoughts and feelings of the author, an indigenismo, during the time. Though this is just one person’s interpretation, one can use it to try to understand how people like de Turner may have thought during this period. The way she presents her character, even though they are flat, illustrates a very clear picture of what she thought was right and what she thought was wrong. The bad guys: the political elites and the church. This coincided with what the indigenismo believed at the time. The book is not useful as a piece of great literature. It’s not likely that this book will be included in anyone’s canon. It’s very poorly written; even the interpretation is missing some glitter. Just from reading the book one can gather that she was a writer who had great ambition to write a classic book but failed because she was not gifted enough to write an intricate story. All in all, the major message of this book is to have the enlighten elites in power, to take the Indians and remove the forms of oppression, to take away accountability and agency. Matto herself comments on this when she writes about the attempt at investigating a riot in the book that was started by Father Pascual and Sebastian: “…the case having been followed up with slowness characteristic of Peru, where crime is left unpunished and ofttimes innocence is threatened,” (de Turner, 79). As an indigenismo, she wanted to bring the Andean people into the Hispanic society in Peru and end the corruption that harkened back to colonial times. Be that as it may, de Turner presents a very racist picture of indeginismo.

This book is part of the beginning of a long movement of social awakening. The social awakening pertains to abuses of one race to another. Matto portrays the Indians as the abused, but she fails to present them as people. The same happened in the United States with the civil rights movement. In the beginning, the white abolitionists believed they had to educate the slaves because it they believed the slave was too ignorant to realize he was being exploited. Matto wrote like a positivist, so it is no wonder her good guys are enlighten elites. However, this viewpoint does not consider how biased education can be, especially with the indigenous concerned. Education, according to de Turner, seems the only vehicle to enlightenment. Fernando Marin, a good guy, makes a very ignorant statement when he tries to rationalize the Andean people’s position in Peruvian society when he thought that the Andeans were not only stupid, but they were stupid because of their diet. This of course is not at all accurate because it is known now that a diet affects more the health a person but not a person’s intelligence. Of course, the book seems to arguing that, even if the Indian is freed of oppression, he will be too stupid to take advantage of it. Though this book has many faults it is still an excellent example of the beginning of the movement of social consciousness in Peru.

Matto de Turner (1852–1909) was an educated intellectual, a feminist and an indengismo. She was the first woman in the Americas to head a major newspaper. She spoke both Spanish and Quechau (a native language of South America) fluently. She ended up being excommunicated from the Catholic Church because of the negative portrayal of the church. She was a feminist not in the sense of feminism in North America. Her form of feminism argued for women’s education as a vehicle to better their roles as mothers and wives. The purpose of her writing this book was to contribute to the social critique of the social movements in nineteenth-century Peru that she was a part of. However, the author had the bias of a Peruvian with a European elite background. She was as progressive as she was racist. Her racism prevented her from seeing the indigenous as people in themselves and not just as objects of abuse. Birds without a Nest is a book with many flaws but this wasn’t a book that attempted to capture reality but more an attempt to make a political statement. In this regards, de Turner was very successful.

Originally published at on July 7, 2014.

Jordan Robison

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A military veteran, writer of the novel ‘LIVING ON EMPTY’ Amazon [] & iBooks [].