El sexto is no doubt the least read and least appreciated of Arguedas's novels. Mario Vargas Llosa states that it is, with El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo, "the most imperfect one that he wrote" (20). But Los zorros has received a fair amount of critical attention. Precisely its imperfection, and the fact that it was left unfinished at the author's suicide, are seen as symptomatic of the fate of the Peruvian's literary project as a whole. El sexto's imperfections, on the other hand, are seen as altogether less interesting.
Moreover, this semi-autobiographical account of life in a Lima prison doesn't fit well within the thematic continuities of the rest of Arguedas's work. Though some of its characters are from the Andes, not least the protagonist, Gabriel, and his cellmate, Cámac, the prison walls limit the narrative. Any indigenism is thoroughly attenuated, glimpsed only in some of Gabriel's more fleeting reminiscences. We are, instead, endlessly drawn back to the brute realities of the jail's physical environment.
And that environment is brute and brutish with a vengeance. Arguedas provides us with a picture of utter filth and degradation, both literal and figurative. The jail's bathrooms have been destroyed, so prisoners shit and piss in full view of each other. Except that is for the stronger, more vicious among them, who have made their way up the prisoners' brutal hierarchy: they shit on pieces of paper in their cells, and get their lackeys to carry their excrement off to the holes in the ground that pass for latrines. Mealtime is survival of the fittest: those too weak to push their way to the front of the crowd, to have their gruel served directly into their cupped hands, soon further weaken and starve. The most desperate are prepared to lick up fellow inmates' blood from where it falls on the stone floors. Half the common prisoners are crazy already or are driven mad by their surroundings. A cruel traffic in sexual favours predominates. The whole place gives off a stench of dirt, degeneracy, and decay: "The Sexto stinks as though all those locked up in there were rotting away" (221).
Yet there is also music in the air. The novel opens and closes with a hymn. And throughout, an array of songs punctuate the story's violence, death, destruction, and horror.
This music is diverse. It includes the Quechua huayno familiar from Los ríos profundos; but here the indigenous have no monopoly on song. These hymns are also rousing chants of war, political propaganda given some melody, however rough.
For the political prisoners who inhabit the prison's upper levels are bitterly divided between apristas (followers of the populist APRA party) and Communists. Though they are equally persecuted by the military dictatorship that has shut both sets of activists away, their mutual enmity almost overwhelms their shared hostility to the state. And they express their rivalry, as well as maintaining internal discipline, in part through their party hymns: the "aprista Marsellaise" on the one hand; the "Internationale" on the other. These are the songs that greet Gabriel as he arrives at the novel's opening, and with which the book also ends.
And in the interval we hear not only Gabriel's attempts to recall the highland music appropriate to the occasions he's living through--"as a good highlander I would repeat a huayno under my breath [. . .]. Its sadness consoled me, grabbed hold of my feelings" (178, 179). Also, for instance, the one flagrant, and so perhaps liberated, homosexual, Rositas, is often to be found humming or whistling a tune. Plus one of the Afro-Peruvian prisoners, a group whom Arguedas generally tends to portray as the lowest of the low, dances a dance "with an incredible energy" that marks out "a joyful rhythm" moving even the prison's "rigid walls" and resonating through "the prisoners' souls like a message from the coast's broad valleys" (201). And the cellmate Cámac embarks on a project to construct a guitar, though this enterprise is cut short by his own death, a demise that his Communist comrades pin in part on this very deviation from orthodoxy.
So whether it stirs up and condenses hatred or pride, rivalry or brotherhood, joy or sadness, music is a privileged conduit of affect for lowlander and highlander alike.
It's a matter of life and death: the dead are saluted with song, and at one point Gabriel and the cellmate who replaces Cámac make a rather macabre pledge to each other, to sing "the saddest melody, the saddest in the world" should the other die first (190). For what's really heartbreaking is to have nobody to sing for you. "So sing something" pleads one prisoner as he's led away to the hospital. "Sing some little thing for me!" (166). But no one sings, so he has to make do himself, "in a rasping voice, as though it came not from a human throat but from some ungainly, impotent bird" (167).
So, no, it's not as though song will bring rivals together or transcend physical misery. This music is inflected by the physicality, whether decrepit or resistant, of those singing. But it is one of the few markers that forestalls utter abjection. For even the most abject of them all, a prisoner who has thoroughly lost his senses, who cannot live outside the jail and dies within it, and who is described as "the most lowly victim of capitalist society" (92), is a man who goes by the name of "the pianist" because while prostrate on the floor he acts as though playing a keyboard. The pianist, we are told, "had something of the sanctity of the heavens and mother earth. [. . .] He heard the music that comes from outside, invented by mankind, torn from space and the surface of the earth" (127).
This inaudible music promises perhaps to transfigure, if not redeem, a putrid materiality.