Returning to the Time of a Dictator Novel

The story of Asturias tells the story of a nameless country ruled by a nameless man.

Photo by Pierre Boulat / The LIFE Picture Collection / Shutterstock

A writer’s life is inspired, filled, consumed, or consumed by the drama of knowledge. Most writers don’t. Some people are ahead of their time and gone. Some people never see their work published before they die. And some people suffer at bad times. Guatemalan writer Miguel Ángel Asturias is one of the latter. He created a new literary language, feeding the first European movements of the nineteenth-twenty-ninth century, which combined political realism, fiction, music, theater, silent cinema, indigenous culture, and dreams. It is not as if he has not received rosettes: he is the first Latin American writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and one of only three writers to be awarded the Nobel and the Lenin Peace Prize. But “from the very moment” he received the Nobel, his “star began to decline, and he was no longer the center of attention in Latin American literature,” says Gerald Martin, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus of Modern. Lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh and a specialist in the work of Asturias.

However, a recent English translation of his most important work, the dictator novel “El Señor Presidente” – “Mr. President” in this book – by the Guatemalan American writer David Unger, was published in July by Penguin Classics, with an introduction by Martin, can restore it to the status it deserves. This time, the story does not refer to the vicious circles of Latin America but to a United States and Europe against which, for for the first time since its publication, in 1946, a new wave of power leaders has risen.

Asturias was born in Guatemala City, in 1899, one year after President Manuel Estrada Cabrera took office. Estrada Cabrera reigned by terror, running a network of secret police, and persecuting, torturing, and killing political opponents, while giving control of assets of the country to the United Fruit Company, the American company that acted as the de-facto colonial power in Central. America in the early and mid-twentieth century. Asturias’ father, a judge, opposed Estrada Cabrera’s brutal actions at the cost of his job and, when Asturias was a child, he was sent to internal detention in a rural area, where The future writer’s first encounter with indigenous cultures. Estrada Cabrera was expelled, in 1920, and tried and sentenced. Asturias saw the complete brutality of Estrada Cabrera’s government when he worked as secretary of the court that condemned him; Asturias was also with a group that interviewed the former dictator in prison. That experience informed a short story, “Political Beggars,” that Asturias wrote in the twentieth century, which eventually became the first chapter of “El Señor Presidente.”

After a dictator, General José María Orellana, seized power in 1921, Asturias moved first to London and then to Paris, where he lived for the next ten years. He studied Popol Vuh, a sacred text of the Maya, at the Sorbonne, and was associated with Surrealism and the avant garde. He met Picasso, James Joyce, Paul Valéry, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Jiddu Krishnamurti. Asturias did some of his best writing at that time: “Legends of Guatemala,” a collection of nine stories about Mayan mythology, published in Spanish in the 1930s, and, two years later, in a French translation with a foreword by Valéry. ; a sketch of “The Bejeweled Boy,” a memoir of his childhood; part of the novel “Men of Maize,” last published in 1949; and “El Señor Presidente,” completed in 1932. Sergio Ramírez, Nicaragua’s most famous biographer and former Vice President of the country, told me that Asturias “changed the experiment of the Surrealist language in Spanish, according to Rubén Darío worked with the French language during the Modernist period. He added that, in Paris, Asturias and Darío “discovered the atmosphere and reality of North America ,” like others from the country, the Cuban Alejo Carpentier and the Argentine Julio Cortázar, among them.

“El Señor Presidente” tells the story of an unnamed country ruled by an unnamed man, who does very little in the story himself, but his presence organizes and ends all the breaths of life in the land. Nothing, including dreams and inner thoughts, escaped his touch. Everyone lives in fear. The story begins, in a dramatic twist, with the assassination of a colonel close to the President, and the President’s decision to execute two men he wanted to see dead—a retired general. and a lawyer-for the colonel’s death. . He makes his confidant, Miguel Angel Face, alert the retired general when he is captured—the President intends to kill him as he flees, a move he directs in order to to show the guilt of the General. The story follows several characters, including the general’s daughter, Camila, whom Miguel Angel Face falls in love with. But what makes “El Señor Presidente” a “tour de force of great originality,” as the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa wrote in a preface to the new translation, is not his thought but also his use of language, including made-up words, rhymes, songs, and “wonderful similes”:

The box is held where the nose is not blown, looking for boxes in the wind field, a box. . . top, not a box; a handkerchief knocking on the door and the hand of a brass knocker! The knocks go in like screwballs, exiting all sides of the house’s gut. . . knock . . . knock . . . knock . . . box house Each house has its own door knocker to call its occupants when it is closed, they live in death. . . shebang of the house . . exit . . shebang of the house . . Everyone’s eyes widen as he hears the door slam with a furious snarl from the servants. . . “It’s kicking again!” and the walls rang again: “Knocking again! Go open!” “It’s kicking again! Goooo ooopen! and the ash grows without rest, he can’t stir the cat, the guard, with a soft shock sent behind the bars of the sweet potato, and roses grow in provocation, the innocent in the failure of the thorn, and the mirrors speak life as the perfume. through the spirits of the dead furniture: “Knocking! It’s open!”

Asturias seems destined for success. But African American dreams fly and fall as quickly as the country’s values. The fall in the price of coffee caused more economic problems in Guatemala, making, writes Martin, “the average Guatemalans cannot support themselves abroad,” and forced Asturias returned home happily, in 1933. The country was ruled by another dictator, Jorge Ubico, who stayed in power for ten years. Recorded in Guatemala, Asturias did not publish his work at that time, including “El Señor Presidente,” although it is about Estrada Cabrera, which can easily be read about Ubico.

It was not until after the Second World War, and after Asturias published a Mexican edition of the story with little notice, in 1946, and moved to America the following year, that he managed to that brought the book to international acclaim. However, the understanding of the information is not the same: seen in a completely different way from what it was created, “El Señor Presidente” is enjoyed not as a remarkable writer but as ” engaged” (the Sartrean term was then popular ) expressing Latin American injustice. Asturias devoted himself to this reading of his work by publishing three novels, sometimes called the “Banana Trilogy”—”Strong Wind” (1950), “The Green Pope” (1954) ), and “The Eyes of the Interred” (1960)—about the brutality of the United Nations in Guatemala. When Argentina fell under military rule in 1962, Asturias was forced to move again, this time to Italy. In 1966, he received the Lenin Peace Prize for the “Banana Trilogy,” and he won the Nobel the following year, just as the Latin American Boom was growing.

The Boom was a period of almost two years, nineteen-sixties and seventies, in which a group of young writers produced new and important works. Cortázar; Vargas Llosa; Gabriel García Márquez, from Colombia; and Carlos Fuentes, of Mexico, are the most famous authors, although there are many other authors. Asturias was their real first. To begin with, he was identified with the new material, especially in “Legends of Guatemala” and “Men of Maize,” of Latin American magic realism-a style that became widely known with the Boom, for García Márquez’s importance in it is a way to show the country’s sense of absurdity in the face of its truth. Martin, who is the author of a famous novel by García Marquez (and is currently working on a novel by Vargas Llosa), was asked in his first speech to “Mr. President”: “What is the real meaning , if not the result in the writing of stories about hybrid societies in which an important culture of the beginning of Europe is combined in different ways with one or more different cultures in the time is ‘premodern’?” He concluded, “Gabriel García Márquez is not the creator of realism; it is Miguel Ángel Asturias. “The Guatemalans have a mestizo culture; we live between two cultures,” said Lucrecia Méndez de Penedo, a Guatemalan literary scholar who is a member of the Guatemalan Academy of the Language. “Asturias lived in an indigenous countryside as a child. Through magic, he tried to explain this experience, which he called ‘split identity.’ ”

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