For the longest time this little tome had patiently looked down from my bookshelves to my comings and goings waiting to be picked up. Long time. I was supposed to have read it in graduate school, but I never got around to it before I quit. And for all that long I was under the impression that it was another ‘regionalist’ novel, like its contemporary Doña Bárbara (by the Venezuelan Romulo Gallegos), a masterpiece of that narrative style. Boy, was I wrong…
Miguel Angel Asturias’ (1899-1974) novel is a masterful example of the best ‘modernist’ literature of the first half of the 20th century. Although it shares with the ‘regionalist’ novels the proud free use of regional speak and customs, the narrative takes freedoms with the syntax, intersperses for effect free flowing onomatopoeia, discontinuous structure, repetition of phrases and at times complete surrealist hallucinatory images and metaphors. It is a heart wrenching story you can not put down, but just the pleasure of reading what Asturias do with Spanish, how he can twist the logic and bring together opposites and more, makes it an amazing experience in itself. I caught myself many times stopping to marvel at a paragraph or even a sentence. And with that he can, like with poetry, say what prose by itself would fall short to put across.
But, about that ‘heart wrenching story’. This is no glorious flight of imagination. The story explores the communal rotting of social and personal dignity and mores as a result of the corruption brought about by political dictatorships. Asturias began writing El Señor Presidente in 1922. It is understood that the title character was inspired by the ‘presidency’ of Guatemalan dictator Manuel Estrada Carrera. And Asturias does place sign posts that do point in that direction. But the dictator character mostly appears a handful of times in all the story. Asturias rather focuses with a devastating effect on the corroding effect the system unleashes on the regular people who are willing either for ambition, terror or just plain morbid sadism to debase themselves and on a drop of a hat go from a victim of the murderous ‘amo’ to voluntarily double cross their closest friend or family or risk being pulled apart body and soul in the most sadist fashion dictated by the Presidente’s calculating whims. It is like seeing the Presidente in society’s mirror.
And there is no redeeming action possible once you sell your soul to the devil. And to this, love has nothing to oppose but to leave the cesspool of civilization and, literally, run for the hills.
Asturias finished his novel in 1932 in Paris, where he was in contact with members of the surrealist movement while studying at the Sorbonne, which surely influenced the narrative style. But it was not published until much later as its publication had been prohibited by Guatemala’s next dictator, Jorge Ubico who ruled Guatemala until 1944. It was not until 1946 that he was able to publish it, and that in Mexico.
El Señor Presidente, by Miguel Angel Asturias (1899-1974) is considered the first ‘dictator novel’, a genre that was painfully relevant and critical given the suffering history of our republics and a link between European surrealism and the future Magical Realism genre. It has been adapted for stage and movies.
Miguel Angel Asturias received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1967 for his entire body of work.
El Señor Presidente, decimonovena edición, 1973, Editorial Losada, Buenos Aires.