Friday, September 07, 2007

Miguel Angel Asturias: The President

There is a remarkable subgenre in latin american novel called "the dictator novel." The most famous, and perhaps also the best, is Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Autumn of the Patriarch. Other acclaimed books dealing with the same subject are The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa, I, The Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos, Reasons of State by Alejo Carpentier, The Peron Novel by Tomas Eloy Martinez and certainly there must be more. I have so far read only Marquez and Llosa of all these. Even though these writers differ markedly in their tone, style and treatment the basic subject matter that they cover, that is the nature of the dictatorship, remains essentially the same. So much so that at some point the whole thing starts looking comic. You can take one dictator from one country and one period in history and install him in some other country in some other time and it wouldn't make any difference. (An early Woody Allen film Bananas pokes some good satire at this state of affairs.) This is of course no occasion for comedy and indeed even though the tone is that of fantastical satire and absurd humour, the books in the end are very gloomy, always imbued with remarkable pessimism and fatalism about the nature historical progress and hope for the future, specially when it comes to latin american people.

Miguel Angel Asturias, who also worked as a diplomat for Guatemala, won the nobel prize for literature in 1967. I came across his name, and in particular this book, in an essay on the genre of "dictator novels" in latin american literature that I talked of earlier. Now after having read his most famous book I can only wish I could be more enthusiastic about it. Like most of the latin american novels it is also remarkably polyphonic and has that fantastic sense of place and a worldview which is at once enchanted and real (also popularly known as "Magic Realist") but overall the writing itself felt ordinary, and at least uneven at best. The story starts with classic palace intrigue. The anonymous president of an anonymous state is not happy with his general for some arbitrary reason and plans for his arrest and execution. His assistant, a figure named "angel face" is assigned the task. After some complicated plot happenings, some of which I actually couldn't follow, the general manages to escape and angel face instead abducts the general's daughter. He ultimately falls in love with her but the God-like president is always near to wreck and destroy his plans and aspirations. He is inveigled into going on a trip to Washington but is instead sent to jail and tortured. In the end, while the wife is told that Angel Face has abandoned her for a life of luxury in America, he himself is told in the jail that his wife has become the mistress of president, a news he is not able to bear and soon dies. There are of course lot of subplots and many minor characters. In fact there are two many parallel plot threads with too many peripheral characters each with its own point of view and voice. All of it does result in a polyphony of diverse voices but it also means the novel itself is not very easy to follow.

I was reading some reviews on Amazon and people were complaining about the translation. The translation is not by any of the star translators - Gregory Rabassa, Helen Lane or Edith Grossman. May be it was because of this reason that the prose felt flat and stilted and occasional attempts at magic realism read more like bad poetry ("the streets ran after one another scantily clad in the moonlight", "the dripping water in the jug bade him goodbye"). I have problems with this whole magic realism thing anyway, which I will perhaps write in a separate post. But even after all the obvious shortcomings the book has many powerful scenes, a few of them extremely unnerving and unsettling specially in their depiction of irrational violence and debasement and crushing of human spirit by authority and power, both defining elements of political tyranny.

In short not very impressive but definitely worthwhile. If you haven't read any "dictator novel" I will suggest Autumn of the Patriarch and The Feast of the Goat. They are both very good. Couldn't find anything on the internet except this which makes a case for the "overlooked master" from Guatemala. More information from the nobel prize website and wikipedia.


KUBLA KHAN said...

I hunt Latin American literature but so far have not read this novel. it is mentioned in the library of babel, by borges or at least asturias is.
perhaps Asturias wrote in a different language that we are normally accustomed to or translation c'd be a reason for what you have described.
I am not sure whether I will read this novel after reading your post!

Alok said...

It is not bad but not that impressive either. This is an old book and an early translation so may that was the reason . Anyway there are always so many more books to read...