EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay originally appeared as the foreword to Mr. President by Miguel Ángel Asturias, newly translated by David Unger.
Mr. President grew out of “Political Beggars,” a short story that Miguel Ángel Asturias wrote in December 1922 before leaving Guatemala for Europe. The novel was first published in 1946 in an edition full of errors that Asturias corrected for the second edition (Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada, 1948). Indeed, he worked longer on this novel than on any other of his published books, even though he had abandoned the manuscript for long periods of time. The novel carried this annotation: “Paris, November 1923–December 8, 1932.” According to most critics, and the author’s own account, this novel was inspired by the dictatorship of Manuel Estrada Cabrera, who ruled as lord and master of Guatemala for 22 years, from 1898 to 1920.
At the behest of family friends, Asturias had gone to London in 1923 to study economics. He suddenly had a change of heart and went to Paris to take classes at the Sorbonne with Professor Georges Raynaud. It was in Raynaud’s courses that he discovered Mayan culture and spent years translating the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Mayas. In Paris he wrote poems and the novel Legends of Guatemala (1930), and also continued working on Mr. President, which was almost completely written in France.
There’s a certain confusion about this novel, to which Asturias himself contributed. At the time, he championed social and protest fiction, the kind that revealed the horrors that Latin American dictators had committed. On many occasions, he claimed that his book belonged to the genre of politically engaged novels.
Undoubtedly, this is one important aspect of Mr. President. The novel deals with prototypical Latin American realist or local color themes, based on the dramatic historical circumstance that dictators ruled most Latin America countries. But even though Asturias’s novel depicts this constant and recurring reality, it surely isn’t its most important aspect, or this lively story wouldn’t have stood out from these somewhat un-sophisticated novels or survived the test of time.
To be sure, like many other Latin American novels, Mr. President fits in the category of the politically engaged novel. It depicts the havoc that dictatorships play in triggering human tragedies, economic catastrophes, and corruption in our countries. But Asturias does this in a unique way, frequently employing subtle, original, and unusual literary devices, without displaying the formal weaknesses and shortcomings often found in Latin American protest literature. More important, he does this in a much broader context than the typical social or political testimonial novel.
Asturias frames his novel as the struggle between good and evil in an underdeveloped society where evil seems to triumph. There isn’t a single character in the novel that is saved—not even the young Camila, who is blackmailed into marrying the dictator’s favorite confidant: the handsome Miguel Angel Face. She even attends a reception in the palace of the president who has imprisoned her father, the exiled General Eusebio Canales, the supposed murderer of Colonel Parrales Sonriente and who ends up poisoned near the novel’s conclusion. All the characters—whether they are soldiers, judges, politicians, wealthy or poor, the powerful or the downtrodden—epitomize evil. They are thieves, cynics, opportunists, liars, corrupt or violent individuals, drunkards, servants—in short, among the most repugnant and disgusting of human beings. And probably even Mr. President—who decides who is to live and who is to die and is a drunkard, a traitor, the mastermind of hundreds of twisted intrigues—isn’t the worst of all. That designation goes to either his judge advocate or Major Farfán, who, on orders of the head of state, perpetrate the most violent, outrageous crimes: the former when he questions, humiliates, and punishes Fedina de Rodas for crimes committed by her husband, Genaro, against the Dimwit; and the latter, by detaining Miguel Angel Face at the harbor as he’s about to leave for New York on presidential orders. Miguel is arrested, beaten mercilessly, and buried in an underground dungeon where he has only two hours of light each day. He is fed filth and survives by slowly rotting, dying little by little while his wife, Camila, contacts diplomats and politicians all over the world, even in Singapore, hoping he is safe only to learn, too late, that Angel Face is also a victim of a monster who controls everything—lives, deaths, and taxes are within his realm—with his little finger.
What is unique and what transforms this demonic book filled with hideous episodes is Asturias’s artistry, which is made evident by the novel’s formal structure and its original use of language.
Mr. President is qualitatively better than all previous Spanish-language novels. Marvelously controlled, the novel’s language owes much to Professor Reynaud’s lectures on surrealism and other avant-garde movements in vogue in France while Asturias was writing it. No doubt he was also deeply affected by nostalgia for his far-off country at the other end of the world and the many years he had been away from Guatemala getting together with his South American friends at Montparnasse’s Café de la Rotonde. His work was influenced by automatic writing, the mixing of reality and dreams—nightmares, I should say—an unusual poetic musicality, and the merging of forms that convert history into a grand novelistic and poetic spectacle and where reality becomes street theater and apocalyptical fantasy at every turn.
The first chapter, “In the Portal del Señor,” is unforgettable. A swirl of one-armed, one-eyed, blind, crippled beggars have been reduced to the most primitive bestiality and mistreat one another with the deepest of misery and savagery. Pelele—the Dimwit—is one of them; this poor devil is later needlessly killed by Lucio Vásquez. At the book’s end, the dictatorship remains intact—of course, the Portal del Señor is destroyed, but the hideous system it symbolizes is not.
Asturias’s language is multifaceted and not the Spanish that all the characters in the story utilize. Despite their lack of decency, the upper classes speak a more or less correct Spanish. This is also the case for Angel Face, Camila, a handful of ministers and officers, and even Mr. President. But as the novel explores the language of the lower classes, the richness and invention of expression increases and shifts, introducing invented words, songs, audacious grammatical renderings, astonishing metaphors, rhythms, terms generally associated with native insects, plants, and trees. A provincial world of untamed nature not yet dominated by man is depicted in a country that finds itself isolated and changing slowly, before the advent of cars and airplanes, and in which a trip to New York involves a long train ride and boat journey. Guatemala isn’t mentioned even once, but that doesn’t matter—everything points to that unfortunate, yet beautiful country: the capital is far from the ocean, surrounded by rivers, jungles, and volcanoes. Its unfortunate citizens would know only hideous dictatorships until long after the novel ends—at least until 1950—and incorporate into their thoughts and diction an extraordinary glibness, inventing words, fantasizing and improvising as they speak, endlessly creating in everything they say and exclaim, thus transforming reality into enchantment—a hellish one at that—where time goes in circles, around itself, as in a nightmare. Life is depicted as a theatrical tragedy repeated endlessly and where human beings are merely actors and, at times, mythical characters. Chapter XXXVII, “Tohil’s Dance,” in particular, is more like a painting or mural inspired by the distant ancestors of the K’iche’ Maya archeological past, a historical reminiscence that connects to Guatemala’s rich history. All of the other chapters correspond to an updated present in which a humble, isolated, and primitive people—subjected to the indescribable horrors of a brutal, incarcerating regime—live in abject poverty. But there’s something that supports the country’s people and keeps it from vanishing: the vital and extraordinary strength with which they withstand mistreatment and humiliation, a tragic existence steeped in muck, jungle, and animals and in the hugely creative way they survive and employ language. Despite the depths of its social and political disgrace, its people are capable, nonetheless, of creating and taking on a distinct personality, inventing a new language, music and rhythms that shape it, and which makes it unique and guarantees its survival.
Asturias achieved something unique in this novel. Its linguistic beauty is part of the historical truth: the Guatemalan way of speaking is creative and personal. Asturias isn’t a mere scribe to that linguistic reality, but also its creator—someone who chooses to dive into the bottomless fountain of how a nation and its people speak, but also managing to polish and add something of his own fantasies, obsessions, and excellent ear to give it his own personal stamp. Mr. President is undoubtedly a work of art, a true tour de force of great originality and creativity, perhaps closer to poetry than to fiction or, perhaps, a rare merging of these two genres.
Many episodes in the novel begin in a realistic vein but, little by little, Asturias constructs a visionary and metaphorical poetic language, which leads him to discard a realistic, objective landscape for one of legend, dream, theater, myth, and pure invention. This is what makes this novel so unique, so new, and of such a high literary value that almost a century later, Mr. President continues to be one of the most original Latin American texts ever written.
Asturias’s nostalgia for his native land certainly played an important role in the writing of this novel. And yet, the distance between Asturias and Guatemala—he was living in Paris—gave him a kind of freedom that many writers living in their homelands did not have, since they were forced to experience a brutality that impeded their ability to write freely, without fear of persecution and censorship. Probably Miguel Ángel Asturias wasn’t fully aware of how great a novel he had written and whose magnitude he would never again repeat, because the novels, short stories, and poems he wrote afterward were closer to the narrower, somewhat demagogic literature of “committed” dictator novels that he had earlier championed. He hadn’t realized that the great merit of Mr. President was precisely that he had broken that tradition and raised the politically engaged novel to an altogether higher level.