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||Miguel Ángel Asturias (1899-1974)|
Guatemalan poet, novelist, diplomat, and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1967 for his "highly colored writings, rooted in a national individuality and Indian traditions." Asturias's writings combine the mysticism of the Maya with epic impulse toward social protest. His most famous novel is El Señor Presidente (1946), about people under the rule of a ruthless dictator. Asturias spent much of his life in exile.
"If you write novels merely to entertain – then burn them! This might be the message delivered with evangelical fervour since if you do not burn them they will anyway be erased from the memory of the people where a poet or novelist should aspire to remain. Just consider how many writers there have been who – down the ages – have written novels to entertain! And who remembers them now?" (in Nobel Lecture, 1967)
Miguel Angel Asturias was born in Guatemala City, the son of Ernesto
Asturias, a magistrate of the Supreme Court of Justice, and María
Rosales, a schoolteacher. On his mother's side Asturias's American
lineage went back before the Spanish arrive in the New World. Both of
his parents were liberal-minded.
When his father refused to take legal actions against antigovernmet student demonstrators, they lost their jobs. The family moved to the town of Salamá, where Asturias's maternal grandfather Colonel Gabino Gómez lived. Their clash with the Guatemalan dictator Estrada Cabrera taught Asturias his first lesson in fighting oppressive forms of power. During this period Asturias also came in direct contact with Indians. His Indian nanny, Lola Reyes, was later portrayed in the play Soluna (1955). After returning to Guatemala City with his family, Ernesto Asturias became a sugar and flour importer.
In 1917 Asturias entered the university, where he studied medicine
for a year and then transferred to law. He was active in the student
protest movements against the regime of the dictator Manuel Estrada
Cabrera. When Estrada Cabrera was brought down and taken to prison,
Asturias served as a secretary to the court in which the dictator was
prosecuted. "I saw him almost daily in jail," Asturias recalled. "And I
realized that undoubtedly such men enjoy special powers of some sort.
To the point that when he was behind bars people said: No, that
couldn't be Estrada Cabrera. The real Estrada Cabrera got away. . . .
In other words, the myth couldn't be in prison." (The Epic of Latin America by John A. Crow, 1980, p. 750)
As a representative of the Asociación General de Estudiantes Universitarios, Asturias traveled to Honduras and El Salvador. In 1921 he went to Mexico as one of Guatemala's spokesmen to the International Student Congress. Besides coming in contact with diplomats and influential politicians, Asturias met the Spanis novelist and playwright Ramón María del Valle-Inclán, whose Tirano Banderas (1926, The Tyrant Banderas), would have a deep impact in his own work.
Asturias received in 1923 his doctor of law degree at San Carlos
University. His dissertation dealt with social problems of the
Guastemalan Indians. Asturias was one of thefounders of the weekly newspaper Tiempos Nuevos
(New Times). His outspoken articles drew the attention of the
authorities. Feeling that his life was in danger, Asturias left his
homecountry, and continued his education in Europe. .
Instead of taking economics as his
father had intended him to do, Asturias studied anthropology in Paris
at the Sorbonne (1923-28), where he encountered French translations of
writings. Under the influence of Georges Raynaud, his teacher at the
Sorbonne, he developed a deep concern for the Mayan culture. According
to a friend, the author himself looked exactly like a Mayan statue. He
was relatively tall, heavy set, very bronzed, and had thick lips, an
eagle nose, and oval eyes. ('Asturias, Miguel Angel,' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman, 1975, p. 92) In 1925 Asturias translated the sacred Mayan text Popol Vuh into Spanish, but from a French translation. During these years Asturias also began to write poetry and fiction. Interested in the workings of the subconscious, he associated with André Breton, Paul Éluard, and other Surrealists.
Asturias lived in Paris for ten years. He referred to his homeland as "a country that doesn't exist" partly because the property was in the hands of foreigners and he saw that the people had a disdain for the cultural heritage of their own country. A French poet told him: "You must not stay here. I assure you that you write things about which we, Europeans, don't even dream. You come from a world in the making, your spirit seethes with an excitement like that of soil, the volcanoes, and nature. You must rapidly return over there so as not to lose it." (Miguel Ángel Asturias's Archaeology of Return by René Prieto, 1990, p. 263)
Leyendas de Guatemala (1930), based on a Mayan myth, established Asturias's reputation as a stylist. The Leyendaswere
half fairy-tales, half poetry, composed in a lyrical Spanish. Paul
Válery wrote the preface. "What a mixture of torrid nature, of confused
botany, of indigenous magic, theology of Salamance in which the
Volcano, the friars, the Sleep Man (Hombre Adormadera), the Merchant of
Priceless Jewels, the flocks of dominical parrots, the master magicians
that go to the villages to teach how to weave and the value of the Zero
compose the most delirious of dreams." (The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City: Latin America in the Cold War by Jean Franco, 2002, p. 167)
Two years later Asturias wrote his first novel on the theme of Latin American dictatorship. El Señor Presidente, which begun in 1922 as a short story, was completed in 1933 but it did not appear until 1946. The society of the novel is corrupted; evil spreads downwards from the ruler. Justice is a mockery, and army officers spend their time plotting or in brothels. El Señor Presidente utilized surrealistic techniques; it reflected Asturias's idea that Indians' nonrational perception of reality is an expression of the subconscious forces, the collective dream of mankind. "In the city of Copan, the King walks his silver-skinned does in the Palace gardens. The royal shoulder is adorned with a jewelled feather of nahual. He wears on his breast magic shells, woven upon golden thread." Though story is partly based on real events, it has no precise time or locale. Estrada Cabrera, the dictator of Guatemala from 1898 to 1920, made his political adversary, Manuel Paz, believe that Paz's wife had been unfaithful to him. In the novel, set in the unnamed capital of an unnamed state, the President tries to eliminate two of his enemies, General Canales and a lawyer, Carvajal. The General manages to escape, and the President's favorite, Miguel Cara de Ángel falls in love with his daughter, Camila. General Canales dies of heart failure on reading a false newspaper report that the President had attended his daughter's wedding; Cara de Ángel is arrested and he receives a false report that Camila has become the President's mistress.
--"An angel!" The wood-cutter couldn't take his eyes from him. "An angel," he repeated, "an angel!"
Upon returning to Guatemala in 1933 Asturias worked as a journalist and made broadcasts for El Diaro del Aire.
In 1942 he was elected to the National Congress. With the fall of Jorge
Ubico, he entered diplomatic career, and served as a cultural
attaché in Mexico (1945-47) and held a number of other diplomatic
posts. From 1947 to 1953 he was in Buenos Aires, in Paris in 1952-53,
and as ambassador to San Salvador in 1953-54. After separating from his
first wife Clemencia Amado in 1946, Asturias became interested in the
theories of Freud and Jung. His psychoanalyst followed him to Paris,
where he lived for a period with Asturias and the author's new wife,
the Argentinian Blanca Mora y Araujo. Asturas's career in the
diplomatic corps ended for a while when he was banished by the
right-wing forces of Carlos Castillo Armas. With the secret support of
CIA, Armas seized power from Jacobo Arbenz Guzman's progreessive
government. Asturias lost his citizenship, he was never to live in
again permanently. During his years in Argentina Asturias served as a
correspondent for Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional and as an adviser to the traditional publishing house Editorial Losada.
Hombres de maíz (1949, Men of Corn) is generally considered Asturias's masterpiece. Ariel Dorfman said in his essay on the novel, that "Along with Alejo Carpentier's remarkable The Kingdom of This Wold, which was also published in 1949, [Hombres de maiz] could well be said to inaugurate the extraordinary renaissance of the contemporary Latin American novel. And yet it has been consistently underrated by critics and neglected by readers." (Some Write to the Future: Essays on Contemporary Latin American Fiction by Ariel Dorfman, 1992, p. 1) The novel depicted a rebellion by a remote tribe of Indians against desecration of their mountains and their annihilation by the army. Asturias plunged deep into the magic world view of Indians. Utilizing his knowledge of pre-Columbian literature Asturias told the story in a form of a myth. Gaspar Ilóm, the first of the myth-figures presented by the author, is an undying voice of truth: "Thus he spoke with his head separated from his body, pointed, warm, wrapped in the grey mop of the moon. Gaspar Ilóm grew old as he was speaking. His head had fallen to the ground like a flower pot sown with little feet of thoughts..." Gaspar leads a rebellion against the maize planters, and becomes a legend. Eventually the Indians lose their land, and their magic. Because of the complex narrative structure, the book was ignored for a long time.
In the 1950s Asturias wrote the so-called Banana Trilogy, Viento fuerte (1950), El papa verde (1954), and Los ojos de los enterrados
(1960), revealing the evils of the United Fruit Company. These works
depict how a plantation is set up in a small Central American state,
and how the villages are seized and burned. In the last volume the
central action concerns the efforts of Octavio Sansur to arrange a
general strike. In the end both peasant/worker cooperatives and labour
unionism face formidable obstacles. Asturias's trilogy received the Lenin Prize in 1966.
Week-end en Guatemala (1956) a collection of short stories, dealt with the intervention of the United States against the Arbenz government, which had initiated a land reform program. Asturias himself had advocated since his youth the concept of small, peasant-owned farms. When colonel Castillo Armas took power in 1954, Asturias lived in exile in Chile with the poet Pablo Neruda and later in Buenos Aires where he worked as a correspondent for the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional. In 1962 Argentinian policy forced him into exile again. Asturias moved to Italy as a cultural exchange programme member. Though he regarded Colonel Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán as his true president, Asturias was named in 1966 by the new leader of Guatemala as ambassador to France, resigning from his post in 1970, when Méndez Montenegro left the presicency. Asturias spent his final years in Madrid, where died on a lecture tour on June 9, 1974, but he was buried in Pére Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
For further reading: Into the Mainstream: Conversations with the Latin-American Writers by L. Harss & B. Dohmann (1967) Myth and Social Realism in Miguel Ángel Asturias by Luis Leal (1968); An Introduction to Spanish-American Literature by Jean Franco (1969); Miguel Angel Asturias by R.J. Callan (1970); Miguel Ángel Asturias by Eladia León Hill (1972); Conversaciones con Miguel Ángel Asturias by Álvarez Luis López (1974); 'Asturias, Miguel Angel,' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman (1975); De tirasnos, héroes y brujos by Giuseppe Bellini (1982); La problemática de la identidad en "El Señor Presidente" de Miguel Ángel Asturias by Teresita Rodríquez (1989); Miguel Ángel Asturias's Archaeology of Return by René Prieto (1990); Las Novelas de Miguel Ángel Asturias desde la teoría de la recepción by Lourdes Royano Gutiérrez (1993); India's Mythology in the Novel El alhajadito (The bejeweled boy) by Miguel Angel Asturias by Richard J. Callan (2003); Literature Suppressed on Political Grounds by Nicholas J. Karolides; preface by Ken Wachsberger (rev. ed., 2006); Diorama en torno a la obra de Miguel Ángel Asturias by Mario Alberto Carrera (2017)