Miguel Ángel Asturias Essay - Asturias, Miguel Angel (Vol. 3)

Asturias, Miguel Angel (Vol. 3)

Asturias, Miguel Angel 1899–1974

Winner of the 1967 Nobel Prize for Literature, Asturias was also a lawyer and diplomat and served from 1966 until his death as Ambassador to France from his native Guatemala. His unique novels of social protest abound with myth and sorcery, hallucination and Dali-esque distortion. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)

In the end one can admit that Asturias's novels are often interesting, provided one does not take for granted the claim that they are authentic expressions of the contemporary descendants of the Maya. They are interesting because they are authentic expressions of the confused and anomalous mind of a Europeanized Guatemalan desperately endeavouring to assess his local roots. This may sound backhanded, but it could scarcely be otherwise. A real Indian novel would have to be written by a real Indian, preferably not in Spanish but in an Indian language. Could such a real Indian write anyway? And if he could write well enough to produce a novel (let alone in Asturias's allegedly "Joycean" Spanish) would he any longer be a real Indian, in the sense in which Asturias would probably understand the term?

At times, Asturias can be very impressive indeed. El señor Presidente (1946) has only recently been superseded by Mario Vargas Llosa's Conversación en la Catedral as the most convincing Latin American novel yet about dictatorship. A novel can handle dictatorship very persuasively because it can convey its effect on private life, convey indeed the way in which a totalitarian regime can destroy the possibility of private life altogether. El señor Presidente certainly does all this….

The novel achieved one more thing. It was the first novel for years to treat Latin American problems on their merits, and not according to preconceived stereotypes. Apart from the President, there is no character who is wholly positive or negative; most are victims of circumstance. To avoid socialist realist stereotypes is, of course, a modest achievement…. It is a pity that in Asturias's subsequent trilogy on American exploitation he should have returned to a strict Manichaeanism. It is as though he felt that ambivalence of motive and conduct could only be allowed his compatriots: Americans are unredeemedly satanic.

There is one final complaint to be made against Asturias. He suffers from what Borges has described as the Spanish belief that to write well you must use every word in the dictionary, a habit that Latin American writers have now mercifully outgrown, mostly as a result of Borges's own example. Asturias has never pretended to be a writer for whom only the sheer joy of words matters. His subjects are too pressing. One would think therefore that he would resign himself to expressing them more efficiently. Instead, the claims of dictatorship, terror, arrest and denunciation are constantly surrendered to the awful pun, to outlandish dialect comprehensible to most Latin Americans only with a glossary, to laboured alliteration and to onomatopoeic effects of doubtful purpose….

It is a pity that Asturias, spurred on, perhaps, by his admirers, has retained all that is worst in his work and jettisoned all that was good: his legitimate social concern, and his ability, despite himself, to capture the feel of unpleasant yet all too common situations.

"Guatemala's Magician," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), November 19, 1971, pp. 1441-42.

Asturias is a proficient, prolific, rather dull novelist who seems to have got the Nobel Prize for having a kind heart and for sympathizing, at least in his books, with the downtrodden. The Eyes of the Interred, first published in Spanish in 1960, is the third part of a trilogy, following on Strong Wind and The Green Pope, a long story of strife and turmoil in the banana plantations. Here the threat of a general strike brings down the president of the country, but the revolutionaries know they have not won their fight yet….

The book is skillfully decorated with symbols and myths, all the characters are convincingly realized, in a bookish way, and the only question in my mind is why Asturias should have bothered to write it, and why we should bother to read it.

Michael Wood, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), April 19, 1973, p. 35.

We know what to expect here [in The Eyes of the Interred]. The novels of Miguel Angel Asturias, Guatemalan winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1967), spill over with characters, evoke continually the feral presence of the jungle, and into a lavish tapestry of myth and folklore weave anticapitalistic propaganda which can make for some tedious reading, especially so because Asturias likes to spread himself. The present volume, the final one of his Banana Republic trilogy, is no exception: there's a whole army of dynamic, closely-observed, bulging characters; the jungle comes through graphically and excitingly, never a mere backdrop; and the onslaught on gringo capital—this again personified in banana king George Maker Thompson—renews itself in the form of a successful, although untidy, general strike. In other words, this is committed, doctrinaire fiction, light-years behind Borges, reminding us that during the 1950s Asturias was exiled for eight years on account of his political convictions. An unpolitical reader must take the ideological rough with the atavistic smooth.

What's surprising in the long run (and long it is) is how much of the smooth he gives. The writing combines relentless observation with pliant, instant mythology, heraldic dream sequences with resonating and witty talkfests (in which Asturias, who often forgoes narrative, stages ventriloquistic tours de force that supplement the loud jungle with a human obbligato)….

What Asturias excels at here, though, is trains very closely watched indeed. Reptilian in motion and claustrophobic in effect, they force speakers on top of one another, keep the scene changing, build suspense, and go charmed through the furnace of "green fire," the inextinguishable vegetation. In the military section of one train, a general on his way to a conference laps cold champagne "off breasts, thighs, sexual organs" while watching his soldiers shoot the rebels in the nearby countryside; later, the women are pitched off the platform while the train is going full speed….

Meaty, earthy, yet sometimes impulsively lyrical, The Eyes of the Interred tells also a delicate, wry love story, that of Malena the school teacher and Juan Pablo the revolutionary, which becomes a vernal plateau in the text, at once dreamlike and unhistrionic….

As the book itself says, "one [has] the feeling of moving through a forest of dream reflected at his feet and a living forest on his shoulders"; no chip, to be sure. It's a forest of beggars, soldiers, priests, urchins, whores, agents provocateurs, slum-dwellers and peasant visionaries. The Eyes of the Interred, in fact, is a novel complex and lush enough almost (although by accident, I'm sure) to bury its politics in overgrowth; where that doesn't happen, especially toward the end, it becomes earnest and two-dimensional and the "volcanic vehemence" cited by the Nobel Committee dwindles into mousy pietism. The "eyes" are those of "the interred … waiting for the day of justice."

Paul West, "Into a Fiery Green Furnace," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 27, 1973, p. 6.

Although awkwardly staged, [the] prophecy by a naked Indian sorcerer in "The Eyes of the Interred" ["No one will ever win against the green fire!"…], the third volume of the Banana Trilogy, is one of the rare moments of this monstrously inflated polemical novel in which Miguel Angel Asturias strikes his authentic theme: Nature will avenge itself against those who would destroy our last and unconvertible resource—the ancient myths that bind man to man and to the vegetal and animal universe. Without these sustaining myths, Asturias admonishes us in his best novels again and again, man becomes an exile from his origins, a soulless, animate "thing" condemned to roam the earth with no aim except to destroy and be destroyed….

In "El Señor Presidente" Asturias wields with consummate artistry the techniques he had learned in Paris from Surrealists like André Breton, Tristan Tzara and Robert Desnos, who was his best friend. But Asturias bent their tools to his own esthetic and philosophical purposes, which he has summed up in the phrase "magical surrealism." "Presidente" is a truly magical work, despite its stylistic extravagances….

The chief obstacle for the North American reader—not to mention the translator—is Asturias's rich, encrusted idiom. To evoke the nightmare atmosphere of Guatemala in 1916 Asturias resorts not only to native vernacular and sensory imagery but to cruel children's rhymes and refrains, tongue-twisters and an overstuffed sorcerer's bag of alliteration, parallelisms, bilingual puns and onomatopoetic devices. He manipulates words to achieve percussive and ritual effects and mingles obscure Mayan and Spanish slang phrases with prolific, often self-indulgent abandon….

[The translator's] English yields little resonance of Indian dialect, mulatto creole, or mestizo Spanish; it sounds oddly neutral, like Esperanto….

"The Eyes of the Interred," more conspicuously than any other novel of Asturias's, is a casualty of his technique of automatic writing. Everything in it is off-focus and stagey—stringless puppets dancing an interminable jig on a skewed landscape of martyred banana trees, omnipresent portents and retributive disasters that seem to have been concocted in a forties special-effects studio. Asturias, in truth, translates least well of important Latin American writers….

Asturias's political novels are full of conceptual lapses. It can be argued that he is not a political thinker at all but a moral allegorist with ties to the medieval Spanish romancers on one side, and on the other to the Quiché-Mayan chroniclers of the "Popol Vuh," who projected the universe as a battleground between good and bad demonic forces, a contest in which individual figures blend indissolubly with allegory and animistic myth.

The Banana Trilogy is an exile's work both in subject and viewpoint, although at least a third of it was written in Guatemala in the early fifties, before Asturias was expatriated.

Victor Perera, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 26, 1973, pp. 7-8.