Asturias, Miguel Ángel 1899–1974
Asturias, a Guatemalan novelist, poet, journalist, playwright, and translator, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1967. Seeking to give "a universal consciousness to the problems of Latin America," Asturias fused native legends, folklore, and myths with harsh reality. In his "banana trilogy" he examined U.S. imperialism, and in The President, he attacked a Guatemalan political dictatorship. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28; obituary, Vols. 49-52; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
Miguel Ángel Asturias' Mulata de tal (1963) is what Spanish-speaking critics are given to calling a novela-hipérbole, and it must be treated as such. No respectable critical approach to this novel has yet been found, which is partly why so little has been written about it, and yet its intrinsic interest and its importance for an understanding of Asturias' literary development are unmistakable. (p. 397)
[As] far as Mulata de tal is concerned, there can be no question that influences are largely pre-Columbian and wholly American. There are innumerable elements on almost every page which are familiar to anyone who has read the Popol Vuh, the Anales de los Xahil, or El libro de los libros de Chilam Balam. The real problem is to decide exactly where each element comes from, what it represented to the Mayas (or, in the case of contemporary material, what it represents to their descendants), and what it now represents in the novel, that is, how it has been adapted to the requirements of the author's fictional form…. [Of] Mulata de tal we can say quite categorically that [this problem] is insurmountable, for four main reasons: (1) There was considerable confusion among the Maya themselves, and much deliberate mystification on the part of their priests which was facilitated by the overlapping and often contradictory significance of even their central symbols. (2) There is little consensus of opinion among Maya scholars as to the broad outlines of Maya culture, still less its details. (3) Even when an evident reference to an identifiable cultural phenomenon is isolated, we can still not be sure, from a reading of the various authorities, that Asturias is using the material in any given way, especially as he is known to mistrust the findings of many of the experts in the field. (4) Finally, there are simply too many elements in the novel.
Asturias has worked in most of what he has learned about his native land, both before and since the Conquest, and the finished product is a formidable tissue of incident and detail. All of which, though a considerable aid to his conception and execution of Mulata de tal, makes interpretation an extremely hazardous business, and a single, static perspective is virtually impossible to attain. Instead, we should shift our attention away from meaning and concentrate on method. (pp. 397-99)
I hope to show that the real identity of Mulata de tal is hidden not in its subject matter, but, in so far as the two can be separated, in its language, which is also its method. The attempt to find one comprehensive interpretation would mean, irremediably, the abandonment of any attempt to delve into the real workings of a highly original experiment in fiction.
The subject of Mulata de tal, if it has one, is that of cultural conflict. To some extent this is an extension of the clash between Indian and Ladino in Hombres de maíz (1949), but in the later novel the conflict is viewed simultaneously through all periods of Guatemalan history and at many levels of human experience. This requires a new narrative technique, and a move away from the method which had proved so successful artistically in El Señor Presidente (1946) and Hombres de maíz. In those novels Asturias examines what he calls an hecho central, a situation whose point of reference outside the novel, however fragmented it might become inside it, is a single one and a real one, whose examination is carried out through a literary technique which converts the materials of fiction—plot, characters, scenes—into patterns of imagery. For Mulata de tal he now required to unite, on one literary plane, elements from a multitude of temporal, cultural and geographical realities. The continuous switching of these different realities onto one single screen completely annuls historical perspective and all sense of reality as we know it. Mulata de tal becomes a fantasy, a wildly peripatetic fairy tale whose elements are the myths, legends and folk tales which have danced accompaniment to the development of culture in Guatemala since the Conquest. (pp. 399-400)
The function of metaphor in the two earlier works I have mentioned was to assume the role traditionally allotted to plot and character by acting as the true vehicle for the development of the novel and unifying an otherwise fragmentary narrative as it was unfolded, until a complete and meaningful pattern emerged. In Mulata de tal metaphor and other linguistic devices are used to give dynamic motion to the action, to fuse the heterogeneous elements indicated above into a homogeneous literary whole. Fragments now become a story, a series of dynamic situations, whereas in El Señor Presidente and Hombres de maíz a central situation was fragmented into its suggestive nuclei and then expanded into a wider pattern. Mulata de tal has no plot or even chapters as such, only a motion. It is this motion that is all-important.
The novel is composed of a series of cuentos, each with its own title. It represents the culmination of Asturias' increasing stylization over the last forty years. It gives a deformed picture of reality, as all Asturias' work does, but here the deformation is integrated and unified, and there is no single reality as a point of departure…. Although Mulata de tal rests on the assumption of a series of different implicit realities, there is no one reality from which all the others derive, and so there are no determinable norms…. Asturias in Mulata de tal is emphasizing the dynamic nature of cultural development through the ages. It is the difference between a strip cartoon in a newspaper and an animated cartoon film in full color…. The result of the heterogeneity and the dynamism I have mentioned is a narrative of extraordinary flexibility. Mulata de tal is cellular: it seems to grow out of itself, rather than out of reality. It is the possible links between fictional elements, forged according to a kind of caricature of the laws of structural possibility...
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As Richard Callan indicates in his brief introduction [to Asturias' América, fábula de fábulas, y Otros ensayos], many essays, because of their personal, subjective tone afford special insights into the personality of Asturias. What comes through, particularly in the post-Nobel pieces, is the image of a wry observer of modern man's foibles, who notes ironically how modernization and technological change come into frequently abrasive confrontation with humanistic tradition and regional culture. While rarely failing to entertain, the essays would not stand comparison with those of a distinguished antecedent, José Marti. Similarly, the selections treating Latin American literature, its history, its themes and its idiosyncrasies lack the grounding in history and in concepts of literary and art criticism that characterize the articles of Asturias' contemporary, Alejo Carpentier.
On the other hand, Asturias is at his best when detailing the artistic and sculptural achievements of the Mayas at Copan and Bonampak, blending a solid knowledge of cultural anthropology with an eye for form and theme and a deep sensibility to the Mayan world view.
Finally, in the most interesting (and the longest) essay, Asturias records the genesis of El Señor Presidente, conjures up a dramatic scene in which he jousts verbally with the resurrected characters who question his efficacy as creator, and then proceeds to discuss the mythic under-pinnings of the novel. This is high Asturias tradition, wedding the personal, the imaginative and the conceptual to create, in the mold of his great novels, a literary product of genuine originality. (pp. 405-06)
Joseph Sommers, in Hispania (© 1975 The American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, Inc.), May, 1975.
[Men of Maize], both the fountainhead and the backbone of all that is being written on our continent today, has suffered a strange fate, like so many works which close a period and open up a new epoch.
Many essayists have judged the novel deficient, pointing to its lack of unity, its ungainly and evasive segmentation and its vacillation between genres, in contrast to that solid cathedral of dynamic coherence, that satanic church, El Señor Presidente, the most famous of Asturias' novels…. Many critics dispose of Men of Maize in a couple of lines or ignore it altogether, irritated by this confusing, explosive offshoot which cannot be comfortably fit into the orderly evolution of...
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