I, the Supreme

I THE SUPREME is a fictional biography of Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia (1766-1840), a mad dictator who ruled Paraguay for thirty years. Probably unfamiliar to North American readers, Francia was enough of a celebrity during his lifetime to have come to the attention of that connoisseur of despotism Thomas Carlyle, who lamented in a well-known essay that no biographer had so far attempted a life so that “noble tyrant.”

This huge novel is ostensibly an edited collection of documents from the national archives: official pronouncements and legal documents, extracts from Francia’s journals and letters, transcriptions of his table talk and his death bed ramblings, and relevant passages from any published sources that mention him (including Carlyle). Some of the sources are legitimate, some are forgeries attributed to the opposition party, and some are completely fictitious. The anonymous compiler expands the text with copious footnotes, the English translator adds notes of her own, and Roa Bastos supplies a glossary of phrases in the language of Paraguay’s Guarani Indians. Physically, the book looks more like a novel than a formidable work of historical scholarship.

For readers with little interest in Paraguayan history, the book should nevertheless succeed on several levels: First, as an absurdist comedy focusing on the interplay between Francia and his dim-witted secretary, who acts as a straight man for the dictator’s elaborate jokes; second, as a portrait of Paraguayan life in the nineteenth century, suffused with the sort of magic realism we have come to expect from South American fiction; and finally, as a postmodern fable of textuality and truth. Thought control is one of Francia’s pet projects, and Roa Bastos uses the...

(The entire section is 721 words.)