Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 975
Miguel Ángel Asturias is a leading figure in the phenomenon that has come to be known as the “Boom,” the relatively sudden emergence of a large number of immensely talented fiction writers from Latin America. Scholars disagree about who started the Boom and who is its most important figure, but the fact that Asturias published his most famous novel, El Señor Presidente, in 1946, before many of his Latin American colleagues had even begun to write, and the fact that he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1967, indicates that he should be thought of as one of the earliest and one of the best Boom writers.
Although the Boom was not a school of writers with a set of goals in common, at least two major tendencies appear in much of their fiction. For one, Boom writers are among the most innovative of the twentieth century, blazing technical and stylistic trails. The way they write often seems as important to them and as interesting to the reader as that about which they write. However, they also take their subjects very seriously. The subject they address more than any other is politics, especially the relationship between the government and the governed. On both of these counts, Asturias shows himself to be a central figure in the Boom, and no better example than El Señor Presidente exists in his writing.
Asturias’s theme is the most common one in Latin American political fiction: the relationship between the powerful and the powerless, victimizer and victim. In every case, Asturias’s, and hence the readers’, sympathies lie with the poor, weak victims of a political structure that rewards greed and cruelty and leaves everything else a waste.
At the top of the political-military power structure of Guatemala (never named in the novel) is the president (based on Manuel Estrada Cabrera), who rules by terror and by coercion. He perceives anyone with strength, talent, and the potential to be popular with the citizenry as an enemy and ruthlessly destroys him. Often this destruction, as in Ángel Face’s case, takes some time in coming, and, before it arrives, the victim may believe himself to be favored by the president. To rise in the ranks, however—even by being especially loyal and useful to the president—is to acquire power. Those who live by power fear nothing so much as others with power. Thus, even the president’s closest advisers and supporters are threats to his power and are always, ultimately, in danger of his wrath.
Fear pervades the tyrannical power structure of Guatemala, therefore, and its irrational nature is seen in the fact that not one of those arrested, brutalized, and often killed by the authorities poses a real threat to the president or, indeed, has done anything that could be interpreted as treasonous or even unpatriotic. This is true of Ángel Face, who rises to a position of power because of his loyalty to the president, of Camila, and of Fedina, whom the authorities know is innocent even before she is thrown in prison and tortured, and even of General Canales, for whose supposed treachery the president offers not a shred of evidence.
A few gleams of thematic light do penetrate this dark world of fear and oppression. Mothers still love their children. Persons of honor are still willing to die for the truth (as “Mosquito” does early in the novel when he refuses wrongly to implicate the general in Colonel Sonriente’s death). Compassion and mercy still exist, although these are more frequently found among the poor and the powerless than among those who take their lessons...
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from the president and make their way by force and intimidation.
The character who offers the most hope is Ángel Face. He rises to a position of great power and importance, and he has the intelligence and the talent to rise higher. Instead, knowing the dangers he faces, he chooses love and compassion.
Rather than moving the novel in an optimistic direction, though, Ángel Face’s experience underscores the hopelessness of the situation. Clearly, the president wins out over everyone. Asturias holds out no promise for a better tomorrow. By the end of the novel, Guatemala is shown to be a society with two classes. In one class is the president, wielding all the power; in the other is everyone else.
Asturias began writing El Señor Presidente in the 1930’s, in the middle of what has come to be called the age of modernism. Modernist novelists characteristically use much ambiguity, subtlety, and psychological penetration, qualities almost totally absent from Asturias’s novel. Indeed, his themes are obvious, and even his major characters tend to be one-dimensional. Rather than being faults, however, these are deliberate technical strategies.
Asturias lives in the dark world that he writes about, and his desire to announce the horror of that world is too great to allow for such technical niceties as ambiguity. Evil is clearly evil in Asturias’s novel and good clearly good, and the characters align themselves under one or the other heading. Even those characters who change over the course of time (especially Ángel Face and General Canales, who come to realize and react against the horrors of the government they serve) do so in easily perceived ways and stages. Even the passages in which realism seems to give way to the fantastic (the one in which the streets “chase” the Zany, for instance, and the one in which the chaotic deliriums of characters under torture are described), Asturias is trying to convey plainly the evils of tyranny. This often imparts the feeling of a parable to this otherwise grimly realistic novel.
El Señor Presidente is not always a pleasant reading experience, but no reader can confuse Asturias’s message: Power wielded by a single individual corrupts and destroys.