Sharon Keefe Ugalde (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: Ugalde, Sharon Keefe. “Beyond Satire: Ibargüengoitia's Maten al león.” Discurso Literario 1, no. 2 (1985): 217-29.
[In the following essay, Ugalde elucidates the patterns of satire found in Maten al león.]
After an entertaining visit to Arepa—the imaginary Caribbean island of Jorge Ibargüengoitia's novel Maten al león (1969)—one cannot help but ask, where have all the heroes gone, and who invited such a collection of fools and knaves?1 What we have is a satire, “the comic struggle of two societies one normal and the other absurd … reflected in its double focus of morality and fantasy.”2 Although the situation portrayed in the novel is real, in the sense that it refers to actions characteristic of various early twentieth-century Latin American dictatorships, there is a deliberate avoidance of naming any specific country or historical figure. The setting resembles Cuba, but the events could be from the history of Mexico, the author's native land. Ibargüengoitia has commented on the creative advantages of combining historical events with a context other than their own: “Probablemente la solución de Maten al león es buena. Es la historia de los atentados y el asesinato de Obregón puestos en una isla del Caribe, asi tiene uno más libertad.”3 A large dose of exaggeration and understatement, comic surprise, and farcical elements, also contribute to the transformation of historically authentic particulars into fantasy.4 The moral focus of the novel is present in a negative fashion. The ‘normal’ or ideal society is never stressed; on the contrary, it is left undefined as the author delights in what Edward W. Rosenheim calls punitive satire, in which the attack is directed “to pleasing us by the representation in a degrading manner of an object which, we already assume, deserves such treatment.”5 The Mexican novelist's principal object of attack is the political and economic structure: an alliance between a crude dictator, supported by the uniformed masses, and the economic elite. The tyrant as a person and individual members of the upper class are also ridiculed; in fact, no Arepians completely escape the satirist's eye.
Although Maten al león is relatively simple by contemporary standards—no alternating points of view, no dismantled chronology nor a labyrinthine, fragmented story—the text does require a high degree of reader competency. Wolfang Iser describes the role of the reader in the aesthetic process as follows: “What the language says is transcended by what it uncovers, and what it uncovers represents its true meaning. Thus the meaning of the literary work remains related to what the printed text says, but it requires the creative imagination of the reader to put it all together.”6 The ironic mode more than any other depends on reader competency for there is at the linguistic level a deliberate manipulation of code and context resulting in two levels of meaning, one contradicting the other.7 The reader must be knowledgeable of both this linguistic manipulation and of the modal patterns—the groupings, roles, tones, and structures characteristic of different types of irony—or the meaning will remain covered.8 Futhermore the essential negativity of the mode—the negation of the object under attack—leaves a blank which the reader is called upon to fill. If not the system of power described, what then?9 The author rejects actuality but abandons the reader between a ‘no longer’ and a ‘not yet.’ The possibility of creative participation which is the basis for the significance stage of comprehension—“the active taking-over of the meaning by the reader”—is enhanced in the ironic mode because of the high degree of negativity.10 The actualization of this possibility, however, depends on still greater competency which extends into extratextual areas. With respect to Maten al león such areas might include familiarity with Latin American history and politics, and systems of human values.
Comprehension of Ibargüengoitia's novel begins with recognition of the patterns of satire. Alvin Kernan divides these patterns into three categories which we will follow in our analysis of Maten al león: the satirist, the scene, and the plot.11 The paradoxical nature of the ironic mode—signs whose significance contradicts or negates their usual meaning—is eminently manifest in the narrative voice of satire. The satirist strikes a matter-of-fact pose, telling things in a blunt, straightforward manner. An unadorned, colloquial style helps convince the reader that he is hearing the plain truth. Expressions like “un par de mequetrefes” (127), “crema y nata de Arepa” (125), “se le va el alma al suelo” (122), “le importa un pepino” (155) and “haciendo de tripas corazón” (129), are frequent in Maten al león. It is not surprising that the author has been singled out for narrating “de una manera tan directa, amoral y desnuda,” for such a neutral attitude is conventional in satire: “The claim to have no style is itself a trick of style employed by nearly every satirist.”12 The author really only feigns amorality, for at the significance stage of comprehension the novel is a plea for a return to moral norms, buried by greed and oppression.
In Maten al león limiting descriptions to concise, synthetic, often two-word statements is important in creating a straightforward pose; for example, Tintín Berriozábal is described as “el niño más guapo y holgazán e toda la escuela” (22), Paco Ridruejo as “un joven serio y de casa buena” (37), and Mr. and Mrs. González as “gordos y satisfechos” (124). Although the third person narrator does have omniscient powers and occasionally selects evaluative adjectives, for the most part he limits himself to a matter-of-fact presentation of the story from a subsequent position.13 The use of enumerations, a high frequency of verbs, and constant scene switching further enhances the impression of a rapid, no-nonsense account. Realistic details, like the listing of the names of streets (150), crops and toponyms (46), likewise contribute to the honest pose. The satirist's bluntness directly conflicts with the scandalous corruption being described, and it is precisely this contradiction which gives force to the attack. Since the reader is jolted into discovering the failings of the system for himself—rather than being told—he feels the affective force of the novel more intensely.
A closer look at the satirist's artless art reveals numerous rhetorical devices at work. Two found in Maten al león are common to satire: inversion and understatement. While a matter-of-fact attitude largely corresponds to what Alan Reynolds Thompson calls irony of manner, the former two fall within verbal irony: “The implication of what is said is in painfully comic contrast to its literal meaning.”14 The devices are not limited to the narrative voice but are also commonly found in the speeches of other characters. When El Coronel Jiménez returns Saldaña's personal effects to the widow he says: “Solo faltan aquí el sombrero, el reloj y la cartera … que serán usados como instrumentos del juicio” (14). Here solo is an understatement which inversely exaggerates the fact that corrupt officials have taken everything of value.
Other poetic techniques the satirist has in his arsenal include a selected use of similes, system breakage, and contrast. When the occasional simile occurs, the effect is to emphasize the simple style, both through contrast, and through reiteration, because the similes selected are invariably colloquial, for example, “el pan y la cena han sentado como una piedra” (115), “estamos como el que vendió la vaca” (133), and “corres como conejo” (18). System breakage is especially appropriate for satire because it can communicate a dual perspective—the corrupt actual state of affairs, juxtaposed to the lost ideal.15 There are several instances of the successful use of this technique in Maten al león. When Saldaña's body is recovered, system breakage shocks the reader into sensing the desperate situation of Arepa, where opposition candidates do not dress up to give campaign speeches, but to end up at the bottom of the sea. A linguistic system—a paradigm of items of clothing—is suddenly disrupted: “Los pescadores miran los zapatos de charol, las polainas, el traje de casimir inglés, y los bigotes con algas” (99-100). An unexpected moustache with unexpected seaweed is very funny until the painful thought of political assassination comes to mind. Ibargüengoitia often selects contrast to emphasize the injustice of the socio-economic system of Arepa. Juxtaposed space—Peirera's modest household, the elegant gardens of the Berriozábals—serves this purpose. Contrast also points to the discrepencies between events as they really occur, and the official historical accounts of them. In the official version of Arepa's battle for independence from Spain, Belaunzarán is a national hero, but in actuality there are no heroes, nor even a battle, for that matter: “Once meses resistieron los españoles, en aquel último reducto. En realidad, no les costó trabajo, porque nadie los atacó durante ese tiempo” (69).
The satirist's role—narrative voice and language—is but one component of the construct the reader recognizes as satire. In Maten al león, a third-person or Menippean satire, the scene often absorbs the satirist, and the collection of the types of people, things, and social norms selected from reality and brought together in the text becomes the central focus.16 Especially significant among the types of people found in Ibargüengoitia's work are those who fill the patrondependent roles. This archetypal relationship—found in Juvenal's satires—serves to portray the shared guilt of the politically powerful, the economic elite, and the masses: “The folly of one party and the knavery of the other … The dependent who accepts the false values of his corrupt patron is a fool … and the patron who imposes them, exploiting his dependent, is a knave.”17
In Maten al león, el Mariscal Belaunzarán is the knave. Like a blocking character in comedy, he is dominated by a humor, the passion for power.18 The president is elated when the crowds demand he run for a fifth term, and his delight swells as he nears absolute power: “Quiere decir, que de ahora en adelante, no solo soy jefe de los progresistas, sino también de los moderados. Se acabaron los partidos, soy el rey de la isla” (123). No action is too extreme to insure his position. The Mariscal orders the murder of opposition candidate Saldaña, has Galvazo torture a lamentable group of innocent suspects (“dos putas, un maricón y dos rateros”), and executes three men falsely accused of placing a bomb in the palace. Politically astute, he skillfully coops the opposition by rejecting the expropriation law in exchange for support of the life-time presidency law. The President has a good sense of humor and takes great pleasure in his knavery. The following example, in which he chides vice-president Cardona, reveals that, even murder, if well executed, is good for a laugh: “Pareces la imagen de dolor. Nadie diría que tú arreglaste el trabajito” (16). Because of Belaunzarán's powerful position he is able to force much of society into line with his obsession. His blocking humor is so dominant that men like el Coronel Jiménez and Galvazo replace reality with illusion. For example, both know that Belaunzarán gave the order to murder Saldaña, but the investigators reject this truth, and proceed on the basis of the illusion (the president's version of reality) that the murderer is still at large (11).
Ibargüengoitia's statement regarding the creation of his characters is applicable to both parties of the patron-dependent relationship: “Tengo que definir antes que nada qué es la pasión que domina a mi personaje, y desde ese momento empieza a hablar, se arranca solo.”19 The most representative fool among the economic elite is Carlitos Berriozábal and his passion is greed. When faced with the possible execution of fellow party members and friends, Carlitos' only genuine concern is with his ranch Cumbancha, as he confesses to his wife Angela: “¿Te das cuenta de lo que esto significa? Sin diputados moderados en la Cámara, la Ley de Expropiación se nos viene encima, la Cumbancha se nos va … estamos perdidos” (93). Berriozábal never questions the injustices or crimes which plague Arepa but rather takes...
(The entire section is 5289 words.)