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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1019

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The action of Men of Maize is divided into two periods. In the first part of the novel Gaspar Ilóm wages war against the professional maizegrowers who set fire to the brush and ruthlessly exploit the land. According to the Indians of Guatemala, the first men who were created, their ancestors, were made of corn. Therefore, this grain is sacred; it may be consumed but never exploited, eaten but never sold. The maizegrowers, however, prefer profits to traditions, an attitude which opposes them to the peasants both morally and ethically. This is why Gaspar and his Indian guerrillas revolt against them and gain the upper hand until the maizegrowers call in the Mounted Patrol. With the help of an Indian turncoat, Machojón, and especially of his wife, Vaca Manuela, the commander of the Mounted Patrol lures Gaspar and his men to a feast. During the celebration, Vaca Manuela tricks Gaspar into drinking poison, but Gaspar dives into the river and manages to “extinguish the thirst of the poison in his intestines.” He returns after dawn, only to discover that the soldiers have taken his men by surprise and massacred them. Gaspar dives into the river once again, and the maizegrowers return to the mountains of Ilóm, unaware that a curse has been cast. The yellow-eared rabbit sorcerers who accompanied Gaspar condemn all the perpetrators of the massacre to die before the seventh year is ended. One by one, in the chapters which follow, they are all punished. Machojón and his wife burn in an eerie blaze which razes their cornfields. On his way to ask for the hand of his intended, their son is surrounded by fireflies and mysteriously disappears. The man who sold the poison used on Gaspar is decapitated along with his entire family, and finally Colonel Godoy and his troops are consumed by “flames in the form of bloodstained hands” which “were painted on the walls of the air.”

The second part of the novel describes the adventures of three men whose lives become intertwined. The first, Goyo Yic, is a blind beggar whose wife, María, runs away, taking with her their many children. Goyo cannot live without her and seeks the help of a curer, who removes the veil of blindness from his eyes. He has, however, never seen María. For this reason, he becomes a peddler and travels from fair to fair; he coaxes women to buy his wares in order to hear their voices and one day, he hopes, recognize his missing wife. Goyo invokes O Possum, patron saint of peddlers, to guide him on his search, but to no avail. One night, he gazes at his shadow by the light of the moon, and “it was like seeing the shadow of a she-opossum.” The moonlight turns him from a man into an animal. He wanders into the forest so long as a fugitive that his skin turns black. One day, he is lured by the lights and the laughter of the big fair in the town of Santa Cruz de las Cruces. He returns to the world of men and teams up with a certain Domingo Revolorio to start a little business selling liquor by the glass. They buy a demijohn and take turns carrying it on their backs to a distant fair. It is a hot day and they soon get tired. They start selling glasses of liquor to each other until, finally drunk, they lose their permit and are sent to jail for selling liquor without a license.

Time passes. People preserve and repeat the legend of the blindman and his runaway wife, María Tecún, immortalizing it by referring to all runaways as “tecunas.” One day the wife of Nicho Aquino, the postman in the little town of San Miguel de Acatán, suddenly disappears. Nicho is overcome with grief and gets drunk to forget and remember. On his next trip to the capital, mailpouch on his back, he meets a wizened old man with black hands who offers to tell him the whereabouts of his wife. Nicho follows him into some caves where the old man brings to life the tale of creation according to Maya tradition. He reveals to Nicho why maize is sacred and explains the import of Gaspar Ilóm’s death and of the cycle of retribution which it has for a sequel. Nicho is enlightened. Upon discovering his origins, he regains a sense of self. For a moment he becomes a coyote, his nagual, or animal protector.

Meanwhile, in San Miguel, the townspeople are worried that the postman—and especially their letters—may never reach their destination. They send the muleteer, Hilario Sacayón, to look for Nicho and steer him onto the right path. Hilario looks everywhere and on his way ponders the nature of tales and the difference between reality and fiction, but he never finds Nicho. The former postman ends up burning the mail and running away to the coast, where he becomes a factotum for a hotel proprietress. One of his duties is to ferry people to the Harbor Castle, fitted out as a prison, where Goyo Yic is serving a sentence for selling liquor without a license. Once again, years have passed. Goyo’s own son is serving time in the same prison, and one day his mother, María Tecún, comes to pay him a visit. Nicho ferries her across and is astounded to discover that the woman he knows as a legend really exists. The members of the Yic family are reunited, and when the men are set free, they all go back to harvest corn in Pisigüilito, where the action started. This is the story’s climax. Man, blind for a time to the ancient traditions which bind him to the soil, returns to harvest the sacred substance which constitutes him. Gaspar’s sacrifice is not in vain if it has succeeded in doing away with the sanguinary breed (the commercial exploiters) who keep the men of maize from engaging in the most fundamental of occupations.