Men of Maize is, without a doubt, Asturias’s most controversial novel as well as his best. It has been disparaged and misunderstood by critics ever since its publication. Given its unique narrative structure and the fact that Asturias underplays character and chronological development, many readers have believed it to lack unity. In fact, the conception of Men of Maize is so revolutionary (in form as well as in content) that unity must be found in features other than those dictated by convention.
As James Joyce did in Ulysses (1922), Asturias turned to an earlier, classical work for the infrastructure for his ground-breaking novel. He borrowed from the past but actualized it in the present and, most important, developed his novel through an association of key themes. For example, all Indian characters in Men of Maize are associated with water, and all their enemies with fire. Three sets of three animals each also play a primary role in the novel, and each set is associated with one of the three elements which anchor Asturias’s pyramid to Meso-American man: fire, water, and corn. Finally, four numbers—four, seven, nine, and thirteen—enter the alchemy of Men of Maize. Each is associated with an animal and a color in keeping with Mayan mythology, and all the elements are portrayed in a progression which culminates, in the epilogue, with the return to the land. At the end of the harvest, Goyo and his family become ants, one of the animals responsible for the discovery of corn, according to the Meso-American mythic tradition. Goyo’s animal protector is also the opossum (god of dawn in Meso-America), known in Maya as Zach Och, the white animal (white betokens the beginning of something, specifically, of civilization). The novel starts with a cycle of struggle and retribution and then picks up the thread of a wandering blindman, a beggar, who ends up fully healed, a farmer, and a begetter of many children. Thematically speaking, Asturias shifts the action from chaos to order and concludes with a return which is in every respect a beginning, a hope-filled eulogy to the common man of Meso-America.