Miguel Ángel Asturias was born in Guatemala City, Guatemala, on October 19, 1899. His father, a judge, refused to cooperate with dictator Estrada Cabrera, and in 1903 the family was exiled to the provincial town of Salamá, where Asturias first encountered the country’s traditional Mayan culture. Returning to Guatemala City in 1907, Asturias grew up under a series of repressive regimes and became a prominent political activist when he entered the National University in 1917.
Asturias received his law degree in 1923 and then studied anthroplogy at the Sorbonne in Paris for the next five years. There he further developed his lifelong interest in Mayan culture while also beginning to write poetry and fiction. Asturias lived in Paris until 1933, when he returned to Guatemala to work as a journalist. The overthrow of President Jorge Ubico’s dictatorship in 1944 brought in a government sympathetic to Asturias’s politics, and he was offered a series of cultural attaché and diplomatic posts that took him to Mexico (1945-1947), Argentina (1947-1953), and El Salvador (1953-1954).
Asturias was now able to publish work that he had held back for political reasons. The novel The President, completed in 1932 but not published until 1946, was greeted with great acclaim. Its successor, Men of Maize, was even more rapturously received and is generally considered Asturias’s masterpiece. These were soon followed by the three novels of his “banana trilogy,” Viento fuerte (1950; The Cyclone, 1967; better known as Strong Wind, 1968), El papa verde (1954; The Green Pope, 1971), and Los ojos de los enterrados (1960; The Eyes of the Interred, 1973), which cemented his position as one of the finest Latin American writers of his generation.
Asturias began another sojourn in the political wilderness in 1954, when a right-wing coup in Guatemala forced him to flee to Argentina. In Buenos Aires, he worked as a newspaper correspondent until 1962, when Argentina’s turn to the political right precipitated a move to Genoa, Italy. His residency in Europe, where he became an active participant in many writers’ organizations, was undoubtedly instrumental in his receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1967. The return of democracy to Guatemala resulted in his being named ambassador to France in 1966, a position he held until 1970, when another military coup led to his replacement. Asturias spent his remaining years in Madrid, where he died on June 9, 1974, after a career in which literature and politics were inextricably intermingled.
Miguel Ángel Asturias was born in 1899 in Guatemala City, Guatemala, only one year after the country succumbed to the dictatorship of Manuel Estrada Cabrera. Asturias’s father, a supreme court magistrate, lost his position in 1903, when he refused to convict students who protested against Estrada Cabrera’s totalitarian regime. Consequently, Asturias’s family was forced to leave the city for a rural area in Guatemala, where the young Asturias’s interest in his country’s Indian and peasant customs began to develop.
After attending secondary school, Asturias entered the University of San Carlos to study law. There he was politically active, participating in demonstrations that helped to depose Estrada Cabrera. Asturias also helped to found both a student association of Guatemala’s Unionist party and the Universidad Popular de Guatemala, an institution providing free evening instruction for the country’s poor. In 1923, Asturias earned his law degree and shortly thereafter founded the weekly newspaper Tiempos Nuevos . Later that year Asturias fled the country; his political writings began to endanger his life. After living in London for the next five months, Asturias moved to Paris, where he worked as European correspondent for Mexican and Central American newspapers. He also studied ancient Central American Indian civilizations at the Sorbonne. There he completed a dissertation on Mayan religion...
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and translated sacred Indian texts.
It was in Paris that Asturias began his literary career. There he was introduced to the techniques and themes of the Surrealist literary movement; this movement was to have a significant effect on his writing style. In 1925 Asturias privately published a book of poetry and a prize-winning collection of Indian stories. Asturias returned to Guatemala in 1933 and spent the next ten years working as a journalist and a poet while Guatemala was governed by the military dictatorship of Jorge Ubico Castañeda. Between 1935 and 1940, Asturias published several more volumes of poetry. He entered politics in 1942 with his election as deputy to the Guatemalan national congress. Three years later, after the fall of the Castañeda regime, he joined the Guatemalan diplomatic service. He served in several ambassadorial posts in Mexico and Argentina for the next ten years. During this time, he published several novels and worked on the three novels in his “Banana trilogy”—a portrait of the real-life United Fruit Company.
Stripped of his Guatemalan citizenship in 1954 for supporting president Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, he lived in exile for the next twelve years in Argentina, Venezuela, and Italy. During this period he continued to write. Regaining his Guatemalan citizenship in 1966, he accepted a position as ambassador to France, which he held until 1970. He died in Madrid, Spain, in 1974.
The son of a magistrate and a schoolteacher, Miguel Ángel Asturias belonged to Ladino (non-Indian) upper-middle-class society. When he was about six years old, the family moved to a farm of his paternal grandparents in Baja Verapaz. The move to the country was caused by his father’s political difficulties with the dictator of Guatemala, Manuel Estrada Cabrera, and the family’s three-year retreat away from the city was significant in Asturias’s development, introducing him to the effects of dictatorship as well as to the countryside and its people.
When the political crisis was over, Asturias’s family returned to Guatemala City, and Asturias began his studies at the Instituto Nacional de Varones (National Men’s Institute) in 1912. Although student unrest crystallized into isolated protests against Estrada Cabrera between 1910 and 1920, Asturias was generally apolitical during his early school years. He participated in one disorder, a window-breaking spree with political overtones, but otherwise he refrained from attacks on the dictatorship until the formation of the Unionist Party in 1919. He signed a student manifesto against the government in August of that year, his first public stand against Estrada Cabrera.
After the Unionist victory, Asturias became a leader in the reform movement. He and his friends founded a popular university dedicated to educating the poorer classes, with the ultimate goal of bringing the country into the twentieth century. Asturias’s concerns were expressed in the dissertation he wrote for his law degree, but he was not able to find a local outlet for his social conscience after graduation because political pressures made necessary his departure from the country. He traveled to England and then to France. In Paris, he studied anthropology at the Sorbonne, under George Raynaud and, with the help of another student, translated the Mayan documents Popol Vuh (c. 1550) and Annals of the Cakchiquels (sixteenth century) from Raynaud’s French versions into Spanish. This apprenticeship to Indian literature and tradition had a profound effect on Asturias and deeply influenced his literary production. His first book, Leyendas de Guatemala, was the direct result of his work in Paris.
In 1933, Asturias returned to Guatemala, where he managed his radio news program El diario del aire. He began his political career as a deputy to the national congress in 1942, and, after the fall of Guatemalan president Jorge Ubico Casteñeda in 1944, he was made cultural attaché to Mexico. It was there that he arranged to have his first novel, The President, published privately. In 1947, he was named cultural attaché to Buenos Aires, Argentina, a position he held for six years. That period was one of intense literary activity during which he wrote two volumes of his Banana trilogy as well as Men of Maize.
In June of 1954, Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, with a small army and American support, invaded Guatemala and toppled President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, of whom Asturias was a firm supporter. Castillo Armas deprived Asturias of his citizenship, and the author took refuge in South America. He stayed for a time with poet Pablo Neruda in Chile, where he completed Week-end en Guatemala, a series of stories condemning the military intervention of 1954 and describing the causes and effects of the coup.
Throughout his exile, Asturias wrote steadily and continued to publish. The avant-garde play Soluna appeared in 1955, and another play, La audiencia de los confines (border court), in 1957. The final volume of the Banana trilogy appeared in 1960; subsequently, The Bejeweled Boy and Mulata, his most elaborate and complex fictions, complemented the nonpolitical cycle of his works. In 1966, he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in recognition of the anti-imperialist thrust of his oeuvre, and, on his birthday in 1967, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Asturias’s diplomatic career resumed with a change of government in Guatemala, and he was ambassador to France from 1966 to 1970. He continued to live and write in Europe until his death in Madrid on June 9, 1974.