Miguel Ángel Asturias Short Fiction Analysis
It is likely that, in general terms, Miguel Ángel Asturias is most known for his literature of social denunciation. Indeed, there are those who would claim that his receipt of the Nobel Prize was primarily due to fiction attacking political oppression in Latin America and particularly the deleterious influence of American capitalism. Nevertheless, Asturias is notably prominent in Latin American literature for what one may loosely call a highly “poeticized” fiction; that is, a fictional texture that proposes the dissolution of conventional distinctions between poetic and prosaic registers. Nowhere is this aspect of his writing more apparent than in his first book of short fiction, Leyendas de Guatemala (1930; legends of Guatemala).
Like many Latin American writers, Asturias spent his culturally formative years in France. This French experience was doubly significant. Not only was it the opportunity to enter into contact with the most important writers, artists, and intellects of the ebullient entreguerre period in Paris, but also it was the transition from a feudal Latin American society of his youth to the free-wheeling, liberal if not libertine society of postwar Europe. The result for many writers like Asturias is the fascinating conjunction of traditional, autochthonous, and folkloric—and even mythic—Latin American material and themes and a mode of literary discourse shaped by surrealism and the other vanguard modernist tendencies of the 1920’s and 1930’s in the “sophisticated” centers of the West. Surrealism maintained a prominent interest in the primitive and the antirational and had as one of its primary goals the demythification of the primacy of so-called high culture in Western society. Thus it is only natural to find a continuity among the intellectuals of the 1920’s and 1930’s of the interest in Latin American materials that dates back to early anthropological and archaeological studies of the nineteenth century.
In the case of Asturias, what is particularly significant was his opportunity to work in Paris with Georges Raynaud, who was engaged at that time in preparing a scholarly translation of the Popol Vuh, the sacred texts of the Quiché Indians of Guatemala. That is, Asturias, in moving from Guatemala to Paris, exchanged a context of the oppression of indigenous culture for one of scholarly and intellectual interest in the cultural accomplishments of the native population of his own country. In the Leyendas de Guatemala, Asturias attempts to stand as a mediator between the Western and Quiché cultures. It is a mediation consisting of both linguistic and cultural “translations” of indigenous materials into cultural idioms or codes of twentieth century literary discourse. This does not mean ethnographic or folkloristic transcription of indigenous legends, nor does it mean the re-creation of indigenous narratives and their rearticulation in terms of homologous modern myths. Rather, it means the semantic reformulation of indigenous materials in terms of the linguistic and cultural symbologies of the modern writer. The representation in Spanish, either directly or indirectly, of indigenous myths can never be only a translation. The rhetorics, styles, and modes of writing of a modern Western language such as Spanish, although they may be influenced by the poetic attempts to incorporate the modalities of an indigenous language such as Quiché, can never be the anthropologically faithful or scientific re-creation of the original materials because of the enormous distance that separates the two linguistic and cultural systems.
The so-called poetic language of Asturias in the Leyendas de Guatemala, or in the novel Hombres de maíz (1949; Men of Maize, 1975) is not, therefore, a translation into Spanish of Quiché materials. Nor is it the attempt to write in Spanish as though one were in reality writing in Quiché. Rather, it is the attempt to attain an independent discourse that, on the one hand, will suggest the melding of the two cultures into an idealized sociohistoric reality and, on the other hand, will attest to the role of the artist and writer as the mediating bridge between two cultures which deplorable but all-too-present circumstances keep separate by a virtually unbreachable abyss.
The influence of surrealism in Latin American literature has meant not merely the recovery of the subconscious and the unconscious as it has in European culture. More significantly, it has meant the recovery of indigenous cultures and the aspects of those cultures that may be seen as prerational or authentically mythic. The discovery by the Latin American of his subconscious reality is, therefore, not simply a psychological discovery; it is the discovery of those mediating cultural elements—usually indigenous but often creole—which were repressed by nineteenth century liberal and Europeanizing ideologies.
“Leyenda del sombrerón”
“Leyenda del sombrerón” (legend of the big hat) is an excellent example of the elaboration in a fictional text of the aforementioned principles. Superficially, it reminds one of those nineteenth century narratives by such writers as Peru’s Ricardo Palma or Colombia’s Tomás Carrasquilla—narratives that represent an ironic, urbane retelling of traditional or legendary material of a quasi-documentary nature, lightly fictionalized by a somewhat partronizing narrator who claims to have either discovered his material in an out-of-the-way corner of a dusty library or heard it on the lips of gossipy washerwomen and garrulous mule drivers. These narratives were part of the Romantic and prerealist fiction of Latin America and represented that area’s version of local color and the discovery of an idealized past and an idealized Volkspoesie.
Asturias’s story is like these antecedents in that it deals with quasi-or pseudolegendary material: the origin of the devil’s big hat. The legend as Asturias tells it concerns a monastery built by the Spanish conquerors of Central America, a monastery inhabited by devout monks, specifically by one monk...
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