Miguel Ángel Asturias

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Miguel Ángel Asturias Long Fiction Analysis

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The writers who formed Guatemala’s Generation of ’20—which included Miguel Ángel Asturias—were typical of numerous Latin American intellectuals of the early twentieth century who questioned the values of the past and the relevance of European traditions. The authors of that group were disheartened over the failures of Western civilization in World War I and had lost confidence in what had always been considered foreign superiority. Feeling that they had nowhere to turn except to themselves, Asturias and his contemporaries began to study factors that distinguished their peoples from the French and the Spanish.

The cultural pendulum swung away from the escapism of preceding decades toward a confrontation with the essence of America. Central American history was reappraised, and that revision of ideas was disseminated through the free popular university that Asturias helped to found. In attempting to come to terms with Guatemalan reality, Asturias and others also became aware of the importance of the Central American Indians, who formed the excluded, oppressed majority in that nation’s society. Not only was it believed that no truly nationalistic philosophy or literature could evolve until all aspects of the racial issue were considered, but it also was believed that any progress was impossible until Indian oppression had been resolved. Literary clubs and magazines were formed to express progressive Guatemalan aesthetics and to encourage the creation of a national folklore. Journals such as Ensayos, Cultura, Tiempos nuevos, and Claridad, which flourished briefly in the 1920’s and on many of which Asturias collaborated, created a distinctive literary environment. Although Asturias left Guatemala shortly after his graduation from San Carlos and spent much of his life in Europe or South America, the formative issues of the Generation of ’20, the concerns with authenticity and social reform, were his persistent literary obsessions.

Asturias’s interests went far beyond political protest and literary re-creation of the Mayan spirit, but his most significant vision of Central America can be found in the books of those two cycles. Most of his later works do not fit easily into the two principal types of fiction—political and Mayan. The Bejeweled Boy, for example, which explores the inner world of a child, is interesting from a psychological and technical point of view, but it does not create the kind of thematic drama that characterizes his earlier writings. His other plays, fiction, and poetry, as well as the previously unpublished material being published posthumously from the Fons Asturias in Paris, add depth and complexity to a body of writing that has yet to be fully viewed and understood. It is possible that, as additional works are published, critics will find more meaningful interpretations of his earlier books and redefine the borders of the cycles.

By the time Asturias died in 1974, the political dreams of Guatemala’s Generation of ’20 had not come true. The new Guatemala that might have replaced that of Estrada Cabrera and Ubico Casteñeda fell to Castillo Armas and another series of strongmen. In literature, however, Asturias and his contemporaries such as Flavio Herrera, David Vela, and Rafael Arévalo Martínez brought their country into the mainstream of Latin American letters. Writer Epaminondas Quintana has remarked that the award of the Nobel Prize to his friend Asturias amounted to worldwide recognition not only of the writer himself but also of his generation and its ideals. To many Guatemalans, this is a significant part of Asturias’s achievement.

The heart of Asturias’s Guatemalan perspective was the acceptance of Mayan theology as an intellectual superstructure for his art, and the effects of his study and translation of the Popul Vuh and...

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theAnnals of the Cakchiquels are clearly visible in his first collection of tales, Leyendas de Guatemala. Written between 1923 and 1928, the tales reflect a non-Western worldview of the Mayan documents on which Asturias was working at the time. These “legends” foreshadow the techniques that he employed in his Mayan cycle—notably a surrealistic presentation of scenes that blends everyday reality with bizarre fantasy to create a Magical Realism. The lyricism of the author’s language, his fondness for elaborate wordplay and Guatemalan puns, combined with hisexposition of an Indian worldview and his use of an exotic tropical setting, produced the radical transformation of national aesthetics sought by the Generation of ’20. In French translation, with a preface by Paul Valéry, Leyendas de Guatemala won the Prix Sylla Monsegur.

Men of Maize

Men of Maize, which appeared nineteen years after Leyendas de Guatemala, is a much longer and more complex vision of the Guatemalan people and landscape. Asturias’s inspiration for the novel was, again, traditional Indian texts. There is no clearly defined plot in this second work of the Mayan cycle; rather, Asturias presents a series of events and a gallery of characters united by themes that reflect a Mayan frame of reference.

In the first part of the novel, Indians violently object to the commercial growing of corn, a crop that they consider sacred. Troops are sent to rescue the growers, and the military commander, Colonel Godoy, succeeds in quieting the revolt by having its leader poisoned. Subsequently, a curse is put on Godoy and his accomplices, all of whom die within seven years. The second section of the novel is concerned with María Tecún, a child of one of the unfortunate conspirators, who leaves her beggar husband, Goyo Yic. The latter spends most of his life looking for María; he does not find her until the final pages of the book. The third part of Men of Maize is the story of Nicho Aquino, an Indian mail carrier who also loses his wife; his search for her is fruitful in that, although he finds that she has been killed accidentally, he meets a mysterious seer, Seven Year Stag, who teaches him the lost wisdom of the race.

Asturias was criticized by a number of prominent Latin American scholars for the seemingly unrelated events of the novel’s separate sections; however, themes such as metamorphosis and nahualismo (a belief that people have alter egos in certain plants or animals) give Men of Maize unity on a level other than plot.

Soluna

Open to widely divergent interpretations, Men of Maize can be less than satisfying to the uninitiated. It is of some use, however, to compare this novel with other major pieces of the Mayan cycle, the play Soluna and and the novel Mulata. The former concerns the personal crisis of Mauro, the owner of a country estate, whose wife, Ninica, has just left him. Mauro consults Soluna, a shaman, who gives him a mask to help him solve the problem. When Mauro falls asleep with the mask on his lap, he dreams an elaborate dream in which Ninica finally returns. When he wakes up, he finds that his wife’s train has derailed, and she, having reassessed her relationship with her husband, has come back to stay. From the dreamlike action of the play and the unlikely details of its plot emerges the story of a modern, Westernized Guatemalan who, in the middle of a deep trauma, finds consolation in superstition. There is a similarity between Mauro’s search for a resolution of his crisis in the irrational and Nicho Aquino’s experience in which Seven Year Stag plays such an important role in Men of Maize.

Mulata

Mulata is a surrealistic tale about Yumi, an Indian peasant who sells his wife to Tazol, the corn-husk spirit, to achieve wealth and fulfillment. Yumi’s near-fatal mistake is lusting after an apparently sensuous mulata (a mulatto woman) who, in fact, is hardly sexual and proves to have supernatural powers. After a series of strange adventures, Yumi succeeds in regaining his wife, who assists him in trying to avoid the vengeance of the mulata. Here, as in Leyendas de Guatemala, Soluna, and Men of Maize, it is perhaps easier to take all the grotesque, extraordinary episodes at face value, accepting them for what they are in themselves, like a series of painted scenes, rather than trying to find logical connections between events. Indeed, it is possible to argue that Asturias had no intention of making each individual portion of these works relate to other sections and that, collectively, the scenes convey the nonrational cosmos and the dense theological texture of the Indian mentality better than could any logical, consecutive narrative.

The President

In the political cycle of his fiction, Asturias turns away from the totally Indian universe that dominates the Mayan cycle and concentrates instead on ruthless dictatorship and unscrupulous imperialism in Central America. The shift of theme is accompanied by a change in structure and style. The political novels and stories have more recognizable and traditional plotting than Men of Maize and Mulata, although Asturias never abandons his lyrical, surrealistic style.

The President is one of Asturias’s most polished works. This first novel is a carefully constructed critique of the dictatorship of Estrada Cabrera, and it vividly evokes the climate of fear and repression that permeated Guatemalan life in the early decades of the twentieth century. The novel’s main character is Miguel Cara de Ángel, the president’s right-hand man. He is told to kill General Canales, who has lost favor with the dictator; Cara de Ángel, however, takes pity on Canales and his daughter, Camila, and helps them to escape. The general dies before he has the chance to start his own revolution, and Camila, rejected by the rest of her family for fear of reprisal by the president, is saved by Cara de Ángel, who falls in love with her. As she hides from government spies in the back room of a tavern, she becomes ill with pneumonia. On the advice of an occultist, Cara de Ángel marries her “because only love can stand up to death.” After her recovery, they consummate the marriage, and Camila becomes pregnant. Cara de Ángel is soon arrested, jailed, and never heard from again, and Camila gives birth to their son, Miguelito, whose name means “little Miguel.”

Throughout the development of the plot, there is less political propaganda than vivid description of the brutal abuse of power. Asturias allows the actions of the president to speak for themselves. The book’s message is enhanced by the fact that Camila and Cara de Ángel are not political characters. The former is an innocent victim of her father’s unpopularity with the dictator, but she is not necessarily of the innocent masses; nor is Cara de Ángel a revolutionary hero who fights injustice. He is human and flawed, and his break with the president is caused by indiscretion, not by ideology. His actions toward Camila are motivated by love, not by his desire to save his people from the tyrant.

The President is one of the most successful and moving protests against dictatorship in the history of modern fiction. In addition, its craftsmanship contributed to making it one of the few Latin American novels published before 1950 to reach more than a local audience. The President also played no small role in elevating Asturias from the status of a talented Guatemalan author in exile to recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Banana trilogy

Between the publication of Men of Maize and Mulata, Asturias was preoccupied with four works of fiction that complement the position taken in The President. The three novels of his Banana trilogy, Strong Wind, The Green Pope, and The Eyes of the Interred, as well as the collection of stories Week-end en Guatemala, are among the strongest statements in Central American literary history against the presence of the United States in that region. Far more polemical and political in tone than The President, these works provide a sensitive analysis of the problems associated with colonialism: economic exploitation of people and natural resources, the corruption of government officials who betray their nation to foreign interests, and military intervention.

Strong Wind

The trilogy documents the history of the United Fruit Company and portrays both North Americans and Guatemalans whose lives are dominated by the company. Strong Wind provides a broad panorama of the extent of the United Fruit Company’s influence as well as an introduction to the people who have been victimized by the fruit monopoly.

An intensely drawn tropical environment, prominent in all of Asturias’s fiction, is the setting for the story of Lester Mead, a planter and member of the corporation. Mead lives and works incognito with the exploited Guatemalans to bring about change from within the system. His struggles form the principal line of action around which Asturias depicts the extensive corruption brought about by the United Fruit Company.

The Green Pope

The Green Pope, which appeared four years later, follows a similar pattern of presenting history and characterization with a clearly political purpose. The first part of the novel concentrates on a detailed accounting of the United Fruit Company’s development in the country, while the second continues the train of events from Strong Wind. The Green Pope is essentially the saga of George Maker Thompson, another North American who, in alliance with the Lucero family, eventually becomes the major stockholder in the company and then its president. As in Strong Wind, the machinations of the United Fruit Company are exposed and severely criticized.

The Eyes of the Interred

The final work of the trilogy, The Eyes of the Interred, finished while Asturias was in exile, completes the dream of reform begun in the other works and traces the efforts of Octavio Sansor to form a union and establish worker control over the company. Although he first plans a revolution and a violent end to dictatorship and foreign economic control, Sansor ultimately chooses nonviolence, and his victory is the organization of the workers’ syndicate, a general strike, the resignation of the president, and company concessions to the union.

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