Miguel Ángel Asturias Long Fiction Analysis
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 the Annals 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...
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