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Asturias, Miguel Ángel 1899–1974
Nobel Prize-winning Guatemalan novelist Asturias was, until his death, the dean of Central American writers. The themes of his most important novels, The President and the three books that comprise his "Banana Republic" trilogy, reflect his ardent anti-imperialism along with his deep concern for his countrymen. His blending of myth and surrealism and his forays into automatic writing have given Asturias the reputation of being a difficult writer. (See also CLC, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28; obituary, Vols. 49-52; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
[Far] too taken with existence, his own existence, to actively and sympathetically become engrossed with Europe's post-war hassles [in the mid-1920s], Miguel Ángel promptly disrobed reality of her austere dress and affectionately arrayed her in the sensual, colorful, transparent silks of his mind's fancy. The first artistic expression of this spiralling kaleidoscopic perspectivism of reality, vignettes or literary sketches created solely for journalistic consumption, was not long in coming….
To the delight of [its] readers, the title ["In the Country of Modern Art"] proved to be deceptive. Instead of an impersonal running commentary on the contemporary artistic movements in Paris, they found before then an intimate letter describing perfume's sensual allurement and enchantment over man's senses, signed by Miguel Ángel and addressed to a lady friend at home. (p. 86)
[Just] as the reader prepares to savor his incursion into the private life of the foreign correspondent, the author in one short, humorous step shatters his relished illusions. (p. 87)
After the devilishly ambrosial aura of "In the Country of Modern Art," there sprang from Miguel Ángel's pen a continuous string of comic, humorous, ironic articles. Knowing no boundaries, his kaleidoscopic mind pricked with equal zeal the dark haunts of theosophy, the festive world of dance, the codes of social mores, and the depthless secrets of capillary philosophy…. [Those pieces that best illustrate this literary vein may be divided] into the following categories: theological, biological and social.
The theological set consists of two radically disparate, but equally entertaining, works: "Krishnamurti and His Hallucinating Devotees" and "June Cherries."… (pp. 88-9)
The … dichotomy between what ought to be and what actually is constitutes the comic axis of "Krishnamurti and His Hallucinating Devotees." Starting with the title and continuing on through to the last sentence, Miguel Ángel constantly forces his reader to fix his attention on those aspects which cannot help but shatter the lofty ideals of this spiritual body. Religion, not politics, here makes for a strange bedfellow. (p. 89)
The comic exaltation of crass materialism over the consecrated ethereal aspirations of the soul, however, does not stop here. As the reader has undoubtedly surmised, [the characters of "Krishnamurti and His Hallucinating Devotees" are] inelastic beings, automatons rigidly trudging through the waters of life's stream, incapable of adapting themselves to the ever-changing course of the sun's light. In and by itself this is quite amusing, but what makes it outlandishly funny is the author's ability to substitute self-awareness, spiritual and moral attributes for mangled gestures that spastically span the surface of a spineless shell in human disguise. (p. 90)
The phrase "Life is a bowl of cherries" may very well be an English saying, but its message recognizes no language barrier. "June Cherries" is curiously refreshing, as refreshing as the meat of the fruit consumed by Miguel Ángel while he composes his work. The article is written spontaneously, at least this is the impression the author wishes to convey to his readers…. If we now couple the above rambling style with the unexpected juxtaposition of three seemingly disparate, unrelated items—cherries, signs of punctuation and God—we will have the basic ingredients which give the article its humorous effect.
Of the three, the cherries form the central core around which everything else in "June Cherries" revolves. The article starts out simply enough with a declaration by Miguel Ángel that he intends to converse only about cherries: "Between cherry and cherry, we shall chat about cherries…." But then, as he muses over the fact that he must, at least momentarily, freeze his words every time he prepares to spit out a pit, his mind abstracts the formal qualities of the pit and immediately associates them to, of all things, signs of punctuation. And what can be inferred from such a startling identification? Well, if nothing else, that the rhythm of his sentences will not be determined by mental constructs, but by base appetite: "… that, after all, our conversation will be cut short upon spitting out the pits, that is, the signs of punctuation: a period, when after spitting out a pit we continue to chew on the meat of the cherry; by a period and new paragraph, when the pit is thrown out at the very end; and by a colon, when the fruit itself has two pits." At this point both his desire to talk about "cherries" and his interest in the relationship cherries-punctuation signs disappear, leaving the reader with the common denominator "Between cherry and cherry" which is now suddenly pegged to God. Miguel Ángel's curiosity has again abruptly shifted, this time to God's meditations on Eve. In good standing with God, he is privileged to hear His discourse, as God, imitating our journalist, pops a cherry in His mouth. How amusing that God should find thought in human food (and in such a nonnutritional element as the cherry!), that (thanks to the pits) He contribute unconsciously to the punctuation of Miguel Ángel's article, and that stroking His beard, made of flax no less, He be perplexed by problems like any other mortal being, instead of resolving them with lightning speed:
And just like us, between one cherry and another, "with His hand stroking his beard of flax," Jehovah said to himself: "From an ear? She will be curious. From the forehead? She will be proud. From one of the eyes? She will be a coquette. From the nose? She will be sensual. From the mouth? She will be a liar. From the palate? She will have a sweet tooth. From the feet? She will be a streetwalker. From the heart? She will be jealous. From the gut? She will be lascivious…." (pp. 91-2)
From theology we pass to biology and indirectly, in all three instances to be analyzed, back to God again. Two of the three works that comprise this category deal with reviews of lectures given at the Sorbonne by the eminent Indian botanist Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose (1858–1937) and the famed archaeologist Salomon Reinach (1858–1932): "A Hindu Sage at the Sorbonne" "Capilarología" ["Capillariology"], respectively; the other, "God Save You, Future Humanity," reflects on the predictions levelled by a reputed although unnamed French doctor on the future baldness of women. (pp. 92-3)
The humorous effect of ["A Hindu Sage at the Sorbonne"] depends not on one but on a number of cleverly combined devices. Miguel Ángel erases values by identifying science, a respectable branch of knowledge, with charlatanry (we must not forget that Reinach considered his theory of "capillariology" scientific and that it was an outcome of profound, prolonged and careful deliberation on the scholar's part). (p. 94)
[Perhaps] the most complex of Miguel Ángel's work in this vein is "God Save You, Future Humanity," the last of the articles to be analyzed in the biological set. The comments and images in this sketch run wild after Miguel Ángel briefly presents the source of his reflections, namely, the prediction of a famed, but curiously anonymous, French physician, that in the future women will walk the streets bald. As in "June Cherries," the piece impresses the reader as being written spontaneously ("I am going mad and I had better put an end to this …"), but differs from it in the greater logic of its incoherency…. [It] has some resemblance to "Krishnamurti and His Hallucinating Devotees," without, however, any of the latter's caustic didactic undercurrent. (pp. 94-5)
More than any of the other pieces analyzed up to this point (with the exception of "Krishnamurti and His Hallucinating Devotees"), "God Save You, Future Humanity" resembles a play, more specifically, a marionette production. This effect is obtained by applying diminutives (in this instance, a first step toward the grotesque) to its general characters—"papacitos-mamacitas" ["papas-mamas"]—which reduce them to puppet-like size, and by lachrymose speech: "Children of my heart, one should say to all those now growing up, my son yet unborn, your mother will be bald, horribly bald, and … will be in constant search of cosmetic preparations and home remedies to combat that grave malady." Moreover, it introduces the grotesque, absent in the other works, exaggerating the appearance of women to the point of completely destroying their graceful qualities. (p. 95)
We have … noted his careful, calculated handling of the linguistic elements which, as we shall now see, rescues "God Save You, Future Humanity" from turning into a satanic horror canvas in the decadent tradition of Baudelaire. No signs of spleen, of disgusting boredom, of a nauseous disillusionment with life find echo in this work. When all is said and done, the billete is written in a frolicsome, merry and witty mood. (p. 96)
[Irony and the common element also appear in "God Save You, Future Humanity."] The author's self-awareness throughout the article, which we have already noted in detail, is one such instance of irony. Another is found in the title which must be discussed with the ending if we are to grasp its subtle implication. The title, describing as it does humanity's sad fate and its ultimate salvation in God—He apparently is the only force capable of reversing the tides and fortunes of time—contradicts Miguel Ángel's final plea that women actively assist life along its inevitable, downward course. Understandably, this greatly curtails the powers of Jehovah. He no longer is the master, but rather a slave who must patiently and reluctantly abide by the rules and regulations of His own creation. As for the comic element in words, we shall add two more examples to those already discussed: Miguel Ángel's fondness for punning and his delightful grammatical inversion of phrases which, due to the general mocking-lugubrious tone of the article, essentially fail to change the significance of the text…. I am going mad and I had better put an end to this, urging my women readers to cut their hair to alleviate the task for both death and baldness which, come to think of it, is almost the same thing. Bald today, dead tomorrow. Dead today, bald afterwards. (pp. 96-7)
Overwhelmingly concerned with humanity's shallow dapers, Miguel Ángel will employ humor and the comic as social correctives, criticizing those who, for example, worship death in life; pay homage to material wealth; respond theatrically; mindlessly or automatically to life's ever-changing moments; consciously perpetuate a feeling of shame for the naked body, permit vanity to conquer the mind; and those who lose sight of reality by incongruously becoming impassioned over words. But fixing one's spyglass so close to the ground is, lamentably, an act fraught with danger. In general we can say that Miguel Ángel bows to reality's demands and sacrifices art to reason and to anecdote: once their prosaic grapnel has hooked fast into fancy, they will pull her down from the heights and rake her tirelessly across earth's zero surface. (pp. 97-8)
Exceptions to the above remarks are "Bananas-slide" and "Nude Women." Of the two, "Bananas-slide"—the title refers to a supposedly popular dance of American origin in vogue in the late nineteen-twenties—cleaves most to terra firma. Not that "Nude Women" ascends to the celestial spheres (the piece treads upon fertile human circumstance), but whereas its treatment of reality is light and sportive throughout, that of the extensive opening passage of "Bananas-slide" is acridly corrosive. Structurally speaking, the bitter socio-political tirade, uttered before our author joins a soirée pulsating with bacchanalian intensity, is at variance with the core's artistic rendition of simultaneous action—through skillful use of montage, Miguel Ángel successively sweeps across the ballroom and registers various moments which, captured in medias res, recreate a synchronous vision of life—and with the fantasy of the closing scene where Miguel Ángel's transoceanic reader is suddenly transported to Paris and converted into a fictional character with whom the author interrelates. In short, the unconcealed passion and venom of the introductory segment destroy the organic unity of "Bananas-slide" and, lamentably, also render static an otherwise dynamic and highly entertaining work.
But if the work fails structurally, it does, however, show a degree of coherency in its rich exploitation of the comic. (pp. 99-100)
["Nude Woman," a literary sketch,] derives its jocular tone from the author's persistent manipulation of the absurd and his constant use of the hyperbole to express his views. The first example of the absurd occurs at the very outset of the informally written essay as Miguel Ángel introduces the endearing figure of the XVI century mystic Saint Theresa on the heels of the unadorned, albeit provocative, title "Nude Women": "Saint Theresa states for good reasons that one's imagination is diabolical." Amusing as Miguel Ángel's devilishly twisted synthesis of Saint Theresa's idea on the nature of man's imagination may strike us, the real thrust of the author's humor here lies in his having related apparently incompatible elements. For the juxtaposition of a devout, sublime soul devoted exclusively to God with fleshy erotic beings—surely also faithful followers of Pan—indubitably creates a diabolical atmosphere of mirth. (pp. 101-02)
But where the use of the absurd triumphs completely is in the Guatemalan revealing scrutiny of the extreme measures taken by the Parisian society to garnish the natural state of human nakedness. Admitting that the act of disguising oneself is intrinsically humorous, when such an act becomes an eccentric mannerism to the point where it is envisioned as normal behavior, then man's masquerade from nature, his flight from life and reality, is hilariously linked to the world of the absurd. (pp. 102-03)
The comic element in words, in turn, manifests itself on many levels. It destroys the codes of human decency by making man deeply aware of the 'nastiness' of his corporeal shell through the colloquial expressions "en cueros" ["in one's naked skin"] and "en pelo" ["stark naked"]; it promotes contrary feelings and ideas other than those literally expressed…. (p. 103)
[Miguel Ángel's] works as rule are deeply rooted in reality and rarely, as in "June Cherries," do they spring from pure fantasy. He learned to describe his vision and criticism in highly articulate, playful, and aesthetic terms. Within the realm of the comic, no form escaped his attention. He was equally versatile and at home in developing the comic in character, the comic element in forms, in movements, in situations, and in words. He was a skillful master of the art of the disguise, of the grotesque …, of the art of exaggeration leading to caricature, and of rendering man as a mechanical object or as a puppet devoid of human vitality. His use of language, for which Miguel Ángel clearly stands out in Spanish American literature, seen through his sensitivity to verbal nuances, the plasticity of his style, his inclination toward parody and irony are here fully developed for the first time. (p. 104)
Jack Himmelblau, "Miguel Ángel Asturias' Dawn of Creativity (1920–1930): The Minstrel of Merriment," in Latin American Literary Review (copyright © 1973 by the Department of Modern Languages, Carnegie-Mellon University), Fall-Winter, 1973, pp. 85-104.
The Eyes of the Interred is the culminating novel of his 'banana-plantation' trilogy, the first two of the sequence being The Cyclone and The Green Pope….
Asturias converts the tropical foliage into verbiage. His passion for his country and people expends itself in the lush jungle bred by random poetic association. The same rhetorical emphasis is brought to the description of a tree as is brought to the miseries of the serfs. A neutral aesthetic eye moves from a description of the varying tones of the light filtering through the banana groves to the human beings who are cutting and loading the fruit.
Nearly all Latin American writing has the quality of being a virtuoso performance. The reader is trapped inside the writer's head. Occasionally, this may be diverting and even clever…. [The Eyes of the Interred illustrates] this tendency to literary acrobatics. But the fact is that surreal divagations and electronic adumbrations are not enough. (p. 300)
Shiva Naipaul, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), March 1, 1974.
The Eyes Of The Interred is couched in a rhetoric that is more Latin than American, and the book suffers from an excess of historical somnolence.
It is almost exhilarating to read the first two or three hundred pages, since the language has a surface sheen which reflects the world in its own image. The ostensible heroes of the book, the poor and the oppressed, are invaded by its presence as though it were an incantation and the purlieus of aestheticism have never seemed more heroic….
In other words, this is not a novel consumed by 'social realism.' Asturias's language is too grandiose to encompass the range and tactility of ordinary reality, and it quickly becomes inflated and romantic: "he took care of the fans at the Granada, dirty with old wind that had become dust on the sadness of cold metal." When you fuel so much sound and fury into the dust, ordinary human life must scream to be heard. Unfortunately, Asturias's language of revolution is flat and peripheral, it becomes nothing more than the lifeless mouthing of slogans: "You said it Malena! Real love takes part in the future conquest of the world." The Malena in question is a schoolmistress who, as you can see, believes in mixing business with pleasure.
Asturias maintains the momentum of his writing only with the considerable use of cliché and lyrical abreaction. I am not sure how much this is the invasion of translator's demotic, but I am assured that the English is faithful to the point of idolatry. Here is a passage which suggests the flesh and spirit of the book:
The sound of the bells was followed by a hailstorm, as if all around the silence of the night had broken into pieces. A rain of almonds with dark corneas and clear pupils that bathed it in looks. And another, another wave of hail, as if suddenly billions of tears had solidified over the nearby graveyard, beat him with its seed of naked eyes, watery, congealed.
The images glissade into each other to create a rhetoric rather than a sense; the lyrical slackness promotes a confusion of thought and an imprecision of feeling, and we are left with the sour and bankrupt manipulation of stock reaction. Any substantial, human reality is, of course, exiled from this finesse and Asturias becomes a Stylist and an enormous bore. Since everything resides on the surface, there can be very little complexity or development within the novel. The romance between revolutionary and schoolmistress, for example, remains at the level of perspex and the transformation of Malena into a revolutionary simpleton is handled heavily and clumsily. There is a story but no plot, speeches but no characters.
Novels that depend upon rhetoric must also depend upon images, metaphors and allegories rather than upon motive and character…. The imaginative substance of the novel is taken from images of death and putrefaction, or what Asturias calls a "dead man's tone," and the novel takes on a grotesque swerve….
A lover of language is no lover of people, and Asturias shows very little instinctive sympathy for the helpless masses under the iron control of his style. They remain the brute stuff of his dreams, the residue of his fantasies.
Peter Ackroyd, "Manner from Heaven," in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), March 9, 1974, p. 296.
Politics is the great literary theme of Latin America, as individualism is of North America. One of the foremost explorers of that theme was … Miguel Angel Asturias….
Asturias … is best known for novels that examine political and economic issues with anger and satire. The President is his penetrating study of the prototypical Latin American dictator. The novels Strong Wind, The Green Pope and The Eyes of the Interred, which make up his trilogy on the U.S. banana companies, depict the exploitation and corruption which Asturias saw as central to their operations in tropical America….
In Men of Maize,… Asturias starts with the fundamental Latin American political issue, the control of the land. But this novel reveals an Asturias less concerned with the politics of the capital city than with magical Mayan traditions.
The novel takes place in the highlands of Guatemala, where the ancient Indian culture has survived alongside the western-oriented society introduced by the Spanish conquest. Despite 400 years of contact, the Indians and the Spanish-speaking ladinos look at the world through different eyes.
Maize, or corn, is the basic food in the highlands. Since it is so central to the diet, the Indians believe that man is quite literally made of corn. Therefore it is sacred, as sacred as human flesh.
This respect for corn, and for the earth which produces it, is violated by the capitalist ladinos [who clear the land for farming]…. But the destruction of the land is no worse a crime than selling the corn for profit. To the Indians, it is as if a man were to sell his children….
At one level the story … may be read as symbolic of the Spanish conquest itself. The social and economic order violently introduced by the Spanish four and a half centuries ago is still tenuous, not only in the highlands of Guatemala, but throughout the Andes of South America as well.
No one is quite what he seems in this world where magic is matter of fact. Nicho Aquino, the faithful postman who links the highlands and the capital, one day changes into a coyote to follow a wizard who may explain his wife's absence. And the postal system, the connection with the outside world, simply disappears with him.
Nicho is only one of the characters who suddenly change form. A rider and his horse are turned into a star. The army colonel … is shrunk into a tiny toy soldier. It is a surrealistic world—not the surrealism of France where Asturias lived in the 20s and 30s—but rather a surrealism which springs from the world view of the Indians of Central America. Asturias, who did graduate study into the ancient cultures and religions of the region, sought in his writing to continue their great narrative tradition. In Men of Maize, that tradition comes to life in a magical tale.
Patrick Breslin, "Alien Corn," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), August 17, 1975, p. 3.