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I, the Supreme Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

I, the Supreme offers a fictionalized account of the key events and motives behind the nineteenth century dictatorship of Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (also known as Dr. Francia), who governed in Paraguay from 1814 until his death in 1840. In the novel, Augusto Roa Bastos presents a revision of the accepted interpretations of this period in history, analyzing not only the lingering effects on Paraguay but also the traditional notions of historical writing as the repository of objective truth.

Although I, the Supreme is considered a novel, it exhibits few of the traditional characteristics of the genre. There is, in fact, no sense of logical continuity that could constitute a plot, and no single voice that could be considered to narrate events. Indeed, the book is essentially a juxtaposition of different, and frequently contradictory, conversations, monologues, myths, journal entries, circulars, letters, historical documents, footnotes, and anonymous commentaries, all brought together by an unidentified, ostensibly impartial “compiler.” This compiler, who replaces both the traditional narrator and the concept of the author, selects, orders, and presents the diverse fragments that comprise I, the Supreme. While the novel is predominantly fictional, many of the incorporated texts are taken from authentic historical sources, the value and veracity of which the reader is forced to judge as the novel unfolds.

Besides rejecting the traditional notions of narrator and narrative plot, the novel also eliminates the concept of chronological time. Past, present, and future all merge into a sense of permanent timelessness. The fictional dictator discusses his death and burial as if it were already past, and he argues with historians not yet born and texts not yet written. At other times, two events occurring at vastly different times are telescoped into one moment and presented as simultaneous. This eternal present is emphasized by the insertion of a variety of both European and native Paraguayan myths into historical events as if they were part of the reality being narrated. As a result, the novel offers no progression but rather functions within the timeless dimension of myth.

Insofar as the events of I, the Supreme can be said to be located in space and time, the majority of the text is set in the dictator’s office and personal quarters in the national palace during the last few months of his life. The novel begins with the appearance on the door of the main cathedral in Asunción of a lampooned dictatorial decree condemning the dictator to death, dismemberment, and oblivion. The outraged Francia, now isolated, ill, and both politically and physically powerless, defends himself and his policies against the judgment of posterity. The rest of the novel consists of this defense before the judge, represented by the reader. Francia’s only companion in this enterprise is his naïve personal secretary, Policarpo Patiño, who serves primarily as a scribe taking dictation and as an audience for the dictator’s lengthy ramblings and self-justifications. The central action of the text revolves around their extended discussions and arguments on a variety of topics, ranging from real and imagined events to philosophy, writing, and language. A large portion of this dialogue is devoted to the dictation of a “Perpetual Circular,” in which Francia recounts his version of events and his ideas on the nation and power. The dialogue and dictation are continuously interrupted by excerpts from the dictator’s personal diary, which provide a more intimate self-analysis and critique. Interspersed with this, the reader frequently encounters documents written by the dictator’s contemporaries and by future historians; these documents serve as points of departure for further debate between the dictator, his secretary, and his conscience. In this way, all the major events in the novel are narrated, either by the two main characters or by the different...

(The entire section is 1,147 words.)