I the Supreme

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Augusto Roa Bastos’ I the Supreme (published in Argentina in 1947 as Yo el Supremo) has been acclaimed as one of the most important novels of twentieth century Latin America. It may be seen as the culmination of a distinguished series of novels by major Latin American writers (including Miguel Ángel Asturias and Gabriel García Márquez, both of whom won the Nobel Prize) which consider the phenomenon of dictatorship and the nature of power. It is also the most ambitious and complex of many recent novels which undertake the scrutiny and reevaluation of the nineteenth century, particularly the euphoric period just after independence from Spain when it seemed possible to implement idealistic visions of how countries and governments should be.

José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, the central subject and primary narrative voice of I the Supreme, was the absolute dictator of Paraguay between 1814 and 1840. His emphasis upon personal rule and national self-sufficiency cut Paraguay off from neighboring countries in ways which still affect the isolated, dictator-ruled Paraguay of 1986. Augusto Roa Bastos, who has lived most of his life in exile from his native land (not only exiled but forbidden to return), weaves an awareness of subsequent events into his evocation of the past.

Paraguay was the first Spanish American country to repudiate Spanish rule. It declared its independence in 1811 and was then governed for two years by a national executive committee whose principal member was Francia. After a year as consul, Francia assumed the title of supreme dictator in 1814 and ruled the country possessively until his death in 1840. A lawyer and serious student of theology, Francia was honest, frugal, and abstemious, and he himself lived with the austerity and isolation he imposed upon the country. Steeped in the ideas of the French Enlightenment (his passion for Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau is frequently evident as he tells his story in I the Supreme), Francia severely limited the power of the Catholic Church and of the aristocracy or upper class in Paraguay. He forbade immigration and emigration, and, insofar as possible, sealed Paraguay off from the rest of the world. He introduced modern methods of agriculture, built roads, bridges, and forts, and maintained a large army. Constantly suspicious of conspiracies against him, Francia maintained his absolute power over the some three hundred thousand Paraguayans by means of spies, state police, and the incarceration of large numbers of political prisoners. He burned all of his private papers right before his death, just as he does at the end of I the Supreme.

The genre of I the Supreme eludes definition: It is neither historical fiction nor fictional history, neither free of historicity nor limited by historical fact. Roa Bastos has called it “another kind of history,” a fiction which makes more sense of history than an array of documented facts. Gerald Brenan, the distinguished historian of modern Spain, when asked to contribute to the Oxford History of Modern Europe, said: “I’ve given up history, you cannot get at the truth by writing history, that only a novelist can discover.” It is this complex truth of history that Roa Bastos seeks, and in his pursuit of this ever-changing, elusive truth, he presents his readers with a kaleidoscopic, multilayered, hilarious account. The book is a patchwork of texts. Francia writes official pronouncements, private diary entries, and talks to his secretary or his dog. The Compiler of these hundreds of varied texts, although he says that he is merely assembling the book, is more than a fictional editor. He splices in sections of documents (both real and spurious), footnotes, and long quotations which comment upon and often contradict what the Dictator has just said. In addition, some of the supposed texts have already been annotated, sometimes by the Supreme Dictator himself, sometimes by other writers, sometimes by an unknown saboteur who may be an unacknowledged aspect of the personality of the Dictator.

Readers of I the Supreme are made constantly aware of the work of the Compiler and of their own role as readers of a text (who are trying to make sense of it) by the annotations about the fragmentary nature of the documents. In...

(The entire section is 1771 words.)