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...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Bach, Caleb. “Augusto Roa Bastos: Outwitting Reality.” Americas 48 (November- December, 1996): 44-49. Discusses Rao Bastos’s background and writing career. Offers an in-depth examination of I, the Supreme along with illuminating comments by Roa Bastos about the book.

Balderston, Daniel. “The Making of a Precursor: Carlyle in Yo, el Supremo.” Symposium 44 (Fall, 1990): 155-164. Examines the use of Thomas Carlyle’s 1843 essay on Doctor Francia as an intertext in Roa Bastos’s novel. Also discusses the theory that the modern writer creates his precursors, the relationship between literature and history, and the relationship between language and reality.

Da Rosa, Doris C. “Yo, el Supremo and Augusto Roa Bastos’s Search for the Future of Paraguay.” Discurso Literario 1 (Spring, 1984): 169-176. Examines the novel as a historical revision of Francia’s regime but not as an unqualified justification. Maintains that the historical perspective of the text reflects contemporary circumstances and problems of Paraguay. Offers the conclusion that the nationalist pursuits of the nineteenth century dictator portrayed in I, the Supreme provide a model for modern Paraguayan nationalists.

Martin, Gerald. “Yo, el Supremo: The Dictator and His Script.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 15 (April, 1979): 169-183. In this Marxist analysis of the novel, Martin argues that Roa Bastos both reexamines the historical reality of Francia and projects an implied critique of the Latin American “New Novel.” Asserts that Roa Bastos exposes writing as a hopelessly one-dimensional form of power that is inadequate to the communication of meaning. Concludes that the novel offers a unique interpenetration of literary and political ideologies, “fusing literary revolution’ with revolutionary literature.’ ”

Ugalde, Sharon K. “Binarisms in Yo, el Supremo.” Hispanic Journal 2 (Fall, 1980): 69-77. An excellent analysis of the polar oppositions and contradictions that form the structural and thematic basis of the novel. Examines in particular the mythological polarities and concludes that Roa Bastos deliberately rejects resolution of contradictions.

Weldt-Basson, Helene C. Augusto Roa Bastos’ “I the Supreme”: A Dialogic Perspective. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993. One of the finest studies available in English on Roa Bastos’s novel. Explores in depth Roa Bastos’s thoughts on Francia and supplies two extensive chapters on the historical and nonhistorical intertexts.