Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Dictatorship of Flies

El Señor Presidente by Miguel Ángel Asturias

                               When the trumpet sounded
                               everything was prepared on earth,
                               and Jehovah gave the world
                               to Coca-Cola Inc., Anaconda,
                               Ford Motors, and other corporations.
                               The United Fruit Company
                               reserved for itself the most juicy
                               piece, the central coast of my world,
                               the delicate waist of America.

                               It baptized these countries
                               Banana Republics
                               and over the sleeping dead,
                               over the unquiet heroes
                               who won greatness,
                               liberty, and banners,
                               it established an opera buffa:
                               it abolished free will,
                               gave out imperial crowns,
                               encouraged envy, attracted
                               the dictatorship of flies…

                                          Pablo Neruda
                                   “La United Fruit Co.” from Canto General (1950)

Modeled after the brutal Guatemalan dictator and corporate henchman for the American-owned United Fruit Company, Manuel José Estrada Cabreras (1898-1920), the nameless tyrant of Nobel laureate Miguel Ángel Asturias’ most influential novel, El Señor Presidente, achieves a nearly mythical stature in this surreal and brawling tale as an aloof and evil god, the mysterious source of all suffering and death. What we learn of him we learn principally through the eyes and mouths of the poor and the mad and the dispossessed, as well as through the political jockeying of his many sycophants and jackals. Alternately praised as “Beloved Deity,” “First Citizen of the Nation,” and—in a single breath, without a trace of irony—“Constitutional President of the Republic, Benefactor of the Country, Head of the great Liberal Party, and Liberal-hearted Protector of Studious Youth,” this reclusive tyrant—with his toothless gums, pendulous cheeks, and pinched eyelids—is compared daily by his wretched subjects to none other than Pericles, Jesus Christ, and “the Sun King at Versailles.” 

Yet, ultimately, this novel is a less a satire of a particular man and regime, a particular Banana Republic* (for which Asturias had no shortage of choices, most notably Jamaica and nearby Honduras) than a broader, artistically ambitious study of the brutal effects of plutocracy, no matter the era, the people, the place. Indeed if one were to change the names, switch the props, adjust the lighting here and there, this novel could be set almost anywhere today (forget Iraq and North Korea and Iran; think of China, Russia, and Germany, think of England and France, think especially of the U.S.A.)—any place where, in the hallowed name of This or That, the elites of business, politics, and the military have gladly joined hands. 

In a story reminiscent of the gory productions of the popular, turn-of-the-century Parisian theatre, the Grand Guignol, there is one character, a man known as Miguel Angel Face (Miguel Cara de Ángel), who serves as a lifeline for the reader throughout the plot’s many twists and convulsions and turns, a moral, starkly human gauge of the corruption and tyranny that reigns supreme in this nameless Central American nation. 

Known as one of the first “dictator novels” (see also Fecundo by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and Nostromo by Joseph Conrad), a genre that would inspire such other Latin American greats as Autumn of the Patriarch; I, the Supreme; and The Feast of the Goat, El Señor Presidente is additionally remarkable as a novel for its clear break from the historic and realist style that dominated the period, both in Europe and Latin America. Cleary influenced by surrealism, Asturias, in his effort to more deeply probe the human psyche under tyranny, achieved a new style at once mythical, dreamlike, and incantatory, an innovation soon to inspire the “magical realism” boom of the 1960’s and `70’s, for which the literature of Latin America remains widely, if imperfectly known. 

* The term was coined by coined by American author O. Henry around 1904, following his travels in Honduras.

Miguel Ángel Asturias (1899-1974) A Guatemalan by birth, Miguel Asturias studied the myth and religion of Central America at the Sorbonne.  While living in Paris (1923-1933), he worked as a correspondent for several Central American newspapers.  He then pursued a diplomatic career, representing the Guatemalan government in Argentina, El Salvador, and Mexico. He then served as the Guatemalan ambassador to France from 1966 to 1970.  In 1967 he was award the Nobel Prize for Literature. (Thanks in part to Atheneum)

Peter Adam Nash

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