THE LAUREATE: Miguel Angel Asturias was born in Guatemala City in 1899 to a comparatively distinguished upper-middle class family. He finished high school himsrlf, and then started a free high school/college for the poor. He spent a great deal of his life abroad, starting with studying anthropology, and specifically the Maya, in Paris in the twenties. He wrote El Señor Presidente while abroad, but couldn’t bring the manuscript back with him because, surprise surprise, Guatemala, being a Latin American country during the twentieth century, had a dictator problem. Asturias wrote a bunch of poetry, then was sent to Mexico as an attachè. When the next dictator came around, Asturias was stripped of his citizenship and ended up living in Chile and Argentina. Then the next dictator in Argentina drove him to Europe. Latin America was a mess, if you can’t tell. Asturias was eventually returned to favor in the sixties, and died in Madrid in 1974.
WHAT I’M READING: El Señor Presidente, a title my tablet refuses to accept as having correctly spelled words in it and which I refuse to type out again in this review.
REVIEW: I can see why Asturias couldn’t get this published until the dictator du jour was safely buried. ESP is a very negative portrayal of life under a Latin American dictatorship. So, in the beginning, we see society’s castoffs, eking out whatever pitiful existence they can. One of The President’s friends happens to make fun of one of them, and the man he makes fun of snaps and kills him. The President immediately jumps into action, collecting falsified testimony from the rest of the beggers (and shooting the one who disagrees) while using the murder as a pretence to kill two of his political rivals. One of The President’s favorites, Miguel Angel Face, shoots the beggar who actually did the murder. Then, the high justice and the President systematically exploit every other person they come across. Just as one subplot example: one guy gets implicated in the investigation because he hears about the general being warned. His wife learns about the kidnapping, then heads to the general’s house and is discovered. She is thrown into prison, has her baby killed in front of her, then is sold to a brothel. The madame is pissed because the wife wasn’t useful as a whore, so she complains to the head justice. Meanwhile, her husband has been sitting in jail. The chief justice gives him a provisional pardon and lets him out of jail. He offers him a deal, something like a pardon in exchange for killing someone he wanted to kill anyway. The man gladly signs the form, but doesn’t realize that he signed his wife away and got the chief justice off for free.
Basically, living in a Latin American dictatorship is the worst.
RECOMMENDED: Absolutely. Latin American fiction is pretty boss.
WHAT’S NEXT: The Betrothal by Shmuel Agnon.