Many years ago, I read Asturias’ The Mulatta and Mister Fly, which was one of the strangest and most incomprehensible novels I’ve ever read. Thankfully, The President is nothing like as odd, though it does at times still lapse into obscurity.
It’s another of those old dictator novels which the Latin Americans are always writing. The plot: a military captain is murdered one night by homeless lunatic, this murder is then attributed to various high-ranking officials whom the regime hunts down, torturing everyone in its path to arrive at the confessions it wants, while the right-hand man of the president falls tragically in love with one of the renegade’s daughters. The novels drifts between characters and between levels of society, from the beggars on the streets to the president himself, and forms a marvellous and disturbing paranorama of a totalitarian regime where the main motivation for anything is each individual’s paranoia. It is in fact a quite horrific, cruel and doom-laden work, with any hopes raised being soon dashed (the abortive revolution has a particularly depressing ending). What is most disturbing is the sheer arbitrariness of much that occurs in this society: there is no procedure of law: if you are in the wrong place, or you are denounced, whether you are innocent or guilty, whether there is any evidence against you or not, then your life will be destroyed, if not ended.
Asturias is compared to Joyce a lot, I suspect because he liked a bit of wordplay. Naturally this is something that comes across with difficulty in a translation – indeed, I’m left wondering to what extent this book in English at all resembles the original Spanish (or whatever composite language of Spanish and indigenous dialects Asturias is using here); more than usual one suspects is lost; but I wonder too whether – perhaps like a translation of Finnegans Wake into a second language – Asturias isn’t actually easier-going in English, since it has at least been filtered through another man’s attentive understanding. But the book actually reminded me most of Bely’s Petersburg: the set-up is the same, a cast of characters from various walks of life, political intrigues, an actual plot, and a degree of experimentation in form (though Bely is much more extreme in this).
I’d go so far as to say that, along with Carpentier’s Explosion in a Cathedral, this may well be my favourite Latin American novel so far.