The President, by Miguel Angel Asturias

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.

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16 thoughts on “The President, by Miguel Angel Asturias

  1. I just bought this, so your review comes at the perfect moment. Really looking forward to it now!

  2. I keep thinking the English translation is horrible, clunky and incomprehensible for long stretches. Needless to say I did not enjoy it at all.

  3. I’m glad, but it’s not a book that’ll make you happy – save perhaps from an aesthetic point of view. Asturias has this particular trick where he gives a character one hope they can cling on to, and then he comes along and cruelly takes that hope away.

  4. But it was the aesthetic part that seemed all wrong to me. I can deal with unhappiness, I just finished Lobo Antunes’ Fado Alexandrino and loved it, but that was impeccably written. Here the sentences don’t flow, things don’t make a lot of sense, the writing felt muddy, I was trudging through it.

  5. It’s such an interesting and perhaps uniquely Latin American genre: the anti-dictator novel. I mean, sure there are other examples around the world, but I don’t know that they exist in such a community of examples. I have several of these – including this one – on my list, if I can ever muster the courage.

  6. Miguel: Perhaps in writing that, I am in part making a wrong (or unfair) distinction between an aesthetic and an emotional response, and an unjustified assumption that one (anyone) seeks a sense of happiness from literary works – which one is not going to find in The President. But I don’t suppose happiness is what we seek from art (necessarily); Aristotle would claim the correct response to be elicited from tragedy, for instance, is pity and awe (certainly The President seeks to evoke our pity, but also probably anger); and our motivations to watch horror films perhaps entail us desiring a response of fear.

    So I was saying (incorrectly) that what pleasure there was to be found in The President was aesthetic; and ok fair enough, maybe it’s not everyone cup of tea. Personally I think it does make sense, as a whole, as a structured world the author has created, insofar as a lot of actions are undertaken by characters in the book for irrational reasons; people find themselves in a world whose laws are arbitrary and without reason. It does meander about a bit, particularly in the way it follows a character for a time and then drops (or even kills off) him/her; it’s not written with classical purity; but then I don’t necessarily find this objectionable. The writing I found find, though occasionally obscure, and he does seem to like bizarre analogies.

    Received a copy of Fado Alexandrino today. It certainly is quite big (its 500 pages is deceptive, as they are larger than normal and more finely printed). Also received An Explanation of the Birds.

    Scott W: Yes, they do like their anti-dictator novels; and I too have a few others in the pipeline. (In fact, in some way the Goytisolo and Lima Barreto I’m reading are anti-dictator novels too). I guess they have their reasons.

  7. Having heard mixed things about this “classic” and its author in general (and not all from Miguel either), I’m happy to hear how satisfying its is doom and gloom and cruelty wise. I can find plenty of aesthetic satisfaction elsewhere after all! The Mulatta and Mister Fly: are you sure you just didn’t make that one up?!?

  8. It’s certainly Argentinian enough in its sense of doom that you might like it; in fact, perhaps vies with Onetti in its pessimism about things (and as I may have said before, there aren’t many [enough?] truly pessimistic writers). Would be very interested to here how it reads in Spanish. I actually have a copy of his Leyendas de Guatemala in Spanish – but it is in no form of Spanish that either I or my dictionary recognises.

    The Mulatta and Mister Fly is true enough (it’s called Mulata de Tal in Spanish). I’m not sure I’ve still got my copy, but there’s the following plot summary in the back of The President:

    Yumi, a wooodcutter, is possessed by Tazol, the corn demon, an occult force which dares him to go to High Mass with his fly unbuttoned. Many people sin, especially women.

    Then Yumi, ‘Mister Fly’, exchanges his wife, Niniloj, for untold riches – Tazol sweeps her off in a dust-storm and ‘Mister Fly’ marries the Mulatta, a magnetically attractive drug addict. Bi-sexual, too…

    Obviously though this is biased in trying to sell it to an English audience (of the late 60s/early 70s). It even has a quote from the TLS referring to the narrative’s “lucidity”. I don’t recall it being in any way “lucid”.

  9. Enjoy reading Fado Alexandrino; the Portuguese edition is 700 pages, but it was so addictive I finished it in a week, I was devouring 100 pages every day. It’s easily the best novel by ALA I’ve read (and I’ve finished 7 so far). I started An Explanation of the Birds yesterday, what a coincidence, uh? I’m trying to take the time to write four reviews of ALA’s novels in a row at my blog, kind of devote a week to him.

  10. I will no doubt spread my ALA novels out a bit more than you, like about one every two years. Now have What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire? as well, which is another big book (590 pages). Looks quite different in form terms too, very short paragraphs, sentences cutting into one another (different levels of consciousness perhaps).

  11. That one, from what I understand, belongs to a new period in his career; I’m still trying to understand how his career divides into styles. I think I read in some interview that he was cutting on the metaphors nowadays, said it was a sign of insecurity and showing off; now he tries to be more modest, something like that. I think it’s our loss, the man has a gift for metaphors like few 20th century writers did.

  12. I have added further to my collection with Knowledge of Hell and The Natural Order of Things. I must be pretty close to having all his works now translated into English.

  13. I know. My hesitation so far is that I have an aversion to reading the slightest thing about books which I haven’t read but want to (I won’t even read the blurb on the backs of books), because I feel in some way that it will diminish the purity of the artistic experience I undergo when I read them. But maybe I should in this case, because they may well orientate me better to the historical context. Certainly I will be reading the post on Act of the Damned; and I will certainly be reading something else by ALA this year.

  14. Ah, that’s understandable. Well, I have heavy spoilers sometimes, so perhaps you should wait until after you’ve read the novels.

  15. I will read them though – just maybe like Himadri’s Shakespeare posts, years after they were written. It’s good to come across another opinion while your mind is so full of your own.

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