It’s traditional by now to read something by Ramón del Valle-Inclán for Spanish Literature Month – though it’s a tradition which might have to end soon, because I’m not sure there’s all that much else in English. As we (no doubt) noted last year, his books vary widely in style, and indeed, in content in a way that most authors’ don’t. This novel is a far from the Sonatas novellas depicting the leisured lives and loves of aristocrats. Instead it is your typical – indeed, archetypal, since it was published in the 1920s(?) – Latin American dictatorship novel; although Valle-Inclán was himself of course a Spaniard and is at least in part displacing the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera to that other continent.
Tyrant Banderas seems to have been particularly influential on Miguel Angel Asturias’ The President, whose basic structure and plot mimic it. A dictator rules a South American country and our narrative drifts from person to person – though largely, it is true, remaining in the upper echelons of government – giving as it does so a panorama of the country, and a multi-sided view of the dictator. Banderas is himself an interesting character – perhaps more so than leaders from other South American dictator novels – since although he may kill and oppress, even as he does so, he remains concerned to distance himself from those activities, and particularly to maintain a respected position in the opinion of the wider world.
Like Asturias’ The President, the novel also follows the fortunes of a politician who falls foul of the dictator and goes over to the revolution; though the outcome in this case is certainly less depressing, since Banderas turns out ultimately to have a far less secure position from which to act; – one feels maybe Asturias – and other later Latin American writers – are more inured to the idea of dictatorship being a permanent form of government, from which one can see no forthcoming release. Valle-Inclán does share too with Asturias a certain unflinching pitilessness – an interest in the grotesque – which we remember well from the, at times, shocking plays of his we read last year: – there is a scene in this, for instance, where a baby, after his mother is taken away by the secret police and he is left on his own, is eaten by pigs.
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.