Miguel Ángel Asturias - Interweaving a narrative style that drew influences from magical realism and surrealism, Asturias helped to shape the world’s view of Latin American literature and was a forerunner of the Latin American Boom of the 1960s and 1970s.


Miguel Ángel Asturias, Legends of Guatemala, Trans. by Kelly Washbourne, Latin American Literary Review Press; Bilingual ed., 2012.



The first English-language translation of the work of a Guatemalan master, this groundbreaking achievement of "ethnographic surrealism" promotes cross-cultural understanding. A liberating, avant-garde recreation of popular tales and characters from the Guatemalan collective unconscious—including, from the Mayan sacred text, the Popol Vuh—this book contains a riot of folklore, colonial resistance, animistic nature, and the unfolding drama of hybrid ethnic identity formation.


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Miguel Ángel Asturias, The President, Trans. by  Frances Partridge, Waveland Press, Reprint ed., 1997.


Winner! Nobel Prize for Literature. Guatemalan diplomat and writer Miguel Angel Asturias (1899-1974) began this award-winning work while still a law student. It is a story of ruthless dictator and his schemes to dispose of a political adversary in an unnamed Latin American country usually identified as Guatemala. The book has been acclaimed for portraying both a totalitarian government and its damaging psychological effects. Drawing from his experiences as a journalist writing under repressive conditions, Asturias employs such literary devices as satire to convey the government's transgressions and surrealistic dream sequences to demonstrate the police state's impact on the individual psyche. Asturias's stance against all forms of injustice in Guatemala caused critics to view the author as a compassionate spokesperson for the oppressed. "My work," Asturias promised when he accepted the Nobel Prize, "will continue to reflect the voice of the people, gathering their myths and popular beliefs and at the same time seeking to give birth to a universal consciousness of Latin American problems."


In a Central American country, the President, the anonymous and blurry dictator, is so powerful that his decisions rule every move. His favorite assistant, Cara de Angel, is placed in charge of a mission to eliminate General Canales, an enemy of the government. Canales escapes, his daughter Camila falls sick and Cara de Angel secretely takes care of her, ultimately falling in love with her.
This, of course, is seen as a treason by the President, who gradually takes revenge. He orders Cara de Angel to go to Washington for a mission, which he looks as an opportunity to escape. So Cara de Angel tells Camila, with whom he has had a baby, that once in Washington he will send her a letter and that they will find some way for her to join him.
However, it's all a trap. Cara de Angel is arrested and incarcerated. In prison, he lives in fear and is told that Camila has become the President's new mistress, while Camila, alone in the countryside with the baby, waits forever but has to struggle with the idea that her husband has abandoned them. - allreaders.com/book-review-summary/the-president-22498


"Asturias has achieved in a splendid manner a grotesque and almost asphyxiating conception of the total state. When the reader puts down the novel, he does so with a feeling of compassion and, at the same time, relief that he has not had to live through similar circumstances." - T. B. Irving

"Asturias leaves no doubt about what it is like to be tortured, or what it is like to work for a man who is both omnipotent and depraved." -- Times Literary Supplement



I thought The President by Miguel Angel Asturias was a beautiful work, but better read in its original language. The English translation was at some times difficult to read and didn't make sense, it was done without care or consideration to the moral the work was trying to portray. The pages where filled with powerful images and symbols Asturias himself could have witnessed. You could tell the author knew what he was talking about and felt passionate about what he wrote, that passion drove the story on and really showed accurately the political oppression the poor where shown at that time. The characters were dynamic, intense and could have represented easily some political figures of the time. He described each and every character as being guilty of something and didn't shine a godly light on anyone, even the victims of the government. He didn't romanticize the world of fear and constant oppression he strove to show, but presented it plainly as what it was. This is a moving read and I would recommend it to anyone. But you have to be prepared to stick with it because I found the way it is written somewhat different from more common novels. It would be best if read in Spanish because then you wouldn't have to deal with the poorly done translation. I had read some information on Asturias and that really gives new insight into the work. Being able to understand the parallels between the life the author lead and the difficulties he went through gave deeper meaning to what happened to the characters. - Del H. Domezio    




The President is my book from Guatemala for the Read The World challenge. I’m probably going to count it it towards Scavella’s Caribbean Reading Challenge as well, although I haven’t really worked out my list for that yet. It comes with one high recommendation: Asturias was, as it says on the cover, ‘Winner! Nobel Prize for Literature’.
It is a book about life under a dictatorship; at the beginning a Colonel is murdered under slightly freakish circumstances, and the repercussions spread out from there, starting with the President using the murder as a pretext to target other politicians. The President isn’t particularly about the president himself, but the psychological and social impact on other people of the arbitrary and ruthless exercise of power.
I have to say I was left slightly cold by it. I don’t know if I would have read it any differently if I’d checked to see when it was written before reading it (d’oh!). It turns out it was actually written between 1922 and 1933 (though not published until 1946), which makes some of the stylistic quirks seem rather more radical and others more forgivable.
The things I might need to forgive – i.e. what I found irritating – is a certain overwrought quality to the prose, typified by the plentiful use of ellipses… and exclamation marks! Knowing that the book was written at least four decades earlier than I thought provides a degree of context for that, I think; quite a lot of books from the interwar period have a hint of intellectual melodrama to them. When I was reading it, though, I just thought it might be a very dodgy translation.
And on the other hand, the surreal aspect to the writing – the narrative slips into almost dream-sequence passages, and the action and characterization is sometimes slightly grotesque – is clearly not, as I vaguely thought, a pale imitation of Marquez. Rather, Asturias is probably an important influence on a writer like GGM.
Still, this is all post facto stuff, and when I was reading it I was rather less charitable. It was sporadically brilliant – after reading the first chapter I really thought I was in for a treat – but it never quite gripped me. It follows various intertwined characters, which meant no strong central narrative to pull me back in once my attention started wandering.
Anyway, here’s an extract:
Nothing was visible ahead. Behind them crept the track like a long silent snake unrolling its fluid, smooth, frozen coils. The ribs of the earth could be counted in the meagre dried-up marshlands, untouched by winter. The trees raised themselves to the full height of their thick, sappy branches in order to breathe. The bonfires dazzled the eyes of the tired horses. A man turned his back to urinate. His legs were invisible. The time had come for his companions to take stock of their situation, but they were too busy cleaning their rifles with grease and bits of cotton that still smelt of woman. Death had been carrying them off one by one, withering them as they lay in their beds, with no advantage to their children  or anyone else. It was better to risk their lives and see what would come of that. Bullets feel nothing when they pierce a man’s body; to them flesh is like sweet warm air—air with a certain substance. And they whistle like birds. the time had come to take stock, but they were too busy sharpening the machetes the leaders of the revolution had brought from an ironmonger whose shop had been burned down. The sharpened edge was like the smile on a negro’s face.
 I think this is a good book which, for whatever reasons, didn’t grab me. Shrug. - heracliteanfire.net/2009/01/01/the-president-by-miguel-angel-asturias/



An Overview of Miguel Angel Asturias's The President (pdf)



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Miguel Ángel Asturias, The Mirror of Lida Sal: Tales Based on Mayan Myths and Guatemalan Legends, Trans. by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert. Latin Amer Literary Review Press, 1997.

A never-before-translated collection of stories based on Mayan myth and Guatemalan folklore by the 1967 Nobel Laureate. Brilliantly inventive adaptations of Guatemalan folk tales intermesh the technical virtuosity, incomparable imagination, and profound poetic vision of a giant of twentieth-century literature.

The Nobel prize-winning Guatemalan writer, ethnologist, and diplomat Asturias (1899-1974) is known to English-language readers pirmarily for his brilliant political novel El se?or presidente (1946), translated as The President (LJ 2/1/64), and a subsequent novel, Hombres de maiz (Men of Maize, LJ 8/75). Yet this prolific surrealist writer, considered the progenitor of magical realism, clearly deserves more recognition. Thus, it is a pleasure to see this present collection of ten stories, which interweave Mayan and other early Guatemalan folk myths about confronting harsh reality into tales that transcend jungle and city, space and time, waking and sleeping. Alter-Gilbert's translation has captured the power of Asturias's complex language of hallucination and violence. Highly recommended for academic and larger public libraries.? - Mary Margaret Benson

Myths and legends are usually straightforward parables. But not those in ''The Mirror of Lida Sal.'' Here Miguel Angel Asturias, the 1967 Nobel laureate, retells some of the traditional stories of his native Guatemala in an elliptical, languid prose that is bewildering and enchanting, and never simple. Translated for the first time -- by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert -- more than 20 years after its author's death (and 30 years after its Spanish publication), the book challenges readers with frequent convolutions leading to destinations that are hard to pin down. Hard because Mayan mythology and Guatemalan folk tales are themselves of a convoluted nature, full of the stops and starts of mistake-prone deities and human bumblers. And also hard because Asturias was working toward a new, myth-based fiction and an undercurrent of complexity fitted his purposes. ''The Indians of Guatemala,'' he writes, ''are like fragments of the imagination.'' So are these stories featuring people who eat dreams, a man who ''disappeared for the sake of disappearing'' and a church bell that refuses to ring. ''The Mirror of Lida Sal'' is a surreal journey through a landscape charged with light ironies and weighty implications. - JAMES POLK


Originally published in 1967 and previously untranslated into English, this collection of retellings of (mostly Mayan) myths followed the earlier Legends of Guatemala (1930), and with it comprises a superb introduction to the inviting work of that country's Nobel Prize-winning author. Asturias (1899-1974) uses vigorous metaphors, matter-of-fact anthropomorphism, and magical-realist shenanigans to enliven such droll fabulations as the eerie ""Legend of the Crustal Mask,"" the ingeniously plotted ""Juanantes Enchained,"" and especially the lovely title story, in which a maiden's employment of magic to capture the man she loves leads to her own death and transfiguration. An irresistible book. - Kirkus Reviews


"The Mirror of Lida Sal," by Miguel Angel Asturias, is a noteworthy piece of 20th century fiction by a giant of Guatemalan literature. Subtitled "Tales Based on Mayan Myths and Guatemalan Legends," this volume has been translated into English by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert.
In this book, Asturias draws upon Central American history and culture to create several fascinating short pieces. His style (as I read it through Alter-Gilbert's translation) is psychedelic and florid; Asturias mixes realistic and fantastic elements throughout the book. The result is comparable to a prose version of the paintings of Spanish artist Salvador Dali.
I don't find all of the stories in "The Mirror of Lida Sal" to be equally effective. At times, Asturias' indulgence in ornate wordplay seems to overwhelm plot and characterization. But this is still a richly rewarding volume for the attentive reader. Some of the major themes of the book include magic, transformation, and cultural hybridization.
The best pieces in the book include the title story, which tells of a working class mulatta's attempt to ensnare the man of her desire; "Anteater Juan," a bizarre fantasy; and "Legend of the Silent Bell," a story of religious fanaticism and trans-Atlantic intrigue in colonial Central America. Miguel Angel Asturias is one of the most important figures in Latin American literature, and "The Mirror of Lida Sal" is definitely worth gazing into. -  Michael J. Mazza







Seven times the Moon-Chewers could take part in these poetic celebrations. As many as seven times, but no more, because if seven times night bared its silver-plated talon, if seven times the insane, spasmodic trees could parch themselves blinking away, not their leaves, but eyelashes of gold, as the firmament also parches itself by blinking, if seven times the night should shed its pepper-black hair, if seven times the crashing waves could churn, like millstones, over the swollen, puffy face of the sea, without these possessed, fanatical lunatics hearing their songs intoned, they would fall prey to the worst punishments -- ridicules and jeers: taken prisoner, vanquished in the poetic wars, they would be sacrificed, amidst grotesque dances, during which, from each victim's chest, would be extracted a lump of chocolate in the form of a heart.
In his intro, Martin notes that critical attention has rightly focused on Asturias' "most important works" -- The President and Men of Maize [out-of-print; last published in '95] -- but he feels the Nobel winner's many other books have been unjustly ignored. He writes:
That less attention has been given to each of the remaining works is understandable; that almost none has been given to them is absurd. Absurd that almost nothing has been written on his quite extensive poetic production, including the extraordinary fantomimas (phantomimes) [Ed.: Emulo Lipolidon (1935) and Alclasan (1940), can anyone explain this form?] ... ridiculous that a novel as linguistically and mythologically audacious as Mulata has hardly ever received the kind of searching analysis it deserves.
  Equally striking, and here we come to our point, is the remarkable absence of critical attention devoted to Asturias's "legends." The first collection, ... Leyendas de Guatemala (Legends of Guatemala), appeared in 1930, and has never been translated into English [Ed.: this work contained an introduction by Paul Valéry]; the second, El espejo de Lida Sal, appeared in 1967, and has now, in this bedazzling translation by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert, become available to the English-speaking reader thirty years later.
From the back cover author bio (stop marveling at my research skills) we learn that Asturias settled in Paris in the twenties to study ethnology and Central American mythology at the Sorbonne. "It was during this era that he became a dedicated Surrealist under the tutelage of André Breton [and] translated the Popol Vuh and the Annals of Xahil."



interview with Alter-Gilbert.







Miguel Ángel Asturias, Men of Maize, Trans. by Gerald Martin, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995.


Social protest and poetry; reality and myth; nostalgia for an uncorrupted, golden past; sensual human enjoyment of the present; 'magic' rather than lineal time, and, above all, a tender, compassionate love for the living, fertile, wondrous land and the struggling, hopeful people of Guatemala.— - Saturday Review




With its epic-poetic, winding sentences and its here-and-there rambling folk logic, this new translation of the late Guatemalan writer reflects Asturias' reputation as a seminal figure in the cultivation of an indigenous, non-Europhilic South American literature. Men of Maize was first published in Buenos Aires in 1949 and predates his Nobel-prize winning banana republic trilogy. This is not so much an indictment of institutions like United Fruit as it is a mythic history of the white man's arrival in Indian America. Specifically of the misfortunes that befall the children and grandchildren of a certain apothecary responsible for the poisoning of the warrior chief Gas. par Ilom, the last line of resistance to the greedy ""maizegrowers"" who burn the forests, then exhaust the soft. Asturias brings together half a dozen legends -- of Machojon, who turns into a star on the day of his engagement; of the death and rebirth of the Curer/Deer of the Seventh Fire/firefly wizard; of the curse on the army colonel who led the raid on Gaspar; of blind Poppa-Possum, deserted by his wife; and the Coyote-Postman similarly abandoned-into the kind of big story-telling novel fabricated equally for pain-killing entertainment and for symbolic explanation of why the Bad Times came. Asturias' cross-fertilization of cultures make. s an impressive contribution to our understanding of the people of that other America where the social transition from primitive to modern is ongoing and devastating--the source of some of the most powerful social novels being written today, since Asturias opened the way. - Kirkus Reviews




This novel, a Latin American classic, offers a universal echo of the voice of the Mayan Indians, from the Guatemala of our times.
"Men of Maize" is the most profound, and also the least accessible novel by Miguel Angel Asturias. Although Asturias received the Nobel Prize in 1967, when he was already an elder writer of considerable repute, "Men of Maize" never escaped the fate of certain other masterpieces: those works that everyone admires and that few have read from beginning to end.
To a large extent, this has been the unavoidable consequence to an author who proposed to articulate in narrative form the intricate cosmic vision of his country's Indians. "Men of Maize" is written in specific impenetrable codes, difficult to decipher, that give access to a civilization that was born before Christ and that holds magnificent principles, still hidden and unknown. The dominant Western culture looks down on that which it is uninformed about; and its conquered have been forced to camouflage themselves in order to survive.
It has to be recognized, in addition, that the reading is particularly thorny in the most baroque sections of the work, where the author lapses into repetition and rhetorical excess. The overload of lyricism exhausts the pages, some pages; but the style bases its enchantment in the continual re-creation of the people's speech, and the changes in cadence avoid monotony.
The plot of "Men of Maize" is the story of a curse. The assassination of Gaspar Ilom, the leader of an indigenous uprising at the turn of the last century, kindles the fire of vengeance. The curse persecutes and burns its prisoners, or it decapitates them, or renders them sterile. Asturias' character, Gaspar Ilom, existed in real life. Years after the publication of "Men of Maize," the novelist's son, Rodrigo Asturias, became the leader of the indigenous band of guerrillas in Guatemala. His war name is Gaspar Ilom: The myth thus returns to the reality from which it came.
Of course no one today can deny that Asturias has achieved an attractive synthesis of events and legends. Men and gods mingle in the most natural way in this dazzling story, which becomes myth to conclude newly converted into history. Nevertheless, when the novel was published in 1949, it met limited resonance in its readers and it had no better response on the part of the critics. The critical recognition of "Men of Maize" came much later.
Like many other Latin American writers, Asturias has been tenaciously pursued by bad luck. His first novel, "The President," which in my opinion continues to be the best novel about dictators ever written in Latin America, waited 14 years before being published. At last, in 1946, a small Mexican publishing house believed that the novel was worth a try; but the bulk of the printing ended up in its storehouses. Asturias went around with the original under his arm since 1933, and at that time he was the obscure radio commentator, infamous for his notorious drift toward the tavern. The dogs of bad luck also nipped at the ankles of Juan Carlos Onetti, the most significant Uruguayan novelist; his masterpiece, "La Vida Breve," was delayed 10 years before being sold in its first edition of 3,000 copies. Alejo Carpentier, the Cuban novelist, had to pay out of his own pocket for the first copies of his works, until at last fame kissed his brow at age 70; and his countryman, Nicolas Guillen, was able to publish his most popular work, "Songoro Cosongo," thanks to a win at the lottery.
To some extent, "Men of Maize" is also a metaphor for those years of obscurity and drunkenness in its author's life. The novel can be read as an underground journey. The delirium of its hell expresses the tragic fate of the Mayan Indians--disowned, disdained, maimed--but speaking through them the author recounts his own wretched journey through life. For this reason, his writing calls to mind Malcolm Lowry's "Under the Volcano," although in its ambition and technical daring it can also be compared to none other than James Joyce's "Ulysses"; and it does not strike me as madness to claim that "Men of Maize" is a sort of "Ulysses" from Guatemala. - Eduardo Galeano


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Miguel Ángel Asturias, Weekend In Guatemala, Rotpunktverlag, 1983.         

Week-end na Guatemala descreve a invasão desse pequeno país, em 1954, quando se tentava estabelecer um projeto popular. O governo estado-unidense, com financiamento próprio e da American Fruit, não querendo intervir diretamente, promoveu o recrutamento em massa da escória social em vários países latino-americanos, assolados pelo desemprego e pela miséria, para formar um exército de mercenários. A elite econômica e setores da pequena burguesia guatemalteca forneceram a base social de sustentação interna da agressão, armando o palco para a tragédia.

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Miguel Ángel Asturias, Mulata, Avon Books, 1982.

Title from Miguel Angel Asturias. The plot follows a poor farmer (name forgotten by me) who starts out dissatisfied with his economic state and makes a deal with Tazol, the corn-husk devil, an enigmatic being whose first request of him is that he go to market with his fly open to lead the town's women into temptation (thus the title of the other translation, "the Mulata and Mr. Fly").

No book compares to the Mulata. Not just in quality, though it's a wonderful book, or in prose style, though it's beautifully and psychedelically (yes) written, but in topic, which is as far out there yet as perfectly (il)logical as anything I've ever read. Based it seems on Guatemalan mythology, the plot follows a poor farmer (name forgotten by me) who starts out dissatisfied with his economic state and makes a deal with Tazol, the corn-husk devil, an enigmatic being whose first request of him is that he go to market with his fly open to lead the town's women into temptation (thus the title of the other translation, "the Mulata and Mr. Fly"). He ends up divorcing his wife (in a sense; he turns her into a kind of inanimate doll) and marrying a Mulata, who is doubly-sexed and indeterminately dangerous. The book continues to interact with more demons, witches, beasts, gods, etc, etc. Pure loveliness. There is none better. If someone would only translate "Leyendas de Guatemala" ... the itch for more might be scratched, but as it is, this is your only option. and a necessary one. - Fax   

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Miguel Ángel Asturias, Strong Wind, Dell, 1975.



This is first in this author's series called the Banana Republic books. Asturias is a Guatemalan Nobel Prize winner who "indicted North American exploitation of a Central American republic." I've just started reading this for my Book Group and the use of language is amazing. It is an incredible mix of prose and poetry. It was originally published as VIENTO FUERTE in Spanish. My copy was translated by Gregory Rabassa and from what I've read so far, it is an awesome job.
The author does an excellent job of capturing the heat of the malarial region, the intense labor involved clearing the rainforest, the hopelessness of the peasants who are under the thumb of the Topical Banana fruit company. Even the low level imported management is in an unjust situation. So far, at least, the only ones winning anything are the absentee investors who support the system.
Even though he was Guatemala's Ambassador to France, Asturias was eventually forced into exile for eight years because of his political convictions.


A curiously inept novel by the author of the unusual El Senor Presidente, published here in translation in 1964. Asturias now slices up what is probably United Fruit, in this tale of the exploitation by a large American company, Tropical Banana, of a small Caribbean plantation community. In the midst of the oppressed steps one Lester Mead, an American hermit and community Yippee, apparently restored to sanity by his marriage to Leland, former wife of a Banana official. Lester rallies the workers against the ""Green Pope"" (faceless officialdom), sells for them on local markets, urges a tight-fisted ""Indian"" economy. But Lester of the floating hair turns out to be a Lord Greystroke, none other than a major holder in the Company where he hopes some reforms may be accomplished. Alas for progress--Lester and Leland are obliterated by a hurricane. Mr. Asturias cannot bear. silences; in a skillful and brilliant montage of shocking sensual impressions, bright, quick gestures and attitudes, he inserts needless myth-fantasies, high-flown talk and the bewildering materializing and vanishing of characters. A complexity not suited to a doctrinaire subject. Although the author's handling of political matters is soundly motivated, his portrait of the American establishment is naive in the extreme and his Americans talk like Mary Worth baronets. But yes, he knows his bananas. - Kirkus Reviews


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Miguel Ángel Asturias, The Green Pope, 1971.

The second volume of Asturias' Banana Republic trilogy carries on in the vein of gothicized propaganda initiated in Strong Wind (1969). Part One deals with the early days of the Tropical Banana Company (mightily resembling United Fruit) and its first scourging inroads into the land and economy. Part Two begins where Strong Wind left off at the death of Lester Mead whose will now ironically corrupts and divides his native legatees. The rather loose continuity of the two sections is established through the career of George Maker Thompson, a pirate and empire builder who calls himself the Green Pope; his personal life affords a darkly suggestive view of the emotional nexus of the two cultures. At the peak of his career Thompson retires, shaken by a grotesque error beyond redress or confession. He rises again only when warfare between commercial fiefdoms -- projected in a national boundary dispute -- threatens to undo his life's work. The narrative's mystifications and distractions (stinks, legends, irrelevant chat, primitive bloodied images) make an oddly unstable context for the impassioned politics and poster-paint characterizations. Asturias pushes to a near decadent extreme the intense stylizations of folk art -- perhaps what the 1967 Nobel Prize committee had in mind when they noted his ""volcanic vehemence."" In this case the effluvia is not lava but moonlight and spittle. - Kirkus Reviews




Miguel Ángel Asturias, Eyes of the Interred, Trans. by G. Rabassa, Delacorte, 1973.


The third volume of Asturias' ""banana"" trilogy (The Green Pope, published here in 1971, and Strong Wind, 1969) and the apotheosis of his saga of third-world expropriation and defeat by American capital. It is now World War II; American allies, ""blond drunkards,"" demoralize the banana republic with insults and dollars while the newspapers improvise submarine threats to keep the workers in their place. George Maker Thompson, the Green Pope, is dying of throat cancer in Chicago, but his empire is secure, thanks in part to the backfired reforms of another rich gringo, Lester Mead, who inadvertently created a class of native owners. Thanks also to abortive rebellions (their battle cry, ""chos moyon con,"" still echoes in secret places) which left most of the fighters dead. Nonetheless, a small opposition has survived to learn from failure; and when Juan Pablo Mondragon, alias Octavio Sansur, alias Tabio San, emerges from volcanic catacombs with his face transfigured by a cactus potion and his body coated with the dust of the ash and lime pits, it is a parable of emerging political consciousness. It is also an image of resurrection. The plot describes the gradual rallying of the masses and their victory through organization in a general strike; but this correct theoretical moral is enveloped and distended with myth, metaphor, prefigurations, dreams, ghosts, folklore, jokes, all the manifold expressions of a native voice. It is a rich mixture and the basis of Asturias' reputation -- what the Nobel Prize committee called his ""volcanic vehemence"" in their 1967 award statement. Here it makes for an implacable sluggishness, protracted, redundant, digressive and diffuse, which gives first a sense of process but finally overburdens the suspense. The conception is grand -- a sort of dialectical synthesis of the trilogy -- but the book itself is merely huge and Asturias' vast, baroque lyricism is more than ever a special taste. - Kirkus Reviews







Miguel Angel Asturias was born in Guatemala and spent his childhood and adolescence in his native country. He studied for his baccalaureate at the state high school and later took a law degree at the University of San Carlos. His thesis on "The Social Problem of the Indian" was published in 1923. After he finished his law studies, he founded with fellow students the Popular University of Guatemala, whose aim was to offer courses to those who could not afford to attend the national university. In 1923 he left for Europe, intending to study political economy in England. He spent a few months in London and then went to Paris, where he was to stay for ten years. At the Sorbonne he attended the lectures on the religions of the Mayas by Professor Georges Raynaud, becoming his disciple.

"Miguel Angel Asturias - Biography". Nobelprize.org. 23 Mar 2013. Web. In 1928 Asturias returned for a short time to Guatemala, where he lectured at the Popular University. These lecture were collected in a volume entitled "La arquitectura de la vida nueva" (Architecture of the New Life), 1928. He then went back to Paris, where he finished his "Leyendas de Guatemala" (Legends of Guatemala), 1930. Published in Madrid, the book was translated into French by Francis de Miomandre, who sent his translation to Paul Valéry. The French poet was greatly impressed, and his letter to Miomandre was used as the preface to the 1931 edition published in the Cahiers du Sud series. The same year, Leyendas de Guatemala received the Silla Monsegur Prize, a reward for the best Spanish-American book published in France.
Asturias, Miguel Angel. Leyendas de Guatemala. Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada, 1967. Print.
In the 1920s an exhibition of pictures titled Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity or New Matter-of-Factness) was presented in Mannheim, Germany. Magical realism was coined by Franz Roh in his article Magischer Realismus ("Magic Realism"), describing the works shown at the event.

The term is now more often applied to a literary genre which appeared much later. This "magical realism" came to prominence in the 1960s with the work of South American writers like Miguel Angel Asturias, Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges, and was first applied to their work by writer and critic Arturo Uslar-Pietri. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, 1967, is often described as the seminal magical realist story. In the original Spanish the term was "Lo real maravilloso", which translates as "the marvelous real", gives a good impression of the nature of the style.

Magical realism in literature isn't an isolated and specifically Latin American genre. It has links to Science Fiction and Fantasy and the works of the English romantic poets, amongst many genres. In addition to the early painting genre, magical realism also finds expression in other art forms, notably film. This has become a popular and almost mainstream form in the late 20th century, with the work of director David Lynch and other widely released and commercially successful films, like Being John Malkovich, Donnie Darko and Edward Scissorhands. I find this reading equally as baffling as it is engaging. The use of the Spanish language is extremely impressive. There are a vast amount of adjectives, metaphors and poetic language throughout the entire text, although in some stories more than others. For example the following, “ni nada pasa realmente en la carne de las cosas sensibles” (14). The stories themselves seem to get lost in all the detail. There is so much description going on that my mind was going a bit crazy just trying to wrap my head around all the language. In the beginning in the section titled “Guatemala”, there is a lot about rituals and of the sacrificing of virgins. The area that is described seems to be full of riches and colour. “El trópico es el sexo de la tierra” (15). Much of the language suggests to the reader, a romanticizing of rituals and the sacrifices of virgins.

It was somewhat difficult to create any sort of timeline. “El Cuco de los Sueños va hilando los cuentos” (20). The readings are like a big mix of stories, dreams and memories. Many of them are a mix of cultures and worlds. There is the world of nature and man and the rituals which bring them together, as well as the world of the indigenous, the conquistadores, and the Catholic Church. Since every story is so different it’s hard to tell who the narrator is, and if that even carries any significance. The “Leyendas del volcán”, for example, reminds the reader of the Popol Vuh. The text says "Seis hombres poblaron la Tierra de los Arboles: los que venian en el viento y los tres que venian en el agua, aunque no venian mas que tres" (31); distinction between human beings and nature is distorted the magic of the story line. It’s as if all aspects of nature, including man kind are working together towards a greater objective. La intertextualidad es la caracteristica principal de la cultura contemporanea. Si todo producto cultural (un concierto, una mirada, una pelicula, una novela, un acto amoroso, una conversacion telefonica) puede ser considerado como un texto, es decir, literalmente, como un tejido de elementos significativos que estan relacionados entre si, entonces todo producto cultural puede ser estudiado en terminos de esas redes. Las reglas que determinan la naturaleza de este tejido son lo que llamamos intertextualidad. En otras palabras, todo texto --todo acto cultural y por lo tanto todo acto humano-- puede ser estudiado en terminos de la red de significacion a la que pertenece. El estudio de la intertextualidad tiene entonces, necesariamente, un caracter transdisciplinario. Zavala, Lauro. Desde una perspectiva linguistica, restringida, la intertextualidad es solo una de las dimensiones posibles del enunciado, y desde esta perspectiva la intertextualidad se reduce solo a recursos como la citacion, la mencion y la alusion. Pero desde una perspectiva mas amplia, todo puede ser considerado como intertextual, y como producto de la interpretacion del lector. Tal vez debido a la complejidad de los procesos intertextuales, su analisis es a la vez el mas serio y el mas ludico de los estudios literarios. Contextos de interpretacion (Framings) a) ¿En qué condiciones se produce aquello que es interpretado? Elementos que pueden ser utiles para responder a la pregunta: Contexto historico de produccion, distribucion o enunciacion. b) ¿En que condiciones se produce la interpretacion? Elementos que pueden ser utiles para responder a la pregunta: Horizonte de experiencia y de expectativas. Enciclopedia y competencias de lectura. Finalidad de la interpretacion (o ausencia de finalidad). Hipotesis de lectura: atribuciones del lector. Co-Textos de lectura (presentes o ausentes durante la interpretacion). Contingencias personales y materiales de la interpretacion. Magical realism: A literary genre in which magical features and storylines appear and are accepted as everyday reality. Magical realist stories often have a dream-like landscape and call on folk-lore and myth to question the true nature of reality. Time may be manipulated to appear cyclically or in reverse, rather than in the more usual linear way. It is often unclear whether the reader is intended to view the magical or everyday elements as the more 'real'. The next story is the “Leyenda del cadejo” which is found by the reader very different from the previous story. There are references to Latin, the devil, and to hell. For example, "-!vere tu es Deus absconditus!-" (36). "En su trenza estaba el misterio...cerca del hervidero donde burbujeaban los diablos" (38). "..., el hombre adormidera arrastro al infierno la trenza negra de la novicia que con el tiempo seria madre Elvira de San Francisco -asi nace el Cadejo-," (40). This seemed like a story touched by the Spanish where as the other seemed pure and similar to the stories of old Mayan texts such as the books of the Chilam Balam and the Popol Vuh. These are only the first reactions to the text as we move forward in the reading. - Gregory A. Robinson




Judging by the time I’ve had trying to find translated copies of his work, Miguel Angel Asturias seems to be a writer who has fallen from the public eye, at least in the English-speaking world. I can’t quite figure out why. Born in Guatemala in 1899, he began his career as a political dissident, fled persecution to Europe, where he became heavily involved in the surrealist movement, and eventually returned home, where in 1967 he received the Nobel Prize in Literature for the novel Men of Maize. He also seems to have been the first person to apply the term “magic realism” to the written word rather than to art. All of which suggests he ought to have been a prime candidate for competition with Borges, Garcia Marquez, Allende and Fuentes as exotic magic realist bestselling Oprah favorites. Instead, the reading of Asturias has been relegated to obscure academic pursuits. Case in point, the fact that the only places I’ve been able to read his work in English are university libraries. If I really wanted to own a copy of Men of Maize, I could get one used on Amazon—but it would cost me $100. No thanks.
So why the obscurity? I think it’s because of the kind of story Asturias tells, as well as how he tells it. My limited experience with surrealist fiction suggests a tendency, as in slipstream, to abstraction. The speculative element in a surrealist story often has the effect of hyperbole, with the implication that it can’t be taken at face value. Asturias’s fiction tends to draw from the structure and the tropes of the most primal of myth, but to depict these things with a complexity and abstractness of language that comes on like a synesthetic hurricane. The reader is left to find his own way through a soup of mythic symbols superimposed on top of an interpretation of the mimetic world whose structure only occasionally becomes visible through the soup, and which may or may not be what Asturias actually intends us to see.
Because of the very nature of his prose, this tendency to whirling chaos, it’s hard to pull out a concise quote that conveys what Asturias is all about. But I’ll give it a shot. I’ve been ruminating on The Mirror of Lida Sal: Tales based on Mayan Myths and Guatemalan Legends. These stories concern themselves with doomed sorcerer-artists, beings possessed of mythic, godlike creative power, but mortal, laughably fragile, who must inevitably be destroyed if not by their creations then by their very devotion to the creative act, which blinds them to the world’s dangers. In “Legend of the Crystal Mask”, a poor sculptor goes into hiding to escape the Spanish conquerors, and by his art transforms the cave of his refuge into a subordinate world, distorted and savage, whose population turns upon its creator and destroys him. This is the beginning:
Yes, Nurse Rain, he who made the idols and prepared the heads of the dead, leaving their cast-off bones in the lime-pit nearby, had hands thrice-golden!
Yes, Nurse Rain, he who made the idols, the custodian of skulls, fled from the men of worm-white skin, when they put torch to the city, and he took refuge in the most inaccessible of mountains, there where the earth turns into cloud!
Yes, Nurse Rain, he who made the gods that made him was Ambiastro, who had two stars in place of hands!
So we get this folkloric chantlike repetition, and we see Ambiastro treated like a god but acknowledged as a man. In everything I’ve read by Asturias (all of which deals in some way with the interaction between the modern Guatemala and its mythic past), there seems to be the implicit understanding and acceptance that the conquest is inevitable, has always already happened, and that thus Guatemala’s history can only be understood through the metaphor of conquest, of dismantling, destruction, rebirth, the piecemeal reassembly of heterogeneous fragments, without a blueprint, into something vibrantly alive and entirely different from either of its antecedents. All of which makes the abstraction, the willing incomprehensibility of Asturias’ writing an essential part of what he’s trying to do.
Which again raises the question of why his writing hasn’t stood up to the passage of time. It seems like, what with the upsurgence of slipstream in the genre publishing world, what with Kelly Link and Cat Valente and Matt Cheney and Dora Goss winning all this recognition, what with all the respect garnered by little slipstream zines like LCRW, Electric Velocipede, Flytrap, that Asturias ought to fit right in.
It probably has to do with the fact that as much critical acclaim as the edgy and poetical obscure seems to garner within genre, it doesn’t actually draw as much popular readership. For Asturias to catch on with that crowd, he would have to find a patron, a small press probably, somebody willing to front the cash and hype the hype. Small Beer managed it with Angelica Gorodischer…but they had Ursula Le Guin to translate.
I do actually own a Spanish-language copy of Hombres de Maíz my sister brought me back from Spain. Maybe someday, if my skills as a reader of Spanish skyrocket to one hundred times their current state, I’ll try and translate it myself.
El Gaspar Ilóm deja que a la tierra de Ilóm le roben el sueño de los ojos.
Hombres de Maís, first line. Roughly (I think):
Gaspar Ilóm leaves the land of Ilóm robed in the dream of his eyes.
- mossyskull.com/magic-realism/the-surrealism-of-asturias/


In the end one can admit that Asturias's novels are often interesting, provided one does not take for granted the claim that they are authentic expressions of the contemporary descendants of the Maya. They are interesting because they are authentic expressions of the confused and anomalous mind of a Europeanized Guatemalan desperately endeavouring to assess his local roots. This may sound backhanded, but it could scarcely be otherwise. A real Indian novel would have to be written by a real Indian, preferably not in Spanish but in an Indian language. Could such a real Indian write anyway? And if he could write well enough to produce a novel (let alone in Asturias's allegedly "Joycean" Spanish) would he any longer be a real Indian, in the sense in which Asturias would probably understand the term?
At times, Asturias can be very impressive indeed. El señor Presidente (1946) has only recently been superseded by Mario Vargas Llosa's Conversación en la Catedral as the most convincing Latin American novel yet about dictatorship. A novel can handle dictatorship very persuasively because it can convey its effect on private life, convey indeed the way in which a totalitarian regime can destroy the possibility of private life altogether. El señor Presidente certainly does all this….
The novel achieved one more thing. It was the first novel for years to treat Latin American problems on their merits, and not according to preconceived stereotypes. Apart from the President, there is no character who is wholly positive or negative; most are victims of circumstance. To avoid socialist realist stereotypes is, of course, a modest achievement…. It is a pity that in Asturias's subsequent trilogy on American exploitation he should have returned to a strict Manichaeanism. It is as though he felt that ambivalence of motive and conduct could only be allowed his compatriots: Americans are unredeemedly satanic.
There is one final complaint to be made against Asturias. He suffers from what Borges has described as the Spanish belief that to write well you must use every word in the dictionary, a habit that Latin American writers have now mercifully outgrown, mostly as a result of Borges's own example. Asturias has never pretended to be a writer for whom only the sheer joy of words matters. His subjects are too pressing. One would think therefore that he would resign himself to expressing them more efficiently. Instead, the claims of dictatorship, terror, arrest and denunciation are constantly surrendered to the awful pun, to outlandish dialect comprehensible to most Latin Americans only with a glossary, to laboured alliteration and to onomatopoeic effects of doubtful purpose….
It is a pity that Asturias, spurred on, perhaps, by his admirers, has retained all that is worst in his work and jettisoned all that was good: his legitimate social concern, and his ability, despite himself, to capture the feel of unpleasant yet all too common situations.  - The Times Literary Supplement


Asturias is a proficient, prolific, rather dull novelist who seems to have got the Nobel Prize for having a kind heart and for sympathizing, at least in his books, with the downtrodden. The Eyes of the Interred, first published in Spanish in 1960, is the third part of a trilogy, following on Strong Wind and The Green Pope, a long story of strife and turmoil in the banana plantations. Here the threat of a general strike brings down the president of the country, but the revolutionaries know they have not won their fight yet….
The book is skillfully decorated with symbols and myths, all the characters are convincingly realized, in a bookish way, and the only question in my mind is why Asturias should have bothered to write it, and why we should bother to read it. - Michael Wood 


We know what to expect here [in The Eyes of the Interred]. The novels of Miguel Angel Asturias, Guatemalan winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1967), spill over with characters, evoke continually the feral presence of the jungle, and into a lavish tapestry of myth and folklore weave anticapitalistic propaganda which can make for some tedious reading, especially so because Asturias likes to spread himself. The present volume, the final one of his Banana Republic trilogy, is no exception: there's a whole army of dynamic, closely-observed, bulging characters; the jungle comes through graphically and excitingly, never a mere backdrop; and the onslaught on gringo capital—this again personified in banana king George Maker Thompson—renews itself in the form of a successful, although untidy, general strike. In other words, this is committed, doctrinaire fiction, light-years behind Borges, reminding us that during the 1950s Asturias was exiled for eight years on account of his political convictions. An unpolitical reader must take the ideological rough with the atavistic smooth.
What's surprising in the long run (and long it is) is how much of the smooth he gives. The writing combines relentless observation with pliant, instant mythology, heraldic dream sequences with resonating and witty talkfests (in which Asturias, who often forgoes narrative, stages ventriloquistic tours de force that supplement the loud jungle with a human obbligato)….
What Asturias excels at here, though, is trains very closely watched indeed. Reptilian in motion and claustrophobic in effect, they force speakers on top of one another, keep the scene changing, build suspense, and go charmed through the furnace of "green fire," the inextinguishable vegetation. In the military section of one train, a general on his way to a conference laps cold champagne "off breasts, thighs, sexual organs" while watching his soldiers shoot the rebels in the nearby countryside; later, the women are pitched off the platform while the train is going full speed….
Meaty, earthy, yet sometimes impulsively lyrical, The Eyes of the Interred tells also a delicate, wry love story, that of Malena the school teacher and Juan Pablo the revolutionary, which becomes a vernal plateau in the text, at once dreamlike and unhistrionic….
As the book itself says, "one [has] the feeling of moving through a forest of dream reflected at his feet and a living forest on his shoulders"; no chip, to be sure. It's a forest of beggars, soldiers, priests, urchins, whores, agents provocateurs, slum-dwellers and peasant visionaries. The Eyes of the Interred, in fact, is a novel complex and lush enough almost (although by accident, I'm sure) to bury its politics in overgrowth; where that doesn't happen, especially toward the end, it becomes earnest and two-dimensional and the "volcanic vehemence" cited by the Nobel Committee dwindles into mousy pietism. The "eyes" are those of "the interred … waiting for the day of justice." - Paul West  
 
Although awkwardly staged, [the] prophecy by a naked Indian sorcerer in "The Eyes of the Interred" ["No one will ever win against the green fire!"…], the third volume of the Banana Trilogy, is one of the rare moments of this monstrously inflated polemical novel in which Miguel Angel Asturias strikes his authentic theme: Nature will avenge itself against those who would destroy our last and unconvertible resource—the ancient myths that bind man to man and to the vegetal and animal universe. Without these sustaining myths, Asturias admonishes us in his best novels again and again, man becomes an exile from his origins, a soulless, animate "thing" condemned to roam the earth with no aim except to destroy and be destroyed….
In "El Señor Presidente" Asturias wields with consummate artistry the techniques he had learned in Paris from Surrealists like André Breton, Tristan Tzara and Robert Desnos, who was his best friend. But Asturias bent their tools to his own esthetic and philosophical purposes, which he has summed up in the phrase "magical surrealism." "Presidente" is a truly magical work, despite its stylistic extravagances….
The chief obstacle for the North American reader—not to mention the translator—is Asturias's rich, encrusted idiom. To evoke the nightmare atmosphere of Guatemala in 1916 Asturias resorts not only to native vernacular and sensory imagery but to cruel children's rhymes and refrains, tongue-twisters and an overstuffed sorcerer's bag of alliteration, parallelisms, bilingual puns and onomatopoetic devices. He manipulates words to achieve percussive and ritual effects and mingles obscure Mayan and Spanish slang phrases with prolific, often self-indulgent abandon….
[The translator's] English yields little resonance of Indian dialect, mulatto creole, or mestizo Spanish; it sounds oddly neutral, like Esperanto….
"The Eyes of the Interred," more conspicuously than any other novel of Asturias's, is a casualty of his technique of automatic writing. Everything in it is off-focus and stagey—stringless puppets dancing an interminable jig on a skewed landscape of martyred banana trees, omnipresent portents and retributive disasters that seem to have been concocted in a forties special-effects studio. Asturias, in truth, translates least well of important Latin American writers….
Asturias's political novels are full of conceptual lapses. It can be argued that he is not a political thinker at all but a moral allegorist with ties to the medieval Spanish romancers on one side, and on the other to the Quiché-Mayan chroniclers of the "Popol Vuh," who projected the universe as a battleground between good and bad demonic forces, a contest in which individual figures blend indissolubly with allegory and animistic myth.
The Banana Trilogy is an exile's work both in subject and viewpoint, although at least a third of it was written in Guatemala in the early fifties, before Asturias was expatriated. - Victor Perera





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