Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I, The Supreme - Augusto Roa Bastos

I the supreme dictator of the Republic order that on the occasion of my death my corpse be decapitated; my head placed on a pike for three days in the plaza de la Republica, to which the people are to be summoned by the sounding of a full peel of bulls.....

I The Supreme, gives us the story of Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia, self-professed Dictator for Life of Paraguay ruled from 1814 till 1840 ( until his death). Unlike the usual form of fiction, this is presented in form of dialogues, soliloquies, his writings, entries in notebook, his orders, apart from facts from the journals and other documents. The Supreme, on his death bed, recollects the events of his lifetime as the Dictator for Life of Paraguay, through his rants, memories, his reflections to his long standing secretary Policarpo Patino.
"When I dictate to you, the words have a meaning; when you write them, another. So that we speak two different languages…I want there to be something of myself in the words that you write."

There aren't any violent description on torture, of assassinations or brutal force. There are no dissident voices. There are no glorified propaganda machinery in place. However, the arrogant, all conquering , maneuvering and smart political and military leader is omnipresent. Pages after pages his persona rules the readers mind. You are left with awe and admiration for this cunning and manipulative politician. A compassionate leader, with keen interest in the welfare of the people of the country. Shrewd economical brain, negotiating with powerful neighbours and the foreign traders. Managing a country of the size of Paraguay against the Buenos Aires based Spanish and the Brazil based Portuguese and the Britishers isn't an easy task.

The history and survival of the republic of Paraguay is unveiled through these pages to the reader. The otherside of the person behind the uniform is not revealed much. His dubious past , the uncertainty over his parents ( he even reject the last minute plea by his father to reconcile from his death bed) are mentioned in passing remarks.

One of the outstanding novels I have read this year. Personally, I place this over the other two favourite 'dictator novels' by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. The text is extremely dense and rich, the narration is in monologues, the conversations are as perceived by the dictator (in continuous writing without any space or linebreaks), the language is dreamy and metaphoric at times. The construction and style demands higher level of concentration from the reader. The large array names and places and the regular use of guarani phrases makes it challenging. Complex novel about absolute power and power of language.

This book was written during the regime of another dictator Alfredo Stroessner, with whom the publication wasn't well received. Bastos, spent a larger part of his life in exile (Argentina and later France), returned only after the fall of Stroessner's regime.
I The Supreme
Augusto Roa Bastos ( translated from Spanish by Helen Lane )
Dalkey Archive Press
424 Pages
More Read : L A Times, , NY Times Article by Carlos Fuentez

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