Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The President - Miguel Angel Asturias

"Death has always been my true ally , Miguel !"

Ryzsard Kapucinsky says in his "Soccer war" that it takes only 100 armed men along with you, to capture the power of the state in many of the countries in Africa, Latin America and some parts of Asia. It is that easy to be the leader of the nation and it needs another 100 and a leader to throw you out. Hence, the moment you are on the seat, your effort is to remain there as long as possible. One of the best way is to successfully eliminate not your enemies, but anyone who is a potential threat to you, and mostly your own comrades.

In one of the discussions after reading "I, the Supreme", some of us where discussing the great 'dictator novels' emerged from Latin America in the 60s. This article written by the great Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes ( review of I the Supreme), he talk about dozen writers choosing to writer about dictators ruled their respective country. In one such discussion came up the name of "The President" and ever since, I was trying to get a copy. The President is considered to be one of the first in this genre ( first Dictator novel was Valle Inclan's satirical book, Tirano Banderas, published in 1917) which soon received international acclaim for the author, who later went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Colonel Jose Parrales Sonriente, known as "the man with the little muse", was murdered on the steps of a Cathedral. There begins the story of more killings, escapades ,accusations and plotting. The head of Judiciary is given the charge of investigating. The president, plotting behind the scene, gets his trusted ally Miguel Angel Face, to inform the head of army General Conales to escape from the country as the arms of investigations are turning in his direction. Angel Face, with the help of two assistants, makes the scene and arrange for the escape of the General ( who is yet to recover from the shock of being accused) and leave his young daughter in his custody to be safely taken to her uncle's house.

"Whether you're guilty or innocent is irrelevant, General; what matters is whether you're in favour or not with the President; it's worse to be an innocent man frowned on by the Government that a guilty one"
Fallen for her beauty, Angel Face had other intentions. The news spread of his defection and him being the enemy of the state. The girl now had no takers as every one wanted to stay away from traitor's family. The girl was now under the custody of Angel Face and had taken ill to a level of loosing her life.The arrests and torture continued with more and more assistants of Angel Face and their lovers were arrested and the ladies were sold in the flesh market. The statements were manipulated and the confessions were extracted framing people of higher orders. The love story was moving to the next level with the marriage of Angel Face with the general's daughter. The president had other things in mind. Officially celebrating the wedding with the blessings from the president, Angel Face was offered a role in the United States to build up the image of the country. The journey was his last as he was arrested en route.

While this looks a simple and typical narrative of every dictator novel , with ingredients like murder, spying, kidnap, torture, framing and plotting resulting in even gruesome murders. This makes the book different is in its treating the psychological results on the victims. Asturias, who started writing this in his 20s while he was still a law student. The book came into light much later and was a sensation in the literary world.

The totalitarian regime, with a ruthless dictator, scheming and plotting to stay on power is not named, but is identified as his own country Guatemala. The official machinery is on roll to eliminate the enemies of the state.

"Ungrateful beasts!" He added under his breath. "I loved and shall always love Parrales Sonriente; I was going to have made him general, because he trampled on my country men and humiliated them, and if it hadn't been for my mother he would have finished them off altogether and avenged me for all the grudges I bear against them, things I alone know about. Now that people are plotting against my life on all sides, my friends are deserting me, my enemies increasing and - no , no ! Not a stone be left standing .."
Like every dictator, he too need to show the world that his country is a democracy and he is democratically elected president. We have umpteen examples of this in the recent history across the world. Mock election, with the current ruler winning with 99% majority.

That the welfare of the Republic depends upon the RE-ELECTION OF OUR ILLUSTIOUS MANDATORY AND ON NOTHING ELSE BUT HIS RE_ELECTION ! Why hazard the ship of State in unknown waters, when we have at its head at present the most accomplished Statesman of our day, whom History will salute as a Great man among Great men, a Wise man among wise, a Liberal, a Thinker and a Democrat ?? Even to imagine any other than Him in this high office amounts to an attempt upon the Destiny of the Nation ( which is our own destiny); and whoever dares to do so - if any such there be - deserves to be shut up as a dangerous lunatic, or if he is not mad, tried as a traitor to his country according to the law !! FELLO CITIZENS, THE BALLOT-BOXES ARE WAITING!!! VOTE !!! FOR !!! OUR !!! CANDIDATE !!! WHO !!! WILL !!! BE !!! RE-ELECTED !!! BY !!! THE !!! PEOPLE !!!
The way the narration is to establish the living under the dictatorship and how individuals are succumbed to the system and forced to behave in a way against their own conscience. He uses the subtle language and uses dream sequences, monologues, conversations between commoners etc to bring about the physical and psychological changes the regime can bring on individuals and the society as a whole. This book may not be as comprehensive or complete as Bastos' or Llosa's novel. That could also may be due to the time it was written ( in early 20s) and published ( 1946 in Mexico). Asturias has to deploy tools of different kind during its writing. There is no direct terror , there is no omnipresent danger hidden through the narrative. But there is always the presence of uncertainties and watchfulness. The game is constantly shifting, taking sides. Asturias uses dream sequences very effectively through out the book.

"and according to instructions received,...... This is all I have the honour to impart to the President..."
Miguel Angel Asturias ( Translated from Spanish by Frances Partridge )

287 Pages
More read: Wiki Article,

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