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Lost in the Maize

Miguel Angel Asturias
Overlooked Master: Guatemalan Nobel laureate Miguel Angel Asturias.

Guatemala's Miguel Angel Asturias was the father of magic realism and won the Nobel Prize--so why are his books so hard to find?

By Victor Perera

GUATEMALAN novelist Miguel Angel Asturias, a Nobel Prize recipient in 1967, is the least known of Latin America's handful of laureates in literature. His name is seldom heard in the same company with Gabriel García Márquez of Colombia, Pablo Neruda of Chile or Octavio Paz of Mexico. And he has very little in common with Gabriela Mistral, Chile's other Nobel winner, who was awarded the prize in 1945 on the strength of her poems in praise of motherhood.

Asturias is more likely to be ranked, unofficially, alongside neglected laureates like Halldór Laxness of Iceland or the Swede Pär Lagerkvist, fine craftsmen from small countries who wrote minor masterpieces for insular audiences. How many Americans know of Lagerkvist's haunting, jewel-like The Dwarf or have dipped into the early-20th-century Norse epic Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset, another neglected Nobel laureate from a small northern country?

No one was more aware of his undeserved obscurity than Asturias himself, and he did not take the neglect with good grace. When One Hundred Years of Solitude was released to worldwide acclaim, Asturias bitterly accused García Márquez of having stolen the plot of One Hundred Years of Solitude from Balzac's Le Père Goriot. It incensed Asturias that García Márquez's novels had been translated beautifully by Gregory Rabassa--so beautifully that García Márquez paid Rabassa the ultimate compliment by crediting him with "improving" on the original.

By contrast, Rabassa's translation of Asturias' Mulata, a dense Faustian exercise laced with Mayan myth, was a confessed failure, and Rabassa rued the day he was persuaded to translate Asturias' overwrought United Fruit Trilogy, made up of three polemical, rabidly anti-American novels: The Green Pope, Strong Wind and Eyes of the Interred. Asturias' venomous diatribes against gringo tycoons who destroy the rain forest and force its Maya inhabitants to work on vast banana plantations ruled by the Mighty Dollar were dipped in spleen rather than an inkwell.

It also rankled Asturias that his works were ignored by his own countrymen, who drove him into exile, as they have done to all Guatemalans who take a stand against political oppression and social injustice. (In 1967, the year Asturias won his Nobel, I had to search all of Guatemala's bookstores to find one solitary copy of El Señor Presidente, and that one in a poor English translation.)

Asturias began and ended his literary life in Paris, as an exile. And it did not help his standing in the West that he was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize the year prior to his Nobel. Another liability was Asturias' elder son, Rodrigo, who founded one of Guatemala's chief Marxist guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Organization of People in Arms (ORPA). Rodrigo borrowed the nom de guerre Gaspar Ilom from a character in one of his father's novels.

Miguel Angel Asturias
Maya Realism

SO WHY should we pay more attention to a Latin protest writer of lesser genius whose works translate poorly into English? Above all, to give Asturias his due as a literary pioneer. It was in his chef d'oeuvre, El Señor Presidente (1946), a chilling portrait of an arche- typal Third World dictator, that Asturias first used the surrealist techniques of French poets André Breton and Tristan Tzara to create the stunning literary effects vulgarly known as "magic realism."

El Señor Presidente, we learn in the novel Asturias began in the 1920s under the Estrada Cabrera dictatorship, was so twisted by vengefulness and paranoid distrust that his enslavement of an entire nation did not begin to assuage his bloodlust. To him, his subjects were "parrot's feces. It neither smells nor stinks."

In this phantasmagoric world of midnight knocks on the door, humans are so frozen with fear they become puppets, and only deaf-mute beggars, trees, dogs and china cups dare sound the alarm. In El Señor Presidente's hermetic domain of casual torture, institutional deception and terror, "bullets don't know when they pass through a man's body. They think flesh is warm, sweet air, a little fat."

What Asturias called "magic surrealism" began not with García Márquez or Julio Cortázar but with his two unquestioned masterpieces, El Señor Presidente and Men of Maize. (Asturias' co-progenitor of magic realism was his Cuban contemporary Alejo Carpentier, who used surrealist techniques and Creole imagery to good effect in his two Caribbean novels, The Realm of This World and Steps in the Jungle.)

What lifts Men of Maize, a finely woven fable of Mayan retribution against domestic and foreign exploiters and their lackeys, above the ill-fated United Fruit Trilogy and his other indigenist novels is Asturias' brilliant adaptation of the classic Quiché-Maya Popol Vuh, or Book of Council, rediscovered in the l8th century by a Spanish missionary. The story of the three creations of man by the gods and the adventures of the twins Hun-Hunapu and Ixbalanqué in the nether world of Xibalbá, where they conquer the Lords of Death, is replete with the grotesque narrative twists, the shadings of dark and light, and the metamorphoses that are the essence of what might be called "Maya realism."

Asturias, who attempted his own translation of the Popol Vuh, merged its rich, dreamlike imagery with European surrealist devices in composing Men of Maize. There is a familiar dark magic in the death chosen by the Maya sorcerers for Colonel Chalo Godoy, who conspired with corrupt farmers to destroy the guerrilla warrior Gaspar Ilom:

    Hands of darkness brandishing daggers will force him to suicide. But it will be only his shadow, a skin of shadow among the yuccas. The bullet will burst in his temples, he will fall to the ground, but other dark hands will lift his body, they will mount him on his horse, and will begin to shrink him horse and all until he is the size of sugar candy.

And there are also resonances of the Popol Vuh in Maria Tecún's aimless wanderings after she is bitten by a spider, and in Don Nicho the postman's journey to Xibalbá to meet his coyote nahual. The lesson he learns is the same taught by the authors of Popol Vuh:

    Those who thus confront their nahual, outside themselves, are invincible in war and in love ... they own all the riches they desire, they make the snakes respect them, do not succumb to small pox, and if they die it is said their bones are made of firestone.

Another excellent reason for reading Asturias is that he was a true visionary who prophesied in his books the resurgence of Maya communities whose voices are being heard once again. Thirty years after his Nobel, Asturias' The Mirror of Lida Sal: Stories Based on Mayan Myths & Guatemalan Legends, his 1967 collection of Maya myths (the first, Leyendas de Guatemala, from 1930, has not been translated), is finally appearing in an English translation.

After five centuries of silent witness, Maya priests and sorcerers, and powerful new leaders like Nobel Peace­Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú, are calling on nature's hidden powers--on the sacred essence of maize and the ceiba tree, with its roots in the underworld and its upper branches in the heavens--to resurrect their ancestral gods and reclaim their place under the Maya sun.

Asturias died in 1974. Had he lived another two decades, he would have been welcomed back to Guatemala with open arms. And he would have witnessed the historic peace accord ending a 37-year-long war in which his son Rodrigo--influenced by his father's writings--was a key protagonist.

But it is the resurgence of the Mayas and their gods, foreshadowed in all his books, that would have made Asturias proud--and crowned his life with a redemption larger and more enduring than any Nobel Prize.

The Mirror of Lida Sal, translated by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert; Latin American Literary Review Press; $14.95, paperback.

Victor Perera is the author of Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy (California) and The Cross and the Pear Tree: A Sephardic Journey (California). He is currently working on a book on whales for Alfred A. Knopf.

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From the August 14-20, 1997 issue of Metro.

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