Recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1967, Guatemala's Miguel Angel Asturias (1899-1974) is internationally celebrated for such novels as El señor presidente (1946), Hombres de maíz (1949), and the so-called Banana Trilogy—Viento fuerte (1950), El papa verde (1954), and Los ojos de los enterrados (1960). By comparison, the present work, which was presented in 1923 as the author's thesis for a degree in law at the national university, is all but unknown. A Spanish edition came out in France in 1971, and an English version was published in the United States in 1977, but this is the first time the book has been published in Guatemala since its original appearance.
In 1923, Asturias was not yet the mature voice that the world would later come to know and honor, but he wrote with passion about his country's large native population, the harsh realities of village life, and the obstacles to the formation of a modern nation-state presented by the continued indigenous presence. Reminiscent of Bolivian writer Alcides Arguedas's Pueblo enfermo (1910), Asturias conceived the Indian problem in terms of social pathology. If Guatemala was sick, for Asturias its condition was susceptible to scientific diagnosis and treatment. Essentially, the young writer's proposed remedy was a program of eugenics focused on the assimilation of Guatemala's Indians into its mestizo (in local usage "ladino") population, a process he would promote by encouraging European immigration. [End Page 579]
Based on this work, some critics have accused Asturias of subscribing to a racist agenda aimed at cleansing Guatemala of both indigenous blood and indigenous culture. Seen in the light of the genocidal campaigns carried out in the highlands in the 1980s, this is a serious charge. In a lengthy introduction, the distinguished Guatemalan historian Julio César Pinto Soria ably defends Asturias from his detractors. Acknowledging the author's immaturity and the scientific weaknesses of the work itself, Pinto reconstructs the intellectual context in which it was produced. Asturias's professors and classmates were heavily influenced by positivism and the ideal of a science of society, but in scope and method, sociology remained poorly defined and little developed. Asturias made occasional mention of field observations, but there is little evidence of systematic research, while the literature referred to is scant and superficial even for the time. Perhaps the strongest influence is that of French social psychologist and popular science writer Gustave Le Bon. As it happened, Miguel Angel Asturias quickly moved beyond his modest academic exercise. Shortly after graduation, he left Guatemala for Europe, where he encountered new ideas and better-stocked libraries. In books such as Leyendas de Guatemala (1930) and the many that followed, Asturias upheld the cultural traditions of Guatemala's indigenous peoples as core elements of national identity and values.
In this new edition, editor Pinto usefully reproduces the brief introduction Asturias provided for the 1971 Paris version. In it, the Nobel laureate dismissed with few words what he called his youthful enthusiasm for programs of immigration and assimilation. But, as Pinto insists, Asturias in no way repudiated his larger argument that social injustice lay at the root of the Indian problem. Asturias had in mind principally the agrarian issue, but he also called attention to serious inequities in education and health. In the nearly five decades that had passed since he defended his thesis, Asturias remarked sadly, nothing much had changed for the Guatemalan Indian. Today, long after Asturias's own reassessment, one could say much the same. Quite apart from the author's importance as a major figure of world literature, this is probably reason enough to introduce this little book to Guatemalan readers after almost 90 years of obscurity.