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THE HERO IN ASTURIAS' NOVEL THE PRESIDENT T. B. IRVING Two and three centuries ago, during the Spanish colonial period, the name Guatemala covered a large area stretching from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to Costa Rica. Except from eastern Honduras southeastward , the cultural area more or less comprised ancient Mayaland or the Mayab, as its original inhabitants called it. At the declaration of independence in 1821, Guatemala lost Chiapas to Mexico, and the United Provinces of Central America then set up lasted less than two decades as a federal republic. Since that time the reduced State and later Republic of Guatemala has had a succession of autocratic governments and rulers, chielly because of the necessity of holding down the large native population. Few presidents other than dictators like Rafael Carrera, the Conservative halfbreed who dominated politics during the middle of the past century, Estrada Cabrera at the beginning of the present one, or Jorge Ubico during the depression and Second World War, have lasted out their term of office. The recent Nobel Prize winner, Miguel Angel Asturias, centres his novel, El Seiior Presidente or, The President, on the enigmatic figure of the second-named, Manuel Estrada Cabrera. Since this is his best novel and one of the few of Asturias' works translated into English, let us consider it. Asturias conceived and wrote The President in Guatemala City and Paris between 1922 and 1932; the novel was thus ready for publication under Ubico's regime, which lasted from 1930 until 1944, but the author judged the time to be inopportune because of the antidictatorial theme. It was finally published by Costa-Amic in Mexico in 1946 following the 1944 revolution, and then by Losada in Buenos Aires two years later. This firm has handled most subsequent editions in Spanish, although the Madrid firm of Aguilar publishes Asturias' collected works in three volumes. The action of the novel takes place in Guatemala City; reference to the battle of Verdun relates it to the First World War and thus to the presidency of Estrada Cabrera, who controlled Guatemala for two decades at the beginning of this century.' At first Asturias entitled the Volume xxxvm, Number 2. January 1969 THE HERO IN ASTURIAS' NOVEL The President 193 work Malebolgue after the eighth pit of Hell in Dante's Inferno where the perpetrators of fraud were punished; but he replaced that title later with Tohil, the name of the ancient Kiche god of war in Guatemala, and finally settled on El Senor Presidente or plain "Mr. President," adding as an epigraph to his earlier editions a phrase taken from the Popol-Vuh or Mayan Bible: "entonces se sacrific6 a todas las tribus ante su rostro" - "And then they sacrificed all the tribes before him." Asturias owes his beginnings as a writer to his poetic evocation of Guatemalan legends, which he began to learn as a student at the Sorbonne. Place and time serve merely as a framework to show what goes on in every totalitarian regime, except that Guatemala is so very small that this sort of tyranny can be applied more effectively than in most such regimes. Asturias skilfully injects a full dose of Guatemalan life into the work but at the same time manages to escape from the confines of his native land to become universal. The book denounces the special political and spiritual tyranny which prevailed within that republic at the beginning of this century, the encroachments upon personal rights that the author himself witnessed as an adolescent. General Canales' programme at the end of Chapter XXXVI points up the ancient abuses existing in Guatemalan society, which then needed and still needs land reform, better schooling, cheaper medicine and housing, and the right of the Indians to worship their old gods freely, or in other words to live by their own morality. The story begins on the main square of the capital where the beggars congregate, and describes the conditions under which they eke out a miserable existence "under the stimulating programme of the President." Colonel Sonriente ("Smiley") is killed by a beggar whom he has taunted, causing the police to bring several mendicants into headquarters for questioning. The beggars readily confess...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 192-206
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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