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What the Swedes Read: Miguel Ángel Asturias

by Daniel Handler
Illustration by Charles Burns

What the Swedes Read: Miguel Ángel Asturias

Daniel Handler
17 Snaps
  • LAUREATE: Miguel Ángel Asturias (1967, Guatemala)
  • BOOK READ: El Señor Presidente, translated by Frances Partridge

Before I read this book, I was against dictatorships. I mean, of course I was. Who isn’t? We know what happens with political dictatorships. Everyone is miserable. Voices are suppressed. People are slaughtered in the streets. Nowadays you’d get more people speaking up in favor of monarchy.

But monarchy, of course, is a form of government that was vastly popular, or at least put up with, for a long time, before time marched on, and to engage with the work of Miguel Ángel Asturias was to remind myself of a context in which dictatorship was regarded, at least by some, as a bona fide form of keeping a country in order rather than as an idea on its way—sadly, not quickly enough—to history’s dustbin. Coming into prominence in the 1930s, Asturias served as a cultural ambassador not just for Guatemala but for all of Latin America, trumpeting the notion, more rattling then than it is today, that putting exclusive political power in the hands of a single individual might be kind of a bad plan. (One of his other ideas, less obvious and more scandalous back in the day, was that the native peoples of Latin America were getting screwed by colonialism.) I knew that my images of Latin American dictatorships—everyone is miserable, voices are suppressed, people are slaughtered in the streets—came from the explosion of literature and culture from that region in the ’60s and ’70s, and Asturias predated this, publishing then-radical ideas that brought him not only the Nobel but the yes-you’re-reading-this-right Lenin Peace Prize the year before. Still, I was reluctant to crack this one open. I don’t like reminding myself of context when I’m reading. It’s all well and good to remember where a text sprang from, but “This must have been quite something back then” is no way get through a book. Just the title (on my edition, at least), El Señor Presidente (which I don’t think would remain untranslated from the original Norwegian, or Chinese), conjured up an image as immediate as it was familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge—and mine passes quite quickly—of Latin American history. Finished in 1933 but not published until 1946, the novel itself was suppressed, unsurprisingly, by Guatemalan authorities. It begins with a slaughter in the streets. And as for everyone being miserable:

…they threw themselves on the ground and sank into sad, agitated dreams—nightmares in which they saw famished pigs, thin women, maimed dogs and carriage wheels passing before their eyes, or a funeral procession of phantom monks going into the cathedral preceded by a sliver of moon carried on a cross made of frozen shin-bones. Sometimes they would be woken from their deepest dreams by the cries of an idiot who had lost his way in the Plaza de Armas; or sometimes by the sobs of a blind woman dreaming that she was covered in flies and suspended from a hook like a piece of meat in a butcher’s shop. Or sometimes by the tramp of a patrol, belabouring a political prisoner as they dragged him along, while women followed wiping away the blood-stains with handkerchiefs soaked in tears.

We’re on the second page of the novel, and the tone is like this throughout—dark and grim, with some good shivery bits (“frozen shin-bones”), some off-putting phrases (“thin women”), and some that straddle the line (are “handkerchiefs soaked in tears” too much? I’m still deciding). The story, too, resists easy judgment. One of those “crying idiots,” a mentally ill man known only as “the Zany,” murders a cruel and loyal colonel of the dictator. Lazily, I assumed that the incident, fraught with the expected baggage of haves and have-nots, the powerless and the in-charge, would spark an expected plot of rebellion and suppression, and that the novel would cut between the rebels in the streets and the cold-eyed president intent on keeping power. But the incident sparks much more confounding entanglements. Other supporters of the president, embarrassed that such a loyal henchman could have been killed by someone so ragged and unimpressive, frame two other men for the crime, setting in motion a plot not of violence and revolt but of stasis, which is equally bloody and much more demoralizing. One of the falsely accused men is forced by the authorities to flee—which will lend more credence to the story—and his daughter is kidnapped, also as a ruse for further manipulations, both political and romantic, although both the politics and the romance are so obsessional that they seem like basically the same thing. Far from being a puppet-master, the president himself is hardly to be seen in the novel—there is only endless cloak-and-daggering, all in the name of second-guessing the dictator’s motivations and backstabbing to get further in his favor.

This is heavy stuff, even heavier than my own expectations of such a book, but over the course of El Señor Presidente the heaviness became if not lighter at least richer. As the story’s entanglements constrict and confront the reader, the book feels less like an object ­lesson in what’s wrong with a particular regime—though clearly based on the brutal shenanigans of Guate­mala’s president Manuel Estrada Cabrera, it’s actually set in an unnamed Latin American republic— and more like an exploration of what’s wrong with all of us. A frantic escape through the countryside, for instance, becomes a terse, poetic description in which we lose sight of who’s chasing whom and fall into more-abstract musings:

They left the cabin without putting out the fire. They cut their way through the forest with their machetes. The tracks of a jaguar wound away ahead of them. Darkness. Light, Darkness. Light. Patchwork of leaves. They saw the hut shining behind them like a meteor. Noon. Motionless clouds. Motionless trees. Dejection. Blinding whiteness. Stones and more stones. Insects. Skeletons, bare of flesh and warm like newly ironed underclothes. Decomposition. Flustered birds, circling overhead. Water and thirst. The tropics. Timeless change, and always, always the same heat.

A dictatorship, El Señor Presidente posits, sinks into every aspect of a nation’s culture, the paranoia and treachery of the government trickling down until everyone suspects everyone of suspecting everyone of evil. And everyone is correct, for the dark heart of dictatorship is our own selfish desires writ large onto a national, often blood-spattered canvas. This is why, after finishing this powerful and ultimately rewarding novel, I’m still against dictatorships. I mean really against them. Like if I suddenly got to rule the world with an iron fist, I would herd all dictators into the streets and—oh, right.

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