World Literature

Miguel Angel Asturias

 

BORN: 1899, Guatemala City, Guatemala

DIED: 1974, Madrid, Spain

NATIONALITY: Guatemalan

GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction, poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

The President (1946)

Men of Maize (1949)

The Strong Wind (1950)

The Green Pope (1954)

The Eyes of the Interred (1960)

 

 

Miguel Angel Asturias. Pierre Boulat / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

 

Overview

Guatemalan statesman and Nobel laureate Miguel Angel Asturias is best known for the novels The President, about a Latin American dictator, and Men of Maize, about the conflicts between Guatemalan native Indians and land- exploiting farmers, as well as for a trilogy of novels about the Latin American banana industry. His writing—an extensive canon of fiction, essays, and poetry—often blends Mayan myth and folklore with surrealism and satiric social commentary, and is considered to evidence his compassion for those unable to escape political or economic domination.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Early Life Affected by Dictator. Asturias was born in 1899 in Guatemala City, Guatemala, just one year after the country came under the dictatorship of Manuel Estrada Cabrera. Asturias’s father, a supreme court magistrate, lost his position in 1903 when he refused to convict students who protested against Estrada Cabrera’s increasingly totalitarian regime. Consequently, Asturias’s family was forced to leave the city for a rural area in Guatemala, where the young Asturias’s interest in his country’s native Mayan and peasant customs perhaps originated. Although his family returned to Guatemala City four years later, Asturias had nonetheless suffered the first of many personal disruptions that autocracy and political unrest in Guatemala would cause throughout his career.

Political Activities Force Exile. After attending secondary school, Asturias entered the Universidad de San Carlos to study law. As a college student, he was politically active, participating in demonstrations that helped to depose Estrada Cabrera and then serving as court secretary at the dictator’s trial in the early 1920s. Asturias also helped to found both a student association of Guatemala’s Unionist party and the Universidad Popular de Guatemala, an organization that provided free evening instruction for the country’s poor.

In 1923, as the military (which had helped oust Cabrera) gained strength and Guatemala’s political climate worsened, Asturias earned his law degree and shortly thereafter founded the weekly newspaper Tiempos Nuevos (New Times), in which he and several others began publishing articles decrying the new militarist government. Asturias fled the country the same year, his own life in danger after a colleague on the paper’s writing staff was assaulted.

Began Literary Career Abroad. Asturias lived for the next five months in London, spending much of his time learning about Mayan Indian culture at the British Museum. He moved then to Paris, where he supported himself for several years as European correspondent for Mexican and Central American newspapers while he studied ancient Central American Indian civilizations at the Sorbonne. He completed a dissertation on Mayan religion and translated sacred Indian texts, including the Popol Vuh and the Anales de los Xahil (Annals of the Xahil).

In Paris, Asturias also began his literary career. Associating with such avant-garde French poets as Andre Breton and Paul Valery, Asturias was introduced to the techniques and themes of the surrealist literary movement, which would become important elements of his writing style. In 1925, Asturias privately published Rayito de estrella, a book of poetry. His Legends of Guatemala, a critically acclaimed collection of native stories and legends recalled from childhood, garnered him the 1931 Sylla Monsegur.

Changes in Regimes Offered New Possibilities. Asturias returned to Guatemala in 1933, where he spent the next ten years working as a journalist and poet while the country operated under the military dictatorship of Jorge Ubico Castaneda. Asturias entered politics in 1942 with his election as deputy to the Guatemalan national congress. Three years later, after the fall of the Castaneda regime and the installation of the new president, Juan Jose Arevalo, Asturias joined the Guatemalan diplomatic service. The more liberal policies of the new government proved important for the author, both politically and artistically. Under Arevalo’s rule, Asturias served in several ambassadorial posts in Mexico and Argentina from the early 1940s until 1952. In addition, the more tolerant political atmosphere made it possible for Asturias to publish his first novel, The President, in 1946.

Three years after the publication of The President, while serving as Guatemalan cultural attache in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Asturias completed and published the first of his novels explicitly to evoke the mythology of his country’s ancient past. Translated as Men of Maize in 1975, the story unfolds from the point of view of the indigenous people, whose ancient beliefs teach that the first human was made from corn and that the grain is therefore sacred and must be grown only for tribal use. When their resistance leader, Gaspar Ilom, is assassinated, the people place a curse on their enemies, beginning a series of events that becomes part of the Mayan Indian mythological heritage.

Published Lauded ‘‘Banana Trilogy’’. During his diplomatic assignments in Argentina, Asturias also worked on what has come to be known to English-speaking readers as his ‘‘Banana Trilogy’’—three novels about the Latin American banana industry. Consisting of The Strong Wind, The Green Pope, and The Eyes of the Interred, the trilogy focuses on the conflicts between the labor force in an unidentified country (taken again by critics to be Guatemala), and Tropical Banana, Inc., a North American conglomerate commonly accepted as a portrait of the real-life United Fruit Company. Founded in the late nineteenth century by American Minor C. Keith, the United Fruit Company wielded much power in Guatemala and eventually became based there. The company corrupted every aspect of Guatemalan politics and government in the early 1900s, was supported by the dictators that ruled the country, and greatly oppressed the Guatemalan people until the late twentieth century. Although the ‘‘Banana Trilogy’’ was not as critically acclaimed as his first two novels, it earned Asturias the International Lenin Peace Prize from the Soviet Union, which honored the work’s stance against capitalist imperialism.

Forced Back into Exile. Working for the government of Arevalo’s successor Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in 1953, Asturias was sent as Guatemalan ambassador to El Salvador to try to prevent El Salvadoran rebels from invading Guatemala. Although he had enlisted the El Salvadoran government’s aid, the rebels, with backing from the United States, nonetheless invaded Guatemala and overthrew Arbenz Guzman. Because of his support for the defeated leader, Asturias was stripped of his citizenship and exiled in 1954. Asturias later incorporated details from these El Salvadoran events in his 1956 collection of stories titled Weekend in Guatemala.

Asturias lived in exile, working in Argentina as a journalist for the Caracas, Venezuela, newspaper El Nacional until 1962, when he traveled to Italy as part of a cultural exchange program. During this period he continued to write, completing scholarly studies and publishing lectures, children’s stories, and another novel. Asturias did not recover his Guatemalan citizenship until the election of president Cesar Mendes Montenegro’s moderate government in 1966, when he accepted a job as French ambassador, the position in which he remained until 1970. In 1967, Asturias was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for the body of his work. On June 9, 1974, the author died from cancer of the intestine.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Asturias's famous contemporaries include:

Estrada Cabrera (1857-1923): President of Guatemala from 1898 to 1920, a time when the United Fruit Company was a powerful political influence.

Porfirio Diaz (1830-1915): President of Mexico from 1876 to 1880 and 1884 to 1911 and a famous war hero.

Paul Valery (1871-1945): French poet and philosopher whom Asturias befriended in Paris.

Juan PerOn (1895-1974): Controversial Argentine president and founder of the authoritarian movement of Peronism.

Andre Breton (1896-1966): French writer considered one of the founders of surrealism.

 

Works in Literary Context

Influenced by Indian and Spanish folklore as well as the often political and social upheaval he experienced firsthand in Guatemala, Asturias achieved worldwide fame because of his poetry and often poetic novels and short stories. He sensitively presented the culture of the Maya as well as that of greater Latin America. His masterful use of language, shaped by exposure to European ideas like surrealism, added to his power.

Mayan Myths. Asturias’s poetry reflects the cultural duality that surrounded him in his formative years. There are poems, such as his sonnets, that only someone who was immersed in European culture could have written. There are also poems such as ‘‘Man of Water’’ and ‘‘Marimba Played by Indians’’ that only someone acquainted with Mayan culture could write. Asturias gained a firsthand acquaintance with Mayan Indian culture in early childhood as he listened to Lola Reyes, a Mayan servant in his home, tell traditional indigenous and mestizo tales; later, he read the ancient Mayan texts.

Political Oppression. The President protests against dictatorship. Its setting is not specific but could reflect many Latin American countries of the mid-twentieth century. This novel portrays a prototypical military dictator and the repression, humiliation, unjust imprisonment, degradation, and even the murders of his opponents or of those who momentarily displease him. A nightmarish horror permeates this novel both in the scenes it depicts and in the actions it relates. Although many critics regard this novel as a representation of a generic Latin American dictatorship, it is also widely accepted that it is based on the dictatorship of Estrada Cabrera, who controlled Guatemala for twenty years. This novel is responsible for Asturias’s fame throughout the Americas and eventually the world, because it is much more than just a novel of political criticism. There are passages of poetic language and, as in his poetry, legends and myths from Mayan culture.

Considered an early practitioner of magic realism, Asturias influenced the ‘‘Boom’’ generation of writers and many of the Latin American modernists who followed him.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

In most of his books, Asturias uses legends from his Guatemalan culture to enrich his writing. Because so much literature is based on oral traditions and tales, readers often feel connected to the stories they heard as children in the cultures in which they were raised. Here are a few other works that employ cultural myths and legends.

Cry the Beloved Country (1948), a novel by Alan Paton. Issues of apartheid permeate this novel, set in South Africa and heavily influenced by Christian stories from the King James Bible.

Master and Margarita (1967), a novel by Mikhail Bulgakov. This novel about Communist Russia is populated by mythical characters such as Satan, Faust, and a group of witches.

Almanac of the Dead (1991), a novel by Leslie Marmon Silko. Silko, a Laguna Pueblo writer, sets her novel in the United States and Central America and uses myths and storytelling to unite characters.

Green Grass, Running Water (1993), a novel by Thomas King. In this novel, the author uses the character of Coyote, a legendary trickster, to advance the plot.

 

Works in Critical Context

Critics have often praised Asturias’s work for its commitment to social causes and its innovative use of myth, legend, and surrealist techniques. However, his ever-popular works have undergone a critical reevaluation in the light of recent literary theories, and taking into consideration the directions in which Latin American fiction has developed since his death in 1974. New scrutiny may result in a different vision of his contribution to world literature, but it is also clear that his place among the most important Latin American novelists of this century is assured.

The President. In 1968, The President was acclaimed for portraying both totalitarian government and its damaging psychological effects. Asturias’s stance against all forms of injustice in Guatemala caused critics to view the author as a compassionate spokesman for the oppressed. ‘‘Asturias... does not see the drama of his people from the outside, as a dilettante ... but from the inside, as a participant,’’ noted Les Temps Modernes contributor Manuel Tunon de Lara. And a Times Literary Supplement review, also commenting on Asturias’s success in portraying the country’s unique political circumstances, asserted that El senor presidente presents ‘‘Latin American problems according to their merits and not according to preconceived stereotypes.’’

Men of Maize. While Men of Maize was coolly received at the time of its publication in 1949, many critics have come to view the work as Asturias’s masterpiece. Reviewers especially admired the author’s portrayal of the contrasting conceptions of the world. ‘‘At one level,’’ noted Washington Post Book World reviewer Patrick Breslin, the book is ‘‘symbolic of the Spanish conquest itself. The social and economic order violently introduced by the Spanish four and a half centuries ago is still tenuous, not only in the highlands of Guatemala, but throughout the Andes of South America as well.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Find three Mayan legends from any of Asturias’s works. How does he use the legends to make the modern elements of the stories more resonant or meaningful?

2. Explain how Asturias’s political views are revealed in The President. Cite at least five specific passages that seem to contain an explicit or implicit political argument.

3. Research the United Fruit Company and compare it to Tropical Banana, Inc., Asturias’s fictionalized fruit company in his ‘‘Banana Trilogy.’’ Did Asturias use real-world events as the inspiration for his novels? Did the author change certain real-world elements, either for dramatic effect or to avoid backlash from the powerful banana-growing industry?

4. How do you think Asturias’s time in Paris among surrealist writers influenced his work? Find examples of surrealism in The President.

5. Can you make a claim for Men of Maize’s being more of a surrealistic text than a legend-based one? What is the difference?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Alvarez, Luis Lopez. Conversations with Miguel Angel Asturias. Madrid: EMESA, 1974.

Callan, Richard J. Miguel Angel Asturias. Boston: Twayne, 1970.

de Scheel, Ruth Alvarez. Analisisy estudio de algunos rasgos caracterizadores de ‘‘El Senor Presidente’’. Guatemala City: Ministerio de Culturay Deportes, 1999.

Henighan, Stephen. Assuming the Light: The Parisian Literary Apprenticeship of Miguel Angel Asturias. Oxford: Legenda, 1999.

Hill, Eladia Leon. Miguel .Angel Asturias: Lo ancestral en su obra literaria. Eastchester, N.Y.: E. Torres, 1972.

Palma, Francisco Albiziirez Palma. La novela de Asturias. Guatemala City: Editorial Universitaria, 1975.

Prieto, Rene. Miguel Angel Asturias’s Archaeology of Return. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Periodicals

Bellini, Giuseppe. ‘‘La poesla de Miguel Angel Asturias.’’ Revista Nacional de Cultura 180 (April-June 1967): 125-27.

Campos, Jorge. ‘‘Miguel Angel Asturias.’’ Insula (1957): vol. 12, no. 133, p. 4.

de Alonzo, Marla del Carmen Melendez. ‘‘El reencuentro de Asturias con el padre Las Casas.’’ Letras de Guatemala: Revista Semestral. 20-21 (2000).