Demetrio Aguilera Malta
BORN: 1909, Guayaquil, Ecuador
DIED: 1981, Mexico
GENRE: Fiction, drama
Don Goyo (1933)
Loyal Spain (1938)
The Tiger (1956)
Seven Serpents and Seven Moons (1979)
Ecuadorian author Demetrio Aguilera Malta was a man of great talent and energy and is considered to be one of Ecuador’s greatest writers of fiction. Many of his major works have been extensively anthologized and translated into English and other languages, and in the extensive critical literature on his works, Malta has been cited as one of the initiators of the magical-realist mode in Latin American fiction.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Young Witness. Malta was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador, on May 24, 1909, to Demetrio Flaviano Aguilera Sanchez and Teresa Malta Franco. He attended two primary schools, the Colegio San Jose and the Escuela Municipal Nelson Mateus, and received his secondary education at the Colegio Nacional Vicente Rocafuerte in Guayaquil. in 1922, when Malta was thirteen years old, he witnessed the massacre of striking workers by the police and military in the streets of Guayaquil, an event that left a profound impression on him. While the Radical Liberals were in power, as they had been since 1895, Ecuador kept church and state separated, and the liberty of thought, worship, and the press were put in place. However, there was some dissent as well as interludes of violence and crisis, despite the improving economic and social conditions in the country.
Malta was among the founders of the Ecuadorian Socialist Party in 1926. He then studied law for two years at the Universidad de Guayaquil while attending classes at the Escuela de Bellas Artes. He spent five years on San Ignacio, one of the many islands in the Guayas estuary in the Gulf of Guayaquil, living with the people of Native American and African descent he would write about throughout his career.
Published First Poem. Malta began his literary career during his adolescence with a poem, ‘‘Pages of Love,’’ published in the journal Cromos in 1924. He continued to publish his poetry in newspapers and journals, and worked on the journal America, which in the mid-1920s had an international reputation as the most important literary and ideological publication in Ecuador. He founded two literary journals, Ideal in 1924 and Will in 1927. With a student, Jorge Perez Concha, he published a volume of poetry in 1927, Primavera interior. He published his own poetry book in 1929, El libro de los mangleros.
The Group of Guayaquil. Throughout the 1930s and most of the 1940s, Malta supported himself as an educator, librarian, and journalist while writing his most important works. In 1930 he went to Panama, where he had his own column, Sap, in the Diary of Panama. He also wrote for the Star of Panama in Hoy while sending articles to the Universe in his native Guayaquil.
It was also in 1930 that Malta made his first important break into fiction when he contributed eight stories to Those Who Go Away: Stories of the Coastal People. This volume was published by Enrique ‘‘Gil’’ Gilbert and Joaquin Gallegos Lara, and along with Malta’s writing included the work of Jose de la Cuadra and Alfredo Paraja Diezcanseco. Together, these five writers came to be known as the Group of Guayaquil, whose members were ‘‘five like a fist.’’ This fist they shook during the social-realist period of 1930s and 1940s Ecuador, writing major works of international acclaim.
Interrupted by War. Malta joined the Republican forces of the Spanish Civil War and went to work as a reporter, sending off material on the war from Madrid. (The Spanish Civil War pitted the left-leaning Republicans, who had been in power since the early 1930s, against the right-leaning Nationalists, who removed the Republicans from power in a 1936 coup. Civil war resulted, lasting until 1939 when the Nationalist forces prevailed. General Francisco Franco, the leader of the Nationalist uprising, then consolidated his hold on power.) Later, Malta went to Barcelona, where he stayed until he left Spain, along with other international volunteers.
When Malta returned to Ecuador in 1937, he was appointed undersecretary for education. He founded another journal, Tropic, in 1938. He also began working in theater, writing his first dramatic work. No doubt inspired by his recent experiences in Spain and the need to champion the Republican cause, he wrote Loyal Spain (1938), which deals with the social and political realities of the Spanish Civil War.
Inspired Drama. In 1941, Malta was teaching literature at his alma mater, the Colegio National Vicente Rocafuerte in Guayaquil. A new boys’ high school was under construction in the city, but funds had run out before it could be completely furnished. Malta was asked to write a play to raise money to buy equipment for the school theater. The result was Lazarus (1941), the tragic story of an inspired schoolteacher who, out of personal poverty and lack of resources for public education, is driven to forsake his calling and invest his time and energy in menial activities to eke out a living. The play was an immense success, and has probably been staged more often than any other in Ecuador.
Ambitious Years. From 1937 to 1943, Malta was also a visiting professor at universities in Guatemala, Mexico, Brazil, and the United States. In the late 1940s, he represented Ecuador at diplomatic posts in Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Uruguay, and Chile. He also served with the Office for Intellectual Cooperation at the Pan American Union in Washington, D.C. In 1946, Malta worked with North American professor Willis Knapp Jones on the drama Blue Blood (1948), which concerns the influence of North America on Latin American culture.
Success as a Novelist. It was also starting in the 1930s that Malta had established himself as a leading Ecuadorian novelist. After success as a contributor with Those Who Go Away, he abandoned the short story form to publish his first novel. With Don Goyo (1933), Malta had two goals: to portray the beauty, vitality, and genius of a group of coastal dwellers steeped in indigenous tropical- forest culture and to expose the mechanisms through which implacable economic forces from Guayaquil and the developed world bring about the destruction of a long-standing culture and viable way of life.
Abandoned History. With his novel The Virgin Island (1942), Malta also presents the Ecuadorian coastal people, but expands on convention with two protagonists with contrasting worldviews—representative of the native and European cultural currents that coexist in much of Latin America. After several more works, during the 1960s Malta planned his American Episodes, a twelve- volume series of historical novels concerning the men, women, and events that make up Latin American history. Only three volumes of the series were ever completed.
During the 1970s, Malta published four novels that marked a departure from the style of his earlier work and demonstrated an intense interest in the new forms, techniques, and vision that had shifted the attention of the international reading public to Latin American fiction. However, he never lost his concern for authenticity and never abandoned Ecuadorian literary tradition.
A Break from Realism. Ecuadorians speculated wildly about the mysterious kidnapping of a general in 1970. In writing The Kidnapping of the General (1973), Malta laid aside realism and tapped into a rich current of popular fantasy to produce a work at once humorous and bitterly complaining, yet marked with Malta’s undying hope for the future of Ecuador and Latin America. In the early 1970s, Ecuadorian politics was tumultuous, with Jose Mari Velasco Ibarra winning yet another term as president in 1968, then suspending the constitution and assuming dictatorial power in 1970. Though Velasco promised elections in 1972, he was overthrown in a bloodless coup after refusing to give into the demands of senior army officers to postpone elections. General Guillermo Rodriguez Lara became the head of a new military government that lasted until he was ousted in 1976 and replaced by a three-member Supreme Council.
Malta then abandoned the purely mythical and returned to the geographically identifiable with Jaguar (1977). This novel, like the one to follow, borrows from Malta’s other writing, taking from the settings, situations, and characters of Don Goyo, The Virgin Island, and The Tiger (1956).
Experimental in Late Career. Requiem for the Devil (1978) does the same. The final novel of Malta’s career, it is a novelization of the author’s 1967 play Black Hell. Just as the expressionistic play was Malta’s most experimental play, so did Requiem become his most experimental novel. Malta once again focused on aspects of Ecuadorian reality that are taken for granted and amplified them to their absurd extreme in order to expose the contradictions of Ecuadorian life.
On December 29, 1981, Malta died in Mexico, where he had made his home with his second wife and collaborator, Velia Marquez, since 1958. He left behind one last, unfinished novel manuscript, A Ball, a Dream, and Ten Cents, published posthumously in 1988.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Malta's famous contemporaries include:
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961): Hemingway was an American writer. Like Malta, Hemingway was a reporter and supporter of Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War. His novels include The Sun Also Rises (1926), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), and The Old Man and the Sea (1952).
Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980): Hitchcock was a British film and television director and producer. He is considered an icon for his pioneering suspense and thriller entertainment, his droll wit, and his unique style. His films include The 39 Steps (1935), Rear Window (1954), and North by Northwest (1959).
Golda Meir (1898-1978): Meir was the fourth prime minister of Israel and was known as the ''Iron Lady'' of politics.
Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960): Hurston was an American folklorist and writer. She is often associated with the Harlem Group and a major influence for authors Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Hurston's books include Mules and Men (1935) and Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Here are a few works by writers who also wrote about social injustice:
Another Country (1962), a novel by James Baldwin. In this modern work, the author explores life in Greenwich Village, New York, including the damages of racism and the consequences of hedonism.
Heart Mountain (1989), a novel by Gretel Ehrlich. In this novel of epic range, the story focuses on the experiences of Japanese Americans interred in the Heart Mountain, Wyoming, prison camp during World War II.
A Theory of Justice (1971), a nonfiction book by John Rawls. In this work, the author presents a philosophical discussion of the right to justice that is so great not even the collective society can overpower, eclipse, or take it away.
Works in Literary Context
As a writer, Malta was greatly influenced by contemporary events and social concerns in his country, throughout Latin America, and such world events that he personally experienced, such as the Spanish Civil War. He was also well versed in history, philosophy, international relations, and the lives of certain peoples in his country, and included these ideas in his books. Thus, Malta often had a realistic base to his fiction and plays, though sometimes with fantastical or expressionistic elements. He is considered a leader in fictional social realism.
Innovation in Novels. Malta’s novels, starting in the 1930s, earned him a place in Ecuadorian literature as a leader of innovative technique. His 1942 Virgin Island, for instance, presents a bicultural, egalitarian relationship while denouncing native cultural traditions that will not suffice in the newly colonized and alien tropics. By the 1970s, Malta’s innovative technique grew to include action that takes place in distorted settings, recurring characters experiencing multiple flashbacks, truncated plots, and places where the familiar and the mundane are mixed with the futuristic and unreal.
Such devices, as those in Requiem for the Devil and Seven Serpents and Seven Moons, also include internal monologue, broken thought, different events occurring simultaneously, and mythical elements of African, Western, or Native American origin. Themes of particular importance to Malta and his work focused on social concerns. Requiem and Don Goya, for example, are driven by themes of exploitation of the citizenry. Canal Zone evokes the racial prejudice held by North American whites against blacks in the isthmus area they occupy—a major theme that was a constant in Malta’s works, not only in his novels but especially his plays.
Influences. Malta’s early fiction and his short stories in Those Who Go Away became his most important contributions to Ecuadorian and Latin American literature. The innovations in his early work charted new ground and pointed the way for other Latin American writers. Malta’s later novels, especially Seven Serpents and Seven Moons, in turn owe much to the formal innovations associated with the Latin American New Novel. That is, Malta’s later works are inspired by literature while the earlier ones take their inspiration directly from the reality he personally observed on the islands of the Guayas River.
Works in Critical Context
While little is written about Malta in a specifically critical context, it is largely acknowledged that he made an exceptional impact on Ecuadorian and Latin American literature. He gained international attention as a writer of fiction in 1930 as one ‘‘finger’’ of the ‘‘fist’’ known as The Group of Guayaquil. His fame draws heavily on his career as a novelist. Most remarkable today are his short-story contributions to Those Who Go Away: Stories of the Coastal People.
Those Who Go Away. The book scandalized Ecuador. It also caught the attention of international critics who recognized its innovative qualities. Eight stories of similar style, by each of the three authors, are intermingled to emphasize the solidarity of the group. The metaphors, critics believe, reflect the world and psychology of the characters, and the dialogue imitates coastal Ecuadorian Spanish. Critics regard these stories as earthy accounts of dramatic incidents in the lives of rural coastal people and black people. Malta’s ‘‘The Cholo Who Avenged Himself” and ‘‘The Cholo Who Hated Money,’’ are the two most frequently anthologized stories from the collection.
Responses to Literature
1. Malta incorporated the geography and social concerns of Ecuador. Survey the social conditions of Ecuador from the 1930s to the 1970s. What effect did the country’s geography, location, and cultural history have on the social issues Malta wrote about? Why do you think Malta and other Ecuadorians became involved in the Spanish Civil War? Write a paper outlining your findings.
2. Consider the members of the Group of Guayaquil, writers who introduced social realism. Research the biographies of Malta’s fellows—Joaquin Gallegos Lara, Enrique ‘‘Gil’’ Gilbert, Jose de la Cuadra, and Alfredo Paraja Diezcanseco. Did the others have the writing life Malta had? Did they get the same recognition? What other literary contributions, if any, did each make? With a group, create a presentation on each author and the group as a whole.
3. Research social realism to come up with a working definition. What are the characteristics of socialism? What are the characteristics of realism? How do the two come together (overlap) to create the hybrid genre, social realism? Write an essay outlining your conclusions.
4. Many Latin American writers have become associated with the literary style known as magic realism. What are the main characteristics of magic realism? How is it different from fantasy? Do you think Malta is a good example of a magic realist? Why or why not? Create a presentation that displays your conclusions for the class.
Barrera, Carrion, and Isaac J. Barrera. Dictionary of the Literature of Latin America. Washington, D.C.: Union Panamericana, 1962.
Siemens, William L. ‘‘The Antichrist-Figure in Three Latin American Novels.’’ In The Power of Myth in Literature and Film. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1980.
Diez, Luis A. ‘‘The Apocalyptic Tropics of Aguilera Malta.’’ Latin American Literary Review 10 (Spring/Summer 1982): 31-40.
Luzuriaga, Gerardo A. ‘‘Aguilera-Malta se incorpora a la nueva narrativa.’’ Nueva Narrativa Hispanoamericana 1 (1971): 219-24.
Waag, C. Michael. ‘‘Absurdity, Hyperbole and the Grotesque in Demetrio Aguilera Malta’s Last Novel, Requiem para el Diablo’ SECOLAS Annals 20 (March 1989): 56-62.
Ecuador Online. Hombres Notables: Demetrio
Aguilera Malta [in Spanish]. Retrieved February 24, 2008, from http://www.explored.com.ec/ecuador/tradicio/homb42.htm.
Literatura Ecuatoriana. Demetrio Aguilera Malta [in Spanish]. Retrieved February 24, 2008, from http://www.literaturaecuatoriana.com/paginas/demaguma.htm.