Augusto Roa Bastos
BORN: 1917, Asuncion, Paraguay
DIED: 2005, Asuncion, Paraguay
GENRE: Fiction, poetry
Thunder Among the Leaves (1953)
Son of Man (1960)
I the Supreme (1974)
The Prosecutor (1993)
Augusto Roa Bastos. Roa Bastos, Augusto, photograph. AP Images.
Augusto Roa Bastos is Paraguay’s most widely acclaimed author. His fiction reflects the political oppression, violence, and material hardship of life in his native country. Drawing freely from the history and folklore of Paraguay, his prose is a blend of myth, fantasy, and realism that expresses the author’s social concerns as well as his belief in the redemptive power of suffering and sacrifice. He is best known for his two novels, Son of Man (1960) and I the Supreme (1974), both of which employ unconventional narrative structures and the stylistic techniques of magic realism.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
War-Marred Teen Years. Roa Bastos was born in Asuncion, Paraguay, on June 13, 1917, a time when his country’s economy was stagnating and a large influx of immigrants from Italy, Spain, Germany, and Argentina were coming in to replace the male population lost in the bloody War of Triple Alliance (1865-1870). Hewas raised two hundred kilometers south in Iturbe, where his father helped run a sugar plantation. He grew up bilingual, speaking both Spanish and the Paraguayan indigenous language, Guaranl. With the encouragement of his mother, he began to write short stories at the age of thirteen.
Roa Bastos grew up in one of Latin America’s poorest and least developed nations. In 1932, Bolivia attacked Paraguayan soldiers in the frontier region of Chaco because oil had been found there, sparking a war that lasted until 1935. Roa Bastos, still in his teens, joined the military and was assigned to guard prisoners and record deaths during the so-called Chaco War. Despite being outnumbered three to one, the Paraguayans had higher morale, were brilliantly led, and were better adapted to the climate of the region than were their Bolivian attackers. Paraguayans conquered about 75 percent of the disputed territory, most of which they retained when a peace treaty was reached in 1938. Roa Bastos’s wartime experience led him to become a pacifist.
Launched Writing Career. After the war, Roa Bastos worked as a journalist and began writing poems and plays. He won a Paraguayan literary prize in 1941 for a book that was never published. In 1942, he published a book of poetry, El ruisenor de la aurora, y otros poemas, though he later renounced this work as insignificant. That same year, he started working for the daily newspaper El Pais, eventually rising to the post of editor in chief.
Toward the end of World War II, Roa Bastos went to London on a journalism fellowship. As war correspondent for a daily newspaper in Asuncion, he witnessed the city’s devastation by German bombardment and interviewed General Charles de Gaulle, the leader of France, in Paris. During World War II, Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler, was able to fulfill territorial ambitions by conquering much of Europe. Extensive bombing of Great Britain was believed to be, in part, preparation for a Nazi invasion. The invasion never came and the British together with the American and other Allies, were able to defeat the Germans in the mid-1940s.
Roa Bastos went home to more war. In 1947, a popular revolt against the oppressive regime of General Higinio Morinigo led to civil war in Paraguay. Morinigo’s troops shut down El Pais and destroyed its presses. Along with half a million Paraguayans, Roa Bastos fled the country into neighboring Argentina. His exile would last more than forty years. Though Morinigo retired in 1948, he was replaced by another oppressive dictator, General Alfredo Stroessner, who ruled for four decades.
Publishing during Exile. Roa Bastos settled in Buenos Aires, where he did his most successful writing. He ultimately came to feel that exile was beneficial to his artistic expression since it allowed him to see his own country from other points of view. He told the New York Times Book Review: ‘‘I try to see exile not as a political sanction, as a punishment or restriction, but as something that has forced me to open to the world, to look at it in all of its complexity and breadth.’’
He turned to writing fiction after moving to Buenos Aires, publishing a collection of short stories, Thunder Among the Leaves (1953). The stories cover themes Roa Bastos would later explore in his novels. They deal with the social, political, and economic injustices plaguing Paraguay—the nation had endured six more revolts in the late 1940s—and depict the contrast between the culture and values of the country’s indigenous people and those of its European upper classes. Some critics have suggested that the dismal conclusions of works like ‘‘The Excavation’’ reflect Roa Bastos’s belief at the time that rampant oppression would dominate life in Paraguay indefinitely.
Critical Acclaim. Roa Bastos achieved critical success with his first novel, Son of Man (1960). The novel chronicles the struggle between the rich and the poor over more than two decades of Paraguayan history, from the early twentieth century through the Chaco War. It interweaves multiple narratives with legends tracing Paraguay’s history back to the dictatorship of Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia, which began in 1814. Roa Bastos explores the relation between history and myth by linking events in the novel to distant historical episodes, and transforming the same events into folklore as the novel unfolds. The author also adapted Son of Man into his first screenplay in 1960. Several of his later screenplays, such as Alias Gardelito (1961), were made into landmark works of Argentina’s nuevo cine movement.
Subversive Writings. Roa Bastos published his masterpiece, I the Supreme, in 1974. The complex and unusual novel is a fictional treatment of the final days of the despot Francia, who called himself ‘‘The Supreme.’’ After the Argentine military took over the government by a coup in March 1976, sales of I the Supreme were banned in the country, and Roa Bastos was once more exiled. He moved to France, where he became an associate professor of Guarani and Spanish American studies at the University of Toulouse. He made several surreptitious visits to his native country during the 1970s. On a similar trip in 1982, he was discovered by Paraguayan officials, summarily expelled, and forbidden to return. Then in 1989, Stroessner was finally deposed after thirty-five years in power. The incoming leader, General Andres Rodriguez, gave more freedoms to his people and invited the distinguished literary figure to return home after forty-two years in exile.
Return to Paraguay During the 1990s, Roa Bastos continued to produce fiction that addressed dictatorship and political power. Vigil of the Admiral (1992) is a historical novel about Christopher Columbus, published amidst commemorations of the five hundredth anniversary of the explorer’s first voyage. The Prosecutor (1993) concerns two Paraguayan military dictators: Carlos Antonio Solano Lopez, who controlled the country during the 1860s, and Stroessner. The author considered The Prosecutor the final work of a political trilogy, along with Son of Man and I the Supreme. Roa Bastos continued to write until his death on April 26, 2005, in Asuncion.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Bastos's famous contemporaries include:
Carlos Fuentes (1928—): Mexican novelist known for intertwining myth, legend, and history to examine his country's roots. His novels include Aura (1962).
Octavio Paz (1914-1998): Mexican novelist, essayist, poet, and diplomat was the first Mexican to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. His books include The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950, rev. ed. 1975).
Pablo Neruda (1904-1973): Chilean poet, Communist diplomat, and Nobel Prize winner noted for his innovative techniques in modern poetry. His poetry collections include Book of Twilights (1923).
Jose Lezama Lima (1910-1976): Cuban poet who was an influential figure in Latin American literature and who wrote in a baroque style. His novels include Paradiso (1966).
Gore Vidal (1925-): American historical novelist and social critic, is known to millions as a witty and wicked talk show guest and a two-time political candidate. His novels include The City and the Pillar (1948).
Juan Peran (1895-1974): Argentine colonel and politician who served as president of Argentina from 1946 to 1955 and from 1973 to 1974, being exiled in Paraguay in between.
Works in Literary Context
Roa Bastos’s literary education began at the age of ten when his parents sent him to live with his uncle in Asunchan and attend school. In his uncle’s library, Roa Bastos discovered classical Spanish literature, works that became the first models for his own writing. Notable precursors to Roa Bastos include: the seventeenth-century Spanish explorer Ruy Diaz de Guzman, who wrote about the geography of Paraguay; Rafael Barrett, an obscure Spanish anarchist who wrote in Paraguay at the turn of the twentieth century; and the Uruguayan fiction writer Horacio Quiroga. Miguel de Cervantes’s classic Don Quixote (1605, 1615) is a model for the structure employed in I the Supreme. In addition to the classics, Roa Bastos’s experience with the Guarani (indigenous people found in Paraguay and other parts of South America) influenced both the cultural context and the sensitivity to social injustice found in his work.
Neobaroque Style. Roa Bastos wrote in a neobaroque style common to Latin American literature of the midtwentieth century. This style is found in the early works of Jorge Luis Borges, the novels of Alejo Carpentier, and the poetry of Pablo Neruda. The well-known Latin American genre of magical realism is an outgrowth of this literary school. Roa Bastos employs magical realist techniques while drawing on indigenous folklore and Christian mythology to underscore the force the past exerts over the present. His use of the Guarani language—one of the few indigenous languages that remains in widespread use in South America—grounds his writing in the specific cultural experience of the Paraguayan people, and allows him to incorporate the silenced voices of indigenous people in his stories.
Thematic Concerns. All of Roa Bastos’s mature writing concerns the oppressive power structure of Paraguayan society, from its historical roots through contemporary times. Many of his stories portray human endurance in the face of injustice or hardship and feature Christlike characters whose sacrificial suffering is intended to free their countrymen from political oppression. Son of Man is rich in Christian metaphors, including the figures of Christobal Jara, an uneducated peasant who becomes a Christlike leader, and Miguel Vera, the middle-class narrator who takes on the role of Judas.
Literary Impact. Roa Bastos’s novels have been influential in the development of Latin American historical fiction and its use as a vehicle for social commentary. I the Supreme was partially responsible for the flourishing of a genre called the ‘‘dictator novel,’’ along with Reasons of State (1974) by Alejo Carpentier, and The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Critics regard Roa Bastos as one of the leading writers of the Latin American ‘‘boom.’’ His influence is visible in the work of postboom writers such as Isabel Allende and Antonio Skarmeta. Roa Bastos remains the leading literary figure in Paraguay and a significant influence upon contemporary Paraguayan literature.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The ''dictator novel," an important genre in the Latin American literary tradition, has become a worldwide phenomenon. The following works all examine the psychology of absolute power and its profound social impact.
El Senor Presidente (1946), a novel by Miguel Angel Asturias. This early work of magical realism, by a Nobel Prize-winning author, is inspired by the twenty-year reign of Manuel Estrada Cabrera in Guatemala.
Reasons of State (1974), a novel by Alejo Carpentier. A satirical novel about a Latin American dictator who attempts to control insurrections from his home in Europe.
The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975), a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The eternal dictator portrayed in this novel, ''El Macho,'' is said to be two hundred years old as the tragedy of despotism unfolds over and over again.
The Last King of Scotland (1998), a novel by Giles Foden. A fictional account of the rise of Ugandan president Idi Amin, made into a film in 2006.
The Feast of the Goat (2000), a novel by Mario Vargas Llosa. Vargas Llosa, himself a presidential candidate in Peru, spins a tale interweaving the stories of Dominican tyrant Rafael Trujillo, his assassins, and the daughter of one of the dictator's close advisers.
Downfall (2004), a film written by Bernd Eichinger and directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel. This film, set mostly in Hitler's bunker, depicts the final days of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich.
Works in Critical Context
On the strength of I the Supreme, a universally acclaimed work, critics often place Roa Bastos in the front rank of twentieth-century Latin American novelists. Roa Bastos was awarded Spanish literature’s most valuable award, the Miguel de Cervantes Prize, in 1989, the year of his return to Paraguay. Son of Man is also highly regarded, particularly as a work of literary regionalism. Roa Bastos never achieved great commercial success outside Paraguay, and his work is not widely known in the English-speaking world, despite a highly praised English translation of I the Supreme, published in 1986.
Dictator Novel. I the Supreme was a literary success when it was first published. The story is based on Francia, a former revolutionary, who ruled Paraguay absolutely from 1814 until his death in 1840. The novel offers a hypothetical account of a dying Francia’s attempt to justify his obsessive use of power. Critics consider I the Supreme a complicated novel, as Roa Bastos employs many unconventional narratives. He uses fragmented dreams, excerpts from actual historical documents, extended soliloquies, comments by the narrator (referred to in the text as the Compiler), and fantasy-like material (such as a conversation between Francia and his dog) to blur reality with fiction. Many critics concur with Mexican author Carlos Fuentes in calling I the Supreme ‘‘one of the milestones of the Latin American novel.’’ Washington Post Book World contributor Paul West concurred, proclaiming: ‘‘Augusto Roa Bastos is himself a supreme find, maybe the most complex and brilliant ... Latin American novelist of all.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Research the early history of Paraguay and the Guarani language. What unique features of Paraguayan society does Roa Bastos highlight in his fiction? Write a paper that outlines your findings.
2. I the Supreme is often linked with The Autumn of the Patriarch, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as early examples of the ‘‘dictator novel.’’ Compare the psychological and social perspectives in the two works in an essay.
3. Would you consider Son of Man a Christian work? Why do you think Roa Bastos employs Christian metaphors and images? Create a presentation of your findings for the class.
4. Would you consider Roa Bastos a political novelist? In a group discussion, find examples in which Roa Bastos advocates a particular cause, party, or policy.
5. Write an exploratory essay about the relationship between history and mythology in Latin America, as viewed through the novels of Roa Bastos.
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________. The Myth of Paraguay in the Fiction of Augusto Roa Bastos. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969.
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Bach, Caleb. ‘‘Augusto Roa Bastos: Outwitting Reality.’’ Americas 48 (1996).
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Fuentes, Carlos. ‘‘A Despot, Now and Forever: Review of I, the Supreme.’ New York Times (April 6, 1986).
Gonzalez Echevarria, Roberto. ‘‘The Dictatorship of Rhetoric/The Rhetoric of Dictatorship: Carpentier, Garcia Marquez, and Roa Bastos.’’ Latin American Research Review 15 (1980): 205-22.