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George Washington and the Making of the Nation's Highest Office
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Mr. President grew out of "Political Beggars," a short story that Miguel Ángel Asturias wrote in December 1922 before leaving Guatemala for Europe. The novel was first published in 1946 in an edition full of errors that Asturias corrected for the second edition (Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada, 1948). Indeed, he worked longer on this novel than he had on any other of his published books, even though he had abandoned the manuscript for long periods of time. The novel carried this annotation: Paris, November 1923–December 8, 1932.[*] According to most critics, and the author's own account, this novel was inspired by the dictatorship of Manuel Estrada Cabrera, who ruled as lord and master of Guatemala for twenty-two years, from 1898 to 1920.
At the behest of family friends, Asturias had gone to London in 1923 to study economics. He suddenly had a change of heart and went to Paris to take classes at the Sorbonne with Professor Georges Raynaud. It was in Raynaud's courses that he discovered Mayan culture and spent years translating the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Mayas. In Paris he wrote poems and the novel Legends of Guatemala (1930), and also continued working on Mr. President, which was written almost completely in France.
There's a certain confusion about this novel, to which Asturias himself contributed. At the time, he championed social and protest fiction, the kind that revealed the horrors that Latin American dictators had committed. On many occasions, he claimed that his book belonged to the genre of politically engaged novels.
Undoubtedly, this is one important aspect of Mr. President. The novel deals with prototypical Latin American realist or folkloric themes, based on the dramatic historical circumstance that dictators ruled most Latin American countries. But even though Asturias's novel depicts this constant and recurring reality, it surely isn't its most important aspect, or this lively story wouldn't have stood out from these somewhat unsophisticated novels or survived the test of time.
To be sure, like many other Latin American novels, Mr. President fits in the category of the politically engaged novel. It depicts the havoc that dictatorships play in triggering human tragedies, economic catastrophes, and corruption in our countries. But Asturias does this in a unique way, frequently employing subtle, original, and unusual literary devices, without displaying the formal weaknesses and shortcomings often found in Latin American protest literature. More important, he does this in a much broader context than the typical social or political testimonial novel.
Asturias frames his novel as the struggle between good and evil in an underdeveloped society where evil seems to triumph. There isn't a single character in the novel that is saved—not even the young Camila, who is blackmailed into marrying the dictator's favorite confidant: the handsome Miguel Angel Face. She even attends a reception in the Palace of the President, who has imprisoned her father—the exiled General Eusebio Canales, the supposed murderer of Colonel Parrales Sonriente, and who ends up poisoned near the novel's conclusion. All the characters—whether they are soldiers, judges, politicians, wealthy or poor, the powerful or the downtrodden—epitomize evil. They are servile and violent thieves, cynics, opportunists, liars, corrupt individuals, drunkards—in short, among the most repugnant and disgusting of human beings. And probably even the President—who decides who is to live and who is to die and who is a drunkard, a traitor, and the mastermind of hundreds of twisted intrigues—isn't the worst of all. That designation goes to either his Judge Advocate or Major Farfán, who, on orders of the Head of State, perpetuate the most violent, outrageous crimes: the former when he questions, humiliates, and punishes Fedina de Rodas for crimes committed by her husband, Genaro, against the Dimwit; and the latter by detaining Miguel Angel Face at the harbor as he's about to leave for New York on Presidential orders. Miguel is arrested, beaten mercilessly, and buried in an underground dungeon where he has only two hours of light each day. He is fed filth and survives by slowly rotting, dying little by little while his wife, Camila, contacts diplomats and politicians all over the world, even in Singapore, hoping he is safe, only to learn, too late, that Angel Face is also a victim of a monster who controls everything—lives, deaths, and taxes are within his realm—with his little finger.
What is unique and what transforms this demonic book filled with hideous episodes is Asturias's artistry, which is made evident by the novel's formal structure and its original use of language.
Mr. President is qualitatively better than all previous Spanish-language novels. Marvelously controlled, the novel's language owes much to Professor Reynaud's lectures on surrealism and other avant-garde movements in vogue in France while Asturias was writing it. No doubt he was also deeply affected by nostalgia for his far-off country at the other end of the world and the many years he had been away from Guatemala, getting together with his South American friends at Montparnasse's Café de la Rotonde. His work was influenced by automatic writing, the mixing of reality and dreams—nightmares, I should say—an unusual poetic musicality, and the merging of forms that convert history into a grand novelistic and poetic spectacle and where reality becomes street theater and apocalyptical fantasy at every turn.
The first chapter, "In the Portal del Señor," is unforgettable. A swirl of one-legged, one-eyed, blind, crippled beggars have been reduced to the most primitive bestiality and mistreat one another with the deepest misery and savagery. Pelele—the Dimwit—is one of them; this poor devil is later needlessly killed by Lucio Vásquez. At the book's end, the dictatorship remains intact—of course, the Portal del Señor is destroyed, but the hideous system it symbolizes is not.
Asturias's language is multifaceted and not the Spanish that all the characters in the story utilize. Despite their lack of decency, the upper classes speak a more or less correct Spanish. This is also the case for Angel Face, Camila, a handful of ministers and officers, and even Mr. President. But as the novel explores the language of the lower classes, the richness and innovation of expression increase and shift, introducing invented words, songs, audacious grammatical renderings, astonishing metaphors, rhythms, terms generally associated with native insects, plants, and trees. A provincial world of untamed nature not yet dominated by man is depicted in a country that finds itself isolated and changing slowly, before the advent of cars and airplanes, and in which a trip to New York involves a long train ride and boat journey. Guatemala isn't mentioned even once, but that doesn't matter—everything points to that unfortunate yet beautiful country: the capital is far from the ocean, surrounded by rivers, jungles, and volcanoes. Its hapless citizens would know only hideous dictatorships until long after the novel ends—at least until 1944—and would incorporate into their thoughts and diction an extraordinary glibness, inventing words, fantasizing and improvising as they speak, endlessly creating in everything they say and exclaim, thus transforming reality into enchantment—a hellish one at that—where time goes in circles, around itself, as in a nightmare. Life is depicted as a theatrical tragedy repeated endlessly in which human beings are merely actors and, at times, mythical characters. Chapter XXXVII, "Tohil's Dance," in particular, is more like a painting or mural inspired by the distant ancestors of the K'iche' Maya archeological past, a historical reminiscence that connects to Guatemala's rich history. All the other chapters correspond to an updated present in which a humble, isolated, and primitive people—subjected to the indescribable horrors of a brutal, incarcerating regime—live in abject poverty. But there's something that supports the country's people and keeps them from vanishing: the vital and extraordinary strength with which they withstand mistreatment and humiliation, a tragic existence steeped in muck, jungle, and animals and in the hugely creative way they survive and employ language. Despite the depths of the country's social and political disgrace, its people are capable of creating and taking on a distinct personality, inventing a new language, and the music and rhythms that shape it and make it unique and guarantee its survival.
Asturias achieves something unique in this novel. Its linguistic beauty is part of the historical truth: the Guatemalan way of speaking is innovative and personal. Asturias isn't a mere scribe to that linguistic reality, but also its creator—someone who chooses to dive into the bottomless fountain of how a nation and its people speak, while also managing to cultivate and add something of his own fantasies, obsessions, and excellent ear to give it his personal stamp. Mr. President is undoubtedly a work of art, a true tour de force of great originality and creativity, perhaps closer to poetry than to fiction or, perhaps, a rare merging of these two genres.
Many episodes in the novel begin in a realistic vein, but, little by little, Asturias constructs a visionary and metaphorical poetic language, which leads him to discard a realistic, objective landscape for one of legend, dream, theater, myth, and pure invention. This is what makes this novel so unique, so new, and of such high literary value that almost a century later, Mr. President continues to be one of the most original Latin American texts ever written.
Asturias's nostalgia for his native land certainly played an important role in the writing of this novel. And yet, the distance between Asturias in Paris and Guatemala gave him a kind of freedom that many Latin American writers living in their homelands did not have—since they were forced to experience a brutality that impeded their ability to write freely—without fear of persecution and censorship. Probably Miguel Ángel Asturias wasn't fully aware of how great a novel he had written, whose magnitude he would never again repeat, because the novels, short stories, and poems he wrote afterward were closer to the narrower, somewhat demagogic literature of "committed" dictator novels that he had earlier championed. He didn't realized that the great merit of Mr. President is that he had broken that tradition and raised the politically engaged novel to an altogether higher level.
mario vargas llosa
The first lines of Mr. President (El Señor Presidente), by the Guatemalan author Miguel Ángel Asturias, still have the power to astonish new readers a full century after the author began writing his book: bells tolling at nightfall, swinging from high to low, as if from brightness to utter darkness, night to day, good to evil, ringing outside in the world and deep inside one's ears. The shadow presence of Lucifer, the lord of light and shadow, of malevolence, corruption, injustice. Terror from the very start, which will shortly overwhelm all the characters in the novel, one after another; but also contradiction, the sparks of primeval fire, a fierce libertarian desire communicated through the language itself, and an unexpected, counterintuitive poetic beauty. I was stunned when I first read it, at the age of nineteen, three months after I read James Joyce's Ulysses (completed in the year that Asturias's novel was started), in a gloomy English library on a rainy English day. So this was Latin America!
Indeed it was, I would confirm, only two years later, when I saw the tempestuous and contradictory region for myself; no other book would ever have quite the same irresistible impact. It did not occur to me then that what I was reading was already thirty years old. A decade from now, it will be a hundred years old, though for me it will always be youthful.
When the book was published in Buenos Aires in 1948 (after a first Mexican edition, in 1946, which Asturias's mother financed and which went almost unnoticed), it quickly became a Latin American sensation and at that time the most celebrated work of fiction in Spanish American history. Here, at last, was the great novel of dictatorship for which that neglected region, notorious for its many tyrannical regimes (but not adequately admired for its unceasing quest for liberty), had been waiting.
Before long, Asturias's work became the foreign novel of the year in France, in 1952, and was even published in English, in London, in 1963, something still highly unusual at the time for a book from Latin America. Asturias was willingly absorbed into the postwar existentialist wave of politically committed literature advocated by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, the more so after he was forced into exile in 1954, effectively for the rest of his life, by a military coup supported by the United States. In 1967 he became the first Latin American novelist to win the Nobel Prize (the Chilean Gabriela Mistral had won for poetry in 1945), thereby crowning two successful decades in the public eye.
Yet, from the very moment that he won that prize, four years after I first read Mr. President, Asturias's star began to wane, and he has never again been at the center of Latin American literary attention. Without an understanding of this extraordinary story, the history and evolution not only of Asturias's novel but also of twentieth-century literature in Latin America cannot be properly narrated.
Because the truth is that Mr. President was a 1946 or 1948 novel only in terms of its date of publication: it had been written in the 1920s, in Europe, in the age of the literary avant-garde and silent cinema. And it was not only inspired by one specific dictatorship, that of Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898–1920), in the period immediately before it was written; it would also become the victim of a second, equally ruthless regime, that of Jorge Ubico (1931–1944), as would its author, which is why its publication was delayed until after World War II. Then, after almost two decades of positive reviews, the novel and its writer would again become victims of history more widely and of the literary tastes and politics of a powerful new generation fostering its own myths and rewriting history in its own image. Restoring Asturias's novel to its rightful place in Latin American cultural development and focusing its achievement are long overdue, both as an act of justice and as a contribution to historical and literary truth.
THE TURBULENT LIFE OF A GUATEMALAN WRITER
The dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera, a Liberal Party politician in power between 1898 and 1920, is never named in Asturias's novel, because the writer's intention was to universalize the themes of dictatorship and its mechanisms and to investigate their roots in social and economic inequality and the internalization of oppression. Indeed the dictator himself makes very few appearances in the narrative, considering that his political title is the title of the book: Asturias's focus is on not only his physical control of the Guatemalan people through systematic repression, imprisonment, and torture but also his hold upon their minds through the creation of a state of mythological terror that penetrates, through the mystery of power, to the deepest recesses of their consciousness. (The book's original title was Tohil, the name of the Mayan god of fire.) Many critics in the decades after the novel was published, given that the details are horrific and the atmosphere both nightmarish and satirical, assumed that the work was in some respects hyperbolic. In fact, the episodes and anecdotes narrated and the methods employed by the President and his regime in the narrative are in no way exaggerated: they are truthful and historical, down to the smallest details. For this reason its central themes, inextricably woven together, are evil, oppression, violence, imprisonment, and death, and—less obviously but unmistakably—their opposites. The novel's mood is one of terror and its methods are those of the dictator: to impose distortions of every kind and to administer shock treatment to the reader's consciousness. Unlike the dictator, however, Asturias seeks to terrorize in order to produce a moral, emotional, and even physical reaction to the reading experience: an antidote, a catharsis. To achieve this, he uses all the technical resources of the avant-garde era of the 1920s, which was also, as mentioned, the age of silent cinema and its narrative modes: melodramatic, gestural, and balletic. This must be understood from the outset: Mr. President's virtues are not those of the traditional realist novel.
The book has a theatrical structure of three parts: "April 21, 22, and 23"; "April 24, 25, 26, and 27"; "Weeks, Months, Years. . . ." It has forty-one chapters, most with spectacularly melodramatic titles, and an epilogue. It has a setting, Guatemala, which is never named, just as the almost mythological President himself is rarely seen and never named. And it has a brilliantly achieved plot that involves the construction of a terrifying narrative prison whose last doors clang shut at the book's conclusion. In other words—as this final detail suggests—it is a novel whose characteristics are not only those of a novel: it is also very like a play, a tightly concocted drama (at times a theater of marionettes), with a pulsating psychic rhythm. Its first two parts accelerate dialectically; the third slows ("Weeks, Months, Years . . ."), then rises briefly to a climax, then slows again into an ambiguous epilogue, which ends, literally, in a cul-de-sac (the previous chapter having ended in a prison cell). It is also a movie (a movie that gives the book the dimensions of a myth), projected onto the screen of the reader's consciousness like a slightly tinted, flickering black-and-white silent film that begins and ends in the darkness, like every archetypal experience at the cinema, or like our daily passage from night to morning and back to night again. And finally, counterintuitively, and perhaps above all, it is a poem: the themes in the inaugural lines are overtly reasserted in the very last lines, as in the most harmonious of narrative poems, but between these moments they open out into a wide array of motifs associated with the nature of being, perception, thought, and kinetic motion, so that almost every sentence and paragraph brings together, through Asturias's political aesthetic, a sense of universal meaning within the contextual moment. Few critics have read the book this way, mainly due to the force of its political subject matter, but its aesthetic dimension is inseparable from its wider meaning.
When Miguel Ángel Asturias was born, in 1899, Estrada Cabrera had been president of the Guatemalan Republic for just a year. He would still be in power as Asturias approached the age of twenty-one. Estrada Cabrera had not only physically controlled the country and its borders for two decades, he had also controlled the frontiers of the writer's own imagination, and that of an entire generation throughout their childhood and youth. This psychic reality underpins the entire conception of Asturias's signature novel.
Asturias's father was a lawyer by profession, like Estrada Cabrera himself, and was forced to quit his post as judge shortly after Miguel Ángel was born, due to political difficulties with the dictator. The family fled to the provinces for a few years of internal exile, after which Asturias's formidable mother, Doña María Rosales, sustained the family by opening a highly successful grocery store and managing the humiliations that this occasioned among the upper classes of Guatemala City. The son on whom she doted enrolled in the law faculty at the University of San Carlos in 1917, a year that would mark the beginning of the end for Estrada Cabrera: Asturias would always maintain that the great earthquakes of the winter of 1917–1918, which destroyed much of the city and forced its inhabitants to camp out together in the streets and squares, made a significant symbolic and psychological contribution to the tyrant's overthrow. (In the novel's epilogue, the consciousness-raising effects of the earthquake are obliquely recorded.) When in 1919 the dictator attempted to have himself reelected in one more phony election, a movement of opposition parties, workers, and students combined to overthrow him, and in 1920 he was captured and arrested. Asturias, who had been highly active in the student movement (he would represent the Guatemalan university students at a conference in Mexico City in 1921, and later in Europe) and who was himself briefly jailed by Estrada Cabrera, interviewed the ex-dictator in prison and was secretary to the tribunal that tried and sentenced him. Asturias graduated in 1922 but practiced law only briefly. In that year he wrote "Political Beggars," a short story that in time would become the first chapter of Mr. President. In 1923 his undergraduate thesis, "The Social Problem of the Indian," was published, the first work of social analysis to appear in Guatemala. Between them, these two works gave an early indication of the themes—politics and indigenism—that would give life and direction to his artistic expression.
Political freedom has been a scarce commodity in Guatemalan history. Lawyers have rarely respected the law. The beautiful, resplendent quetzal, a bird of the Guatemalan cloud forest beloved by the Mayas and a national symbol of independence and liberty since the 1870s, is said to be unable to live in captivity; but the Guatemalan people, especially the Indigenous majority who are the descendants of the Maya, have little experience of political freedom, except in their dreams. By 1923 the novice writer was under serious threat from a new regime that, in the vacuum left by Estrada Cabrera, was dominated by the military. His parents encouraged him to flee to Europe. Asturias moved to London for six months and then to Paris, where he worked as a correspondent for a new and progressive Guatemalan newspaper, El Imparcial, studied ethnology at the Sorbonne under Georges Raynaud, a scholar devoted to the study of the Maya; and above all carried out research in the university of life during the era of les Années Folles.
During the next ten years, with Paris as his base, he traveled most of the Old World and met many of the leading Latin Americans of his generation, as well as international celebrities, from Miguel de Unamuno and Vicente Blasco Ibáñez to James Joyce, Paul Valéry, and Pablo Picasso, from Arthur Conan Doyle and Jiddu Krishnamurti to Benito Mussolini. During this period of intense experience, the young writer also worked hard: by the time he returned to Guatemala in 1933, when the plunge in coffee prices following the Great Depression had made it impossible for middle-class Guatemalans to sustain themselves abroad, Asturias had translated into Spanish Raynaud's French versions of the Popol Vuh, the so-called K'iche' Bible or creation myth, and the Annals of the Cakchiquels, and had written more than five hundred newspaper articles; scores of poems; numerous short stories; the dazzling literary quest for identity titled Legends of Guatemala (1930), with a prologue by Valéry; the first draft of a novel about his childhood, The Bejeweled Boy; and early sections of what would later become his classic mythological and magical realist novel, Men of Maize (1949)—not to mention, with the exception of a few pages added later to chapter XII, Mr. President, his most famous novel, at that time still titled Tohil. He had completed it by the end of 1932, leaving a manuscript copy behind in Paris with his friend Georges Pillement, who would keep it safe and eventually translate it into French.
The reason for the delay in its publication between 1932 and 1946 was, as previously mentioned, that on his reluctant return to Guatemala in 1933, the country was in the grip of another ferocious dictatorship, that of the fascistic colonel Jorge Ubico, in power from 1931 to 1944. Had Asturias tried to publish a violent protest novel sarcastically titled Mr. President during that period, he would have paid for it with his life. Thus it was that a young writer who seemed in 1930 to have the world at his feet, with the newly published Legends of Guatemala acclaimed by the great Valéry, now had to endure twelve years of silence, humiliation, and even moments of self-betrayal (Ubico would occasionally force him, Guatemala's outstanding novelist and poet, to attend national events or accompany him on visits to Mayan communities). Those twelve years coincided with the rise of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco, the defeat of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, the Stalinist purges, and the horrors of World War II, one of the most somber periods in all of human history. With Mr. President hidden in the darkness, Asturias secretly completed his other great masterpiece, Men of Maize, but also concealed it in a trunk and published virtually nothing during this entire period; turned to drink; embarked upon a disastrous marriage that produced two sons, much tortured poetry, and eventually a divorce; and by the time of the Guatemalan middle-class revolution of 1944, appeared to have lost his way in life.
Nevertheless, the new president, Juan José Arévalo, was an old friend who was about to inaugurate the only decade of democratic government in Guatemalan history before the twenty-first century. He sent the aging bohemian off as cultural attaché to Mexico City and then to Buenos Aires, the two most vibrant centers of Spanish American culture. In the former, Asturias widened his acquaintance with Amerindian culture and history, and in the latter, he married an Argentinian divorcée, Blanca Mora y Araujo, who was writing a thesis on him and had the strength of character necessary to sort out his problems and manage his career. The publication of Mr. President in Mexico in 1946 had been in an edition hardly anyone read; when it was republished in Buenos Aires in 1948, it became an overnight sensation.
The appearance of the even more audacious and visionary Men of Maize in 1949 should have confirmed that in Asturias, Latin America had discovered one of its most distinctive novelists, but that book was considered impenetrable and was put into critical limbo in the shadow of Mr. President
Unger gives our precious American history the backbone it deserves and reveals more of Washington the man than Washington the demigod.”New York Journal of Books
[A] thoroughly researched and delightfully written book. A real thriller of a tale told with skill and authority.”Washington Times
[A] fast-paced chronicle of Washington's presidency.”Publishers Weekly
"Truly enlightening insight into the earliest days of the U.S. government.... As eye-opening as it is fascinating."San Francisco Book Review
Library Journal, 12/20/2013
Written with spirit and some subtlety, this work demonstrates that George Washington's contributions to the character of federal executive powers have been nearly as influential as his military leadership. Recommended to readers in early American and presidential history and U.S. political science.”
January Magazine, 12/4/2013
A very good book In his typically lucid and conversational style, Unger paints a never-before-seen portrait of Washington as a surprisingly beleaguered leader whose challenges in many ways echo those of the current occupier of the White House.”
The Washington Lawyer, January 2014
Unger [is] a leading historian of the revolutionary era.”
- On Sale
- Feb 10, 2015
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Da Capo Press