by Miguel Angel Asturias
Delacorte, 256 pp., $6.95
The Green House
by Mario Vargas Llosa
Harper & Row, 405 pp., $6.95
On its polite and somehow always politic annual round, the Nobel Prize was given in 1967 to Miguel Angel Asturias, who is known as an important Guatemalan diplomat and a sensitive novelist of the older generation. Strong Wind is the first volume, the publisher tells us, of his Banana Republic trilogy. It is nervously described as “controversial”—surely no one is still frightened of upsetting American fruit companies! How far the story of colonialist finance, etc., is ultimately analyzed, we can’t yet tell in the English version. In the present volume, the theme appears to be that the early planters did something bold, romantic, epic, and humanly valuable; but that their successors, the American financial operators, have dehumanized an economy and reduced human beings to the condition of a crop that has the mere precarious value of a foreign investment. To guarantee the steady return from a product liable to disease or glut there must be monopoly: the foreign worker is strapped to the machine and is supposed to like this as much as people in Chicago do. He doesn’t, because he has lost control of his own way of life. If some eccentric rebels—as occurs in this book—and tries to break the monopoly, gangster action is introduced to stop him. The only force stronger than all parties is Nature, in the form of tropical disease, ruinous heat, and hurricane.
Strong Wind is a very Thirty-ish novel of sensibility and indignation. It doesn’t seem possible for any novelist working on the colonialist subject to present exploiters and exploited in the same idiom and equally well. The wretched Americans from the States who run the monopoly and have to bear the burden of most of the serious discussion are novelistically not up to it. They talk like “think” extracts from The Reader’s Digest and are mainly concerned with their meaningless divorces and remarriages, and are plastered regularly every evening. It is true there is one lady who likes Mozart and “the natives.” Also—with I’m afraid rather conventional Latin-American malice about American women—we are presented with a tennis-playing Lesbian. Since Keyserling’s days no South American believes there is such a thing as an American female heterosexual. In short, the portraits of the North Americans are simply like the glad, null, clothes wearers and whiskey drinkers of the New Yorker advertisements.
The Guatemalan peasants on the plantation are a different matter. Here the novelist is writing about what he knows. They are close to pain and fatality and are ten times more alive. Here, in his descriptions of the scene and his sudden Faulkner-like skids into sensation images, Señor Asturias shows his painterly and perhaps secretly religious quality:
The movements of the cutting crew at the foot of a banana tree which looked like a green cross resembled those of Jews with ladders and spears as they tried to lift down a green Christ who had been changed into a bunch of bananas …