Neither Gabriel García Márquez nor Mario Vargas Llosa had yet been born when the Guatemalan Miguel Ángel Asturias began to write his first novel, El Señor Presidente, in December 1922. He labored on it for a decade while living in self-imposed exile in Paris, then returned home when the Great Depression left him strapped for money, only to find that his work was unpublishable because the dictator whose reign it portrayed had given way to an even more cruel and oppressive one. When he finally self-published the novel in Mexico in 1946, it was riddled with typographical errors, and a definitive edition did not appear until 1952.
From the beginning, then, El Señor Presidente has been star-crossed. But it also ranks as one of the most important and influential works of modern Latin American literature, a kind of urtext for the celebrated generation of novelists that followed Asturias and gained global recognition in the 1960s and 1970s as members of “El Boom”: García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, José Donoso, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Julio Cortázar, Augusto Roa Bastos, and several others.
Even a cursory reading of David Unger’s new translation of Asturias’s novel establishes why it has had such an enormous impact. In its pages one can easily discern the origins of two phenomena that the rest of the world has come to associate with twentieth-century Latin American literature: the genre known as the dictator novel and the style called magical realism. In his introduction to Mr. President, Gerald Martin, the leading scholar of Asturias and his work in the English-speaking world, goes so far as to call it “the first page of the Boom” and claims that “it was not Gabriel García Márquez who invented magical realism; it was Miguel Ángel Asturias.” This may seem outlandish to those unfamiliar with Asturias, but it provokes very little argument in Latin America.
Mr. President takes place in an unnamed country tyrannized by an unnamed dictator, but both the place and the time are clearly implied: buried in the text are fleeting references to the quetzal, Guatemala’s national bird, and the World War I battle of Verdun. The identity of “the Constitutional President of the Republic, the Benefactor of Our Country, the Head of the Great Liberal Party, the Liberal Hearted Protector of Our Scholarly Youth” is just as readily deduced: he is modeled on Manuel Estrada Cabrera, who dominated Guatemala from 1898 to 1920 through a combination of intimidation, assassination, corruption, and fraudulent elections.
In dissecting the dictator and his despotic rule, Asturias, born the year after he took power, was writing from a privileged position. After being overthrown in 1920, following a congressional vote that deemed him mentally incompetent, Estrada Cabrera was arrested, tried, and sentenced to life in prison, where he died in 1924. Asturias took part in the popular uprising that led to his downfall and was briefly jailed; then, as a law student, he served as a secretary to the tribunal that judged Estrada Cabrera. In that position, Asturias committed to paper for the first time the horrifying stories of injustice, torture, and murder that he soon drew on for his novel; Martin says he also took a deposition from the fallen dictator in his jail cell.
In interviews near the end of his life, Asturias even credited Estrada Cabrera for his discovery of his vocation as a writer. “At 10:25 PM on 25 December 1917, an earthquake destroyed my city,” he explained in 1970.
I remember seeing something like an immense cloud covering the moon. I was in a cellar, a hole in the ground or a cave, or something like that. Right there and then I wrote my first poem, a goodbye song to Guatemala.
Later, as disaster relief from abroad poured in but went straight into the pockets of Estrada Cabrera and his cronies, “I was really angered by the circumstances under which the rubble was removed and by the social injustice that became really apparent then.” Eventually that prodded the aspiring writer into attempting a piece of narrative fiction, initially called “Political Beggars.”
The decade Asturias spent in France, after a brief and evidently unsatisfying stopover to study economics in London, radically changed the nature of the book he set out to write. He had devoted his law school thesis to “The Social Problem of the Indian,” but he began to study ethnology at the Sorbonne under the scholar Georges Raynaud, who encouraged his interest in Mayan culture and mythology; when the fruit of that academic effort, a retelling of pre-Columbian folk narratives called Legends of Guatemala, was published in French in 1931, it came with a glowing foreword by Paul Valéry.
In Paris Asturias socialized with avant-garde literary types like the poets André Breton, Tristan Tzara, César Vallejo, Louis Aragon, and Robert Desnos, and became a committed Surrealist; he also gravitated toward Picasso, whom he would recall holding court at a Montparnasse café and proclaiming, “I deform the world because I do not like it.” So instead of writing the kind of realist social novel then in vogue in Latin America, Asturias ended up creating something much more ambitious, complex, and unconventional.
The plot of Mr. President is deceptively simple, with most of the action taking place over a single week. When a half-crazed beggar accidentally kills a particularly brutal colonel in a fit of rage, the president decides to pin the blame on a general and his lawyer, whose political loyalty he has begun to doubt. This sets in motion a series of interlinked schemes and machinations that result in the imprisonment, torture, death, bondage, or general ruination of assorted government higher-ups, who suspect what is coming, and ordinary citizens, who do not. “We are a cursed country,” one prisoner laments. “Hundreds of men have had their brains blown away by murderous bullets on prison walls. The palace marbles are drenched in the blood of innocent people. Where can we look to find freedom?”
What makes Mr. President so revolutionary is the manner in which Asturias presents a story that contains many of the elements of classic Latin American melodrama, including a doomed love affair between the president’s closest adviser and the fallen general’s beautiful daughter, with “her slanted jade eyes” that “could make ships crash.” But he also repeatedly blurs or disassembles the barrier between reality and fantasy, dreams and waking, genuine and false, past and present, giving readers access to the confused perceptions, fears, and musings of a gallery of unfortunates and scoundrels.
“Half my body is a lie, the other half truth,” a songbird chirps from a pine tree during one of the beggar’s most extravagant hallucinations.
I am both rose and apple. I offer everyone a glass eye and a real eye. Those who see my glass eye see it because they dream; those who see my real eye do so because they can truly see. I am life, the Apple-Rose of the Bird of Paradise. I am the lie in every truth, the truth of all fiction.
As this passage suggests, the great insight that Asturias reached during his interlude in France—and applied to the writing of Mr. President—was that European Surrealism and Mayan mythology did not emerge from separate worlds. Rather, he said, both were generated by the unconscious and could thus be fused, “creating a mixture, and this is the magical part, that I have made use of and benefitted from in my stories.” In a collection of interviews published after his death, he expanded on that notion:
When the indigenous speak of what is unreal, such are the details of their dreams, of their hallucinations, that all of these details converge to make the dream and vision more real than reality itself. That is to say, one cannot speak of this “magical realism” without thinking of the primitive mentality of the Indian, of his manner of appraising manifestations of nature and in his profound ancestral beliefs.
Asturias originally intended to call his novel Tohil, which is the name of a powerful, demanding, and vengeful Mayan deity. In the Popol Vuh, the sacred creation narrative of the K’iche’ people, Tohil is the bringer of fire who, in return for offering warmth and sustenance, insists on absolute fealty from his grateful followers. “In truth, I am your god; so shall it be,” he tells them. “I am your lord; so shall it be.” To placate his jealous ego, he also demands human sacrifice and, when displeased, foments war. In short, Tohil is both an evocation of Estrada Cabrera and a metaphor for all the capricious dictators who have plagued Guatemala and the rest of Latin America since independence was achieved early in the nineteenth century.
In a late chapter of Mr. President entitled “Tohil’s Dance,” an obsequious poet extends that connection in a more modern direction when he proclaims, during a festive night at a bar attended by all the president’s admirers and flunkies, that the Tohil-like head of state is actually “Nietzsche’s prototype, the Superman” who “gives form to a new kind of government: the Super Democracy.” In a hilariously preposterous “Nocturne in C Major to the Super-Duperman,” an extended peroration severely curtailed in Unger’s translation, the poet explains that “Nitche” “genuinely sensed that from Father Cosmos and Mother Nature would be born in the heart of America the first Superman who has ever existed.”
Variations on this template, adapted to differing local circumstances, recur in almost every Latin American dictator novel written after Mr. President, especially those published at the peak of the Boom: Alejo Carpentier’s Reasons of State (1974), Roa Bastos’s I, the Supreme (1974), García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) and The General in His Labyrinth (1989), Luisa Valenzuela’s The Lizard’s Tail (1983), and Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat (2000), among many others. Even a late entry from a much younger, post-Boom writer, Roberto Bolaño’s Distant Star (1996), betrays the influence of Asturias, whom Bolaño once described as “a gigantic writer from a small, ill-fated country.”
Given its brilliance and influence, it continues to be a mystery why Mr. President remains less known in the English-speaking world than the many novels it inspired. One reason may be that more than fifteen years elapsed between its publication in Spanish and its appearance in English in 1963, with the same title it had in Spanish. Unger also points to deficiencies in that first translation, by the English writer Frances Marshall Partridge: “Although lyrical, it is somewhat dated, full of Anglicisms, mistranslations, occasional paragraph omissions, and an overdose of awkward Latinate constructions that may leave readers scratching their head.”
In Partridge’s defense, it should be noted that her enthusiasm for the novel was as vast as her connections to Latin America were tenuous. She is best known as part of the Bloomsbury group (having married Ralph Partridge after Dora Carrington’s ménage with him and Lytton Strachey fell apart) and is remembered mostly for her diaries and memoirs of life in that circle. As a translator, she focused on popular mainstream writers from Spain, such as the novelists Vicente Blasco Ibáñez and Mercedes Ballesteros and the philosopher José Luis López-Aranguren. With someone as inventive and innovative as Asturias, she was clearly in over her head. Whatever possessed her, for example, to translate Pelele, the nickname of the deranged beggar, as “the Zany,” when “the Dummy” would have been a much more appropriate choice?
Unger—who calls that character “the Dimwit”—is much more suited for the daunting task of taking on Asturias and his peculiar vocabulary and frequent shifts of tone. Though he writes in English, he was born in Guatemala, and his own novels, which include Life in the Damn Tropics (2002), The Price of Escape (2011), and The Mastermind (2016), often take place there. Unger has also translated the Popol Vuh and teaches at the City College of New York, including courses on translation. In 2014 he won Guatemala’s top cultural honor, the Miguel Ángel Asturias National Literature Prize, for his body of work. “As a self-proclaimed Guategringo,” he writes that “my work as a translator and fiction writer has been a lifelong attempt to return to my roots, to the land of my birth.”
Unger tells us that his translation of Mr. President aims to
establish, in the American vernacular, the proper relation among words, sentences, and paragraphs so that the author’s startling images, metaphors, and narrative verve may speak directly to the monolingual reader.
For instance, Asturias, perhaps nostalgic in exile for the comforting sensuality of daily life in the tropics, wrote especially beautiful descriptions of both rural landscapes and the sounds and smells of urban life. Unger reproduces these passages magnificently, as at the start of a chapter that portrays the capital stirring to life after a long night:
Daybreak emerged, radiating April’s freshness—outlining roofs and fields with light and bringing the darkened streets back into view. Mules carrying clanking milk cans almost galloped, urged on by the shouts and whips of muleteers. The sunlight reached the cows milked in the entryways of wealthy homeowners and on the street corners where the poor lived. The customers—either energized or about to pass out with sleepy, glassy eyes—waited for milk from their favorite cow, tilting their bottles artfully to get more liquid and less froth. Women carrying fresh bread in baskets passed by, waists twisted, legs stiff, heads sunk into their chests. Their bare feet alternated between steady and slippery steps under the weight of the baskets, piled one on top of the other like pagodas. The fragrance of sweet sesame pastries trailed them.
One of the hallmarks of the novel is the way Asturias mixes these lyrical passages with hallucinatory episodes, some of which draw on Mayan myths. Unger successfully conveys that duality too, as well as the mordantly satirical tone of a chapter called “The President’s Report,” which consists of a series of memos in which ordinary citizens inform on and denounce each other in flat bureaucratic language. Set pieces, such as a vacation trip to the beach the general’s daughter takes with her cousins and a description of a train ride through the jungle, are so vivid that they almost seem to have come from a movie projector.
But Unger has some problems with dialogue. There are passages, especially those involving the president’s henchmen, that sound like exchanges from 1930s gangster films. When a member of the secret police, for instance, disappoints one of his lowlife friends by informing him that the job he wants has gone instead to the boss’s godson, the frustrated office-seeker is told as consolation: “Listen, man, don’t be so down in the mouth over this. I’ll let you know when another cushy job opens up. I swear, on my Mother’s life, something new comes up. There are more jobs than ants in an anthill.” And when the friend remains unsatisfied, the policeman retorts: “Hey, brother, you sure are touchy.”
Also debatable is Unger’s warning that “no contemporary reader of this novel will fail to shudder when encountering slurs against Jews, Arabs, Chinese, indigenous Guatemalans, and gay and transgender people that crop up from time to time.” I confess that I did not even blink, much less shudder, when I read the passages in question, and I am a member of one of the groups being disparaged. The insults are quite tame and indirect compared to what I heard daily on the streets of Chicago growing up, and as Unger acknowledges, they were “rampant during the period Asturias is depicting.” There is really no need to apologize or offer a trigger warning: it would make no more sense to sanitize El Señor Presidente than Huckleberry Finn.
As regards the dialogue, though, the problem may simply be that Mr. President confronts any translator with impossible choices and insoluble challenges. The novel is so full of idiosyncratically Guatemalan words and expressions that even Spanish-language editions come with a glossary of dozens of terms not used elsewhere in Latin America. Additionally, Asturias was trying to capture the flavor of Spanish as it was spoken in his country more than a century ago, during his youth. Imagine, then, the added difficulty of rendering these idioms into English while preserving both tone and multiple meanings.
For example, late in the novel, the unnamed president is drunk and, after he vomits all over his closest adviser, recalls the anger and humiliation he felt as a young attorney working in a “third-rate lawyer’s office, among whores, gamblers,” and what Asturias originally called cholojeras. These are the market women, almost always indigenous, who sell cow, pig, and lamb guts for consumption in soups or the Guatemalan version of chitterlings. Partridge renders this as “offal-sellers,” while Unger prefers “shit-sellers,” although “tripe-peddlers” would be more accurate. But I remember being told by Mayan Guatemalans of my acquaintance that cholojera is also a highly pejorative and often racist term, with almost a caste connotation redolent of India. How to convey all of that in a simple one-word translation?
After Mr. President, Asturias went on to have a distinguished career, both literary and political, serving in the Guatemalan Congress and as a diplomat. In 1949 he published Men of Maize, which Martin considers “even more audacious and visionary” in its blend of Surrealism and indigenous folklore, and during a rare decade of democracy (1944–1954) he was assigned to embassies in Latin America and France. After an American-organized coup put the military back in power, though, Asturias was stripped of his citizenship and forced into exile, where he completed The Banana Trilogy, a cycle of novels about the suffering of indigenous workers on the United Fruit Company’s Guatemalan plantations. He mostly remained abroad and continued to write novels, plays, and poems until his death in Madrid in 1974. In 1967 he became the first Latin American novelist to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
So in spite of Mr. President’s long and difficult road to publication, Asturias ended up achieving critical and commercial success. Yet it is never too late to burnish his reputation. As Martin maintains:
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.
Thanks to Unger’s translation, the anglophone reader can finally be let in on the secret that Latin Americans, especially their literary elite, have always known: El Señor Presidente is a canonical work, doomed to remain timely and topical until the conditions that generated it finally disappear.