Literature and Revolution

-by Fernando Alegria-

translated by D. Ohmans
(c) copyright 1997

Text imprint - Mexico City, Fondo de Cultura Economica, (c1970)

                           Table of Contents

       I.    Literature and Revolution
       II.   Portrait and Self portrait:
             The Hispano-american Novel Confronted with Society
       III.  "Der Zauberberg" in the Literature of Latin America
       IV.   Miguel Angel Asturias, Novelist of the Old and the
             New Worlds
       V.    Alejo Carpentier:  Magic Realism
       VI.   Rayuela:  or, Order out of Chaos
       VII.  Cesar Vallejo:  The Mestizo Masks
       VIII. Parra anti Parra
       IX.   Anti-literature
       X.    Antipoetry

Chapter 4 - Miguel Angel Asturias, Novelist of the Old and the New Worlds

     It is a strange city in which Miguel Angel Asturias forges the material of
his stories and poetry: a city which glows like a network about his head, a
band of mountains and, above, a halo of celestial air, pure and vibrant. Nailed
to a wall of stone is an incandescent plaque, engraved with his name; and at
his feet, a valley submerged in tremors, in labor, and in blue and crimson
     Asturias wrote in "Leyendas de Guatemala":

     It is a city consisting of superimposed buried
     cities, like the floors of a building. Story upon
     story. City upon city.... Within this towering city
     the ancient cities are preserved intact. Through the
     stairwells dream images rise without leaving tracks,
     soundlessly. Behind one door or another the
     centuries differ. Memory gains the stairway that
     leads to the Spanish cities. Every so often above
     the stairs there is an opening, in the narrowest
     part of the spiral; windows hidden in the shade, or
     passageways formed from the substance of the walls,
     like those that connect to the chapels in the
     Catholic churches. The passageways allow one to see
     other cities. Memory is a blind woman groping to
     find the road. We go up the stairs to a city of the
     heights: Xibalba, Tulan, mythological cities,
     distant, dressed in snow. Iximache, on whose emblem
     the captive eagle crowns the sign of
     the Cakchiquelean gentry. Utatlan, city of fiefs.
     And Atitlan, balcony enclosed in a rock over a blue

     Ascending and descending, from floor to floor, from city to city, from era
to era, in the wide dark suit of the Guatemalan man, hands extended, dispensing
herbs and partitioning the vital mummies of gods turned to trees, his face
plain and decisive like a machete blade, sculpted nose, Asturias for years has
sought the umbilical cord which explains that phantastic edifice. Lost, at
times, in the subterranean penumbra, he advances along the stone corridor that
leads to the funereal lake of the Mayas and finds himself in the midst of
loquacious princes and priests, warriors and maidens, dancers and poets, foxes
and sculptors, jaguars and engineers, musicians and rams, boars and painters,
all crowded into his realm, and he observes and comments upon the evolution of
the static world toward its supernatural activity. With his foot he uncovers
the ears, the noses, the fingers and hearts of distinguished Spanish noblemen,
quartered in afternoons, notices the signs on the walls, distinguishes between
the code of Amatle and its spurious colonial translation. He recovers the
statistics of the Office of Commerce from the fiscal coffers to arrive,
finally, at the equation between bananas, the railroad, the jeep and the
hundred-year lease.
     He began his task around 1930, in other words, at the age of 31. He
started with the last level of the buried cities, without imagining, perhaps,
that over the years his literary work would come to constitute an ascent from
the subterranean Mayas and the primitive subconscious, to the conscious
validation of his nation's destiny in the modern epoch. His first book,
Leyendas de Guatemala, is a lovely and balanced poetic exercise evoking a
characteristic region of Central America. In the prologue to a French
translation, Paul Valery said of the legends:

     To me this work had the effect of a filter, for it
     is something that one drinks more than reads. It was
     also for me like a tropical nightmare, experienced
     with a singular delight.(2)

     The cities, "sonorous like open seas," are: Guatemala City, Palenque,
Copan, Quiricua, Tikal, Antigua; and the legends: that of the Volcano, that of
the Cadejan, that of Tatuana, that of the Sombreron and that of a Treasure
Among the Flowers. In this book there is a controlled purity of tropical
fantasy. Asturias works like a goldsmith educated in Spanish and French
academies, for whom the indigenous content, without being entirely exotic is
still, not intimate. From his fingers flows a fine filigree, always on the
point of breaking into a tangle, but subject to time, arranged in a brilliant
design, with cursory touches of provincialism, which however do not destroy the
magic of the rustic filter to which Valery alluded. Improvisationally, the
purposive voice is interrupted and from the lowered eyes of the poet the
surroundings fall like ripe fruit:

     Clouds, sky, plum trees.... Not a soul in the
     languor of the road. From time to time, the quick
     passage of flights of Sunday parakeets moderating
     the silence. The day was exhaled from the nostrils
     of the steers, pale, hot, perfumed.(3)

     In this tranquil and luminous book is foreshadowed, nevertheless, a clash
of cultures that, later, will cause a conflagration. The region itself is,
sometimes, the nostalgic vocation of the student of Central America suspended
in the courts of Europe: a thing of magnolias in bloom, of mangoes and gourds,
of mother-cacao and of yucca. A smooth tropical provincialism, yet urbane as
well as lyrical. A sort of Azorin with a Quetzal icon upon his shoulder. On
another page, a Chateaubriand-like romanticism is expressed with torpid

     The tropical air removes the leaves of the
     undefinable felicity of love's kisses. Balsams which
     liquefy. Steamy mouths, wide against temperance.
     Warm waters where slumber the lizards over their
     virgin females.(4)

     And elsewhere Asturias is a modernist, weighed down by weight of gold and
silver coins of exotic Ruben's decadence:

     In the city of Copan the king changes his livestock
     from leather to silver in the palace gardens. The
     royal shoulder exhibits the displayed feather of a
     peacock. Against his chest bags hold magic shells,
     knit in with gold threads. His wrists show
     bracelets of polished cane competitive with first
     class marble. His bandanna crown has for insignia
     the loose feather of a hawk. In romantic awareness
     the king smokes his tobacco in a bamboo hut.(5)

     The reader of these legends has a presentiment of an incomplete
elaboration. Asturias is satisfied neither with the folkloric mystification
pertaining to his land, nor with the symbolist manipulations in fashion in
France. He fluctuates between the two currents without yet discovering the
orientation that is to guide him later in his re-conquest of the Mayan world.
He has read Popol-Vuh, naturally, and he knows best of all the work by Georges
Raynaud, "The Gods, the Heroes and the Men of Guatemala" which he himself
translated into Spanish in collaboration with J. M. Gonzalez of Mendoza. He has
studied the indigenous religions and myths of the Americas at the Sorbonne,
between the years 1923 and 1926; and there, surely, he consolidated his
knowledge of the historical literature of the Conquest and the Colonization.
His explication of narcissism in the glossary of "Leyendas de Guatemala" is
taken from the Tratado de las Supersticiones de los Naturales de Nueva Espana
by Ruiz de Alarcon, a work dating from 1629; and in this glossary he also cites
the "Recordacion Florida" or the captain Francisco Antonio de Fuentes y Guzman
(Discurso Historico, Natural, Material, Militar y Politico del
Reyno de Goathemala, 1690).
     Of all these sources, the Popol-Vuh is certainly the  most important. From
the sacred book of the Quiches' Asturias is inspired, for example, to write the
speech inserted in his chapter, "Ahora que Me Acuerdo" (now that I remember),
in which the first men, upon seeing the sunrise, plead to the gods for a fecund
line of descent. Asturias' paraphrase is, in reality, a synthesis of two
Traditions from Popol-Vuh: the seventh and the eleventh. The legend of the tree
that grows indefinitely with humans in its branches--parent of Jack and the
beanstalk--is found in the fourth Tradition of the Popol-Vuh, and Asturias
alludes to it in his story of the tree that walks (p.167). It is the same with
the trees that bleed (p.55), the dance of delights (p.56), the four roads that
"cross before Xibalba" (p.58), the rebellion of the rocks, the waters and the
air (p.82), which all are allusions to the mythology of the Popol-Vuh.
     The poetic imagination of Asturias operates with a happy appreciation of
its powers, with a consciousness of itself which, at its height, makes us think
of a snake about to bite its own tail. It should not be forgotten that in his
elaboration of this mythological material Asturias still accepts a schedule of
conventional values. Only a poet like Valery could sense the presence of a
frenetically primitive world at the bottom of the legends. The reader
accustomed to exotic modernism--the heir of romantic pseudo-indianism--could
well see in Asturias' legends a picturesque and inoffensive evocation of inert
material. The perception of Valery as much as the optical illusion of the
reader are both the result of real phenomena, and, partially explain the
contradiction in which Asturias is moved to write his Leyendas de Guatemala.
     Between the publication of this firstborn work and his novel "El Senor
Presidente" there is a lapse of 16 years. But the dates, it is clear, are
deceptive, because judging from Asturias' own testimony, the novel appeared 15
years after having been written. In any case, if not on a temporal plane, at
least in a literary sense, a profound upheaval has taken place in Asturias, an
upheaval that ends finally his lyrical celebration of Mayan motifs and his
refined stylization of Central American regions. A heavy hand all at once
overthrows the altar to the gods and fouls the Guatemalan morning with the
steam of blood and waste. Asturias returned from Europe to Guatemala in 1937.
He who had lived his infancy under the tyranny of Estrada Cabrera returns to
the dictatorship of Ubico. "El Senor Presidente" is already written. Nothing
remains but to re-enact the fable. Ubico will fall; once again the writer will
return to his country, will be honored by the democratic government of Arevalo
and Arbenz and his People will acclaim him with the old accent of the legends
and the new voice of liberty; and he will depart again into exile because the
fable insists on repeating itself. "El Senor Presidente" could have been
written in any of these three conditions. It developed in the characteristic
ambiance of the Hispano-american tyrannies, and was nurtured with anecdotes,
rebellions, uprootings, bitter injustices, impotence and hope, but, above all,
with an emotion that, as the leitmotif of the novel, is new to Latin American
literature: that of fear. Despotic cruelty and ignorance was given us by
Sarmiento in his Facundo; political ferocity bordering on the bestial,
Echeverria in El Matadero; thrusts of cape and sword, Marmol in Amalia;
Asturias creates in "El Senor Presidente" the epic of fear and impotence, the
X-ray of the Spanish nation caught on the cross of treason, of hypocrisy and of
opportunism. Let us hear him explain the origin of his novel:

     More than a written novel, "El Senor Presidente" was
     a spoken novel. In Paris we would gather a group of
     Central American friends to relate anecdotes about
     our respective homes, which in that era lived
     beneath similar dictatorships. Each would contribute
     from his own experience or that of an acquaintance.
     For my part I recited my own time of infancy under
     the dictatorship of Estrada Cabrera. The fear that
     it communicates to a child passed to the book. This
     not as a literary formula, but as something
     psychological. The novel is not in fact, as many
     have thought, a biography of Estrada Cabrera, but
     the symbol of any dictator, common to all the
     nations. The illness was the same, but the ill
     varied. Thereby, "El Senor Presidente" has application
     to all of the Latin American countries. It is a sort
     of compendium ... of a dictator.(6)

     In an interview published by the "Repertorio Americano" he adds other,
equally significant details:

     The novel was written without a pre-determined
     literary plan. The chapters emerged one following
     after the other, as if they were tied in obedience
     to an internal world of which I was the mere
     expositor. When I finished it I saw that I had
     brought to the book--not by means of known literary
     methods, of those that can be didactically
     expressed, but rather by that obedience to the
     impositions of an internal world, as I said
     before--the realism of an Hispano-american nation,
     in this case my own, as if submission to it was
     like that to the will of a man....
     During the age of the dictatorship to which the book
     refers I was a kid, an adolescent and during it I
     reached the first youth. That is why I think that,
     without having taken part in any of the events,
     there filtered through my skin the sense of fear, of
     insecurity, of earthly panic that breathes through
     the work.(7)

     In these declarations Asturias suggests certain elements of a literary
creed that explains, not only "El Senor Presidente," but also the novelistic
trilogy about exploitation in bananas that was to begin publication in 1949
with Viento Fuerte. We shall let Asturias define his own points of view:

     In a work to be realized in Latin America, say, the
     writer should look for, out of preference, the Latin
     American theme and bring it to his literary work
     with local language. This language is not simply
     the use of dialect. It is the interpretation that
     the people of the street make of the living reality,
     from their traditions to their popular aspirations.

     Confronted with a Europeanized literature, the
     hemispheric writer, of poetry or prose, must take
     an attitude in favor of the growth of an indigenous
     literature. Such a literature has been
     systematically negated, but that negation has no
     value now that the Latin American influence has long
     tended toward those works from the native tradition
     as much as the Hispanic of the colonial epoch.

     The Hispano-american themes should be extrapolated
     to the universal. But only that can be
     universalized which has a deep root in the land

     I divide, to distinguish values, writers into those
     we would call precious, who form one group, and
     those who have a marked tendency toward the social.
     The latter originated a literature of the Americas
     that slapped back the lyrical to place ahead of it
     the problems of the Continent. Representatives are
     well known: Martin Luis Guzman, Mariano Azuela,
     Romulo Gallegos, Jose Eustasio Rivera, Jorge Icaza.

     This social literature, it should be clearly
     understood, is very essentially Latin American. Its
     appearance in this century is no more than the
     re-appearance of a current that stems from long ago.
     The indians, to whom the friars taught the Latin
     characters, wrote their first works with a markedly
     social cast, denouncing in them the fact that they
     were victimized by the Conquistadores. Among these
     works can be cited the books named the Chilan-Balam
     which appeared in different sites of the Mayan
     geographical area, and in which there sounds the
     complaint of the primitive, trampled and oppressed
     by the imperialism that forces him to a slave's
     condition. Many works of this literature
     disappeared, but its remaining vestiges demonstrate
     that, as a reaction of the indigenous wise man to
     the barbarism of the conquest, there was born a
     sub-American literature of a social tendency.

     The centuries pass; the literature of the Colonies
     runs in Spanish American channels, but from then on
     examples of that native literature appear that are
     concerned with problems of social order. And when
     new imperialist forms dominate the sources of South
     America's riches, democratically enslaving the farm
     laborer and the worker, there emerge the books so
     scandalous for their crudity....

     Nevertheless, it must be noted that this new
     literature that denounces deeds and reveals injuries
     does not lead to hopelessness, nor participates at
     all in pessimism. On the contrary; throughout these
     heroic works one can see the hope for the Americas
     to be more autonomous, and, to that extent,

     These declarations, made in 1950, are re-affirmed in

     The writer today has returned to a consciousness of
     his Latin America, like in the years between 1800
     and 1830, when the pen and the sword became weapons
     of liberty. Now the combat is about economic
     liberty. And the Latin American writer is there,
     singing and telling as with the great poetry of
     other times. From the rhapsodies of the Popol-Vuh to
     the lyrics of the patriotic hymns, the authentic
     poets of Latin America tell more than sing (Neruda
     in his Cuento General, which he calls Canto) and
     the novelists find themes in the gum
     exploitation,the pit of the mine, the exploitation
     of the indian, the plantations of rubber, bananas,
     sugar, the usurers, the quacks, the oil fields. And
     once again, as in the days of the political
     emancipation, the indian, the mestizo, the black,
     the mulatto, the cripple, facing this way and that,
     appear in the pages of this struggle in the midst of
     Latin America's night, because in much of the
     Americas it is still night-time.(9)

     Asturias has preferred not to attempt a strict definition of the aesthetic
phenomenon to which his concept of South-Americanism alludes. His social
realism, considering his declarations, is not optimist. This is perhaps
due to the fact that in his novels, in El Senor Presidente in particular, he
does not transcend the limits of an objective representation of a bad politics;
nor does he offer a definition of this ill itself and, for that matter,
proposes no solution whatsoever that could energize his work from a
revolutionary dynamism. Furthermore, this analytical position saves him from
the defects that are common in purely propagandistic literature. "El Senor
Presidente" is not a libel; it could have been one and its literary merit, a
distinct naturalness, would not have been less. Its significance rests in the
artistic elaboration that the author should have carried to its conclusion to
incarnate a symbol supported by a reality in itself no more than local
phenomenon. That the model for the anti-hero should have been Estrada Cabrera
carries an importance from a literary point of view. The book is a deed that
the historian and the sociologist record, but in the terrain of art it is only
tangential. The critic is detained, sometimes, in the biographic game and I
suppose that he will not lack keys to identify characters such as the General,
Channels, Angel Face, the Auditor of War and some others. I think one can
agree that those characters live on three planes: they can represent true
figures of the politics of a time, they can be considered prototypes, and
finally they can assume the complex and mysterious sense of archetypes which do
not lose, at root, their dramatic humanity. They only interest me in this last
     The creatures of Asturias move laboriously toward obtaining a destiny that
they cannot carry out except by means of the mythological transfiguration. In
life, they are tormented by the diabolical fatality of the lost souls of
Dostoevsky. The good, that is to say, the victims, are touched with the divine
grace, also Dostoevskian, that walks with the poor in spirit. The victims have
the auras of saints, be it in the form of a bloody crown or in the form of a
noose, the rope of the Mayan hanging which leads from the tree to paradise.
People like the idiot named Pelele, like Mazacuata, Angel Face, Vazquez and
the numerous prostitutes and chain gang laborers, are beings primitive to a
degree that Asturias seems to see essential and basic, the indispensable
condition of salvation in a metaphysical sense. On this plane his terrors, his
angers, his shortcomings and his animal cruelty are explained and resolved.
     How can one ever forget sir Benito Perez Galdos before that bunch of foul
beggars at the portals of the Guatemalan cathedral? The same spiritual lack
consumes the souls of the abandoned ones in Asturias and of the sad hobos in a
story like Misericordia, for example. But if neither Perez Galdos nor
Dostoevsky were those major saints, hidden between shadows and vulgar altars,
even if Asturias, alone and surprised in the court of miracles of his homeland,
should seem to discover a Christian wound in Guatemala's indian body, his
literary world and the feeling that it generates are, at this stage of his
work, a Latin American flowering of the dense revolutionary awakening of a
Europe torn by economic contradictions and the immense political errors which
de-railed the second half of the 19th century.
     In this fact lies much of the universal significance of a novel like "El
Senor Presidente." Our Americas represent in such a case a kind of caricature
of European social organization and disorganization. The details become
enormous; despotism turns into sadism, the wear on public conveniences to
vandalism, the misery of the lower classes to virulent physical and moral
degeneration. The gilded table of values of the bourgeois society suffers a
grotesque distortion. The fine things are confused with the discards, a false
aristocracy pretends to erect rich walls at the sides of the privileged city,
but in each wall a huge hole opens where the rat lurks with disease on his
teeth. Society loses the notion of its rights and duties. Controlled by terror,
men cease to recognize their family ties and flee from social responsibility.
"El Senor Presidente" becomes a rat dressed in black, with banded hat, gloves
and baton, a messianic rat, decorated, entertained, deified, perpetuated in
names of cities, in effigies on coins, in monuments and buildings; a rat who
nibbles with impunity at the morale of homes as much as the honor of
international conventions. The man, buried alive in an underground cave,
perishes slowly to the odor of his body's disintegration while delivering his
soul to the minor demons.
     Overflowing with words, melodramatic, at times ingenuous, with the
ingenuousness of Dickens in certain strange coincidences, Asturias produces a
human document that is also one of the novels of the greatest artistic
integrity that has been written in Central America. Rafael Arevalo Martinez
prepared the road for him alone, that track of unchecked fantasy and
nightmarish realism that the author feels like a wound in his own flesh, with
the perspective of a European culture and the intuition of a Mayan eye.
Asturias found one further element, which the modernists seem to disdain: the
consciousness of nationality and a revolutionary political conscience.
     In his next work, this consciousness of nationality will become
identification with the mythological world of the Mayas and political duty, his
denunciation of imperialism. Firmly rooted in this historical duality--the
pre-Columbian and the present-day Guatemalan--Asturias enters the fascinating
world of the "Hombres de Maiz" (1949). This novel is, to my judgment, his most
ambitious work, although not the best realized; a story or, better said,
symphonic prose poem, of complex structure, difficult style, laden with
symbols, subject to varied and contradictory interpretations. No one that I
know of had submitted this book to a critical and systematic analysis before
1957.(10) My interpretation, then, was based upon a logical and chronological
re-organization of the principal elements of the plot and on an explication of
the most important legends. Asturias himself has defined the fundamental theme
of Hombres de Maiz:

     Its inspiration, it was said, is the sustained
     struggle between the indian of the country who
     understands that corn should be planted only for
     food, and the half-breed who plants it for business,
     burning precious stands of woods and impoverishing
     the earth to enrich himself.(11)

     That statement, so simple and so clear, was picked up with enthusiasm by
the editors who reproduced it on the book jacket and from there the critics
took it and repeated it to exhaustion. Unfortunately, the statement does not
disentangle the mystery of "Hombres de Maiz" and it points to only one aspect
among many that Asturias handles in his novel.
     In the chronological scheme of the novel the reader finds five central
occurrences and a sort of epilogue. Around these occurrences Asturias builds
the argument of his story without apparent logic, nearing their orbit and
distancing himself from it, this being in harmonious circles or in daring
evocations and visions. Such occurrences and the circumstantial world that
surrounds them are like dolls within other dolls. They must be peeled like a
banana before the other can approach their ironical smile. Here is a summary of
those episodes:
     1) The tale of Gaspar Ilom and the battle between the indians and the
professional growers. Gaspar, the leader, is victim of an attempt on his life,
and is miraculously saved, cured by the river waters. His success is ephemeral:
surrounded by traitors, like Cow Manuela Machojon and her husband, and by the
police riding at the request of colonel Chalo Godoy, he sees his forces
liquidated and plunges into the river to drown. The details of this occurrence
are sporadically given throughout the novel.(12) Certain details indicate to us
that this part of the work occurs at the beginnings of this century.
     2) The legend of Machojon, the Macho or sir Macho, son of sir Tomes
Machojon, the traitor, and stepson of Cow Manuela. Machojon goes in search of
his darling and disappears on the road wrapped in a blanket of lights, a
metaphor that in the esoteric language of Asturias seems to indicate corncob
lanterns on a llama. The rumor circulates that Machojon has been converted to
a spirit that, resplendent from head to toe, emerges when the corncobs are
ignited. Sir Tomes tries to verify the legend and goes out one night to burn
the dry cobs. He ends hanging among the llamas, like a re-incarnation of the
ghost of his son. The conflagration is uncontrollable. In the midst of a
bestial fight the growers fall.
     3) Legend of the Tecunes and their vengeance against the Zacaton family.
This revenge is narrated from a mythological point of view and involves several
metamorphoses. The Tecunes do away too with colonel Godoy, whose fate at the
firing squad was pre-destined. There are two elaborations of the same event in
the novel; the second, two years after the occurrences took place.(13)
     4) The legend of the Blind Goyo Yic and his woman, Maria Tecun, who
abandons him. Similarly, this story is turned into myth.(14) To search for his
wife, Goyo submits to a drastic operation by means of which he regains his
sight. The cure serves him poorly, because, how is he to recognize Maria Tecun
if he has never seen her? Looking for the voice or the touch of the woman he
moves along the roads like a walking merchant. He associates with Mingo Revolt
to smuggle alcohol. On the trip they sell each other all the merchandise and,
drunk, come to a stop at the jail.
     5) The legend of Correo-Coyote: a sort of variant of the legend of Maria
Tecun and the clearest example in the novel of animistic metamorphosis. Now it
is Nicho Aquino, the courier, who loses his lady. During the search in the
mountain and the approaches, they run across Hilario Sacayon, who the people of
the town are looking for, but they believe that he can be found in the form of
a coyote, his projection. This same Hilario brings another legend to mind: that
of the cares of Miguelita de Acatan with the gringo O'Neill, a time in which
Asturias draws the North-American dramatist Eugene O'Neill in the see of his
travels about Latin America as a sales agent of the sewing machine company,
Singer.(15) Pursuing the adventures of Nicho Aquino we arrive at Xibalba, the
subterranean world of the Popol-Vuh, where all the moments of history are
explained as in a sort of final synthesis.
     The epilogue could be the occurrence of the Castle of the Port, a prison
in which there is occurring a reunion of the principal characters who stayed to
add up the account and tie down the loose ends that still could intrigue the
reader. It is therein where Goyo Yic finally finds Maria Tecun.
     This structure does not affect anything, we suppose, except the anecdotal
meanings of Asturias' book. On a deeper plane, "Hombres de Maiz" represents a
classic attempt to give artistic form to that magic world of the Popol-Vuh
which yet lives in the subconscious of the field population of Guatemala. In
this novel Asturias has discarded the system of intellectual defense that is
the principal organizer of "Leyendas de Guatemala" and he enters the
mythological world of his forebears looking for his own identity. He
writes from a collective subconscious and consciousness to relate myth
literally, and to testify against social injustice with the shout of protest of
the abandoned, without making use of theorizing.
     Thus do the great themes of his work emerge: animistic narcissism, the
sacred corn rituals, vengeance, affection and mortality. I have already said:
his creatures are nothing except in the mythological metamorphosis; and in the
final transformation of their extinction they realize their destiny. That
explains the fatality that the story in "Hombres de Maiz" is never resolved
until Xibalba. Every being, incarnated in his imagery, understands, in the end,
the superior design of his actions. Sprung from corn--seventh Tradition of
Popol-Vuh--he defends with his blood the sacred concept of its culture.
Obsessed by the religious impulse to avenge the fall of the chief, they
assassinate, unloosing a chain of men and transmogrifications. When the witch
doctor in the first episode falls, his double the ram also does; and when the
coyote perishes so does Nicho Aquino. The man loses the corn simultaneous with
his abandonment by the woman; and the woman, in turn, changes to stone, like
the gods were turned to stone when the sun was born (seventh Tradition of the
Popol-Vuh). Asturias seems to be saying, with D. H. Lawrence, that no man is
complete until he finds harmony with nature and woman. No legend better
illustrates the truth hidden in the mythological world to which Asturias refers
than that of Maria Tecun: the one who loses her is blind, who upon regaining
sight lives searching for something that he could only see without eyes.
     Asturias does not hide the keys that will aid comprehension of his book.
To illustrate the mythological process he says:

     The gods disappeared, but the legends remained, and
     they, like them, require sacrifices; gone are the
     obsidian knives to tear the heart from the chest of
     the sacrificed, but there remain the knives of
     absence that wound and madden.(16)

     And elsewhere he adds:

     One of ten thinks he has invented what others have
     forgotten. When one tells such a story, he says, I
     invented it, it is mine, this is mine. But what one
     is really doing is remembering - you remembered in
     your drunkenness what the memories of your ancestors
     left in your blood, because take into account that
     you form a part not only of Hilario Sacayon, but
     rather of all the Sacayons that have existed, and on
     the side of your maternal lady, the Arriazas,
     people who were in all of these places.... In your
     background was the history of Miguelita de Acatan,
     just like in a book, and there your eyes read of it,
     and you went repeating it with the clapper of your
     drunken tongue, and if it had not been you, it
     would have been another, but someone would have told
     of it so it would not be forgotten, be completely
     lost, because its existence, fictitious or real,
     forms part of life and nature of these parts, and
     life cannot be lost, an eternal risk, but eternally
     it is not lost.(17)

     A careful reader of the Popol-Vuh will uncover new keys that assist in the
interpretation of major and minor symbols, from animism to the use of names
such as, for example, that of the Tacunes which, according to the eleventh
Tradition of Popol-Vuh, occurs in the ancestry of the ninth generation of the
Caguek-Quiches. This peculiarity of the language of Asturias, its multiple and
mono-tonal repetitions, his metaphoric obsession, his apparently rhetorical
figures in which the animal, the plant, the tree and the man are mixed, all
have their root in the sacred Quiches literature.(18)
     Must one accept, then, this book by Asturias as a folkloric document, a
modern flowering of the old Maya civilization? I do not think so. Asturias'
novel is the resultant of a curious pattern of vertical cultures. The
specialists in architecture and baroque sculpture of the Americas can easily
distinguish between two apparently equal themes, but one stemming from the
indian hand and the other by the European hand. Something similar happens with
the baroque of "Hombres de Maiz"; it is a hybrid opulence, of its balance,
pretty but monstrous. Because in all the extension of this poem in prose,
something is left over, poetry is left over, metaphors are, exclamations,
allegories. This dis-economy of ornamentation and content is, nevertheless,
something new in the authentically indianist Latin American literature and in
that is the root of its situation.
     The concept of political duty and national consciousness, basic pillars in
the literary creed of Asturias, have conferred upon his later novels a marked
propagandistic tone. There is no ambiguity whatsoever regarding the social
function that they propose to realize: his trilogy about exploitation in
bananas in Central America has as its object the denunciation of the abuses end
contradictions of a semi-colonial economic organization, and the inspiration
of the Central american republics with a revolutionary dynamism, with political
responsibility and a thorough understanding of a democracy that would produce,
as capstone, their complete liberation from foreign imperialism and from the
opportunism and venality of their local politics. The trilogy consists of:
Viento Fuerte (Guatemala City, 1949), El Papa Verde (Buenos Aires, 1954), and
Los Ojos de los Enterrados (Buenos Aires, 1960).(19) Asturias states:

     The action in the first of these novels, Viento
     Fuerte, concerns the penetration by the fruit
     companies of our Pacific coasts and relates the
     conflict between the small banana planters and the
     huge company that will not buy his products. In El
     Papa Verde, the characters are set on the Atlantic
     coast, amidst the first incursion of United Fruit in
     Guatemala, The conclusion alludes to the company's
     attempt to provoke a dispute between Honduras and
     Guatemala over a question of boundaries that had
     been resolved by arbitration. Los Ojos de los
     Enterrados pursues the same theme, always upon a
     foundation of true events, but with fictional

     Asturias concentrates his anti-imperialist attack on a North American
company that soon becomes a symbol for all foreign economic penetration in
Latin America. He follows its steps from its appearance in the Caribbean zone
up to its political and economic consolidation in today's banana producing
republics. During the era to which Asturias refers in El Papa Verde the company
begins the growth process of its political and economic empire. The hero of the
novel, Geo. Maker Thompson, could depict the captain Lawrence D. Baker, who in
1870 initiated banana traffic between the Caribbean zone and the United States
with a squalid 85-ton freighter. 15 years later he and nine others formed a
consortium with two thousand dollars from each as their capital. After five
years of activity, that is, in 1890, the consortium incorporated and its
capital of 20,000 dollars had increased to 531,000 dollars.
     In 1871, and in another, part of Central America, the brothers Keith,
Henry and Minor Cooper constructed a railroad that cost eight million dollars
and four thousand lives. That railroad was the first line in a complex net of
transport and banana companies that covered the Caribbean like a dense and
tightened spider's web. In 1900 two of the most powerful banana producing
groups joined to form the famous United Fruit Co. At the zenith they
controlled 80 percent of the commerce in fruit. United paid more than five
million dollars to the Boston Fruit Co. for its holdings and around four
million dollars to Keith brothers for theirs. Soon it came to own 112 miles of
railways and more than two hundred thousand acres of land. In 1906 the company
entered Guatemala and in 1912, Honduras. In 1900 its capital was more than 11
million dollars, in 1930 it arrived at about 200 million dollars and by
mid-century it rose to 560 million.
     In the banana trilogy, Asturias describes the problem of the peasant
owners who refuse to sell their lands to the company; the latter refuses to
meet with them and places their demands in government's hands. The drama from
there is matter for tale, of legends; the prose, of statistics. These, the
statistics, show that, in compliance with certain franchises, the government
exchanged between 250 and 500 acres for each five-eighths mile of railroad
constructed by the foreign enterprise. In 1927 Guatemala leased to United Fruit
all the vacant land that it might want along 60 miles of the valley of the
river, Moncagua for a yearly rent of 14,000 dollars. Some of the contracts
signed by the Central American nations with the fruit processing company are
now pieces for the anthology of the history of international right; as for
example the Soto-Keith contract signed 21 April, 1884 in Costa Rica, and the
contracts of 1904, 1930 and 1936 signed by Estrada Cabrera and Ubico in
     Let us look more closely at the novels of bananas. None of them precludes
a strict literary analysis. The theme is ambitious and could have originated a
major anti-imperialist novel. Asturias presents the problem from the Latin
American point of view and, with use of three or four characters, he also
reveals the ideas of an important sector of the financier's world in the United
States. Let us leave the realization that Tropical Platanera, Inc., is a
conventional symbol of all imperialist companies. Let the men who take part in
the drama be considered.
     Lester, the protagonist in Viento Fuerte, is a North American vagabond,
eccentric, visionary, who gathers a group of Guatemalan natives to form a
company that is to compete with the great international consortium. Wherever
Lester and his companions sell the fruit, the Company gives it away. If they
want to transport it there is no railway which will accept it. Lester hurriedly
leaves paying fabulous bonuses with coins of unknown origin. He is a similar
spendthrift in his personal quirks; on a given occasion he pays five thousand
dollars to a ballerina from Iberia whom he disdains. Soon Lester makes a trip
to the U.S. and the author reveals the actual identity of his character: he is
dealing with a millionaire member of the Tropical, who has wished on his own
account to make an investigation of the stealth of the company. So incredible
is the literary effect that the novel, from that viewpoint, loses all
consistency. Lester is the North American caricature. The problem, real and
dramatic as it is, becomes trivialized.
     In the book, El Papa Verde, Asturias attempts a related theme, but from a
new point of view. He brings back the role of the mysterious investigator, now
embodied in the character of the youth Ray Salcedo, whom he makes do as an
archaeologist who is the seducer of the daughter of the American adventurer
Geo. Maker Thompson. He is not more than a variant of Lester. The company is
the same, but now the invasion of Guatemala is beginning there. Its methods are
already familiar ones: rights are violated, the native population is dispersed,
favor is gained with the half-blood opportunists and their terror can triumph.
Geo. Maker symbolizes the power of the imperialist trainer. Asturias shows him
over various epochs, jumping from the anonymity to the fame, from poverty to
good fortune, ruler of prairies and cities, invincible with a machete or with a
contract dollar. To add a new plane to his personality, Asturias delves into
his personal life giving special attention to the character of daughter
Aurelia. The success of the novel depended on the extent to which Asturias
could transform Geo. Maker into a symbolic representation of the sinister
imperialist company without leeching him of his consistency as human. If he
does not achieve this, it is due in fact to a phenomenon of the language: in
none of his anti-imperialist novels does Asturias write in the style that
corresponds to his theme. These novels resemble brilliant easels of a work he
is about to write. Asturias still must use in them the lyrical prose of Hombres
de Maiz. Without the Mayan myths that prose shrinks and ends in verbal
luxuriance. Certain customs are repeated, such that the reader recognizes them
and loses interest in them; for example, to mention an especially dramatic
instance, Asturias feels it necessary to first establish a nebula of metaphor
approximating the matter with indirections and suggestions that, at length and
because of the romantic vocabulary in which he wraps them, lose their effect.
Asturias does not seem to realize that lyric language and the technique of a
magical realism that in "Hombres de Maiz" intensify the profoundest aspects of
history, in his trilogy concerning bananas are dysfunctional. The metaphors
stand by themselves, shorn from the violence from which the metaphors stem.
     Ask why Asturias did not interpret the social movement of his people in
the modern world for the efficacy of his artistic re-creation of the Quiche
world? It was necessary that there be a decisive change in his language, a
change as radical as that which separates "Leyendas de Guatemala" from "El
Senor Presidente." His ideology appeared to be formed, his position was clear;
no one knew the details of the social and economic drama of Central America
better than he did. I think that Asturias, the animus of a Mayan-quiche rite,
worked his miracle where he could stray in the lyrical ambit of a history
nurtured by memories, visions and intuitions, that which Valery called
"filters," and while he moved in regions of the tropics disoriented and
bewitched by his props whose flats came in the weights of a reality
incomprehensible but active, a re-actualized cosmogony.
     His poetic expression--a Surrealism adapted to a regional vision--was
fragmented upon joining contact with the social crisis that had occurred at
mid-century: he bid farewell to several fountains of generosity, those which
awarded him the Nobel Prize in 1967, but had gone on to lose sympathy with him,
remaining stripped amidst his baroque opulence, becoming exotic, when his
destiny was revolutionary being. Possibly, Asturias was closing an oval: he
left in years when the post-modernist retinue was releasing itself from Ruben
and venturing into flight alone, skimming over the land. Something never
dropped from his wings, a tendency to crash, to gild, to shine or, which is the
same, to burn beneath a sun that cares not whether the leather is living, or

1 "Leyendas de Guatemala," Madrid, 1930, pp. 17-18, 31-32.
2 Cf. "Leyendas de Guatemala," Buenos Aires: Pleamar, 1948.
3 "Leyendas de Guatemala," op.cit., p.135.
4 Ibid., p.25.
5 Ibid., p. 23.
6 Interview conducted for the magazine, "Ercilla," Santiago, Chile, on 5
October, 1954.
7 RA, vol.XXX, no.6, 1 March, 1950.
8 "Reps Ame." pp. 82-83.
9 "Ercilla," op. cit.
10 The statement refers to the date on which I presented views on this work:
Eighth Congress of the Instituto Internacional de Literatura Iberoamericana,
August, 1957, San Juan, Puerto Rico.
11 "Reps Ame." op. cit., p.83.
12 Cf. "Hombres de Maiz," Ed. Losada (Lima?) 1949 and in particular the pages
54, 61, 72, 80 and 258.
13 Ibid., pp.210-.
14 Ibid., pp. 148, 191, 153.
15 Ibid., pp.168-170.
16 Ibid., p.184.
17 Ibid., p.188.
18 The bibliography on the Popol-Vuh is extensive; for the student of
literature the book by Raphael Girard will suffice, Le Popol-Vuh, histoire
culturelle des Maya-Quiches, Payot, Paris, 1954.
19 Asturias has announced a fourth volume of the banana cycle: El Bastardo or
Dos Veces Bastardo.
20 "Ercilla," op. cit.
21 Details about these contracts and, incidents to which Asturias refers in
Viento Fuerte and El Papa Verde appear in the work by Ch. Kepner Jr. and J. H.
Soothill, El Imperio del Banano (Mexico City, 1949). One chapter of this book,
especially, that entitled "Los Apuros de los Agricultores Particulares" (the
worries...), constitutes an indispensable reference for the comprehension owed
to these novels. Asturias' point of view with regard to United Fruit Co. had
been taken too by Luis Cardoza y Aragon in La Revolucion Guatemalteca (Mexico
City, 1955).