Analysis of Augusto Roa Bastos’s I, the Supreme

I, the Supreme is based on the life of Paraguayan dictator José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (1766–1840). Francia came to power in 1811, and in 1814 he designated himself “perpetual dictator.” He ruled Paraguay with a stern hand and violent oppression, assassinating the leader of the opposing party. Although he promoted the Paraguayan Catholic Church, Francia forbade marriage within any group in order to advance the mixture of blood among different races. During his regime, Paraguayan industry and agriculture did well on a national basis, but Francia’s isolationist policy against foreign trade damaged imports and exports and cut off Paraguay from other countries. Francia maintained power in Paraguay until his death in 1840.

Using the prototype of the real-life Francia, Augusto Roa Bastos (1917–2005) created one of the greatest fi ctional characters and works in Latin American narratives. In showing how a dictator tries to bend his country to his own will, the text covers different aspects of Paraguayan life: politics, economy, society, religion, diplomacy, culture, historical events, and daily life. The stories in this novel are derived from various sources, including Francia’s own diary; records of his speeches and conversations with his secretary; observations of his life from an omnipresent narrator; and notes and quotations from a “compiler,” who uses library resources such as books, journals and government and personal documents to explain the personal life of the dictator and his ambitions to “save” Paraguay. The novel also has an “appendix” in which Paraguayan historians in a national conference discuss how to recollect the remains of the “supreme dictator.”

The structure of I, the Supreme is loose compared to traditional Western narratives. The author uses multiple times and spaces to illustrate the dictator’s life. For example, Francia exists in two time frames; in one, he reigns over his country during his lifetime, while in the other he continues to observe the fate of his nation in the hundred years following his death. In this second, post-death time, he criticizes the treaty Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay signed against Paraguay in 1865; the Chaco war with Bolivia from 1932 to 1935; and the growing infl uence of the United States in South America in the 20th century. The “compiler” of Francia’s documents lives in a historical time following his tracing of information from the dictator’s contemporaries. The narration of Francia’s dying experience uses a normal time as in human life.

The author uses realistic time in narrating historical events. Francia’s monologue is supported by a plethora of stream of consciousness, comments that introduce the reader to various aspects of and events in Paraguyan history, especially after his death, when his soul is freed from time restraints. The compiler inhabits an independent space from which he can launch criticism toward the dictator. There erupts a confrontation between the dictator’s discourse and the documents collected by the compiler, and this directs the narrative toward multiple genres such as bibliography, history, and fi ction. There is also a discussion about dictatorship as a recurrent phenomenon in Latin America from the 19th to the 20th century. Francia desired a dictatorship and absolute power. All the events in the narrative are related to the activities of Francia and are connected by his stream of consciousness. The nine political reports written by the dictator also serve as a major thread in the narrative, in which the dictator provides detailed analysis of Paraguay’s social political situations, and the danger of invasions from Argentina and Brazil, which want to absorb Paraguay into their own territory. These reports also include the dictator’s belief in saving his country from foreign invasion by policies of isolation, by constructing fortresses along the borders, and by war.

This novel provides a thorough and profound analysis of the dictator’s personality. Francia is a complicated character. He has worked as a professor and has avidly followed the French Revolution (as a result of which he adds Francia to his last name. He is also a cold-blooded politician—not a hero like Simón Bolivar or Antonio José de Sucre, but rather a legendary fi gure with twisted characteristics. He is a person representing Paraguay’s collective will, a paradox of morality and viciousness, a giant and a dwarf to his enemies.

Like other dictators in Latin American history, Francia lives in profound loneliness, isolated from the rest of the world, and only hears his own voice. In the novel, he reads Rousseau and Voltaire and particularly admires Napoleon. As a ruler, he has carried out his mission of defending his country’s freedom and independence, although at great cost in terms of of life and property. He is also merciless against his political enemies and lacks a sense of justice. Since the early stage of his rule, most of the noble families, religious leaders, and high-ranking military offi cers have stood against him; meanwhile, he has gained strong support from the lower classes. He tries to realize the grand ideas of the French Enlightenment in his country, but unfortunately foreign threats and territory crises never allow him a chance to complete these reforms.

The novel’s narrative is marked by techniques of magical realism. Francia’s monologues after his death strengthen the image of a dictator who is lost in his own absolute power and tends to identify himself as the nation. The narrative also contains many magical scenes—for instance, when the dictator and his general make their horses fl y through the clouds, and when the rebels (who have been murdered by the dictator) show up in a march, displaying wounds that are as shiny as the medals on their chests.

Roa Bastos reported that he studied piles of documents before writing I, the Supreme. He considered this novel a collective book rather than an individual story, as he worked with multiple historical and biographical clues, rewrote the stories, and reordered the times. The whole book is like a huge game of varying times and perspectives. The author’s narrative techniques strengthen his power of expression and criticism, transforming Francia from a historical and legendary fi gure into a fi ctitious one.

Celballos, René. Der transversalhistorische Roman in Lateninamerika: Am Beispiel von Augusto Roa Bastos, Gabriel Garcia Marquez und Abel Posse. Frankfurt: Vervuert, 2005.
Foster, David W. Augusto Roa Bastos. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.
Tovar, Paco. Augusto Roa Bastos. Lleida: Pagès Editors, 1993.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis

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