Analysis of Miguel Ángel Asturias Rosales’s The President

The most popular novel by Nobel Prize winner Miguel Ángel Asturias Rosales (1899–1974), The President is a classic of Latin American literature. The novel examines the political phenomenon of dictatorship by exploring the ways in which authoritarian regimes oppress subjects psychologically and undermine natural human relationships, turning them into grotesque caricatures. Inspiration for the novel came from Asturias’s personal experience living under the dictatorship of Manuel Estrada Cabrera in his native Guatemala at the turn of the 20th century. Although many critics point to Guatemala as the setting of this work, Asturias never mentions his native country directly. By not doing so, Asturias’s work transcends temporality and geography and is afforded more freedom to explore the universal roots of violence and oppression characteristic of all dictatorships.

The novel begins with the murder of a high-ranking military offi cer, Colonel Parrales Sonriente, at the hands of a mentally disturbed beggar named Zany. This early event in the novel sets the rest of the plot in motion. Upon hearing of the death of his beloved Colonel, the President (who is always referred to as simply that) decides to use the murder as a pretext to eliminate two men he considers enemies of the government, General Canales and Licenciado Carvajal. Both have done little or nothing to challenge the President’s authority concretely and are horrifi ed when they learn that they stand accused of murder. The extreme action that the President must take in the face of even the smallest hint of opposition is emblematic of the tenuous state of his rule. To maintain power he must resort to extreme forms of violence to keep the population in a constant state of fear.

The President’s decision to eliminate these men ushers in the main character of the novel, Miguel Cara de Angel (Angel Face), described as the President’s favorite. He is responsible for carrying out the President’s more important dirty work. Angel Face is sent to the home of General Canales to warn him of the impending charges against him and to advise him to fl ee the country. By getting the General to leave the country, the President’s secret police will then be able to execute him on the grounds that he was attempting to escape, a tacit admission of guilt.

This episode signals the beginning of the fall of Angel Face from the President’s favor, which in the world of the novel is equated with certain death. Contrary to the original plan, the General successfully escapes, although he is later poisoned outside of the country while trying to plan a revolution. Angel Face also begins to fall in love with the General’s daughter, Camila. The love that begins to develop within Angel Face sparks a moral change that puts him at odds with the President’s violent agenda. When Camila becomes ill, Angel Face begins to do what he considers “good works” for others in her name in hopes of aiding her recovery. He saves the life of Major Farfan, a man who has fallen out of the President’s favor, by instructing him in what he must do to appease the tyrant. When Angel Face’s works of charity fail to produce any change in Camila’s grave condition, he marries her on the advice of a spiritualist. Her condition immediately improves, but the marriage is a death sentence for Angel Face. He has married the daughter of the President’s enemy without asking consent. His end is immediately set in motion.

The trap for Angel Face is prepared and he is arrested for conspiring against the government by none other than Major Farfan, the man he had saved from the President’s wrath earlier in the novel. Faced with the man he had once rescued from death, Angel Face feels relieved, believing the favor might be returned. Instead, Major Farfan brutally beats him and throws Angel Face into the underground cell that will be his home for the rest of his life. Camila, completely unaware of the fate that has befallen her husband, eventually moves to the country to raise the couple’s son, Miguel.

Although the character of the President is key to the unfolding of the plot, he rarely speaks or appears in the novel. Instead, his presence is felt ubiquitously in every aspect of the work, robbing all characters of personal autonomy. All actions and relationships are mediated through him. It is when Angel Face attempts to assert himself as an individual and work outside the President’s sphere of infl uence that he is struck down. In the world of the novel, free will is treason and ultimately punished with death. The will of the President is supreme and must be reckoned with to survive. This situation creates a world in which human interaction is rendered grotesque. People spy on each other to procure a favor from the President or to be in his good graces.

The sense of desperation created by the loss of freedom and deterioration of human relations that permeates the novel is further dramatized by Asturias’s use of both surrealism and magical realism, two literary styles that he employed a great deal throughout his work. Within the context of The President, examples of both techniques are the most prevalent in the many dream sequences that fi ll the book. These dreams refl ect the psychological effects of dictatorship on the subconscious. Masterfully, Asturias allows these dream sequences to seep into the reality of the plot, blurring the line between what is actually happening and the subconscious of the character. This brilliant juxtaposition reinforces one of the main themes of the novel—living under a dictatorship is an ongoing nightmare that plagues the oppressed population mentally and physically.

The impact of The President on Latin American literature is substantial. Before its publication, most political novels produced by Latin American writers utilized realist techniques to convey their messages. The linguistic vitality of Asturias’s prose combined with his stunning use of surrealism and magical realism revolutionized the Latin American novel and helped usher in the Latin American “boom” of experimental literature that began in the 1960s.

BIBLIOGRAPHY Callan, Richard J. Miguel Angel Asturias. New York: Twayne, 1970. Franco, Jean. An Introduction to Spanish American Literature. 3rd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Martin, Gerald. “Miguel Angel Asturias: El señor presidente.” Edited by Philip Swanson. Landmarks in Modern Latin American Fiction. London: Routledge, 1990. Prieto, René. Miguel Angel Asturias’s Archeology of Return. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Categories: Latin American Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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