The dictator novel (Spanish: novela del dictador) is a genre of Latin American literature that challenges the role of the dictator in Latin American society. The theme of caudillismo—the charismatic authoritarian "strongman"—is addressed by examining the relationship between power, dictatorship, and writing, and is used as an allegory for the role of the Latin American writer in society.
Although mostly associated with the Latin American Boom of the 1960s and 1970s, the genre has its roots in Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’s Facundo, published in 1845. An indirect critique of Juan Manuel de Rosas's dictatorial regime through the figure of Juan Facundo Quiroga, Facundo is considered to be the forerunner of the dictator novel, and all subsequent dictator novels have hearkened back to it in some form or other.
To be considered a dictator novel, a book must have strong political themes that draw on historical accounts, while critically examining the power held by an authoritarian figure, thus using the specific to explain the general. While some dictator novels center on a single historical dictator (albeit often in a fictional guise), they do not, for example, analyze the economics, politics, and rule of their regime in the same way that a history book might. Novels of this type include Augusto Roa Bastos’s I, the Supreme, about Paraguay's Dr. Francia, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat, about the Dominican Republic's Rafael Leónidas Trujillo. Alternatively, a purely fictional character may be created to achieve the same end; a montage of different dictators forms the "dictator" in Alejo Carpentier's Reasons of State.
The dictator novel has been extremely influential in the development of a Latin American literary tradition. Many of its authors rejected traditional story-telling techniques and developed a unique style, blurring the distinctions between reader, narrator, plot, characters and the story itself. More importantly, it drew public attention to Latin American authoritarianism and the need for political change.
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Literary critic Roberto González Echevarría argues that the dictator novel is "the most clearly indigenous thematic tradition in Latin American literature," and he traces the development of this theme "as far back as Bernal Díaz del Castillo's and Francisco López de Gómara's accounts of Hernán Cortés's conquest of Mexico." The nineteenth century saw significant literary reflections on political power, though on the whole the dictator novel is associated with the so-called Latin American Boom, a literary movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The Boom began as Latin America became a producer of essays, poetry, and novels linked to many Latin American countries' introspection, as they attempted to define their own identities on the national and continental level. For critic Gerald Martin the dictator novel marks the end of the Boom and even (as he says of Roa Bastos's I, the Supreme), "the end of an entire era in Latin American history, the era which had stretched from Sarmiento's Facundo in 1845." In the 1970s, many of the dictator novels focus on the figure "of the aging dictator, prey to the boredom of a limitless power he is on the verge of losing."
Miguel Ángel Asturias's El Señor Presidente (written in 1933, but not published until 1946) is, in the opinion of critic Gerald Martin, "the first real dictator novel." Other literary treatments of the dictator figure followed, such as Jorge Zalamea's El Gran Burundún Burundá ha muerto, but the genre did not gain impetus until it was reinvented in the political climate of the Cold War, through the Latin American Boom.
The dictator novel came back into fashion in the 1970s, towards the end of the Boom. As Sharon Keefe Ugalde remarks, "the 1970s mark a new stage in the evolution of the Latin American dictator novel, characterized by at least two developments: a change in the perspective from which the dictator is viewed and a new focus on the nature of language." Dictator novels of the 1970s, such as The Autumn of the Patriarch or I, the Supreme, offer the reader a more intimate view of their subject: "the dictator becomes protagonist" and the world is often seen from his point of view. With the new focus on language, Keefe Ugalde points to the realization on the part of many authors that "the tyrant's power is derived from and defeated by language." For example, in Jorge Zalamea's El Gran Burundún Burundá ha muerto the dictator bans all forms of language.
According to Raymond L. Williams, it was not until the 1970s, when enough Latin American writers had published novels about military regimes, that "dictator novel" became common nomenclature. The most celebrated novels of this era were Alejo Carpentier's Reasons of State (1974), Augusto Roa Bastos's I, the Supreme (1974), and Gabriel García Marquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch (1975). He defines the dictator novel as a novel which draws upon the historical record to create fictionalized versions of dictators. In this way, the author is able to use the specific to explain the general, as many dictator novels are centered around the rule of a one particular dictator. Within this group he includes those novelists who took to task authoritarian figures such as Vargas Llosa's Conversation in the Cathedral (1969) and Denzil Romero's La tragedia del Generalísimo (1984). He even includes Sergio Ramírez's ¿Te dio miedo la sangre? (1977), a novel about Nicaraguan society under the Somoza dictatorship, which has been described as a "dictator novel without the dictator."
The novelists of the dictator novel genre combined narrative strategies of both modern and postmodern writing. Postmodern techniques, constructed largely in the late 1960s and 1970s, included use of interior monologues, stream of consciousness, fragmentation, varying narrative points of view, neologisms, innovative narrative strategies, and frequent lack of causality. Alejo Carpentier, a Boom writer and contributor to the dictator novel genre pioneered what came to be known as magical realism, although the use of this technique is not necessarily a prerequisite of the dictator novel.
A predominant theme of the dictator novel is power, which according literary critic Michael Valdez Moses, in his 2002 review of Feast of the Goat, is linked to the theme of dictatorship: "The enduring power of the Latin American dictator novel had everything to do with the enduring power of Latin American dictators'" As novels such as El Señor Presidente became more well-known, they were read as ambitious political statements, denouncing the authority of dictators in Latin America. As political statements, dictator novel authors challenged dictatorial power, creating a link between power and writing through the force wielded by their pen. For example, in Roa Bastos's I, The Supreme, the novel revolves around a central theme of language and the power inherent in all of its forms, a power that is often only present in the deconstruction of communication. González Echevarría argues that:
Dr. Francia's fear of the pasquinade, his abuse of Policarpo Patiño …, [and] his constant worry about writing all stem from the fact that he has found and used the power implicit in language itself. The Supremo defines power as being able to do through others what we are unable to do ourselves: language, being separate from what it designates, is the very embodiment of power, for things act and mean through it without ceasing to be themselves. Dr. Francia has also realized that he cannot control language, particularly written language, that it has a life of its own that threatens him.
Another constant theme which runs throughout the Latin American dictator novel, which gained in importance and frequency during the Latin American Boom, is the interdependence of the Latin American tyrant and United States imperialism. In Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat, for example, Trujillo faces serious opposition shortly after losing his material backing from the CIA, previously held for over 32 years in lieu of his anti-communist leanings.
Gender is an additional overarching theme within dictator novels. National portraits in Latin America often insist on the importance of women (and men) that are healthy, happy, productive, and patriotic, yet many national literary treasures often reflect government rhetoric in the way they code active citizenship as male. Masculinity is an enduring motif in the dictator novel. There is a connection between the pen and the penis in Latin American fiction, but this pattern cannot be explained by machismo alone—it is far more complex. According to Rebecca E. Biron, "where we find violent, misogynistic fantasies of masculinity, we also violent social relations between actual men and women." Many Latin American works "include characters who act out violent fictions of masculinity, and yet their narrative structure provides readers with alternative responses to misogynistic fantasies of masculine identity formation".
Since independence, Latin American countries have been subject to both right and left-wing authoritarian regimes, stemming from a history of colonialism in which one group dominated another. Given this long history, it is unsurprising that there have been so many novels about individual dictators, or about the problems of dictatorship caudillismo, caciquismo, and militarism. The legacy of colonialism is one of racial conflict sometimes pushing an absolute authority to rise up to contain it—thus the tyrant is born. Seeking unlimited power, dictators often amend constitutions, dismantling laws which prevent their reelection. General Manuel Estrada Cabrera, for example, altered the Guatemalan Constitution in 1899 to permit his return to power. The dictators who have become the focus of the dictator novel (Augusto Roa Bastos's I, the Supreme, for instance, is based on Paraguay's dictator of the early nineteenth century, the so-called Dr Francia) do not differ much from each other in terms of how they govern. As author González Echevarría states: "they are male, militaristic, and wield almost absolute personal power." Their strong-arm tactics include exiling or imprisoning their opposition, attacking the freedom of the press, creating a centralized government backed by a powerful military force, and assuming complete control over free thought. Despite intense criticisms leveled at these figures, dictators involved in nationalist movements developed three simple truths, "that everybody belonged, that the benefits of Progress should be shared, and that industrial development should be the priority." Epitácio Pessoa, who was elected President of Brazil in 1919, wanted to make the country progress regardless of whether or not Congress passed the laws he proposed. In particular, during the Great Depression, Latin American activist governments of the 1930s saw the end of neocolonialism and the infusion of nationalist movements throughout Latin America, increasing the success of import substitution industrialization or ISI. The positive side-effect of the collapse of international trade meant local Latin American manufacturers could fill the market niches left vacant by vanishing exports.
In the twentieth century, prominent Latin American dictators have included the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua, Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, and Augusto Pinochet in Chile, among others. As an outside influence, United States interference in Latin American politics is controversial and has often been severely criticized. As García Calderon noted as far back as 1925: "Does it want peace or is it controlled by certain interests?" As a theme in the dictator novel, the link between U.S. imperialism and the power of the tyrant is very important. Dictators in Latin America have accepted military and financial support from the United States when it suited them, but have also turned against the United States, using anti-American campaigning to gain favour with the people. In the case of Trujillo, "Nothing promises to reinvigorate his flagging popularity more than to face up to the Yankee aggressor in the name of la patria."
In 1967 during a meeting with Alejo Carpentier, Julio Cortázar, and Miguel Otero Silva, the Mexican author Carlos Fuentes launched a project consisting of a series of biographies depicting Latin American dictators, which was to be called Los Padres de la Patria (literally, "The Fathers of the Fatherland"). After reading Edmund Wilson's portraits of the American Civil War in Patriotic Gore, Fuentes recounts, "Sitting in a pub in Hampstead, we thought it would be a good idea to have a comparable book on Latin America. An imaginary portrait gallery immediately stepped forward, demanding incarnation: the Latin American dictators." Vargas Llosa was to write about Manuel A. Odría, Jorge Edwards about José Manuel Balmaceda, José Donoso about Mariano Melgarejo, and Julio Cortázar about Eva Perón. As M. Mar Langa Pizarro observes, the project was never completed, but it helped inspire a series of novels written by important authors during the Latin American literary boom, such as Alejo Carpentier, Augusto Roa Bastos, Gabriel García Márquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa.
Both Domingo Faustino Sarmiento's Facundo and José Marmol's Amalia, published in the nineteenth century, were precursors to the twentieth century dictator novel; however, "all fictional depictions of the Latin American 'strong-man', it must be noted have an important antecedent in Domingo Faustino Sarmiento's Facundo, a work written as a sociological treatise." Facundo is an indirect critique of Juan Manuel de Rosas's dictatorship, directed against the actual historical figure, Juan Facundo Quiroga, but is also a broader investigation into Argentine history and culture. Sarmiento's Facundo has remained a fundamental fixture because of the breadth of its literary exploration of the Latin American environment. In Facundo, Sarmiento criticizes the historical figure Facundo Quiroga, a provincial caudillo, who like Rosas (dictator of Argentina from 1829 to 1853) was opposed to the enlightened ideas of progress. After returning from exile, Sarmiento worked to reinvent Argentina, eventually becoming president himself from 1868 to 1874. Sarmiento's analysis of Facundo Quiroga was the first time that an author questioned how figures like Facundo and Rosas could have maintained such absolute power, and in answering this question, Facundo established its place as an inspirational text to later authors. Sarmiento perceived his own power in writing Facundo as "within the text of the novel, it is the novelist, through the voice of omniscience, who has replaced God," thereby creating the bridge between writing and power that is characteristic of the dictator novel.
Set in post-colonial Buenos Aires, Amalia was written in two parts and is a semi-autobiographical account of José Mármol that deals with living in Rosas's police state. Mármol's novel was important as it showed how the human consciousness, much like a city or even a country, could become a terrifying prison. Amalia also attempted to examine the problem of dictatorships as being one of structure, and therefore the problem of the state "manifested through the will of some monstrous personage violating the ordinary individual's privacy, both of home and of consciousness." In the early twentieth century, the Spaniard Ramón del Valle-Inclán's Tirano Banderas (1926) acted as a key influence on those authors whose goal was to critique power structures and the status quo.
Novels that contain political themes, but do not centre on the rule of a particular dictator or authoritarian figure, are not classified as true dictator novels. The 1970s, for example, saw the publication of Julio Cortázar's Libro de Manuel (1973). In this postmodern novel, Cortázar portrayed revolutionaries in a setting of urban warfare, but also asks the reader to look at broader issues of language, sexuality and modes of interpretation. In the 1994 novel In the Time of the Butterflies, Julia Alvarez fictionalized the lives of the Mirabal sisters, who transformed themselves from well-behaved Catholic débutantes into dissenters against the Dominican Republic's Trujillo regime. In writing this novel, the author sought to unmask the officially-obscured history of the sisters' deaths; not so much to uncover what happened, but to find out how it happened—or more specifically, how they happened. Roberto Bolaño's Distant Star (1996) opens with Augusto Pinochet's 1973 Chilean coup against Salvador Allende. According to writer and Professor Raymond Leslie Williams, the aforementioned novels, while not falling directly within the genre of the dictator novel, are reminiscent of it as they are "acutely and subtly political fiction". They address a multitude of different themes beyond those of the dictator novel, but cannot be divorced from their political themes and "can be read as a meditation on the horror of absolute power".
Established by Sarmiento's early writing, the goal of the genre is not to dissect and analyze the rule of particular dictators with a focus on historical accuracy, but to examine the more abstract nature of both authority figures and authority in general.
While it is difficult to exactly pinpoint the origin of the dictator novel, its influence spans throughout Latin American Literature. Written largely in the middle of the twentieth century, these novels followed a unique style, employing many of the techniques of the "new" novel. The "new novel" rejected the formal structure of conventional realism, arguing that its realism was flawed in "its simplistic assumption that reality is easily observable". Regional issues gave way to universal ones and "an ordered world view gives way to a fragmented, distorted or fantastic narrative", in which the reader no longer takes a passive role. In addition, writers redefined many formal categories such as author, narrator, character, reader, plot, and story. Importantly, the role of the author was examined as the etymological link between "author" and "authority" was established, and the very figure of the author became highly important. The authors themselves then questioned the traditional role of the author as a "privileged, paternal figure, as the authoritative 'father' or divine creator in whom meaning would be seen to originate" and who seemed to fulfil the role of dictator. These authors defined the novel in a new nontraditional way and forced readers to examine the way in which social and political matters affect their daily lives.
In addition to examining the authority of leadership, the authors assessed their own role as paternalistic dispensers of wisdom, seeing it as akin to the dictatorships they were challenging.
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