|Miguel Ángel Asturias|
|Born||October 19 1899
Guatemala City, Guatemala
|Died||June 9 1974 (aged 74)
|Genres||Surrealism, dictator novel|
|Notable work(s)||El Señor Presidente, Men of Maize|
|Notable award(s)|| Nobel Prize in Literature
|Influences||Mayan culture, Surrealism|
|Influenced||Latin American Boom|
Miguel Ángel Asturias Rosales (October 19, 1899 – June 9, 1974) was a Nobel-Prize–winning Guatemalan poet, novelist, and diplomat. Asturias helped establish Latin American literature's contribution to mainstream Western culture, drawing attention to the importance of indigenous cultures, especially those of his native Guatemala.
Asturias was born and grew up in Guatemala, but spent significant time abroad, first in Paris in the 1920s, where he studied anthropology and Indian mythology. Many scholars view him as the first Latin American novelist to show how the study of anthropology and linguistics could affect the writing of literature. While in Paris, Asturias also associated with the Surrealist movement; he is credited with introducing many features of modernist style into Latin American letters. In this way, he is an important precursor of the Latin American Boom of the 1960s and 1970s.
One of Asturias' most famous novels, El Señor Presidente, describes life under a ruthless dictator. Asturias' very public opposition to dictatorial rule led to him spending much of his later life in exile, both in South America and in Europe. The book that is sometimes described as his masterpiece, Hombres de maíz (Men of Maize), is a defense of Mayan culture and customs. Asturias combined his extensive knowledge of Mayan beliefs with his political convictions. His work is often identified with the social and moral aspirations of the Guatemalan people.
After decades of exile and marginalization, Asturias finally received broad recognition in the 1960s. In 1966, he won the Soviet Union's Lenin Peace Prize. The following year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, only the second Latin American to receive this honor. Asturias spent his final years in Madrid, where he died at the age of 74. He is buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
Miguel Ángel Asturias was born in Guatemala City in 1899, a year after the appointment of President Manuel Estrada Cabrera. His father, Ernesto Asturias, was a lawyer and a notary. His mother, María Rosales de Asturias, was a schoolteacher. Ernesto and Maria had two children: Miguel Ángel and Marco Antonio. Asturias' father had political differences with Cabrera retired from his practice. The family was forced to move in 1905 to the town of Salamá, the provincial capital of Baja Verapaz, where Miguel Angel Asturias lived on the farm of his paternal grandparents. This is also a land full of legends and myths that Asturias would later use in his literature. In 1908, when Miguel Ángel was nine, his family returned to the outskirts of the city to live in the Parroquia Vieja suburb where Asturias spent his adolescence and his family established a supply store.
Asturias was guided by Dolores Reyes (AKA "la Lola"), his "nana," to have his first encounters with formal education. He first attended Colegio del Padre Pedro and then, Colegio del Padre Solís. Asturias began writing as a student and wrote the first draft of a story that would later become his novel El Señor Presidente.
In 1922, Asturias and other students founded the Popular University, a community project whereby "the middle class was encouraged to contribute to the general welfare by teaching free courses to the underprivileged." Asturias spent a year studying medicine before switching to the faculty of law at the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala in Guatemala City, obtaining his law degree in 1923. He was awarded the Premio Falla as top student in his faculty. It was at this university that he founded the Asociación de Estudiantes Universitarios and the Asociación de estudiantes El Derecho. Both his Associations have been recognized as positively associated with Guatemalan patriotism. Asturias worked as a representative of the Asociación General de Estudiantes Universitarios, traveling to El Salvador and Honduras. In 1920, Asturias participated in the uprising against President Manuel Estrada Cabrera.
Asturias' university thesis, "The Social Problem of the Indian," was published in 1923. In the same year he moved to Europe, after receiving his law degree. He had originally planned to live in England and study political economy but changed his mind. He transferred quickly to Paris, where he studied ethnology at the Sorbonne (University of Paris} and became a militant surrealist under the influence of the French poet and literary theorist André Breton. While there, he was influenced by the gathering of writers and artists in Montparnasse (an area of Paris) and began writing poetry and fiction. During this time, Asturias developed a deep concern for Mayan culture and in 1925 he worked to translate the Mayan sacred text, the Popol Vuh, into Spanish. He also founded a magazine while in Paris called Tiempos Nuevos or "New Times". Asturias stayed in Paris for a total of ten years.
Asturias returned to Guatemala in 1933, working as a journalist before serving in his country's diplomatic corps. He founded and edited a radio magazine called El diario del aire. He also wrote several volumes of poetry around this time, the first of which was his Sonetos (Sonnets), published in 1936.
In 1942, he was elected to the Guatemalan Congress. In 1946, Asturias embarked upon a diplomatic career, continuing to write while serving in several countries in Central and South America. Asturias held a diplomatic post in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1947 and in Paris, France in 1952.
When Asturias returned to his native country in 1933, he was faced with the dictator Jorge Ubico and a regime that would not tolerate his political ideals. He stayed in Guatemala until 1944. During his time in Guatemala, he published "only poetry, which was characterized by elegant cynicism." Eventually in 1933 he broke out of his decade of poetry when a more liberal government ruled the country, writing the novel El Señor Presidente, which explored the world around an unnamed dictator in an unspecified Latin American country. The novel could not be published during the rule of Ubico and so El Señor Presidente did not appear until 1946.
Asturias served as an ambassador to Mexico, Argentina, and El Salvador, between 1946 and 1954. His novel "Men of Maize" was published during his time as ambassador. This novel was organized into multiple parts, each dealing exploring the contrast between traditional Indian culture and modernity.
Miguel Àngel Asturias devoted much of his political energy towards supporting the government of Jacobo Arbenz (the successor to Guatemalan ruler Juan José Arévalo Bermejo). Asturias was enlisted for his work as an ambassador to help suppress the threat of rebels from El Salvador. While his efforts were backed by the United States and the El Salvadorean government, the rebels succeeded in invading Guatemala and overthrowing Jacobo Arbenz' rule in 1954. When the government of Jacobo Arbenz fell, Asturias was expelled from the country by Carlos Castillo Armas because of his support for Arbenz. He was stripped of his Guatemalan citizenship and went to live in Buenos Aires, where he spent the next eight years of his life. Even though he remained in exile Asturias did not stop his writing. When a change of government in Argentina made it so that he once more had to seek a new home, Asturias moved to Europe. While living in exile in Genoa his reputation grew as an author with the release of his novel, Mulata de Tal (1963).
In 1966, democratically elected President Julio César Méndez Montenegro achieved power and Asturias was given back his Guatemalan citizenship. Montenegro appointed Asturias as Guatemalan ambassador in Paris, where he served until 1970 and took up a permanent residence.
Miguel Ángel Asturias married his first wife, Clemencia Amado, in 1939. They had two sons, Miguel and Rodrigo Ángel, before divorcing in 1947. Asturias then met and married his second wife, Blanca Mora y Araujo, in 1950. Mora y Araujo was Argentinian, and so when Asturias was deported from Guatemala in 1954, he went to live in the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires. He lived in his wife's homeland for eight years. They remained married until Asturias' death in 1974.
Asturias' son from his first marriage, Rodrigo Asturias, under the nom de guerre Gaspar Ilom (the name of an indigenous rebel in his father's own novel, Men of Maize), was President of the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca. The Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca was a rebel group active in the 1980s, during the Guatemalan Civil War, and after the peace accords in 1996.
Asturias' first major work, Leyendas de Guatemala (Legends of Guatemala; 1930), describes Mayan civilization before the Spanish conquest. The novel brought him critical praise in France as well as in Guatemala. The noted French poet and essayist Paul Valéry wrote of the book (in a letter published as part of the Losada edition), that "I found it brought about a tropical dream, which I experienced with singular delight." The novel used elements of magical realism to tell multiple tales. The novel employs both conventional writing as well as lyrical prose to tell a story about birds and other animals conversing with other archetypal human beings.
For Gerald Martin, it is "the first major anthropological contribution to Spanish American literature." Jean Franco describes the book as "lyrical recreations of Guatemalan folk-lore many of which drew their inspiration from pre-Columbian and colonial sources."
One of Asturias' most critically acclaimed novels, El Señor Presidente was completed in 1933 but only published in 1946. As one of his earliest works, El Señor Presidente showcases Asturias's talent and influence as a novelist. Zimmerman and Rojas described his work as an "impassioned denunciation of the Guatemalan dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera." The novel was written during Asturias's exile in Paris. While living completing the novel, Asturias associated with members of the Surrealist movement as well as fellow future Latin American writers such as Arturo Uslar Pietri and the Cuban Alejo Carpentier. El Señor Presidente is one of many novels to explore life under a Latin American dictator; it has been herlded by some as the first real dictator novel.
The actual events are vague and the plot is partially based on real events while the time and locale are fictional. Asturias's novel examines how evil spreads downward from a powerful political leader and into the streets and a country's citizens. Justice is mocked in the novel and escape from the dictator's tyranny is impossible. Each character in the novel is deeply affected by the dictatorship and must struggle to survive in a terrifying reality. The novel travels with several characters, some close to the President and some seeking escape from his regime. The dictator's trusted adviser, whom the reader knows as "Angel Face," falls in love with a General, General Canales daughter Camila. The General is hunted for execution while his daughter is held under house arrest. Angel Face is torn between his love for her and his duty to the President. While the Dictator is never named he has striking similarities to Manuel Estrada Cabrera. El Señor Presidente uses surrealistic techniques and reflects Asturias' notion that Indian's non-rational awareness of reality is an expression of subconscious forces.
Hombres de maíz (Men of Maize, 1949) is usually judged to be Asturias' masterpiece. The novel is written in six parts, each exploring the contrast of traditional Indian customs and a progressive, modernizing society. Asturias' book explores the magical world of indigenous communities, a subject which Asturias was both passionate and knowledgeable. It portrays a rebellion by an isolated tribe of Indians which live remotely in dangerous mountains and at risk of annihilation by the army. The plot revolves around an Indian community (the "corn people") whose land is threatened to be cultivated for profit using methods that will destroy their land. The second part of the novel presents a different perspective by introducing new characters. The later generation comes into contact with Indian figures of the past and they struggle to maintain their ancestral traditions. The story is made relevant by Asturias through his analysis of how European imperialism is used to dominate, control, and transform other civilizations within Latin America and around the world.
Asturias used his extensive knowledge of pre-Columbian literature to tell his story in the form of a myth. Because his novel was presented in such a unique way it was ignored by critics and the public for a long time after its release in 1949.
Asturias also wrote an epic trilogy on the exploitation of the native Indians on banana plantations: this trilogy, comprised of the novels Viento fuerte (The Cyclone 1950), El Papa Verde (The Green Pope 1954), and Los ojos de los enterrados (The Eyes of the Interred 1960), is a fictional story about foreign control over the Central American banana industry. The volumes were first only published in small quantities in his native country of Guatemala. Asturias finally finished the last book in the Trilogy nearly 20 years after the first two volumes. His critique of the fruit industry and how the Guatemalan natives were exploited eventual earned him the Soviet Union's highest prize, the Lenin Peace Prize. Asturias's recognition marked him as one of the few authors that was recognized in both the West and in the Communist bloc during the period of the Cold War.
Asturias published his novel Mulata de tal while he and his wife were living in Genoa in 1963. His novel received many positive reviews; Ideologies and Literature described it as "a carnival incarnated in the novel. It represents a collision between Mayan Mardi Gras and Hispanic baroque." The novel emerged as a major novel during the 1960s. The plot revolves around the battle between Catalina and Yumí to control Mulata (the moon spirit). Yumí and Catalina become experts in sorcery and are criticized by the Church for their practices. The novel uses Mayan mythology and Catholic tradition to form a unique allegory of belief.
Gerald Martin in the Hispanic Review commented that it is "sufficiently obvious that the whole art of this novel rests upon its language. In general, Asturias matches the visual freedom of the cartoon by using every resource the Spanish language offers him. His use of color is striking and immeasurably more liberal than in earlier novels." Asturias built the novel by this unique use of color, liberal theory, and his distinctive use of the Spanish language. His novel also received the Silla Monsegur Prize for the best Spanish-American novel published in France.
The influence of rich Mayan culture on Asturias' literary work and political life is undeniable. He believed in the sacredness of the Mayan traditions and worked to bring life back into its culture by integrating the Indian imagery and tradition into his novels. For example his novel "Men of Maize" comes from the Mayan belief that humans are created from stalks of corn. Asturias' interest in Mayan culture is notable because many Mayan traditions and cultures were stifled by the influence of the Catholic church. The Spanish in Central America viciously banned certain rituals, destroyed Aztec and Mayan texts and fought to bring the Christian religion to the Indian communities in Guatemala. Asturias' work as a scholar integrated the sacred suppressed tradition back into Latin American Literature.
Asturias studied at the Sorbonne (the University of Paris at that time) with Georges Raynaud, an expert in the culture of the Mayan Quichés, and he eventually finished a translation of the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Mayas in 1926. In 1930, fascinated by the legends and myths of the Indians of Guatemala, he wrote Legends of Guatemala".
Jean Franco categorizes Asturias as an "Indianist" author, along with Rosario Castellanos and José María Arguedas. She argues that all three of these writers are led to "break with realism precisely because of the limitations of the genre when it came to representing the Indian." So, for instance, Franco says of Asturias' Hombres de maíz (Men of Maize) that "the technique here is more akin to poetry than to traditional prose, but we feel that this is a more authentic way of representing the Indian mind." She points out also that the novel's temporality "is a mythic time in which many thousands of years may be compressed and seen as a single moment". Even the language of the book is affected: it is "a Spanish so structured as to be analogous to Indian languages."
After his death in 1974, Guatemala established an award in his name, the Miguel Àngel Asturias Order. The country's most distinguished literary prize, the Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize in Literature, is also named in his honor. In addition, Guatemala's National theater is named after him.
Asturias is remembered as a man who believed strongly in maintaining indigenous culture in Guatemala, and who encouraged those who were persecuted. His literature was critically acclaimed, but not always appreciated. But, for Gerald Martin, Asturias is one of what he terms "the ABC writers—Asturias, Borges, Carpentier" who, he argues, "really initiated Latin American modernism."
Critics compare his fiction to that of Franz Kafka, James Joyce, and William Faulkner. His work has been translated into numerous languages such as English, French, German, Swedish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and many more.
Asturias received many honors and awards over the course of his career, most notably the 1967 Nobel Prize for literature. The award of the Nobel caused some controversy, as critic Robert G. Mead notes: outside of Latin America, Asturias was still relatively unknown; within Latin America, some thought that there were more deserving candidates. More controversial still was the award of the Soviet Union's 1966 Lenin Peace Prize, for exposing "American intervention against the Guatemalan people." This honor came after his completion of the Banana Trilogy.
Other prizes for Asturias' work include: Premio Galvez, 1923; Chavez Prize, 1923; Prix Sylla Monsegur, for Leyendas de Guatemala, 1931; and Prix du Meilleur Roman Etranger, for El señor presidente, 1952.
1951: Lagerkvist | 1952: Mauriac | 1953: Churchill | 1954: Hemingway | 1955: Laxness | 1956: Jiménez | 1957: Camus | 1958: Pasternak | 1959: Quasimodo | 1960: Perse | 1961: Andrić | 1962: Steinbeck | 1963: Seferis | 1964: Sartre | 1965: Sholokhov | 1966: Agnon, Sachs | 1967: Asturias | 1968: Kawabata | 1969: Beckett | 1970: Solzhenitsyn | 1971: Neruda | 1972: Böll | 1973: White | 1974: Johnson, Martinson | 1975: Montale
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