Guatemala: divide and rule

‘I think with the President’s mind, therefore I exist.’

Looking down the list of books from the 196 sovereign states I’m trying to read my way round this year, I’m struck by how many of them are by senior government figures. Coming from the UK, the concept of the politician-novelist is not something I’m very familiar with. In fact the last major work of fiction I can think of by a British prime minister (Tony Blair’s A Journey aside) would have to be Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, which came out around 140 years ago.

All the more striking, then, that so many notable 20th century political players elsewhere in the world should have won acclaim for their literary efforts. However, I suspect few of them can have engaged with the question of governance more directly and passionately in fiction than journalist-turned-congressman-diplomat-turned-Nobel-prize-winner Miguel Ángel Asturias.

First released in Mexico in 1946, Asturias’s most famous novel The President portrays the sharp end of life in a totalitarian state. Beginning with a random killing among a group of beggars that spirals into a witch hunt, the narrative reveals how truth, bodies and even life itself are maimed and distorted to suit the needs of the great ‘protector… who watches over us with a father’s love’.

Violence, both real and imagined, pervades the text, which stitches together a series of personal tragedies and outrages as families, friendships, faith and integrity smash against the intransigence and inhumanity of the state and are destroyed. Many of them stand as synecdochic metaphors for the plight of the people – from the lawyer left struggling in the dark to read and make a case against the lengthy false indictment that will cost him his life to the blind beggar woman ‘dreaming that she was covered in flies and suspended from a hook like a piece of meat in a butcher’s shop’.

These moments of extremity are thrown into relief by a series of cruel juxtapositions with festivals and celebrations and even bursts of humour that emphasise the ‘grotesque farce’ in which all the characters are trapped and the cold indifference to the suffering of others that terror breeds.

At the centre of this web of fear sits the shadowy figure of the President. Mentioned in every chapter, he nevertheless has a strangely absent quality, and is far removed from the daily realities of his people (he only appears in person a handful of times). This renders his fickle decisions all the more chilling, engendering the same sense of uncertainty in the reader that causes half the guests at a state ceremony to wet themselves in fright when a bandsman drops his drum.

Asturias’s satire is made rich by his use of language and the extraordinary panoramic descriptions with which he brings his nightmare state to life. Eliot glimmers in some of the linguistic effects – ‘Doors and doors and doors and windows and doors and windows flashed past him’ – and he anticipates Beckett in surreal exchanges such as the haunting chapter ‘Conversation in the Dark’. There are even the early outriders of magical realism in some of his more vivid passages.

The result is a compelling manifesto against the mechanisms that enable tyrants to seize and maintain supreme power and a passionate treatise on the fragile beauty of the human spirit. It is a call to arms in the defence of freedom and independent thought more stirring than any keynote speech. Western politicians may not be writing so much any more, but I hope they are reading this book.

The President by Miguel Angel Asturias (translated from the Spanish by Frances Partridge). Publisher (this edition): Waveland Press (1997). First published in Mexico in 1946