Miguel Angel Asturias

Miguel Angel Asturias (1899-1974) was a Guatemalan novelist and the Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1967. His profound interest in the Indian culture and a prose style inspired by surrealism give his writings a special character.

Miguel Angel Asturias was born in Guatemala City on Oct. 19, 1899, a year after the rise to power of the Guatemalan dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera. The figure of the dictator was to exert an important influence on his life. The dictatorship forced—for political reasons—the relocation of his family to the small town of Salamá, where Asturias came into close contact with the descendants of the Maya Indians. It thus made him keenly aware of political and social issues from an early age, and it provided him with a model for the dominant presence in his most celebrated novel, Mr. President (1946).

The Asturias family returned to Guatemala City in 1907, but Estrada Cabrera was not removed from office until 1920. By that time the author was a militant university student who could see only oppression stemming from the military regime that had replaced the dictatorship. His family therefore found it expedient to send him to London, from where he soon departed to settle in Paris in 1923.

Maya Works and "Mr. President"

Asturias studied at the Sorbonne with Georges Raynaud, a specialist in the culture of the Mayan Quichés, and eventually finished in 1926 a translation of the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Mayas. Caught up in the legends and myths of the Indians of Guatemala, he wrote Legends of Guatemala (1930), a series of eight narratives and an allegorical play. The subject matter and the poetic vision of the author attracted favorable critical attention, especially in France, where the French symbolist poet Paul Valéry praised the book.

In 1933 Asturias returned to Guatemala and encountered another stifling regime—that of Jorge Ubico—which he endured until 1944, publishing only poetry, which was characterized by elegant cynicism. In 1946, with a more liberal government ruling the country, Asturias finally published the novel about an unnamed dictator in an unspecified Central American country that he had been working on as far back as 1922. It was Mr. President, in which the dictator is repeatedly likened to an idol of the type worshiped by the Mayas. A strikingly original novel, Mr. President treats a very real Spanish-American problem in a suggestive, poetic, but at the same time grotesque fashion.

From 1946 to 1954 Asturias served as ambassador to Mexico, Argentina, and El Salvador, continuing to publish throughout this time. Asturias's Men of Corn (1949), a novellike work of six parts, deals both realistically and imaginatively with the crisis that traditional Indian culture experiences when it is faced with modern, "progressive" technology. Here one can see the strong influence of the Popol Vuh, extending even to the title. (According to Maya legend, man was created from sacred corn.)

Asturias next published the three novels that make up his "Banana Cycle." Less imaginative, less artistic than his previous work, they constitute an exposé of the exploitation of the Guatemalan fruit industry by American firms. Strong Wind (1949), The Green Pope (1954), and The Eyes of the Interred (1960) are sincere works that are marred by an excessively aggressive tone of protest. This shortcoming is also evident in Weekend in Guatemala (1957), a group of stories written in anger over an invasion of Guatemala by the exiled leader Carlos Castillo Armas with, Asturias contended, the support of the U.S. government.

Works in Exile

In 1954 Asturias lost his Guatemalan citizenship and went to live in Buenos Aires, where he spent the next 8 years. When a change of government in Argentina made it advisable that he once more seek a new home, Asturias moved to Europe. He was living in Genoa when his novel Mulata (1963) appeared. Here again Asturias deals with Indian myths, spinning a rich and exotic narrative fabric into which he weaves ancient patterns. The moon, the sun, and the devil are all drawn into a story about an Indian peasant who sells his wife to the god of corn for wealth and a sensual concubine called Mulata. The author's poetic prose flows more freely here than in his other fiction, but at the same time it is a difficult, intensely personal book, extracted from his very private world of images.

In 1966, the same year he won the Lenin Peace Prize, Asturias was named the Guatemalan ambassador to France by the new government of President Julio Méndez Montenegro. He held the post until 1970. In 1967 Asturias won the Nobel Prize for literature. He died on June 9, 1974, while on a visit to Madrid, Spain.

Further Reading on Miguel Angel Asturias

An incisive interview with Asturias and an evaluation of his work may be found in Luis Harss and Barbara Dohmann, Into the Mainstream: Conversations with Latin-American Writers (1967). Asturias and his work are also discussed in Enrique Anderson-Imbert, Spanish-American Literature: A History (1954; trans. 1963; 2d ed., 2 vols., 1969), and Jean Franco, The Modern Culture of Latin America: Society and the Artist (1967).

Asturias, Miguel Angel, translated by Gerald Martin, Men of Maize, critical edition (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994).