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The Surrealism of Asturias

January 28th, 2008

Judging by the time I’ve had trying to find translated copies of his work, Miguel Angel Asturias seems to be a writer who has fallen from the public eye, at least in the English-speaking world. I can’t quite figure out why. Born in Guatemala in 1899, he began his career as a political dissident, fled persecution to Europe, where he became heavily involved in the surrealist movement, and eventually returned home, where in 1967 he received the Nobel Prize in Literature for the novel Men of Maize. He also seems to have been the first person to apply the term “magic realism” to the written word rather than to art. All of which suggests he ought to have been a prime candidate for competition with Borges, Garcia Marquez, Allende and Fuentes as exotic magic realist bestselling Oprah favorites. Instead, the reading of Asturias has been relegated to obscure academic pursuits. Case in point, the fact that the only places I’ve been able to read his work in English are university libraries. If I really wanted to own a copy of Men of Maize, I could get one used on Amazon—but it would cost me $100. No thanks.

So why the obscurity? I think it’s because of the kind of story Asturias tells, as well as how he tells it. My limited experience with surrealist fiction suggests a tendency, as in slipstream, to abstraction. The speculative element in a surrealist story often has the effect of hyperbole, with the implication that it can’t be taken at face value. Asturias’s fiction tends to draw from the structure and the tropes of the most primal of myth, but to depict these things with a complexity and abstractness of language that comes on like a synesthetic hurricane. The reader is left to find his own way through a soup of mythic symbols superimposed on top of an interpretation of the mimetic world whose structure only occasionally becomes visible through the soup, and which may or may not be what Asturias actually intends us to see.

Because of the very nature of his prose, this tendency to whirling chaos, it’s hard to pull out a concise quote that conveys what Asturias is all about. But I’ll give it a shot. I’ve been ruminating on The Mirror of Lida Sal: Tales based on Mayan Myths and Guatemalan Legends. These stories concern themselves with doomed sorcerer-artists, beings possessed of mythic, godlike creative power, but mortal, laughably fragile, who must inevitably be destroyed if not by their creations then by their very devotion to the creative act, which blinds them to the world’s dangers. In “Legend of the Crystal Mask”, a poor sculptor goes into hiding to escape the Spanish conquerors, and by his art transforms the cave of his refuge into a subordinate world, distorted and savage, whose population turns upon its creator and destroys him. This is the beginning:

Yes, Nurse Rain, he who made the idols and prepared the heads of the dead, leaving their cast-off bones in the lime-pit nearby, had hands thrice-golden!

Yes, Nurse Rain, he who made the idols, the custodian of skulls, fled from the men of worm-white skin, when they put torch to the city, and he took refuge in the most inaccessible of mountains, there where the earth turns into cloud!

Yes, Nurse Rain, he who made the gods that made him was Ambiastro, who had two stars in place of hands!

So we get this folkloric chantlike repetition, and we see Ambiastro treated like a god but acknowledged as a man. In everything I’ve read by Asturias (all of which deals in some way with the interaction between the modern Guatemala and its mythic past), there seems to be the implicit understanding and acceptance that the conquest is inevitable, has always already happened, and that thus Guatemala’s history can only be understood through the metaphor of conquest, of dismantling, destruction, rebirth, the piecemeal reassembly of heterogeneous fragments, without a blueprint, into something vibrantly alive and entirely different from either of its antecedents. All of which makes the abstraction, the willing incomprehensibility of Asturias’ writing an essential part of what he’s trying to do.

Which again raises the question of why his writing hasn’t stood up to the passage of time. It seems like, what with the upsurgence of slipstream in the genre publishing world, what with Kelly Link and Cat Valente and Matt Cheney and Dora Goss winning all this recognition, what with all the respect garnered by little slipstream zines like LCRW, Electric Velocipede, Flytrap, that Asturias ought to fit right in.

It probably has to do with the fact that as much critical acclaim as the edgy and poetical obscure seems to garner within genre, it doesn’t actually draw as much popular readership. For Asturias to catch on with that crowd, he would have to find a patron, a small press probably, somebody willing to front the cash and hype the hype. Small Beer managed it with Angelica Gorodischer…but they had Ursula Le Guin to translate.

I do actually own a Spanish-language copy of Hombres de Maíz my sister brought me back from Spain. Maybe someday, if my skills as a reader of Spanish skyrocket to one hundred times their current state, I’ll try and translate it myself.

El Gaspar Ilóm deja que a la tierra de Ilóm le roben el sueño de los ojos.

Hombres de Maís, first line. Roughly (I think):

Gaspar Ilóm leaves the land of Ilóm robed in the dream of his eyes.

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10 Comments »

  • John Klima says:

    I wonder who owns the rights to his books? I know you’re looking for a copy of your own to hold and love and write in and whatnot, but for people looking to read him, they can check their local library system.

    Searching in my system on his name brought up 16 titles, almost half of which are in Spanish. But at least I could try reading the book now without doling out $100. 😀

    John Klima
    Editor
    Electric Velocipede

    • mjd says:

      My local library consortium (Western MA) has about the same. Exactly one copy each of Mirror of Lida Sal and Men of Maize and a few other titles, quite a few more of the Spanish language versions.

      But you’re right. I want a reference copy. I want to pick apart the prose with needle nose pliers and see how it works. Requesting interlibrary loans of these books more than two or three times starts to make me feel silly.

      Thanks for you comment!

  • Udi says:

    Boon,
    I don’t mean to one-up you but your translation is a bit off. “roben” is the subjunctive tense of robar, to steal. The construction deja que is usually followed by a subjunctive verb form.

    It’s definitely a cryptic sentence, but what makes the most sense to me grammatically is:

    At the land of Ilom, Gaspar Ilom allows the dream of his eyes to be stolen from him.

  • […] researched historical epic like Gary Jennings’ Aztec, transportive surrealistic allegory like Asturias’ Hombres de Maiz, absurdist, hallucinatory postmodern ultraviolence like Sesshu Foster’s Atomik Aztex and […]

  • IR says:

    I’m Guatemalan, so, correct translation first:

    “The Gaspar Ilom allows the dreams from the eyes from the land of Ilom to be stolen.”

    And pardon me, I love how it sounds in English, cause it is the way I think Miguel Angel would have like it to sound. In the referred text he is trying to imitate the rhythm of Gaspar nightmare as he fights his own conscience for not defending correctly his land.

    This resonance in his construction is the most essential part of his writing. It is not only the metaphorical sense or the myths or the disintegration of ideas, but the rhythm and the sounds that evokes the action in progress that works in his literature, which is… difficult to translate.

    As a Guatemalan, thanks for putting interest into his literature, maybe some day one of us will be able to revive his voice.

    IR

    • mjd says:

      Thank you very much for this correction! I agree it is a beautiful line in English.

      I still entertain dreams of someday finding a new translator (not me, obviously), tracking down Miguel Angel’s estate, and getting permission to reprint at least some of his works in English. I think Small Beer Press (where I work) would love to do it if I could produce the material.

      Somewhere in a notebook I have written down the name and address of his Spanish-language publisher in Madrid, copied from the front pages of several editions I found in a university library in Guatemala City when I visited in January. Someday, cuando mi Espanol es mejor, voy a escribirlos.

  • […] gives an idea of what Miguel Angel Asturias and Julio Cortazar might have been trying for in their surrealist efforts at creating modern Maya […]

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