The Dogs Shook Their Ears Like Door-Knockers

I couldn’t resist sharing a little bit more of Miguel Ángel Asturias’ The President, which, yes, I am still reading after all this time, partly because of all the TNEO crits piling up on the floor around my desk, but mostly because of the astonishing, cerebellum-like convolutions of the novel’s structure, characters and prose. Each chapter is a unit unto itself, more often than not with its own point-of-view character and its own unique conceit. I have been restricting myself to a chapter a night, often flipping back for multiple re-readings.

The following nocturne comes as a married couple, newly wedded almost by coercion and as a result facing political disfavor and the immanent threat of execution, settle into separate beds in separate rooms and try desperately to sleep:

The moon went in and out of floating niches in the clouds. The road flowed like a river of white bones under bridges of shadow. Now and again everything grew indistinct, with the patina of some old religious relic, only to reappear brightened with gold thread. A vast black eyelid intervened, and cut off this vision seen through flickering eyelids. Its enormous lashes seemed to come from the highest of the volcanoes and spread like a huge spider over the skeleton of the town, plunging it in mourning shadow. The dogs shook their ears like door-knockers, night birds flew through the sky, a moan passed from cypress to cypress and there was a sound of clocks being wound and set. The moon disappeared completely behind the tall summit of a crater and a mist like a bride’s veil came to rest among the houses. Angel Face shut the window.

Asturias spends the first half of the novel establishing his namesake character, Miguel Angel Face, as a left-hand-of-God figure, the eponymous dictator’s personal equivalent to an Archangel Gabriel: beautiful, frigid, fickle and cruel. But by the point of the above excerpt (nearing the end), we see him transformed, a half-redeemed and now entirely sympathetic antihero, more akin to Milton’s Satan. In an astonishing and damning feat of postmodernist cheek, Asturias has written himself into a scathing criticism of a dictatorial government which he himself had served and would continue to serve in the future. He finished El Señor Presidente in 1933, but because of the reigning political climate in Guatemala and his personal implication, it wasn’t published until 1946.

I’ve been thinking of Asturias lately as the originator of the magic realist genre, though, like most originators, he doesn’t actually fit into that genre himself. He was apparently the first to apply the term to fiction (rather than to art), but his own writing is far bleaker, less romantic, less accessible, and more abstract than the flagship works of magic realism’s current market share. All of which tendencies I find myself tempted to strive for in my own writing.

I notice a lot of contemporary writers—Lucius Shepard (in this Strange Horizons interview), Angelica Gorodischer (this interview at Fantastic Metropolis), Alberto Fuguet ((in an essay at—trying deliberately to extricate themselves from the entangling spines of the magic realist umbrella, even as more crossover titles with magic realist leanings (The Shadow of the Wind, Murakami) keep popping up in the bestseller lists. The term having been appropriated and standardized by the publishing industry, I think, deprives the style of some of its impact. Which shouldn’t really come as a surprise; it’s not like it hasn’t happened before, with everything from grunge to hip hop to the co-opting of Che Guevara iconography, etc. A year ago, the implication that nothing truly innovative or vibrant could be done anymore with magic realism would have and did piss me off to no end. Now, though, I have to admit I am coming around to the side of the scrappy heroes of the fringe. Not that I’m quite ready to abandon the term altogether. I still do get mildly annoyed when I see some new and bitter initiate of the ivory tower taking attention-begging potshots at magic realism as a whole rather than at any of the actual human beings who perpetrate it. But I do begin to think that Theodora Goss was doing me a favor when she lumped “The Utter Proximity of God” with the surrealists instead.

Which doesn’t exactly bring me back around to Asturias, except in that his authorial mindset and storytelling style were developed entirely out of the influence of the twenty-first century publishing conglomerate climate, but rather squarely under that of European surrealists like Paul Valéry. And so perhaps I do ok for myself by choosing to obsess about him instead of García Marquez for awhile.

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