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.