Saturday, June 02, 2018

Augusto Roa Bastos, I the Supreme (1974)

So I keep hearing variations of the story of how this came to be written, but let us eschew epistemological uncertainty and just say that three writers got together and swore a Terrible Oath that they would each write a novel about a Latin American dictator, the results being Garcia Marquez's Autumn of the Patriarch, Alejo Carpentier's Reasons of State (which I haven't read yet) and...this. Which is best? Difficult to say, but what's inarguably true is that this is the only one of the three novels that is its author's best-known work.

Roa Bastos (1917-2005) was a Paraguayan author who lived in political exile for forty-odd years due to speaking out against the country's dictators of the time (but in 1989, when Alfredo Stroessner was overthrown and the country moved towards democratic rule, he was able to return home and got a lot of recognition for his work, so there's a happy ending). This novel is about an older dictator, Jose Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, known as El Supremo, who ruled the country from 1814 til his death in 1840. The conceit of the novel is that it consists, mainly, of Francia's papers, which have been put together by a modern-day compiler, along with sundry notes from other sources, expanding on the events of the novel and putting them in different perspectives. It doesn't really have a plot per se; he reflects and rants about events in his life from before he was dictator to his death.

I would definitely call this a postmodern novel; the main meta-theme throughout is the total unreliability of text. Obviously, El Supremo is a supremely (ho ho) unreliable narrator, and the incursion of other voices into the text even calls into question the identity and veracity of what there is. There are a lot of sections that end with bits of the text having been burned or otherwise rendered illegible. Dialogue is never divided into separate paragraphs nor set off with quotes; it's all in long, undifferentiated paragraphs.  It's generally not difficult to tell who's talking, but it emphasizes the mutability of the whole endeavor. At the end of the text (well, the main narrative), we get "(the remainder stuck together, illegible, unable to be found, the worm-eaten letters of the Book hopelessly scattered)." It reminds me strongly of the fragmentation and dissolution of meaning in the latter part of Gravity's Rainbow.

As for El Supremo itself, it's a more ambivalent portrayal than you would perhaps expect having read--say--Autumn of the Patriarch. He does have ideals that go beyond self-aggrandizement; he was heavily influenced by the Enlightenment and the ideals of the French Revolution; he actually does believe in stuff and on some level wants to improve the country. And actually, as dictators go, he could be a lot worse; he didn't go in too much for massacres, at any rate. Still, he did have a lot of people executed and tortured and exiled and was generally paranoid and autocratic and capricious as hell. It's probably a grim commentary on humanity that that can qualify as "not that bad." I think it's indisputably true that, with equivalent power, our current president would be a hell of a lot worse. Anyway, it's a memorable portrayal.

So these things are good, and the whole book is hella impressive. It's one of those books I admired more than loved, though. I like the weirdness and the wordplay, and the death scene at the end is extremely memorable, but El Supremo's ranting can get a little tedious, in all honesty. Still, now I've read a book by a Paraguayan author, so I can rest easy.


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