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The President by Miguel Ángel Asturias
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The President (1946)

by Miguel Ángel Asturias

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Never named, but based on Guatemala's early 20th century dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera, the president controls a web of hatchet men and informers (in fact, even ordinary people write to him to inform on their neighbors and others) to maintain his iron control over the unnamed country. Asturias wrote this book starting in 1922 in Guatemala, and then finished it in Paris in 1932, but politics prevented its publication until 1946.

The story begins among the desperate beggars sleeping on the porch of the cathedral; one of them, known as the Zany because of his craziness, kills a colonel who is taunting him. As with the "accidental" killing in The Case of Comrade Tulayev, this sets in motion an effort to frame political enemies for the murder, thus killing two or more birds with one stone. In this case, the enemies chosen are a general, formerly a favorite but who might or might not be siding with the "revolutionaries," and a lawyer who has also fallen from presidential favor; the beggars from the cathedral porch are forced to "confess" that they saw these two murder the colonel. Plot and counterplot take off from there, with others drawn into the conspiracy, sometimes horrifyingly so, as in the case of a poor woman who is thought to be connected to the general and, after being tortured and forced to let her infant son die, is sold to a brothel.

Although there are many subplots, and many characters, the heart of the novel is the president's "favorite," Miguel Angel Face ("He was as beautiful and as wicked as Satan.") and his surprising (to him) developing relationship with Camilla, the daughter of the disgraced general. Originally assigned by the president to help the general "escape," Angel Face involved the daughter in the scheme and either kidnapped her or spirited her away, according to what he told others. Angel Face is by no means an angel, but he does eventually experience the pangs of conscience as he comes to love Camilla.

Asturias was influenced by the French surrealists, and there are a variety of surreal effects and dream sequences in this book, as well as some lyrical descriptions of nature and landscape, some satirical sections, and some terrifying portrayals of the prison experience. Overall, it explores the insanity of dictatorship at many levels: not only how it views the slightest thing as an assault on the government (for example, when an illiterate sacristan accidentally tears down a presidentially important poster instead of the one for an event that has already happened and is thrown into jail as a revolutionary) but also how it affects people psychologically, whether they are struggling to survive, in prison, or (temporarily) a favorite of the dictatorship. It also dramatically explores the use of newspapers in spreading propaganda and information that isn't true but that serves the presidential agenda. Marred only by one anti-Semitic paragraph, this is a complex book and a devastating indictment,
4 vote rebeccanyc | Aug 6, 2014 |
So beautiful, and sad. One moment you think everything is lost, but then is not, and then it is worst than you thought. ( )
  Kirmuriel | Sep 19, 2013 |
A grim, sometimes satirical portrait of life under a totalitarian regime in an unidentified Latin American country. ( )
  Sullywriter | Apr 3, 2013 |
It is approaching nighttime, and in the porch of the cathedral of the capital of an unnamed Latin American country, the beggars and the most destitute of the city, gather to inspect their miserly belongings, nickel coins, and scraps of food before appropriating empty spaces for themselves to sleep in the night in. Their sleep was punctuated only by the sound of the footsteps of police patrolling the square below and the click of the sentinel's arms at the gates of the presidential palace. But tonight, something happened which would turn their miserable existence into something even more pitiful and horrifying. They were witness to a murder committed on the steps of cathedral. And the dead man was no ordinary person, for he was one or formerly one of the President's close allies.

The novel opens on this scene and sets the stage for the dark and ominous mood that pervades the country under the dictatorship. From this scene, the story shifts its focus on the President's favorite, a man called Angel Face, who was tasked to take care of the "disappearance" of General Canales, also a close associate of the President but who recently fell into disgrace. We do not know the exact nature of his offense, but he is now considered to be a rebel. The complications occur when Angel Face, in attempting to convince the General to flee (this was his specific assignment), was preempted by the arrival of other military who took the General away by force, and was left with the General's daughter, Camila. Angel Face himself was ruthless and cruel, he was not top hatchet man for nothing, but seeing the injustice of it all and the effect on the devastated young woman evoked in him a sense of duty and compassion, and he grows to love her. He knew what he was in for, but his devotion to Camila and now awareness of truth and justice brooked no halfhearted commitment on his part. Angel Face marries her, supposedly with the blessings of the President, but he knew too that his days were numbered. He is now the enemy. Many other incidents took place, highlighting the terror that dictated the actions of the citizens -- fear of being spied on, of displeasing those in power, of falling out of the favour of the President. Horrific deeds were widespread and commonplace and were never talked about. Years pass, the President continues to be at the height of his power, opponents are nowhere to be found for they have all been crushed, and a sinister calm pervades. We see a woman with a child, still waiting in hope for a certain prisoner to be released. But we know it is a hopeless wait. Deception, secrecy and lies hound our protagonists until the very end. ( )
  deebee1 | Sep 21, 2012 |
Asturias's precursor book to García Márquez's Magic Realism, which is typical for Middle and South American writers.
  hbergander | Mar 10, 2011 |
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'Doem di-doem, dof en fel, verre hemel, diepe hel!' De kerkklokken, oproepend tot gebed, bleven nagalmen in de oren van de mensen, met abrupte overgang van licht naar donker, van donker naar licht.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0881339512, Paperback)

Winner! Nobel Prize for Literature. Guatemalan diplomat and writer Miguel Angel Asturias (1899-1974) began this award-winning work while still a law student. It is a story of ruthless dictator and his schemes to dispose of a political adversary in an unnamed Latin American country usually identified as Guatemala. The book has been acclaimed for portraying both a totalitarian government and its damaging psychological effects. Drawing from his experiences as a journalist writing under repressive conditions, Asturias employs such literary devices as satire to convey the government's transgressions and surrealistic dream sequences to demonstrate the police state's impact on the individual psyche. Asturias's stance against all forms of injustice in Guatemala caused critics to view the author as a compassionate spokesperson for the oppressed. "My work," Asturias promised when he accepted the Nobel Prize, "will continue to reflect the voice of the people, gathering their myths and popular beliefs and at the same time seeking to give birth to a universal consciousness of Latin American problems."

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:42:19 -0400)

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