Authors: Augusto Roa Bastos

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Paraguayan novelist and short-story writer


Augusto Antonio Roa Bastos (ROH-ah BAHS-tohs) is undoubtedly the most prominent figure in modern Paraguayan literature and one of the leading novelists of Latin America. He spent his childhood in Iturbe, a small village in the Guaitá region, where he learned both Spanish and Guaraní, which is the dominant language of the country. Thus, he was exposed to a particular form of rural bilingualism as a child, which provided one of his most distinguishing traits as a writer.{$I[AN]9810001598}{$I[A]Roa Bastos, Augusto}{$S[A]Bastos, Augusto Roa;Roa Bastos, Augusto}{$I[geo]PARAGUAY;Roa Bastos, Augusto}{$I[geo]BRAZIL;Roa Bastos, Augusto}{$I[tim]1917;Roa Bastos, Augusto}

During his formative years Roa Bastos was sent to the capital city of Asunción to receive formal education at the Colegio de los Padres de San José. While living there and under the tutelage of his maternal uncle Hermenegildo Roa, who later became bishop of Asunción, Roa Bastos read the universal classics–Homer, Dante Alighieri, William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes–and the principal French thinkers of the Enlightenment–Denis Diderot, Jean-Jacques Rousseu, and Voltaire.

When he was fifteen years old, he joined the national army and participated in the Chaco War between Paraguay and Bolivia (1932-1935), a conflict which became a major subject of his novel Son of Man. When the war was finally won by Paraguay, Roa Bastos returned to civilian life to work as a bank employee. He began his literary career with a never published novel, Fulgencio Miranda, which received the Ateneo Paraguayo Prize in 1937. In the next decade he wrote El niño del rocío and Mientras llega el día, two unpublished plays that were presented by the Elenco del Ateneo Paraguayo in Asunción.

For years he was a contributor and a staff member of the Paraguayan newspaper El País. Thanks to a British Council Fellowship, Roa Bastos spent time in England studying journalism. This trip gave him the opportunity to witness the devastation suffered by Europe during World War II. He also visited the North of Africa, Germany, Sweden, and while in France he interviewed General Charles De Gaulle.

Back in his own country, he was appointed Paraguayan cultural attaché in Buenos Aires, but the civil war, which resulted in the long-lasting dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner, forced him to remain in exile beginning in 1947. His literary activity before this moment, which includes most of his poetic attempts and several lost pieces of writing, corresponds unquestionably to a period of apprenticeship. As Roa Bastos himself has recognized, the exile experience was very significant in helping him to develop a committed stance against political violence and Paraguay’s appalling historical record with regard to human rights. Roa Bastos attempted several times to visit his home country, and in 1982 he was accused of trying to promote civil disobedience among youths. As a result, authorities revoked his passport; only after the overthrow of General Stroessner did he recover his citizenship.

In 1959 his novel Son of Man won first prize in an international literary contest organized by Editorial Losada of Buenos Aires. Soon after, he was asked to prepare a screenplay from the novel, and the resulting film won its own prize from the Argentine Institute of Cinematography, thus allowing for a widespread recognition of this Paraguayan writer. In 1961 he was invited by the German Federation of Writers and the Ibero-American Institute of Berlin to participate in a seminar along with writers such as the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges, the Colombian Germán Arciniegas, and the Guatemalan Miguel Ángel Asturias.

During the 1960’s Roa Bastos wrote scripts for the Argentine film industry and published several collections of his short stories, some of them including already published pieces and adding a few new ones.

After holding a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship for creative writers in 1971, Roa Bastos reached the peak of fame with his 1974 novel I the Supreme. The novel, based on the life of José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, dictator of Paraguay between 1814 and 1840, explores the complex relationships between fiction and history. Although Roa Bastos has been considered a modernist writer of the Boom generation, this novel has many characteristics attributed to postmodern narrative such as the use of parody, the carnivalization of historical discourse, and the questioning of the concept of narrative authority. These post-Boom concerns influenced the writing of the younger generation of Latin American novelists which includes Mempo Giardinelli, Isabel Allende, and Luisa Valenzuela.

After ten years of working as a professor of Guaraní and Latin American literature at the University of Toulouse in France, Roa Bastos retired in 1985. In 1989 he was awarded the Miguel de Cervantes Prize, the highest recognition that a Spanish-speaking writer can receive.

BibliographyBalderston, Daniel. “The Making of a Precursor: Carlyle in Yo el Supremo.” Symposium 44 (Fall, 1990): 155-164. Discusses the influence of Thomas Carlyle’s 1843 essay on Doctor Francia on Roa Bastos’s novel.Cuadernos hispanoamericanos 493/494 (July/August, 1991). Special issue devoted to Roa Bastos’s work. Contains a very detailed biobibliography by José L. Roca Martinez and Virgilia Gil Amante.Escritura 15, no. 30 (1990). Special issue devoted to Roa Bastos’s work.Foster, David William. Augusto Roa Bastos. Boston: Twayne, 1978. Offers a structuralist overview of Roa’s literary production, interpretive readings of his major writings, and a useful chronology.Foster, David William. The Myth of Paraguay in the Fiction of Augusto Roa Bastos. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969. Considers El trueno entre las hojas as a tentative program of artistic experimentation, in the way the author sought to create a prophetic vision of humankind which becomes the basis of his Son of Man.Weldt-Basson, Helene Carol. Augusto Roa Bastos’s “I the Supreme”: A Dialogic Perspective. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993. Studies the use of narrative voice, symbolism, history, and intertextuality in the novel and makes a strong case for considering this a key text in Latin American postmodern writing.
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