Miguel Ángel Asturias (ahs-TEWR-yahs) is considered one of the three most important Latin American writers of his generation (Jorge Luis Borges and Alejo Carpentier are the other two) and one of the two major influences in the twentieth century on the development of the Latin American novel. He was born in Guatemala City, Guatemala, to Ernesto Asturias, a magistrate, and María Rosales, a schoolteacher, on October 19, 1899, a year after the accession to the presidency of the infamous dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera. Unable to tolerate the politically vindictive and repressive measures of the Estrada Cabrera regime, Ernesto Asturias moved his family to a small village near the outskirts of Guatemala City. There, and later in Salamá, an even smaller village in the Guatemalan interior, young Miguel’s contact with the magical vision of the indigenous Indian cultures initiated his personal education and stimulated his artistic development.
Miguel Ángel Asturias
Travels into the hinterland with his maternal grandfather to oversee the family estates were also a regular part of his early years and subsequently provided the intimate knowledge and experience of Indian languages, lifestyles, and traditions which would lead Asturias in later years to first the writing of a thesis (Sociología guatemalteca: El problema social del indio) on the social problems of the Indians in Guatemala and later, in the mid-1920’s, to the formal study (and translation into Spanish) of pre-Columbian literary and mythological texts.
The years from 1899 to 1920, lived under the sternly repressive government of Estrada Cabrera, were decisive in shaping the political and artistic temperament of the writer. As a student activist, Asturias spearheaded the founding of a popular university in 1922 following the overthrow of the Estrada Cabrera dictatorship (an event to which his activities had significantly contributed). As a community project, the popular university was intended to increase the social and political influence of the underprivileged sectors of Guatemalan society through the contributions and active involvement of the middle class in educational and other programs for the poor.
Although granted his law degree in 1923, because he was an editor of a weekly journal called Tiempos Nuevos (new times), Asturias was forced into exile when the paper fell into disfavor with the succeeding regime. It was during this first of several exiles in London, and later Paris, that Asturias returned to his diary in a notebook–begun in December of 1917, in response to the great earthquake that leveled Guatemala City–to produce the stories that were subsequently transformed into his first expression of devotion to his country and his first published work, Leyendas de Guatemala (legends of Guatemala).
Breaking with the realist and naturalist traditions of “Indianist” writings of previous generations, Asturias expanded the possibilities of the genre by infusing a conventional narrative style with the mythopoeic language and the oneiric texture and modes of perception found in the sixteenth century works Popol Vuh and Annals of the Cakchiquels. Under the notable influence of these surviving sacred texts of the Maya Quiché and Maya Cakchiquels, his authoritative knowledge derived from five years of literary and anthropological studies at the Musée de l’Homme and the Sorbonne in Paris, and inspired by the theories and techniques of French Surrealism for exploring the unconscious in literature and art, Asturias brought an unprecedented degree of innovation and authenticity to Latin American imaginative writings about Indians.
Although the critical reception accorded his first book was favorable and encouraging, nearly sixteen years separate the stories of Leyendas de Guatemala from Asturias’s first novel, The President. It began as a short story (“Los mendigos politicos,” the political beggars) written originally for a literary contest in Guatemala in 1923 but never submitted. Stimulated by personal memories evoked by meetings of exiled writers to discuss and compare anecdotes on Latin American dictatorships they had known, the story evolved over the next two decades from oral speech and tale into what is generally considered to be the author’s most important novel. First published in Mexico in 1946, The President epitomizes the most characteristic and persistent elements found in Asturias’s fiction: the fusion of myth, dream, and magic to establish a specific cultural frame of reference; political portraiture and social criticism; linguistic inventiveness; complexity of narrative structure; and technical experimentation designed to expand the experience of the novel beyond the narrow confines of naturalism and literary regionalism. The themes of humankind in harmony with nature, people’s resistance to economic exploitation, and the evil and cruelty of political corruption are also central to the novel’s purpose.
In 1952 Asturias received the Prix International du Livre Français for the French translation of The President and, in 1972, the William Faulkner Foundation’s Ibero-American Novel Award when the English translation appeared. Although based on incidents of the Estrada Cabrera dictatorship, the novel’s events exist in that kind of fantastically timeless dimension and locale intended to evoke the “hallucinatory” perception and experience of the world that Asturias associates with the indigenous, pre-Columbian imagination: realismo mágico. This “Magical Realism” became the dominant tendency in Latin American prose fiction of the twentieth century, and Asturias is considered one of its inventors and (along with Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier) most successful practitioners.
The critical success of The President was followed three years later by Men of Maize, the novel Asturias identified as his favorite. Based on Indian legends of humankind’s creation by the gods from corn, the novel is much more obscure, much more Indianist, and much less nightmarish in atmosphere than The President.
Asturias returned to Guatemala in 1933 and established a radio news program, “El diario del aire” (daily news on the air). It was the only news commentary program under the right-wing regime of then-president Ubico Castañeda. Following the 1944 revolution, Asturias was appointed to diplomatic posts in Mexico, Argentina, France, and El Salvador. The years from 1954 to 1959 saw him again in exile. Artistically, these were very productive years. He completed his Banana Trilogy, begun in 1950 with Strong Wind and followed by The Green Pope and The Eyes of the Interred. This trilogy was followed by The Bejeweled Boy, Mulata, and Maladrón, along with several collections of short stories, several volumes of poetry, and numerous journalistic writings.
In 1966 Asturias was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize. In 1967 he became the first Latin American novelist to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, and in 1970 he was made a member of the French Légion d’Honneur. These prestigious awards gave international recognition of his importance. They also contributed greatly to diminishing negative criticism of the author’s works because of the pervasive Marxist, anti-American themes explicit in his narratives. Today there is neither question of Asturias’s literary achievements nor debate over the significance of his contribution to world literature.