Miguel Angel Asturias: 1899-1974: Writer, Statesman Biography
Miguel Angel Asturias was both a writer and a social champion. He spent his life fighting for the rights of Indians, for the freedom of Latin American countries from both dictatorships and outside influences—especially the United States—and for a more even distribution of wealth. He wrote mainly about the ancient Quiche culture. He was best known for his novels, such as El senor presidente and Hombres de maiz, but he was also a notable short-story writer, poet, dramatist, and translator. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1967.
Asturias was born a year after the dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera came to power in Guatemala. Born October 19, 1899, in Guatemala City, to Ernesto Asturias, an attorney and district court judge, and Maria Rosales de Asturias, a teacher, Asturias lived a life full of political intrigue and saw many changes of government in his home country. After Ernesto Asturias dismissed a case against some medical students who were protesting the Cabrera regime, he was dismissed from his judicial position and disenfranchised, and he and his family were forced to flee Guatemala City. They went to the small town of Salama where some of the Asturias' Indian relatives lived. It was during this time of exile that Asturias learned about the Mayan culture from his mother and his Indian nanny, Lola Reyes. He learned many things at this time that would later appear in his writing. The Asturias family returned to Guatemala City in 1906 at which time Asturias' father became a sugar and flour importer. In an interview translated in Review magazine, Asturias recalled how he started writing. "I wanted to be a writer, and I became one when the great earthquake [at 10:20pm on December 25, 1917] destroyed Guatemala City. During that period I wrote my first poems and my first short stories. Someone even saw fit to publish them."
After finishing high school, Asturias went to college and received his degree in law from the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala. His graduate thesis Sociologia guatemalteca: El problema social del indio (Guatemalan Sociology) won him both the Premio Galvez and the Chavez Prize for his lively prose. He also co-founded the Universidad Popular de Guatemala (People's University), a place where lawyers, engineers, and doctors conducted free classes for workers and peasants. His leftist political views under the regime of president Jose Maria Orellana led to a brief imprisonment. He was sent to London by his father partly to get him out of harm's way and partly to study international law and economics. He quickly found himself, however, more engrossed with the Mayan materials at the British Museum than his studies and soon after moved to Paris to study anthropology instead.
While he was in Paris, Asturias met many notable literary and scholarly figures, including Ramon del Valle-Inclan, Miguel de Unamuno, James Joyce, Andre Breton, Pablo Picasso, Alejo Carpentier, Tristan Tzara, Pablo Neruda, Robert Desnos, Alfonso Reyes, Arturo Uslar Pietri, and Louis Aragon. He studied at the Sorbonne with another famous scholar, Georges Raynaud—a specialist in Mayan culture. Raynaud had translated the Popol Vuh, a sacred Mayan text, from the original language into French, and later, under his tutelage, Asturias translated the book from French into Spanish.
Around the same time, Asturias published a book of stories called Leyendas de Guatemala, a collection of Indian tales. Asturias categorized the book, a mix of Indian lore and realism, as "magical realism." In an interview translated in Review magazine, Asturias described what this term meant: "An Indian, or a mestizo, someone who lives in a small village, tells of having seen how a cloud or an enormous stone changed into a person or into a giant, or how the cloud became a stone…. The Indian thinks in images. He does not see things in process, but he always displaces them into another dimension, in which we see the real disappear and the dream emerge, in which dreams are transformed into tangible and visible reality."
Asturias returned to Guatemala in 1933 during the regime of Jorge Ubico. He spent his time during Ubico's term in office writing poetry and supporting himself with journalism and a professorial post. In 1939 he married Clemencia Amado, with whom he eventually had two sons, Rodrigo and Miguel Angel (the couple divorced in 1947). In 1946, when a more liberal government had taken power, Asturias published the book El senor presidente, a novel originally written in protest of the dictatorship of Manuel Estrada Cabrera, but which came to be applied toward the horrors perpetrated by every dictator who ever ruled over a Central American country. It has been called an affecting story of a nation that was controlled by terror. He had been working on the book since 1922.
From 1946 to 1954 Asturias served as Guatemalan ambassador to Mexico, Argentina, and El Salvador. He continued to publish during this time. Hombres de maiz was a six-part novel about Indian cultures' problems when faced with progressive modern technology. It was a novel filled with magic and metaphor he learned during his time with the Mayans. The Latin American Literary Review said of Asturias' writing, "[Far] too taken with existence, his own existence, to actively and sympathetically become engrossed with Europe's post-war hassles, Miguel Angel promptly disrobed reality of her austere dress and affectionately arrayed her in the sensual, colorful, transparent silks of his mind's fancy."
He next wrote a trilogy of books all concerned with oppressive North American influences on Central American workers. Viento fuerte (Strong Wind), El papa verde (The Green Pope), and Los ojos de los enterrados (The Eyes of the Interred), have often been found by critics to be aggressive and lacking in the magical poetic quality of Asturias' other works, although they remained three of Asturias' favorite works. The same is true of the book of short stories titled Weekend en Guatemala, a collection of angry stories concerning the invasion of exiled leader Carlos Castillo Armas, who Asturias contended had the help of the United States. In an interview translated in Review, Asturias said of the trilogy, "The trilogy means a lot to me because there was an existential conscientiousness in its origin that I hadn't previously taken very seriously. When I faced the reality of the plantations, my conscience awoke. And that was the reality of my country, not an invention of mine; it was in no way imaginary.
I repeat: it was the reality of my country that reduced me to a state of despair and forced me to tell myself and others what is contained in these novels."
Asturias, after divorcing his first wife, met and married his second wife, Blanca Mora y Araujo, in 1950. She was Argentinian, so when Asturias was deported in 1954 and lost his Guatemalan citizenship, he went to live in Buenos Aires. He lived there for eight years before the political situation became too dangerous for his family, and then he and his wife headed for Europe. They eventually settled in Paris. He is said to have credited his second wife with making him believe in life again after a long spell of disenchantment.
Asturias and his wife were living in Genoa when his novel Mulata de tal was published. According to I&L, "Miguel Angel Asturias' Mulata de tal is carnival incarnated in the novel. A ribald bacchannalia, it represents a collision between Mayan Mardi Gras and Hispanic baroque. This is a book where masks and metamorphosis are the norm; punning, the lingua franca; and sexual fantasy and farce, the common denominator of all relationships." It was said by the Hispanic Review to be "sufficiently obvious that the whole art of this novel rests upon its language. In general, Asturias matches the visual freedom of the cartoon by using every resource the Spanish language offers him. His use of color is striking and immeasur-ably more liberal than in earlier novels."
In 1966 Asturias won the Lenin Peace Prize and was also named the Guatemalan ambassador to France by the new government of President Julio Mendez Montenegro. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1967. After his death in 1974, Guatemala established an award in his name, the Miguel Angel Asturias Order. He was a man who believed deeply in maintaining Native American culture in Guatemala, and who championed those who were persecuted. His literature was critically acclaimed, but perhaps not always appreciated. According to The Review of Contemporary Fiction, "As an artist, his complexity is such that readers and critics often shy away from his elegant beauty." His magical realism wove a spell around readers, and it is to be believed his works will be appreciated for years to come.
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—Catherine Victoria Donaldson