A Show of Heads
- I the Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos, translated by Helen Lane
Faber, 433 pp, £9.95, March 1987, ISBN 0 571 14626 0
In the autumn of 1967 in London, I coincided with the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. We had both read, recently and with admiration, as well as a touch of envy, Edmund Wilson’s masterly portraits of the American Civil War, Patriotic Gore. Sitting in a pub in Hampstead, we thought it would be a good idea to have a comparable book on Latin America. An imaginary portrait gallery immediately stepped forward, demanding incarnation: the Latin American dictators.
Individuals such as Mexico’s Santa Anna, the peg-legged cockfighter who lost the South-West to President Polk’s Manifest Destiny; or Venezuela’s Juan Vicente Gomez, who announced his own death in order to punish those who dared celebrate it; or El Salvador’s Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, who fought off scarlet fever by having street lights wrapped in red paper; or Bolivia’s Enrique Peñaranda, of whom his mother famously said, ‘If I had known that my son was going to be president, I would have taught him to read and write’ – all of them pose a tremendous problem for Latin American novelists. How to compete with history? How to create characters richer, crazier, more imaginative?
Vargas and I sought an answer by inviting a dozen Latin American authors to write a novella each – no more than fifty pages per capita – on their favourite national tyrant. The collective volume would be called Los Padres de las Patrias (‘The Fathers of the Fatherlands’), and the French publisher Claude Gallimard took it up instantly. Unfortunately, it proved impossible to co-ordinate the multiple tempi and varied wills of a wide variety of writers who included, if my recall is as good as that of Roa Bastos’s El Supremo, Roa Bastos himself, Argentina’s Julio Cortazar, Venezuela’s Miguel Otero Silva, Colombia’s Gabriel García Marquez, Cuba’s Alejo Carpentier, the Dominican Republic’s Juan Bosch and Chile’s José Donoso and Jorge Edwards (one of them promised to take on a Bolivian dictator). When the project fell through, three of these authors went on to write fulllength novels of their own: Carpentier’s El Recurso del Método (Reasons of State), García Marquez’s El Otoño del Patriarca (The Autumn of the Patriarch) and Roa Bastos’s Yo el Supremo (I the Supreme).
Carpentier chose to dwell on a mixture of Venezuela’s Cipriano Castro and Guatemala’s Estrada Cabrera, re-creating the figure of the ‘enlightened despot’ who liked to spend most of his time in Paris at the opera, but would come back home and squash military rebellions without missing a beat of Rigoletto: he ends his life in a Right Bank apartment which he has filled with orchids, hammocks, potted palms and monkeys. García Marquez’s Patriarch is a sum of characteristics drawn from Venezuela’s Gomez, Bolivia’s Peñaranda, Santo Domingo’s Trujillo, and, especially, from the contemporary Iberian tyrants, Spain’s Franco and Portugal’s Salazar, who took so long in dying that their deaths seemed longer than their lives: were they, after all, immortal?
The Paraguayan Augusto Roa Bastos has his hands full with one single biography: that of the Paraguayan despot, Dr Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia, who ruled his country as ‘Perpetual Dictator’ from 1816 to his death, at the age of 74, in 1840. Dr Francia’s government thus coincided with the epic of independence and then with the drama (and the melodramas) of organising an independent Latin American republic. Paraguay’s lot was a difficult one. Isolated in the heart of South America, where it had been a colonial preserve of the Jesuits; surrounded by ambitious neighbours – the giants, Brazil and Argentina, that Paraguayans were to fight, quite literally, to the last man; besieged by endless territorial strife over the Chaco with Bolivia, Paraguay was caught, at the beginning of its national life, in a quandary: had it achieved freedom from Spain only to become a province of Argentina or a fiefdom of Brazil?
The possibility of Latin American unity broke down when no one heeded the recommendation of the Count of Aranda, minister to Charles III of Spain, that a commonwealth of Spanish-speaking nations be formed to counter the rising power of Anglo-America. The fall of Spain to Napoleon in 1808 unleashed the Spanish American wars of independence and, with them, the ambitions of sundry provincial satraps. The Spanish empire of the Americas degenerated, in many cases, into the properly called republiquetas or mini-republics, in which a local chieftain asserted his power against the rule of the larger national state: such was the case of the republiquetas stretching from Father Ildefonso de las Muñecas’s political corral on Lake Titicaca to the violent feudality of Facundo Quiroga in Argentina, described in Domingo Sarmiento’s 19th-century classic, Facundo: Civilisation or Barbarism.
Civilisation or barbarism? Law or violence? National or local rule? Most of Latin America, unable to restore the Iberian commonwealth on democratic grounds, chose nationalism as the lesser evil between a lost amphictyony or a menancing Balkanisation. This choice was philosophically blessed by Enlightenment doctrines, or, as the young Dr Francia informs a furious priest in Roa Bastos’s novel: ‘We ... are endeavouring to make everything new with the help of masons such as Rousseau, Montesquieu, Diderot, Voltaire, and others as good as they are’. In Paraguay, Dr Francia decided to make virtue out of necessity and transferred his parochial power into a national power. He turned the fact of Paraguayan isolation into nationalistic virtue, effectively sealing off the country with the pretext of saving it from absorption in Argentina or Brazil. Naming himself El Supremo, Francia forbad commerce, travel or even a mail service between Paraguay and the outer world. Foreigners who happened to enter Paraguay remained there for ever, like characters in Evelyn Waugh.
El Supremo cloaked his iron chauvinism with a populist mantle. His introverted republic was by necessity autarchic, it created a subsistence economy, it favoured mob rule (la chusma), attacked and weakened the Church: yet it finally protected and strengthened traditional oligarchic interests. Dr Francia’s prolonged reign demonstrates a past commonly ignored: nationalism in Latin America has its origins on the right, rather than on the internationally and intellectually-oriented left. And it highlights one that is commonly understood: despotic populism disguises the stasis imposed by the tyrant. It gives the impression of movement, but does not change anything.
Augusto Roa Bastos, who was born in 1917, left Paraguay in 1947 and has been in exile ever since, as the present tyrant, General Alfredo Stroessner, out-reigns El Supremo. Roa Bastos will certainly outlive them both. He is his country’s most eminent writer, his works are few, self-contained (very Paraguayan) and brilliantly written. Yet his masterpiece, I the Supreme, which first came out in Spanish in 1974 and finally reaches the English reading public today, in a suitably masterful translation by Helen Lane, is the kind of summa that absorbs everything that the writer has done before. This is Roa Bastos’s dialogue with himself through history and through a monstrous historical figure whom he has to imagine and understand if he is to imagine and understand himself and his people.
The brilliant literary ploy used by Roa Bastos in I the Supreme poses the relationship between self and other: between individual destiny and historical destiny. Dialogical in the Bakhtinian sense, I the Supreme is a voice addressed to the other: you the reader, Dr Francia the historical figure, El Supremo the fictional character, and Roa Bastos the Paraguayan writer. It begins, literally, with handwriting on the wall: an anonymous pamphleteer has nailed a piece of paper on the door of the Cathedral (shades of Lutheran rebellion!) apocryphally signed by El Supremo, in which the Perpetual Dictator orders that ‘on the occasion of my death my corpse be decapitated, my head placed on a pike for three days’. The people are to be summoned by church bells to see El Supremo’s head and all his civil and military servants are to be hanged at once.
This announcement of his own death by the Eternal Tyrant unleashes the protean writing of the novel. The dictator demands of his bumbling secretary that the author of the libel be found (he never is), the secretary writes down things said by El Supremo. El Supremo corrects him, talks to the dog Sultan, writes down his own secrets in a private notebook which is really (a nice Dickensian touch) ‘an outsized ledger, of the sort that from the beginning of his government El Supremo uses to keep track of the treasury’. He now sets forth in these folios, ‘in a disjointed, incoherent fashion, events, ideas, reflections, minutely detailed and well-nigh maniacal observations on any number of entirely different subjects: those which in his opinion were positive in the credit column: negative, in the debit column’. So says the compiler, who annotates the book throughout, creating a kind of second or ghostly text, parallel to, sometimes in opposition to, sometimes supportive of, El Supremo’s own ruminations. Add to this official documents, a log-book, snippets of memoirs from people who knew El Supremo, cullings from biographies (including one by Thomas Carlyle), diplomatic dispatches, the precise and illuminating footnotes provided by Ms Lane for the translation (adding yet another scriptural level), and the chillingly naive responses of schoolchildren to the Government’s query: How do you see the Sacrosanct image of our Supreme National Government? ‘The Supreme Dictator is a thousand years old like God and has shoes with gold buckles,’ answers pupil Liberta Patricia Nunes, aged 12. ‘The Supreme Dictator is the one who gave us the Revolution. He’s in command now, because he wants to be, forever and ever,’ writes pupil Amancia Recaldo, age nine. This intertextual wealth adds up to an impressive portrait of a whole colonial society in the throes of learning how to swim, or how best not to drown, in the seas of national independence. Students of African and Asian decolonisation will find much to reflect upon in the pages of I the Supreme.
Roa Bastos is especially good at rendering the fascinating cultural gaps of Latin America, where the élite worships modernity, progress and the law, and the people worship Guarani jungle deities. The Roman legalistic tradition is one of the strongest components in Latin American culture: from Cortes to Zapata, we only believe in what is written down and codified. But next to this belief is a faith that accepts the power of a cacique who can sneeze three times and become invisible. Poised between Voltaire and Pocahontas, the Eternal Dictator fills in the desperate vacuum: reason and magic, law and practice. He does it through whim and repression (‘The problems of political meteorology were resolved once and for all in less than a week by firing-squads’), and reform (he deprived the clergy of the wealth and power accumulated in colonial times): but, above all, he does if through the feeling that he must do what he does, and do what he wants to do, because it he does not, no one else will. El Supremo unwittingly reveals that he is occupying the space of a weak or non-existent civil society. But instead of helping to nurture it, he draws the tragic conclusion of hubris: he is indispensable, therefore he is history. ‘I don’t write history. I make it. I can remake it as I please, adjusting, stressing, enriching its meaning and truth.’
Here lie both the servitude and the grandeur of El Supremo. He offers his people a sick Utopia, where law and order are values unto themselves – and indeed, Paraguay under his rule was a peaceful place. But so are graveyards. His grandeur is that, finally, he has no way of approaching the making of history except by writing it: he can’t remake it, adjust it, stress or enrich it otherwise. He pretends that he can issue ‘a perpetual circular’, a kind of bureaucratometaphysical ukase for the ages. Yet he is painfully wise, and even tragically aware of what awaits him. He is an illusion: ‘A chimaera has occupied the place of my person’. He is incapable of controlling everything: ‘The thing is, no one ever manages to understand how our deeds survive us’. He cannot say, along with Conrad’s Kurtz, ‘The horror, the horror,’ because he has not been able to reign over nothing. The human interest of Roa Bastos’s creation is that, far from inventing a stereotypical dictator, the novelist has given us a man at odds with himself, a monster blessed with a kind of baroque freedom, who can judge himself irreplaceable while at the same time conceiving his dead body as a few remains in an old noodle box – which is, in effect, where he ends.
El Supremo does not like writers. He would have them shrunk and shrivelled ‘till they’re small enough to be put in a bottle’. Yet as he does battle with the words that will prolong his life beyond his deeds, El Supremo depends more and more on the other Paraguayan, the novelist Roa Bastos, who sustains the perverse humanity of the despot through words and history and papers and, most especially, the gift of image and metaphor. In one extreme of the book, the dictator as a boy is rowed down the river by his putative father, who is taking his son to Cordoba University. This image of El Supremo’s humanity meets an image of his power on the same river: a political prisoner is condemned to row for ever, stopping at pre-assigned posts for food; then he stops no more and rows for ever up and down the stream. ‘He’s nothing but a great shock of hair with a pigtail more than ten feet long that trails in the current as he rows’. Three acolytes carry lighted tapers that the rain and wind cannot extinguish; an old cacique avoids the white leprosy of the moon and walks around with lighted candles on his hat; horsemen charge, alight, saddle and unsaddle, charge again and snatch the lances off the ground. A head is exhibited inside an iron cage. El Supremo’s ‘clothes gave up red steam in the sudden sun that appeared against the sky, magically causing the high wind and rain to cease. I crossed the Plaza de Armas, followed by a growing crowd acclaiming my name’. El Supremo thus enters, now and forever Asuncion, ‘the red Jerusalem of South America’. The papers tell us that this happened: they have survived, in spite of the rats and the humidity and the fire that destroys them a few days before El Supremo’s death.