OBITUARY: AUGUSTO ROA BASTOS ; Author of 'I, the Supreme'
Kirkup, James, The Independent (London, England)
Paraguay's foremost modern author was compelled to live for over 50 years in exile in Argentina and in Europe. But he never forgot his origins, and often combined in his style both classical Spanish and the native idiom, Guarani, used by the Indians inhabiting Paraguay, Bolivia and southern Brazil. The combination produced a unique and colourful style with haunting inflections. In 1971 his work was awarded a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Prize. In 1989, he was rewarded by the Cervantes Prize for Literature.
Like many novelists, he began by writing poetry, and became known as one of 'the 1940 Generation' that included Hrib Campos Cervera, Josefina Pla and a younger fellow exile, Elvio Romero, poet of passionate social protest. Roa Bastos' first poetry collection was El Ruiseor y la Aurora ('The Nightingale and the Dawn', 1936). It was followed by El Naranjal Ardiente ('Orange Grove Afire', written in 1947-49 but not published until 1960). He did not revert to poetry until later in life, with Metaforismos (1996) and La Tierra sin Mal ('Land of No Evil', 1998). In all his work, he often returns in memory to his childhood in the Indian village of Iturbe near Asuncin, where his father ran a sugar refinery. It was the background for much of his future fiction's mythical everyday fantasies.
As a youth, Roa Bastos was full of passionate convictions. At the age of 15 he volunteered as a stretcherbearer in the civil war in the great central plain called the Chaco. He was fascinated by Spanish 17th-century literature, the refined poetic style of Gongora that at first he imitated, and above all by the language of the Guarani Indians. He began writing for newspapers like the independent El Pas, for which he became for a while the London correspondent. He was also one of the first to write specially for radio.
During the 1947 civil war he was appointed cultural attach to the Paraguayan government's embassy in Buenos Aires. It was here he began composing his short stories and novels. Among the former, El Trueno entre las Hojas ('Thunder in the Leaves', 1953) rivals in the violence of its social protests the works of the Guatemalan writer Miguel Angel Asturias, whose El seor Presidente (1966) influenced Roa Bastos' Yo el Supremo (1974).
Yo el Supremo, translated into English as I, the Supreme (1986), is one of the major texts of Latin-American literature. 'It is,' writes his fellow novelist and warm admirer Carlos Fuentes, 'a dialogue between Roa Bastos and Roa Bastos covering the course of history through the monstrous and paralysingly cruel dictator Jos Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia (1816-1840).' The story takes us up to modern times with the war on the Chaco. As always, the humanist in Roa Bastos was stirred to pity for the victims of senseless war: 'Only the heroism of the meek and the gentleness of those who suffered can redeem this evil that men commit against their brothers.' At the same time, the dictator's spiritual and human defects are honestly revealed as he poses, the Supremo, as a founder and father of the nation. The author takes care to show us that it is possible to reconsider this deranged dictator as a politician of genius who was able to overcome internal oligarchy and foreign threats of intervention.
It was Fuentes who originally suggested this theme, encouraged also by Mario Vargas Llosa. These two great writers from South America imagined a new project for Latin-American writers: each was asked to write a short story inspired by the life of one of the numerous dictators in the history of the continent. …