Academic journal article Hispanic Review

A LATIN AMERICAN INDIAN RE-READS THE CANON: Postcolonial Mimicry in El Señor Presidente

Academic journal article Hispanic Review

A LATIN AMERICAN INDIAN RE-READS THE CANON: Postcolonial Mimicry in El Señor Presidente

Article excerpt

As any Latin American of Indian extraction would testify, it is hard for an Indian to make his or her voice heard. Political and economical exclusion are the norm if not the unwritten law in many countries of the region. Even harder is to hear Indian input in economic, political, and social policies since elected politicians do not usually represent Indians. It is even difficult, almost an anomaly, for an Indian to give his opinion about cultural phenomena, especially art and literature since Latin American literature and subsequent criticism is done with a open pro-European bias not only in the regional praxis but also abroad. Therefore, and I think I speak for many Latin Americans of Indian extraction-who make up the majority in most of the countries of the region-thanks for the Postcolonial. This approach has allowed me to re-read canonical works taking a new refreshing look at them and hoping to bring to light a new body of criticism and, most importantly, to allow the underdogs to give their view about the celebrated and canonized narratives. I see El Señor Presidente not in the vein of the traditional criticism (but not by all means gone) of the writer as the origin of meaning, but of the writer, as Heather Hirschfeld puts it, as "a discursive formation embedded in particular historical conditions and disciplinary needs" (610). In this essay, I concentrate my efforts on the historical discourse that I discern in the work of Miguel Angel Asturias who, as we will see below, ascribed the problems of Guatemala to the presence of the Indians.

In 1931, Miguel Angel Asturias went to France to thank the French writer Paul Valéry for the letter which the latter had written praising Asturias's Leyendas de Guatemala (1930). One wonders what went on in Asturias's mind when Valéry suggested to him to return home to Guatemala. Valéry wanted Asturias to leave France, to go back to the Americas and to write about that effervescent, unknown wilderness that Guatemala offered to the European reader. Valéry wanted Asturias to write not as an imitator of European literature, but as the indigenous voice of that primitive land in a state of formation. For Valéry, who had been very supportive of Leyendas de Guatemala, where Asturias suggested that an atavistic mentality was the main feature of Guatemalan Indians, Asturias and Guatemala were a dual entity " 'en efervecencia como la tierra, los volcanes, Ia naturaleza.' "1 Years later, when Asturias published El Senor Presidente (1941), Valéry's advice seemed to have had a strong influence on the Guatemalan writer. Everything that Valéry dreamed of had come to life.

Although I do not intend to dwell on Valery's ideas, his views fit a pattern of thinking about the Latin American Other. In the pages of El Senor Presidente there is that "efervecencia" that Valéry wanted, which seems to come alive in the natives' primitivism, their misplaced passion and their corrupted persona. I, however, see this novel as the reflection of an inherited ideology in Latin America that has produced specific patterns in the natives' Otherness discernible in a rich body of literary imagery. This type of thinking, which thoroughly pervades Asturias's narrative, is the undying echo of the old and the new assumptions about the ontology of non-Europeans in the Americas. The Other's basic traits are not only imbedded in personal behavior but its presence is also incarnated in the political body which is the expression of the collective wish of the individual.2 In this case, the Other is the Guatemalan society (and its inhabitants) which reveals an ideological thinking proposing that primitivism and degeneration are inherent to Latin American societies.

This qualitative dimension in El Señor Presidente has never been addressed. This novel, in fact, has been seen not as the formulation of a colonial discourse persistent in literary production in the region, but, on the contrary, as the unique novel of political criticism. …

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