Literature of the Bicentenary
I, the Supreme Dictator of the Republic, hereby order that when my death occurs my corpse shall be decapitated. The head shall be placed on a stake for three days in the Plaza of the Republic where the people shall gather at the sound of the ringing bells.
All of my civil servants and military men shall be hanged. Their corpses shall be buried in pasturelands outside the city without a cross or any marking to remember their names.
When this has occurred, I order my remains to be burned and the ashes thrown into the river....
(Excerpt from Yo el Supremo)
On May 13, 2011 Paraguay will celebrate its 200th year as an independent nation, which makes this a particularly opportune moment to reflect on the literature of the bicentenary and on one of Paraguay's best known writers, Augusto Roa Bastos. The Paraguayan author's 1974 novel Yo el Supremo (English translation by Helen Lane, I the Supreme, 1986) is an especially rich entry into the period of emancipation in that it includes Paraguay's liberator-dictator as a main character, but also includes a number of other important figures in the liberation of the continent. Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes calls Roa Bastos "a bright light who has painted an impressive portrait of all of colonial society."
In April 26, 1990, the King of Spain at the time, Juan Carlos de Borbon, presented Roa Bastos with the prestigious Cervantes Award for Literature. In his speech, he emphasized that Roa's masterpiece contained all the elements of the Hispano-American novel but also an analysis of the years of liberation. "This desire of Roa Bastos to recreate historic memory nourishes and enriches the identity of the peoples of the Americas and rescues the stories of their roots and origins from oblivion," he said.
Yo el Supremo is a novel about the main character in Paraguay's independence, Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia, who was decisive in the overthrow of the Spanish governor Bernardo de Velasco in 1811 and then governed the country with an iron fist until his death in 1840. In the book, the "Dictator for Life"--as Rodriguez de Francia proclaimed himself in 1816--reflects on the exercise and scope of his all-encompassing power, and he does so in a very particular way--from beyond the grave.
"From that state of life beyond death ... from that throne of the afterworld, installed in a crypt, where he dwelled as a reclining and somber Dios termino, a voice arose, an unceasing cryptic monologue; it was the spoken word dictated by El Supremo into writing; the word that was heard first and written later, as it is in all the great books of humanity written for the people so that individuals will read it. The people were saved, but in the diktat of El Supremo the corrupting seed of despotism was planted," Roa says.
Rodriguez de Francia did indeed sow cursed seeds that multiplied later in the history of Paraguay as one dictator after another subjected the inhabitants of the country to abusive and arbitrary rule. The last version of this was what appeared to be the interminable tyranny of General Alfredo Stroessner, who ruled the country between 1954 and 1989.
In his fictionalized account of real historic events, Roa explores the complex labyrinth of the Dictator's personality through an intense monologue about the "providential" nature of his leadership. In El Supremo's mind he had to fight relentlessly to consolidate the self-determination of Paraguay, defending against what he saw as Argentina's constant ambition to annex it. To ensure Paraguay's independence, "Dr. Francia" literally closed the country to external influences, prohibiting any contact with the outside world.
At this point, another real character from the Southern Cone liberation movements emerges, Argentine founding father Manuel Belgrano, the main protagonist of the 1810 May Revolution. …