Augusto Roa Bastos: outwitting reality.
His masterpiece, Yo el Supremo [I the Supreme], is an intricate but balanced and immensely rewarding meditation on the theme of power. El Supremo the self-assigned epithet of Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia, declared himself perpetual dictator of Paraguay, which he ruled as a hermetic fiefdom during the first half of the nineteenth century. It is no accident that the author assigns himself a similar perpetuity of status. He came to identify strongly with Francia's sense of isolation and solitude: the writer locked out of his homeland much like the tyrant was locked in.
Although Roa Bastos has lived in Toulouse, France, since 1976, dividing his time between writing and teaching at a local university, the trajectory of his life began nearly eighty years ago in the little town of Iturbe, east of Asuncion. His father, Lucio Roa, was a very severe man from an old-line Spanish family. He worked as a manager at a local sugar refinery, serving his son his first helpings of totalitarianism, which would preoccupy the author all his life.
"The theme of power, for me, in its different manifestations recurs in all of my work, whether it manifests itself politically, in a religious form, or in a parental or familial context. Power is a tremendous stigma, a kind of human pride that needs to have control of the will of another. It's an antilogical condition that produces a sick society. Repression always produces the counter-stroke of rebellion. Ever since I was very little I felt a need to oppose power, the fierce punishment for little things the basis for which was never conveyed."
In contrast, the writer remembers his mother, Lucia Bastos, of Portuguese background, as a counterpoint to her husband: cultivated for a member of the petite bourgeoisie, she was a good singer and possessed a modest library, including a Spanish-language edition of Charles Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare. It was her son's first exposure to literature.
At age eight the future writer tasted his first bit of exile, an agreeable experience for the most part, residing for several years in Asuncion with his uncle, a prelate named Hermenegildo Roa. "For me, he was my real father. He was a very serious, austere priest, but he supported the education of all of us nephews and nieces living in the interior. He had books that were prohibited, especially for a kid of my age: Rousseau, Voltaire. He said, `I want you to read these with great care.' But at least he let me because he was reasonable, intelligent."
In time the youth learned ideas could be subversive. It was also the beginning of a lifelong interest in French literature, especially the writers of the Enlightenment, another trait shared with Francia.
In 1932, with the outbreak of war between Paraguay and Bolivia over control of the barren Chaco region, Roa Bastos, at age fifteen, enlisted as a field hospital orderly. He saw no action on the front lines, but the human carnage he witnessed nonetheless left deep emotional scars. The war truncated the young man's formal education, but after the cease-fire he began an apprenticeship in journalism working for El Pais, an Asuncion daily. He wrote short stories and poetry on the side. In 1941 he completed his first novel, Fulgencio Miranda, which won a local literary prize, although it was not published. Voraciously he read Rilke, Valery, Cocteau, Eluard, Breton, and Aragon, also some of the North American masters. "Especially Faulkner," Roa Bastos recalls. "I would say he had a major influence on the majority of Latin American writers of my generation: Onetti, Garcia Marquez. We all passed by the house of William Faulkner! There were others, like Hemingway, Hawthorne, Melville, who helped liberate us from the heaviness of the Hispanic style."
As a rising star within his country's literary establishment, Roa Bastos received a travel fellowship from the British Council to travel throughout England, as well as to develop program materials on Latin America for the British Broadcasting Company. "It was 1945. I was there for a year as the war came to a close. I took a Liberty ship carrying wheat from Buenos Aires, a nightmare, eighty to one hundred ships in convoy via the polar route, stopping in Iceland. It was impressive that they worried about bringing foreigners to England at such a time. It was an initiation rite for me, as von Braun's V-2 rockets were landing on Manchester and London."
While in England, Roa Bastos continued to file stories with El Pais, especially pieces on the liberation of France. He was invited to Paris by Andre Malraux and even managed to wrangle a personal interview with de Gaulle.
"In actuality it wasn't a big thing, but in another sense it was important for a campesino like me from an isolated country like Paraguay. I use the word campesino with a measure of pride because in my writing I've tried to recover some dignity for the term. It can mean being isolated, but it also means a life in nature."
Roa Bastos became quite a student of the European conflict, especially the resistance movement in France, and came away with the conclusion that the human world is driven by oppositions. "We are binary creatures. I say that de Gaulle is explained by Petain. Without Petain, there would have been no de Gaulle."
The writer returned to his homeland in 1946 but was obliged to leave before the year was out. "I was filled with the fervor of democracy, of liberty. I'd written strong articles against two military governments, so they forced me into exile. I hid out with a friend in the Brazilian embassy and then headed for Buenos Aires to build a new life."
For several years he lived an impoverished existence working part-time as a waiter, door-to-door salesman, proofreader, insurance salesman. He also worked for a music publishing house translating Guarani folk music into Spanish.
"Exile was a permanent school that taught me to see things with greater seriousness. It was also pain, like a death, a state of mourning," the author explains. "It took me four or five years to withdraw from depression not just psychologically but ontologically, to recover my dignity as a human being, which had retreated into the shadows. I turned to writing as a vehicle to recover my human condition, my dignity as an individual."
In between his part-time jobs, Roa Bastos managed to squeeze out a collection of seventeen short stories, published in 1953 as El trueno entre las hojas [Thunder Among the Leaves]. Dealing with political oppression, the clash of indigenous and foreign cultures, and the struggle to survive war and other catastrophic events, the stories rendered the Paraguayan experience in symbolic and mythic terms. The book attracted the attention of Argentine director Armando Bo, who proposed a cinematographic adaptation. Roa Bastos responded with a script, which was accepted, just the first of many screenplays he would produce over the years to make ends meet.
The author's first novel in exile Hijo de hombre [Son of Man], was published in 1960. It opens with events associated with the Francia era and the War of the Triple Alliance as a prelude to later tragedies, both the Chaco War and the pervasive exploitation of campesinos, notably those working in the misery of the cane fields and yerbales, mate tea plantations. As the title might suggest, the novel rings with a strong religious overtone, the narrative generated by a peasant serving as a Christ figure and a military officer in the guise of Judas. Hijo de hombre won several prizes, as did a film version variously titled La sed and Choferes del Chaco, an adaptation by the author of just one chapter dealing with the water trucks that supported the troops in the parched Chaco.
Hijo de hombre did much to establish Roa Bastos as a full-fledged member of the literary establishment of Buenos Aires. By the mid-sixties he was teaching literature courses at the National University of Rosario and attending international conferences with other Latin American writers. He worked on several projects with Ernesto Sabato. He also came to know Jorge Luis Borges.
"He remains one of my great heroes," says Roa Bastos. "I first met Borges as he was trying to cross the street. His eyesight was failing by then He was hit by the fear that he was about to meet a violent end, so he froze in his tracks. I took him by the arm and helped out. We came to know each other quite well Life for Borges was a transcendental game When he said things that provoked people--politics, the military--he did it as a private joke. He didn't do it to gain favor with the military officers. He hated them. You know, among each people there is an exceptional being who makes up for the deficiencies of the rest. In those moments, when humanity collectively is in a state of decadence, nonetheless there remain those exceptional individuals as a point of reference. Borges was such an individual."
In 1967 Roa Bastos set to work on what would be is great book about Francia. The project was parked by an invitation from Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa to contribute a chapter on the Paraguayan despot as part of a volume to be called Los Padres de la Patria. Conceived as a collection of profiles of infamous Latin American tyrants, the project did not materialize, but it did spawn three memorable books: Gabriel Garcia Marquez's El otono del patriarca [Autumn of the Patriarch], Alejo Carpentier's El recurso del metodo [Reasons of State], and Roa Bastos's Yo el Supremo.
The last, a dense, multilayered work, can be daunting without some preliminary sense of its structure. Essentially, its author serves as a compiler of documents through which El Supremo speaks: private notebooks, installments from a perpetual circular that narrate his country's history, a logbook discussing his family origins, transcriptions of his dictation to his personal secretary, Policarpo Patino, and a pasquinade demanding the dictator's decapitation and hanging of his followers. The latter lampoon audaciously claims El Supremo himself to be its author, an act of subversion that taunts and haunts the dictator throughout the book. The handwriting of some unknown commentator also interrupts some of the discourses to criticize Francia. Notations, archival in nature, report on the condition of the documents (incomplete, torn, burnt) and, in the manner of academic writing, footnotes quote contemporary accounts from the period, real and apocryphal, which also often contradict El Supremo's version of events. The text, punctuated unconventionally, is challenging because frequently the narrative blends several voices into one. Fighting subjectivity at every turn, Roa Bastos provides multiple storytellers, while the dictator takes a free-form dive down through the tenses, at once in the present, past, and even the future, as occasionally he speaks from the grave.
"Yo el Supremo reflects a certain insanity I couldn't repeat, and I don't want to repeat it," the author confesses. "Each theme imposes its style on me. One can't invent something separate. Francia was a terrible dictator, but he had an ambiguous personality. I wanted to show him in his own setting, the dark and the light. I'm not in favor of literature that's predisposed to a bias like Lukacs or Sartre, although, of course, I'm compromised by my own epoch, my own obsessions. But Francia possessed an honesty of iron. He was really a lay monk who ran the country like a monastery. He was anticlerical, yes, but he acted in the manner of a religious person, with a religious faith in the sovereignty and dignity of a people. All of the other despots used power as a means to satisfy personal ambitions, self-enrichment, fame, glory."
In several interviews the author has categorized Yo el Supremo as a form of intrahistory, a term coined by Miguel Unamuno to describe traditions and opinions of common folk, the ordinary and seemingly insignificant occurrences that ultimately define the texture of a period.
"Yo el Supremo was a reflection of the cultural tradition of Paraguay, an expression of the orality of the Guarani. For the Guarani the word is fundamental. All creation in the Guarani cosmos is associated with the word. My necessity, my defiance as a writer was to rise up against established accounts. The writer records the word but doesn't have to deliver the word as if it is in charge. I do battle against the word itself. Thus in Yo el Supremo I tried to invent a transcendental form of writing, a way for it to go beyond itself, a meta-escritura."
One intriguing device the author employs is his so-called portapluma recuerdo, a magical pen appropriated from the French writer Raymond Roussel, who appears in the book as Raimundo Loco Solo, a correspondent of Francia's. In a footnote Roa Bastos's compiler describes the pen as containing "a very bright point, a memory-lens which turns it into a most unusual instrument with two different yet coordinated functions: writing while at the same time visualizing the forms of another language exclusively of images, of optical metaphors, so to speak."
"It was an invention, a fiction," Roa Bastos explains. "It was a device that let me deal with events as memory in the present, fed not just by the concept that the present doesn't exist--no one's in the present. It's already happened. `I' has already happened--but also for the memory: a recollection that can be not just metaphysical but real too. Thus the portapluma serves as an artifice to divide the writing, complement the text, give another feeling."
Several readers have noted El Supremo's close resemblance to that other "sensible madman," Don Quixote. "Certainly," responds Roa Bastos. "If there was a model for the book, something that fertilized the scheme, it was the Cervantes model, especially the dialogue between Francia and Patino, master and servant, just like Quixote and Sancho Panza."
Roa Bastos also borrows intertextually from a number of works, especially the Pensees of Blaise Pascal whom, as Comrade Blas, the author imagines in an encounter with Francia. The constant meld of fact and fiction is markedly Borgesian. Specifically when Francia is described by a contemporary as attempting to write a novel in imitation of Don Quixote, one is reminded of Borges's great Cervantes imitator, Pierre Menard.
After six years of Promethean work (partly supported by a Guggenheim fellowship and some scriptwriting), Roa Bastos delivered Yo el Supremo to his publisher in 1974 The critical response, especially within the Latin American literary community, was resoundingly adulatory and almost immediately, as a post-Boom masterpiece, it underwent many translations.
Writing in the New York Times in 1986, when the English-language version finally appeared (in a translation by Helen Lane), Carlos Fuentes said, "The result is a richly textured, brilliant book--an impressive portrait, not only of El Supremo, but of a whole colonial society in the throes of learning how to swim, or how best to drown in the seas of national independence . . . one of the milestones of the Latin American novel."
John Updike, in a New Yorker article entitled "The Great Paraguayan Novel and Other Hardships," wrote: "One is led, by this learned book bristling with quaint particulars and amiable puns and verbal tumbles . . . into a spiritual dungeon, a miasmal atmosphere of hate and bitter recalcitrance.... The static, circling quality of many modernist masterworks is here overlaid with a political rigidity, an immobilizing rage that seizes both the tyrant and the exiled writer. Francia, in Roa Bastos's reconstruction, suffers amid the trappings of omnipotence, the well-known impotence and isolation of the modern intellectual."
The Paraguayan's great triumph was not without cost. In 1976, the year of his father's death at age ninety-five, Roa Bastos suffered a mild heart attack. Furthermore, the military government in Argentina added Yo el Supremo to its list of outlawed subversive books. "In any moment they might have grabbed me," Roa Bastos reflects, "but fortunately, just then, without realizing my situation, the University of Toulouse Le Mirail invited me to teach. They wanted a Latin American professor. A week after I arrived in France, the police entered my apartment in Buenos Aires."
In 1980, having been divorced twice, Roa Bastos married Iris Gimenez, a fellow professor at the university and specialist in the Nahuatl language and ancient cultures of Mexico. In the ensuing years they raised a son and two daughters for whom Roa Bastos wrote numerous stories later published in illustrated editions for children. In 1984 he produced the text for a limited edition, issued by Milanese publisher F. M. Ricci, devoted to the work of Argentine painter Candido Lopez, who documented on canvas episodes from the War of the Triple Alliance (see Americas, Vol. 42, no. 6, 1991). Entitled El Sonambulo [The Sleep Walker], much of the piece deals with yet another celebrated Paraguayan dictator, Francisco Solano Lopez, who perished with most of his countrymen during the devastating mid-nineteenth-century conflict against Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. Roa Bastos eventually expanded El Sonambulo into a full-fledged novel, El Fiscal [The Public Prosecutor], which appeared in 1993.
In 1989, following in the footsteps of other Latin American masters (Borges, Carpentier, Onetti, Paz, Sabato, and Fuentes), Roa Bastos won the Cervantes Prize, widely considered the premier award for literature in the Spanish language. Given his lifelong admiration for and identification with the author of Don Quixote, the prize was particularly appropriate. In his acceptance speech Roa Bastos acknowledged he had imagined his El Supremo as an antihero in the Cervantean tradition.
"Doubtlessly, that democracy returned to my country in 1989 also had something to do with the prize, at least its timing," Roa Bastos says with typical modesty. "Also it didn't hurt that I am a citizen of both Paraguay and Spain, due to a binational pact signed by the generals Franco and Stroessner," he adds, chuckling to himself. "Two dictators granted me two citizenships."
Soon after receiving the award, Roa Bastos donated much of the prize money to benefit young people in his homeland, especially to support impoverished rural schools and encourage publication and distribution of inexpensive books in the interior. "In Paraguay a book can cost what a campesino makes in one month," he points out. "Recently I also talked with the former Spanish president Felipe Gonzalez, who pledged six bookmobiles to help make reading materials available even in the remotest parts of our country."
Paraguay's native son now returns to his homeland once or twice annually. "Next May I will give a course for young people in a little town outside Asuncion. Remember, I'm a campesino! There's more integrity in the countryside, yes, less sophistication, too, but less corruption."
Also next year, as professor emeritus, Roa Bastos will also teach a course he describes as "a humanistic apprenticeship through literature" at the university in Alcala de Henares, Spain, where he received the Cervantes Prize. Although he is now retired from the University of Toulouse, the author stays in close contact with colleagues and students in his adopted city. "Right now I am working with a student who wrote her thesis on my work in aphoristic terms. We're collaborating on a little book called Metaforismos, metaphors and aphorisms drawn from my writings, a bit of a philological book at the service of my readers."
Roa Bastos is happiest when he is writing in his apartment office near the university, several rooms over his living quarters. Amid the clutter of his notes, reference materials, and own publications in many languages, he spends long days seated in front of his computer. "I only proceed when I've got it all worked out in my sensibility. People always ask me about the inner meaning. I just use the words that seem appropriate. When I write I'm in a state of trance. During the last three years I've worked on four novels. Very unhygienic!"
In addition to El fiscal, Roa Bastos recently published La vigilia del almirante [The Admiral's Vigil], which deals with Christopher Columbus. "It's really historical criticism in the guise of a novel regarding not the discovery of America but the covering up he set in motion: the dropping of a veil over an entire continent, concealing what was really there. Of course, he didn't know much about America. He died not knowing he'd discovered a new continent!"
The writer's current work-in-progress is a novel about the Jesuit occupation of Paraguay, a theme that has fascinated him for decades. "I can't prove, it but I believe Francia was strongly influenced by the Jesuit attitude. Both wanted to defend the territorial integrity of the region. Both were idealists. Both were intent on respecting the Guarani nation-state with its own ethical principles, social pacts, life laws, relationship with nature." The working title for the book is La sierra sin mal [The Land without Sin].
"This was the origin myth of the Guarani, who wandered in search of this land untouched by sin, a virgin land, a promised land, a universal mythological element in all civilizations, no? The Jesuits arrived and realized this was a living reality for the indigenous people, thus they offered them another land without sin, a land of eternal nature but in heaven. The Guarani wanted a paradise on earth, thus there was a clash."
In order to make his vast topic manageable, Roa Bastos has narrowed his focus to the 1767 expulsion of the Jesuits, "the first exiles," he says poignantly, "away from a continent that had always been on the receiving end for immigrants. I have a certain appreciation for these matters! I begin with a little fictional device: the idea that not all the Jesuits were expelled, that one stayed behind taking on an indigenous name, still wearing his habit, an old fellow of ninety years, senile. This was the visual image I had to get started. Then last December I was in Paraguay with a dear friend, a Jesuit anthropologist named Padre Bartomeu Melia, adopted like a son by the Guarani with a secret name and all that, and he asked me where I got this fact, and I said I invented it, and he said it really happened! So he gave me a book about a German Jesuit named Segismundo Asperger, who is now the central figure in my novel. I use the real name. Reality always has more imagination, no? When he told me this, it produced a certain commotion within me. I said, caramba, I am never going to outwit reality. It will always outdo my imagination!"
As a youth Roa Bastos witnessed the insanity of war, and in his adulthood he has known all too well that lonely state in limbo, the life of the exile. Through it all, though, he has remained remarkably resilient, possessed of a zest for life not found in many individuals a fraction his age.
"There are times when I am very unhappy with the situation, but I try to be afflicted by positive things. We have a choice: optimism or, unfortunately, pessimism. I don't believe in humanity, per se, nor its products, but if life's laws can continue in force to govern the human phenemenon, then there is cause for optimism. What's going on with humankind now seems to negate that, but I'm in favor of taking things to their limit in hopes of discovering the truth. If there is no room for hope, for anything, for optimism, then the most honest response is suicide. I don't believe in anything more than that I am alive. I think the only way to live is to establish a sense of responsibility. The least can do is contribute."
A regular contributor to Americas, Caleb Bach is working on a book.