viernes, 30 de mayo de 2014

Yo el Supremo

Yo el Supremo (Cátedra, 2005)
by Augusto Roa Bastos
Argentina, 1974

The Paraguayan Augusto Roa Bastos' Yo el Supremo [I the Supreme], part Latin American dictator novel/part Bernhardesque insult-laden monologal rant/part totally unhinged attack on the intersection between language and power, was just what I needed this month.  One day I might even be able to explain why.  Until then, let's start with a bare bones outline of Roa Bastos' intertextual expanding universe.  The Supremo/Supreme of the title is a fictionalized version of the flesh and blood strongman José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (1766-1840), the Karaí-Guasú or "supreme dictator" of Paraguay as he was referred to in the local Guarani language, who's introduced to the reader right after he learns that a pasquinade mimicking his own authoritarian tyrant speak has been nailed to the Asunción Cathedral's door: "Yo el Supremo Dictador de la República ordeno que al acaecer mi muerte mi cadáver sea decapitado; la cabeza puesta en una pica por tres días en la Plaza de la República donde le convocará al pueblo al son de las campanas echadas a vuelo" ["I the Supreme Dictator of the Republic order that on the occasion of my death my corpse be decapitated; my head placed on a pike for three days in the Plaza de la República, to which the people are to be summoned by the sounding of a full peal of bells"].  Continuing, the edict reads: "Todos mis servidores civiles y militares sufrirán pena de horca.  Sus cadáveres serán enterrados en potreros de extramuros sin cruz ni marca que memore sus nombres" ["All my civil and military servants are to be hanged.  Their corpses are to be buried in pastures outside the walls with neither cross nor mark to commemorate their names"].  And concludes: "Al término del dicho plazo, mando que mis restos sean quemados y las cenizas arrojadas al río..." ["At the end of the aforementioned period, I order that my remains be burned and my ashes thrown into the river..."] (93 in the original Spanish, 3 in Helen Lane's translation for the Dalkey Archive Press*).  This challenge to the Supreme's power--and perhaps more importantly, this challenge to the root of his power via the usurpation of his violent state propagandist-like language--naturally infuriates the character, who spends the remainder of the work inveighing against his enemies, insulting his amanuensis at every turn, revealing his erudition with a non-stop barrage of intellectual and scatological puns in Spanish, Latin, and Guarani, and writing a self-justifying history of the foundation of the Paraguayan "republic," all while carrying on conversations with the dead and even while dead himself (what it must be like to wield Supreme power!) prior to eventually entombing himself in a mausoleum of words several hundred pages in the making--just like this sentence.  To what end?  A great question to save/savor/save for later.  For now, though, rest assured that Yo el Supremo has no shortage of aesthetic surprises in store for you.  Structurally, for example, the novel is a Cortázarian active reader's delight for how it challenges genre conventions using a mosaic of monologue and dialogue, notes from the Supreme's so-called "cuaderno privado" or "private notebook," and texts from the Supreme's "circular perpetua" ("perpetual circular," the despot's letters dictated to or about state functionaries) in addition to interpolated historical accounts about the Supreme and the footnotes from an unnamed modern day "compilador" or "compiler."  As Milagros Ezquerro writes in her introduction to the Cátedra edition of the work, Yo el Supremo is "un texto que indudablemente cuestiona el género novelesco porque no encaja sin problemas dentro de las normas habituales del mismo" ["a text which unquestionably challenges the novel format because problems are the only things that it encases within the usual fictional norms"] (27).  In terms of the novel's fluid, elastic conception of time and as evidence of Roa Bastos' intertextual derring-do, two examples out of a galaxy of possibilities will have to suffice at present: 1) the moment when the Supreme, who died in 1840, brags about introducing the punishment of perpetual rowing into the country as an exotic death penalty-like innovation (but one which will leave him without actual blood on his hands) and then mentions the fact (so to speak) that "un autor de nuestros días ha tejido una leyenda sobre esta condena del destinado que va bogando sin término y encuentra al fin la tercera orilla del río" ["an author of our day has woven a legend about a man so condemned, who goes on rowing endlessly and finally finds the third shore of the river" (235 in the Spanish, 120 in the translation).  The unnamed "author of our day"?  None other than Grande Sertão: Veredas storyteller João Guimarães Rosa (1908-1967), who penned "The Third Bank of the River" well after the Supreme had shuffled off this mortal coil; 2) the scene just a few pages later where an exchange between el Supremo and his dog Sultán having to do with events including a siege of Montevideo leads the dictator to pun on the future author Lautréamont's similarly not yet published 1868-1869 Les Chants de Maldoror: "Ojalá, ciudadano Sultán, no te pesque el mal-de-horror" ["I hope, citizen Sultan, that you don't catch the mal-de-horror"] (241 in the Spanish, 125 in the translation).  Sultán/Sultan, not to be outdone in this scene, gets an unusually juicy descriptive bone thrown in his direction when he's hailed as "una especie de sans-culotte jacobino de largos cabellos y genio muy corto" ["a sort of Jacobin sans-culotte with long hair and a short temper"] (Ibid.).  On rereading that attention-grabbing description of the talking dog, I now realize that I haven't really done revolutionary justice to the insult-laden humor, the target practice on language, or the historical/political background of Yo el Supremo, written in Argentina while Roa Bastos was in exile from Stroessner's Paraguay and just a couple of years before he had to relocate to France to avoid yet another Stroessner/el Supremo style military dictatorship in his adopted home country (the novel was banned in Argentina after the junta's takeover), in this longwinded but strangely guillotined tribute to the novel's "cake."  I fear another post may be in order before you're free to leave or des(s)ert.

Augusto Roa Bastos (1917-2005)

Yo el Supremo was May's 2014 Caravana de recuerdos Ibero-American Readalong selection. Séamus of Vapour Trails should have a post of his own up about it before too long.
*The quotes in translation above all come from Helen Lane's rendering of I the Supreme (Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2000) first done for Knopf in 1986.

16 comentarios:

  1. That's an amazing description, Richard, and sure to whet my appetite for the novel. One day I'll have no excuses not to read it.

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    1. Miguel, it's quite the wild ride for a work that always gets lumped into the dicatator novel crowd (no offense to García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, and Miguel Ángel Asturias, the last of whom I've yet to even read, but "dictator novel" always sounds so stodgy to me and Yo el Supremo is def. not stodgy in any way whatsoever). I'd be interested in hearing your reaction to it if you ever read it, of course.

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  2. Challenging genre conventions seems to be all the rage now. I suppose one must be grateful (or this one would be, in any event) that he didn't also include pop-up book segments for heads on pikes and the like.

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    1. A Yo el Supremo pop-up book, Jill? Great idea--you could be a marketing wizard, my friend!

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    2. The difference is that he challenged genre conventions back when it was still a fresh and daring stylistic choice; now it's just a reflex for younger writers.

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    3. Miguel, I think that's a good point about Roa Bastos being a relatively early author to challenge genre conventions in terms of the current generation's writers (and readers). This book is 40 years old after all, which I know is older than many readers of this blog are. On the other hand, genre-challenging has been going on inside and outside of the novel tradition itself for hundreds of years now. What makes Yo el Supremo different in my book, so to speak, is the aggressiveness of the experimentation and how successful it is quality-wise. Of course, that last opinion will be up for debate by anybody else who ever reads the book.

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  3. I'm still a few days from finishing so (as usual) am behind. It's a challenging (and rewarding) read and I wish I was a bit more clued in to the historical background. I certainly didn't pick up on the literary references you mention above. There is material for plenty of posts in it though! Must get back to my reading.

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    1. I read that Guimarães Rosa story just last year and Lautréamont's "novel" is a longtime fave of mine, Séamus, so those two allusions felt like they were almost tailor made for me. As for the many other literary references that I might be likely to miss, that's why I love reading these critical editions put out by Cátedra for so many of the Spanish-language novels I read because they're so helpful with their footnotes and the other critical apparatus that's included (they are sometimes expensive and/or not always easy to find, though). Anyway, very much looking forward to your post whenever you get around to it; I'll likely add another one myself, but I'm very glad to have company on a read this complex, juicy, etc.

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    2. Interesting to see a reference to Guimarães Rosa here; it makes me wonder what's his standing throughout South America. Obviously he's a famous figure not just in Brazil.

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    3. I see you've moved on to Mr Joyce who I am being reminded of regularly throughout El Supremo. I've read Ulysses each decade since I was a teenager. One of the books that changed how I read and think.

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    4. Miguel, my understanding--or perhaps better, really only my sense--is that Guimarães Rosa was a big deal to many writers of the Boom generation. However, I'm not sure how big a deal he is to modern Lat Am writers. That's a great topic to ponder, though; maybe I'll try to look into it whenever I get around to Sagarana.

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    5. Séamus, yes, Ulysses will be my big book for June prior to trying to clear the non-Spanish language literature slate for most of July and Spanish Lit Month. Not sure how I managed to put off the novel for so long, but better late than never, eh? Encouraged to hear you return to Mr Joyce so often; this partic. novel of has seems to have as many detractors as diehard supporters or at least they are quite voluble on both sides of the "pro" and "con" fences. Cheers!

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  4. All right! I see why you had Jarry in mind when you looked at my Jeppe post. There is some Ubuism in this novel.

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    1. Tom, I think you could easily spend one of your great week-long critical cage matches on this book. Insane amount of non-trad material to talk up with or without the "Ubuisms." Note to self: must return to Ubu Roi at some point.

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  5. I second Miguel's comment. You had me hooked with your first sentence Richard!


    In the right hands, Insult ridden humor is something that I must sheepishly admit, can be very entertaining.

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    1. Thanks, Brian. It was a fun book both to read and write about. Have you ever read Thomas Bernhard, by the way? Some of his books are like novel-length insults, and they are very--no, entirely--entertaining. I'm not sheepish about admitting that!

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