by Augusto Roa Bastos
So what else is Yo el Supremo [a/k/a I the Supreme] if it "no es una narración histórica, ni menos una biografía novelada" ["is not a historical narrative, nor even less a novelized biography"] according to its author? If you can pardon the unfortunate analogy, I'd argue that it's in effect a mirror of/on Paraguayan history--part and parcel of what I've claimed is Augusto Roa Bastos' mission to "novelize" his home country--written in such a way that it appears that the writer has taken a hammer to the glass before lending you said mirror. Why would anybody, much less the rather serious-looking man in that totally uncool fucking turtleneck sweater below (far, far below--Compiler's Note.), want to do such a thing beyond Duchampian large glass shits and giggles!?! One answer, a sort of political one if you will, is that highlighting the fragmentary nature of a people's history collectivizes it in such a way that it exposes the lie behind the idea that there is a sort of monolithic state history "owned" by the fictionalized Supremo/Supreme in the novel or by the many 20th century military dictatorships in Roa Bastos' lifetime. Another answer, more literary in nature but also political in at least one important sense, is that many novelists over the centuries have derived subversive value and/or just provided amusement from undermining the "authority" of their own texts. Roa Bastos wouldn't be alone in that regard. In any case, in an old interview with the Spanish TV arts and entertainment host Joaquín Soler Serrano, the Paraguayan seemed to privilege the first of these two explanations regarding the guiding principles of his authorial intent by revealing that, "para mí el Paraguay es como un gran espejo muy luminoso que se ha roto en muchos fragmentos. He tratado en mis libros de reunir estos fragmentos" ["for me Paraguay is like a large, very luminous mirror which has shattered into many pieces. I've tried in my books to put these pieces back together"].* A very illuminating comment--marred only by the fact that Roa Bastos never once mentions taking a hammer to that large, very luminous mirror.
The seriousness of this artistic endeavor aside, Roa Bastos is of course quite nuts in the way he goes about achieving it here--as is perhaps most evident in the six- or seven-page frame tale near the midway point of the novel where the French avant-gardist Raymond Roussel (1877-1933) of Impressions d'Afrique and Locus Solus fame worms his way into the Yo el Supremo universe almost César Aira style. Historical fictions? Check this shit out! The intertextual fun and games begin with the Supreme having a typical political heart to heart with himself in his private notebook: "Yo soy el árbitro. Puedo decidir la cosa. Fraguar los hechos. Inventar los acontecimientos" ["I am the final judge. I can decide how things will go. Contrive the facts. Invent the events"] (329 in the original, 196 in the translation). More mutterings of that nature. And then: "El tiempo está lleno de grietas. Hace agua por todas partes" ["Time is full of cracks. It leaks everywhere"], the mere thought of which leads the Supreme to reflect upon the "pluma con el lente-recuerdo incrustado en el pomo" ["pen with the memory-lens imbedded in the pommel"] that he's using to record his vaguely Nixonian ramblings (329 in the original, 197 in the translation). What the hell kind of pen is that? Funny you should ask because it's at precisely this point that the compiler hijacks the text to leave a "note" several pages in length. For our purposes, it's enough to know that the apparatus isn't a Bic or a Mont Blanc or even a Pilot Precise Rolling Ball, one of the pens of choice favored here in Caravanalandia, but "una pluma cilíndrica" ["a cylindrical pen"] in which "engastado en el hueco del tubo cilíndrico, apenas más extenso que un punto brillante, está el lente-recuerdo que lo convierte en un insólito utensilio con dos diferentes aunque coordinadas funciones: Escribir al mismo tiempo que visualizar las formas de otro lenguaje compuesto exclusivamente con imágenes, por decirlo así, de metáforas ópticas" ["mounted in the hollow of the cylindrical tube, scarcely larger than a very bright point, is the memory-lens that 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 composed exclusively of images, of optical metaphors, so to speak"] (329-330 in the original, 197 in the translation).
Whether the detailed description of the magical optical metaphorical lens pen that follows appeals to you or not, the more salient matter is that the "pluma-recuerdo" ["souvenir pen"] or "pluma memoria" ["memory pen"] ends up in the hands of the compiler "por obra del azar" ["through the workings of chance"]. Chance, that deus ex machina of real life of all things! The compiler tells us, in fact, that "me la dio Raimundo, apodado Loco-Solo, chozno de uno de los amanuenses de El Supremo" ["it was given to me by Raimundo, nicknamed Loco-Solo, great-great-great-grandson of one of El Supremo's amanuenses" (331 in the original, 198 in the translation). Since most of what little I know about Raymond Roussel's work can be found in the two great posts that Scott from seraillon penned about Impressions of Africa and Locus Solus in recent months, I hope it won't be impertinent for me to turn to Milagros Ezquerro for some more assistance regarding this "brandy and narcotic herb"-ingesting Raimundo fellow (198 in the translation); she helpfully explains, for example, that Locus Solus was "expresión latina que significa 'lugar solitario' que Roa Bastos transforma en 'Loco-Solo'" ["a Latin expression that signifies 'solitary place' and which Roa Bastos transforms into 'Loco-Solo'"]. She also adds that Roussel was "un autor predilecto de Roa, en particular a causa de su afición por los juegos de palabras que tienen mucho que ver con los de Yo el Supremo" ["a favorite author of Roa's, in particular because of his love of the puns that have so much to do with those found in I the Supreme"]. Roussel, unsurprisingly given what occurs to his fictional counterpart in Roa Bastos' novel, didn't have a pretty end: "murió alcohólico y drogado" ["he died an alcoholic and of a drug overdose"] (331).
But back to our story. In what follows, the compiler relates that he and Raimundo met as classmates at the República de Francia Primary School in 1932. A pun on José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia or a tip of the beret to Raymond Roussel's native country? Who can say? In any event, 1932 was the first year of the Chaco War waged between Paraguay and Bolivia when "comenzó la movilización que se llevó al frente hasta a los enanos" ["the mobilization that took even dwarfs to the front began"]. However, Roussel--I mean, Raimundo--had other plans: "Pero a mí no me van a llevar al Chaco, ni aunque vengan a pedirme a rodillas! ¡Voy a irme a África! ¿Por qué al África, Loco-Solo? Porque quiero impresiones fuertes, no esta mierda de guerrita con los bolís. ¡Qué se jodan!" ["But they're not going to ship me off to the Chaco, even though they come begging me on their knees. I'm going to take off for Africa! Why Africa, Loco-Solo? Because I want strong impressions, not that shitty little war with the Bolis. Balls on that!"] (332 in the original, 199 in the translation; by the way, "balls on that!" is a much tamer translation than what appears in the Spanish). One truly Rabelaisian school examination pun later--"Rendí por él los orales, los anales. Todo" ["I took the orals, the anals for him. The whole works"]--the compiler shifts gears, saying that "en vísperas del Éxodo que comenzó en marzo de 1947, fui a visitar por penúltima vez a Raimundo" ["on the eve of the Exodus that began in March of 1947, I went to visit Raimundo for the penultimate time"] (Ibid.). What exodus of 1947 could this be referring to? Ezquerro, one more time: 1947 was the year of the "salida hacia el exilio de muchos paraguayos como consecuencia de acontecimientos insurrecionales. Entonces fue cuando salió Roa Bastos hacia Buenos Aires" ["departure into exile of many Paraguyans as a consequence of insurrection-related events. That was when Roa Bastos left for Buenos Aires"] (333).
As if to punctuate this x marks the spot intersection between Roa Bastos' reading tastes (Roussel), his fiction (Yo el Supremo), his personal history, and his future home in Argentina, in the discussion that follows Raimundo addresses the compiler as Carpincho--one of Roa Bastos' nicknames--and starts speaking a form of Spanish that's clearly from the Río de la Plata region rather than from Paraguay (this linguistic in-joke is one of many flourishes that get lost in translation). Raimundo, who is described as possessing "ojos de degollado que parpadeaban sanguinolentos en las bolsas de los párpados" ["the bloodshot eyes of a man with his throat slit, blinking in the swollen pockets of his eyelids"], then tells the compiler that he knows that "lo único que querés es la pluma de El Supremo... Se te derrite el seso y tus manos tiemblan más que mis manos de borracho, de epiléptico, de bebedor de polvos de güembé y de cocaína que me dan las enfermeras, que me traés vos mismo" ["the only thing you want is the Pen of El Supremo... It melts your brain and your hands tremble more than my hands of a drunkard, of an epileptic, of a taker of güembé powders and the cocaine that the nurses give me, that you yourself bring me" (334 in the original, 200 in the translation). Raimundo then adds: "Te esperan muy malos tiempos, Carpincho. Te vas a convertir en migrante, en traidor, en desertor. Te van a declarar infame traidor a la patria" ["Very bad times await you, Carpincho. You're going to become a migrant, a traitor, a deserter. They're going to declare you an infamous traitor to the country"]. Pausing to spit up blood, he continues: "Va a llover por lo menos otro siglo dfe mala suerte sobre este país. Eso ya se huele luego. Va a morir mucha gente. Mucha gente se va a ir para no volver más, lo que es peor que morirse. Lo que no importa tanta porque las gentes como las plantas vuelven a crecer en esta tierra donde vos pegás una patada y por uno que falta salen quienientos" ["At least another century of bad luck is going to rain down on this country. You can smell it in the air already. Many people are going to die. Many people are going to go away and never come back, which is worse than dying. Though it doesn't matter all that much because people are like plants in this country. You kick the dust and for every one that isn't there any more five hundred others spring up in the same spot" (Ibid.). In a sort of coda, the compiler explains why Raimundo gave him the memory-pen prior to passing away and how Raimundo was said to have been buried either in the Military Hospital cemetery or had his corpse thrown into the river a la the story about the Supreme. The whole thing is a fun, inspired piece of writing if rather startling in the way it transitions from the loony to the morbid on a dime.
*The interview quote comes from Joaquín Soler Serrano's Escritores a fondo (Barcelona: Editorial Planeta, 1986, 241).
Augusto Roa Bastos (1917-2005)