Miguel Ángel Asturias Rosales (October 19, 1899 – June 9, 1974) was a Nobel Prize–winning Guatemalan poet, novelist, and diplomat. Asturias helped establish Latin American literature's contribution to mainstream Western culture, and at the same time drew attention to the importance of indigenous cultures, especially those of his native Guatemala.
Asturias was born and grew up in Guatemala, but spent significant time abroad, first in Paris in the 1920s, where he studied anthropology and Indian mythology. Many scholars view him as the first Latin American novelist to show how the study of anthropology and linguistics could affect the writing of literature. While in Paris, Asturias also associated with the Surrealist movement, and he is credited with introducing many features of modernist style into Latin American letters. In this way, he is an important precursor of the Latin American Boom of the 1960s and 1970s.
One of Asturias' most famous novels, El Señor Presidente, describes life under a ruthless dictator. Asturias' very public opposition to dictatorial rule led to him spending much of his later life in exile, both in South America and in Europe. The book that is sometimes described as his masterpiece, Hombres de maíz (Men of Maize), is a defence of Mayan culture and customs. Asturias combined his extensive knowledge of Mayan beliefs with his political convictions, channeling them into a life of commitment and solidarity. His work is often identified with the social and moral aspirations of the Guatemalan people.
After decades of exile and marginalization, Asturias finally received broad recognition in the 1960s. In 1966, he won the Soviet Union's Lenin Peace Prize. The following year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, only the second Latin American to receive this honor. Asturias spent his final years in Madrid, where he died at the age of 74. He is buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
Miguel Ángel Asturias was born in Guatemala City on October 19, 1899, the first child of Ernesto Asturias Girón, a lawyer and judge, and María Rosales de Asturias, a schoolteacher. Two years later, his brother, Marco Antonio, was born. Asturias's parents were of Spanish descent, and reasonably distinguished: his father could trace his family line back to colonists who had arrived in Guatemala in the 1660s; his mother, whose ancestry was more mixed, was a colonel's daughter. They lived in comfortable surroundings in the house of Asturias's paternal grandparents.
Despite his relative privilege, Asturias's father clashed with the dictatorship of Manuel Estrada Cabrera, who had come to power in February 1898. As Asturias later recalled, "My parents were quite persecuted, though they were not imprisoned or anything of the sort". Following an incident in 1904 which, in his capacity as judge, Asturias Sr. set free some students arrested for causing a disturbance, he clashed directly with the dictator, lost his job, and he and his family were forced to move in 1905 to the town of Salamá, the departmental capital of Baja Verapaz, where Miguel Ángel Asturias lived on his maternal grandparents' farm. It was here that Asturias first came into contact with Guatemala's indigenous people; his nanny, Lola Reyes, a young indigenous woman, told him stories of their myths and legends that would later so influence his work.
In 1908, when Asturias was nine, his family returned to the suburbs of Guatemala City, where they established a supply sort and Asturias spent his adolescence. Asturias first attended Colegio del Padre Pedro and then, Colegio del Padre Solís. Asturias began writing as a student and wrote the first draft of a story that would later become his novel El Señor Presidente.
In 1922, Asturias and other students founded the Popular University, a community project whereby "the middle class was encouraged to contribute to the general welfare by teaching free courses to the underprivileged." Asturias spent a year studying medicine before switching to the faculty of law at the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala in Guatemala City and obtained his law degree in 1923. He was awarded the Premio Falla for being the top student in his faculty. It was at this university that he founded the Asociación de Estudiantes Universitarios (Association of Student Universities) and the Asociación de estudiantes El Derecho. Both of his associations have been recognized as being positively associated with Guatemalan patriotism. Asturias was thus involved in politics; working as a representative of the Asociación General de Estudiantes Universitarios (General Association of Student Universities), and travelling to El Salvador and Honduras for his new job. In 1920, Asturias participated in the uprising against dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera.
Asturias' university thesis, "The Social Problem of the Indian," was published in 1923. In 1923, after receiving his law degree, Asturias moved to Europe. He had originally planned to live in England and study political economy, but changed his mind. He soon transferred to Paris, where he studied ethnology at the Sorbonne (University of Paris} and became a militant surrealist under the influence of the French poet and literary theorist André Breton. While there, he was influenced by the gathering of writers and artists in Montparnasse, an area of Paris, and began writing poetry and fiction. During this time, Asturias developed a deep concern for Mayan culture and in 1925 he worked to translate the Mayan sacred text, the Popol Vuh, into Spanish. He also founded a magazine while in Paris called Tiempos Nuevos or New Times. Asturias stayed in Paris for a total of ten years.
In 1942, he was elected to Congress. In 1946, Asturias started a diplomatic career, continuing to write while serving in several countries in Central and South America. Asturias held diplomatic postings in Buenos Aires in 1947 and in Paris in 1952.
When Asturias returned to his native country in 1933, he had first encounter with dictator Jorge Ubico and a regime that would not tolerate his political ideals. He stayed in Guatemala until 1944. During his time in Guatemala, he published "only poetry, which was characterized by elegant cynicism". Eventually in 1933 he ended 10 years of poetry when a more liberal government ruled the country. He wrote the novel El Señor Presidente, exploring the world around an unnamed dictator in an unspecified Latin American country. The novel could not be published during the rule of Ubico because of political limits and so El Señor Presidente was not published until 1946.
Asturias served as an ambassador to Mexico, Argentina, and El Salvador, between 1946 and 1954. His novel Men of Maize was published during his time as ambassador. This novel was organized into multiple parts, each dealing with the contrast between traditional Indian culture and modernity.
In 1966, democratically elected President Julio César Méndez Montenegro achieved power and Asturias was given back his Guatemalan citizenship. Montenegro appointed Asturias as ambassador to France, where he served until 1970, taking up a permanent residence in Paris.
Later in Asturias' life he helped found the Popular University of Guatemala. Asturias spent his final years in Madrid, where he died in 1974. He is buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
Miguel Ángel Asturias married his first wife, Clemencia Amado, in 1939. They had two sons, Miguel and Rodrigo Ángel, before divorcing in 1947. Asturias then met and married his second wife, Blanca Mora y Araujo, in 1950. Mora y Araujo was Argentinian, and so when Asturias was deported from Guatemala in 1954, he went to live in the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires. He lived in his wife's homeland for eight years. They remained married until Asturias' death in 1974.
Asturias' son from his first marriage, Rodrigo Asturias, under the nom de guerre Gaspar Ilom, the name of an indigenous rebel in his father's own novel, Men of Maize, was President of the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG). The URNG was a rebel group active in the 1980s, during the Guatemalan Civil War, and after the peace accords in 1996.
Asturias' first major work, Leyendas de Guatemala (Legends of Guatemala; 1930), describes Mayan civilization before the Spanish conquest. The novel brought him critical praise in France as well as in Guatemala. The noted French poet and essayist Paul Valéry wrote of the book (in a letter published as part of the Losada edition), that "I found it brought about a tropical dream, which I experienced with singular delight. The novel used elements of magical realism to tell multiple tales. He used both conventional writing as well as lyrical prose to tell a story about birds and other animals conversing with other archetypal human beings.
For Gerald Martin, Leyendas de Guatemala is "the first major anthropological contribution to Spanish American literature". Jean Franco also describes the book as "lyrical recreations of Guatemalan folk-lore many of which drew their inspiration from pre-Columbian and colonial sources".
One of Asturias' most critically acclaimed novels, El Señor Presidente was completed in 1933 but remained unpublished until 1946. As one of his earliest works, El Señor Presidente showcased Asturias's talent and influence as a novelist. Zimmerman and Rojas describe his work as an "impassioned denunciation of the Guatemalan dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera. The novel was written during Asturias's exile in Paris. While completing the novel in Paris, Asturias associated with members of the Surrealist movement as well as fellow future Latin American writers such as Arturo Uslar Pietri and the Cuban Alejo Carpentier. El Señor Presidente is one of many novels to explore life under a Latin American dictator and in fact, has been heralded by some as the first real dictator novel.
The actual events are vague and the plot is partially based on real events while the time or locale are fiction. Asturias's novel examines how evil spreads downward from a powerful political leader and into the streets and a country's citizens. Justice is mocked in the novel and escape from the dictator's tyranny is impossible. Each character in the novel is deeply affected by the dictatorship and must struggle to survive in a terrifying reality. The novel travels with several characters, some close to the President and some seeking escape from his regime. The dictator's trusted adviser, whom the reader knows as "Angel Face", falls in love with a General, General Canales daughter Camila. The General is hunted for execution while his daughter is held under house arrest. Angel Face is torn between his love for her and his duty to the President. While the Dictator is never named, he has striking similarities to Manuel Estrada Cabrera. El Señor Presidente uses surrealistic techniques and reflects Asturias' notion that Indian's non-rational awareness of reality is an expression of subconscious forces.
Playwright Hugo Carrillo adapted El Señor Presidente into a play in 1974.
Men of Maize (Hombres de maíz, 1949) is usually considered to be Asturias's masterpiece. The novel is written in six parts, each exploring the contrast of traditional Indian customs and a progressive, modernizing society. Asturias's book explores the magical world of indigenous communities, a subject about which the author was both passionate and knowledgeable. The novel draws on traditional legend, but the story is of Asturias's own creation. The plot revolves around an isolated Indian community (the men of maize or "people of corn") whose land is under threat by outsiders intent on is commercial exploitation. An indigenous leader, Gaspar Ilom, leads the community's resistance to the planters, who kill him in the hope of thwarting the rebellion. Beyond the grave Ilom lives on as a "folk-hero", but even so the people lose their land. In the second half of the novel, the central character is a postman, Nicho, and the story concerns his search for his lost wife. In the course of his quest, he abandons his duties, tied as they are to "white society", and transforms himself into a coyote, who represents his guardian spirit. Through allegory, Asturias shows how European imperialism dominates and transforms native traditions in the Americas. By the novel's end, as Jean Franco notes, "the magic world of Indian legend has been lost"; but it concludes on a "Utopian note" as the people become ants to transport the maize they have harvested.
Written in the form of a myth, the novel is experimental, ambitious, and difficult. For instance, its "time scheme is a mythic time in which many thousands of years may be compressed and seen as a single moment", and the book's language is also "structured so as to be analogous to Indian languages". Because of its unusual approach, it was some time before the novel was accepted by critics and the public.
Asturias also wrote an epic trilogy about the exploitation of the native Indians on banana plantations: this trilogy, comprised of the novels Viento fuerte (The Cyclone; 1950), El Papa Verde (The Green Pope; 1954), and Los ojos de los enterrados (The Eyes of the Interred; 1960), is a fictional account of the results of foreign control over the Central American banana industry. The volumes were first only published in small quantities in his native Guatemala. Asturias finished the last book in the trilogy nearly 20 years after the first two volumes came out. His critique of the fruit industry and how the Guatemalan natives were exploited eventually earned him the Soviet Union's highest prize, the Lenin Peace Prize. Asturias's recognition marked him as one of the few authors to be recognized in both the West and in the Communist bloc during the period of the Cold War.
Asturias published his novel Mulata de tal while he and his wife were living in Genoa in 1963. His novel received many positive reviews; Ideologies and Literature described it as "a carnival incarnated in the novel. It represents a collision between Mayan Mardi Gras and Hispanic baroque. The novel emerged as a major novel during the 1960s. The plot revolves around the battle between Catalina and Yumí to control Mulata (the moon spirit). Yumí and Catalina become experts in sorcery and are criticized by the Church for their practices. The novel uses Mayan mythology and Catholic tradition to form a distinctive allegory of belief.
Gerald Martin in the Hispanic Review commented that it is "sufficiently obvious that the whole art of this novel rests upon its language. In general, Asturias matches the visual freedom of the cartoon by using every resource the Spanish language offers him. His use of color is striking and immeasurably more liberal than in earlier novels. Asturias built the novel by this unique use of color, liberal theory, and his distinctive use of the Spanish language. His novel also received the Silla Monsegur Prize for the best Spanish-American novel published in France.
The influence that the rich Mayan culture has had on Asturias' literary work and political life is undeniable. He believed in the sacredness of the Mayan traditions and worked to bring life back into its culture by integrating the Indian imagery and tradition into his novels. For example the title of his novel Men of Maize comes from the Mayan belief that humans are created from stalks of corn. Asturias' interest in Mayan culture is notable because many Mayan traditions and cultures were stifled by the influence of the Catholic church. The Spanish in Central America viciously banned certain rituals, destroyed Aztec and Mayan texts and fought to bring the Christian religion to the Indian communities in Guatemala. Asturias' work as a scholar integrated the sacred suppressed tradition back into Latin American Literature.
Asturias studied at the Sorbonne (the University of Paris at that time) with Georges Raynaud, an expert in the culture of the Quiché Maya, and he eventually finished a translation of the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Mayas in 1926. In 1930, fascinated by the legends and myths of the Indians of Guatemala, he wrote Legends of Guatemala".
Jean Franco categorizes Asturias as an "Indianist" author, along with Rosario Castellanos and José María Arguedas. She argues that all three of these writers are led to "break with realism precisely because of the limitations of the genre when it came to representing the Indian". So, for instance, Franco says of Asturias' Hombres de maíz (Men of Maize) that "the technique here is more akin to poetry than to traditional prose, but we feel that this is a more authentic way of representing the Indian mind. She points out also that the novel's temporality "is a mythic time in which many thousands of years may be compressed and seen as a single moment". Even the language of the book is affected: it is "a Spanish so structured as to be analogous to Indian languages".
After his death in 1974, Guatemala established an award in his name, the Miguel Ángel Asturias Order. The country's most distinguished literary prize, the Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize in Literature, is also named in his honor. In addition, Guatemala's National Theater is named after him.
Asturias is remembered as a man who believed strongly in maintaining indigenous culture in Guatemala, and who encouraged those who were persecuted. His literature was critically acclaimed, but not always appreciated. But, for Gerald Martin, Asturias is one of what he terms "the ABC writers—Asturias, Borges, Carpentier" who, he argues, "really initiated Latin American modernism.
Critics compare his fiction to that of Franz Kafka, James Joyce, and William Faulkner. His work has been translated into numerous languages such as English, French, German, Swedish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and many more.
Asturias received many honors and awards over the course of his career, most notably the 1967 Nobel Prize for literature. The award of the Nobel caused some controversy, as critic Robert G. Mead notes: outside of Latin America, Asturias was still relatively unknown; within Latin America, some thought that there were more deserving candidates. More controversial still was the award of the Soviet Union's 1966 Lenin Peace Prize, which was given for exposing "American intervention against the Guatemalan people. This honor came after his completion of the Banana Trilogy.
Other prizes for Asturias' work include: Premio Galvez, 1923; Chavez Prize, 1923; Prix Sylla Monsegur, for Leyendas de Guatemala, 1931; and Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger, for El señor presidente, 1952.