Sunday, September 19, 2010

Book 24, Guatemala: "Men of Maize" by Miguel Ángel Asturias

Whoa. I wanna write like this.

The dense, fructiform imagery of the prose; the recurrence of folk myths and pre-colonial iconography amidst the master's tongue; the epic consolidation of five hundred years' history into maybe twenty years' narrative time; the seamless blending of realism and magic and poetry.

And all this twenty years before One Hundred Years of Solitude. (Sorry, Gabo keeps creeping into the picture. But that was another continent, and besides, the wench is entering dementia.)

It's shocking that so few people know about Asturias, despite his Nobel Prize, despite his life of political involvement and modernismo and exile in Argentina, despite the fact that his son actually took on the name of Gaspar Ilóm, a character from Men of Maize, and became a pro-indigenous rights freedom fighter against the genocidal government during the civil war.

(I only know about him 'cos I did my Spanish immersion in Quetzaltenango, where one of my short texts was by him: a wonderful little fable about a Jesuit trying to trick a tribe out of human sacrifice by forecasting an eclipse only to end up gutted on the obsidian slab due to the fact that they'd calculated its coming centuries ago, thank you very much.)

This book reads like a post-colonial Ulysses - kudos to the translator, Gerald Martin, who's transliterated onomatopeia and resorted to weird neologisms and had to figure out all these local plant names, amate and atole and ceiba and chayote and chichita and chilacayote and chilate and copal - glossary in the back for the perplexed.

Only difference is, instead of feeling like the guy's being onanistic with the lexicon, you feel that real third-world Marxist sorrow of being removed from your cultural roots and your means of production: he keeps hammering home the same damn eponymous point that in the old days the Indians grew maize as a sacred crop for food, and they grew just what they needed, but turning it into a capitalist plantation crop just destroys the earth and makes everyone poor.

Plus this division of the book into chapters named after people who mystically disappear: Gaspar Ilóm, María Tecún, the Deer of the Seventh Fire (i.e. the curandero) and the Coyote-Postman - yes, nagualism i.e. transformation of men into their spirit animals is a huge theme in this book. From the Indian warrior fighting back the colonial planters to the Ladino postman arguing with the Chinese storekeeper over the shawl of his runaway wife. Each generation loses some connection to the past, as well as some of that thick wonderful poetry that infused the beginning, turning instead to Wild West saloon talk, which is still pretty fascinating, nonetheless.

And yet the Coyote-Postman Señor Nicho falls into the world of magic in the end, meeting the firefly wizards and the curandero who became a deer and Gaspar Ilóm himself while in animal shape/trance, and all the figures from the previous stories reappear in the flesh or in legend, María Tecúm become an etiology for the spirited rock that lures people to plummet over the edge of the mountains, the soldier who sold his soul to the devil now plagued with a hernia, hanging out with Machojón's ever-loyal fiancée who grows old waiting for his return in his reeking sombrero as she sells butchered pigmeat in her hole in the wall.

Amazing stuff. Sad thing is, the copy of this book isn't even on the shelves of the library: you've got to delve into Repository Used Reference and pay a reservation fee to get at it. That ain't right.

(Though it is cool to see the date-due stamp chop paper still on the inside. FTW!)

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Representative quote: Not even the ash of his cigar will fall. Hands of darkness brandishing daggers will force him to suicide. But it will be only his shadow, a skin of shadow among the yuccas. The bullet will burst in his temples, he will fall to the ground, but other dark hands will lift his body, they will mount him on his horse, and will begin to shrink him horse and all until he is the size of a piece of sugar candy. The close-knit throng of yuccas will wave their daggers, daggers stained red with fire right up to their hilts.

Next book: Zee Edgell's Beka Lamb, from Belize.

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