“Our Latin American literature has always been a committed, a responsible literature,” explained Guatemalan novelist Miguel Ángel Asturias in 1973.

The great works of our countries have been written in response to a vital need, a need of the people, and therefore almost all our literature is committed. Only as an exception do some of our writers isolate themselves and become uninterested in what is happening around them; such writers are concerned with psychological or egocentric subjects and the problems of a personality out of contact with surrounding reality.

It is the bourgeois writers, he wants to say here, who ignore the looting of their resources by the rich behemoth to the north, which then turns around and redeploys those riches on death squads and dictators. It is no surprise, then, that Asturias’s landmark novel, Mr. President, confronts its readers with similar frankness. Mr. President examines widespread corruption around a fictional Guatemalan dictator. But its 1946 debut reflected a delay of more than a decade by the country’s real dictators, who disrupted the novel’s genesis and sent its author into exile. And in this act of suppression, Asturias’s censors and exilers were aided by the US, specifically the CIA.

Such suppression has long impaired Asturias’s career, reputation, and recognition. Indeed, in a new introduction to Mr. President—out last summer in David Unger’s lucid new translation—literary scholar Gerald Martin calls the novel “the first page of the Boom.” “The Boom” was the nickname for a clutch of new Latin American novels emerging in the 1960s, including those by future Nobel laureates Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. The ascent of these young, brash talents in fiction from the region is intertwined with the rise of the mid-century magazine Mundo Nuevo, which spotlighted their work. “Without Asturias,” Martin assures us, “[the Boom] might not have developed.” But while Mundo Nuevo championed the younger writers Asturias inspired, its editor disparaged the author himself. Why?


Mr. President shared the Boom authors’ modern aesthetics, blending surrealism with a reportorial tone, even inserting magical elements. As Martin sees it, the conspicuous conceit at the heart of the most acclaimed Boom novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, was preempted in Mr. President (Asturias called it “magical surrealism”).

But the problem with Asturias, at least for Mundo Nuevo’s backers, was not strictly aesthetic. Cold War politics was at issue. The US not only supported or helped install these despots, it also quietly backed the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an anticommunist front created to push pro-American narratives through magazines like Mundo Nuevo and dozens more around the world.

As the Congress disparaged Asturias, Gerald Martin, then a young scholar, spoke out to both defend the author and challenge Mundo Nuevo’s biases (though at the time he couldn’t know about its American patronage, which was classified). Martin assailed its editor in chief for refusing to recognize the Boom’s undeniable forerunner. And even beyond Martin’s incensed critiques, Asturias was a thorny problem for Mundo Nuevo. His work challenged the Boom’s creation myth, part of which held that American culture had inspired and would promote the new oeuvre. But like many great books, Mr. President refused to go away—a persistence that culminated, in 1967, with Asturias being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Eventually the Congress was discredited as a CIA front. But as a result of the high Cold War’s equivalent of a shadow ban, Guatemalan American novelist David Unger’s masterful, clear new translation presents an opening for the Nobel laureate (who died in 1974). A new generation of North American readers will gain access to his witty, influential, and wrongly maligned masterpiece.

The first thing to say is that this backstory—of suppression and defiance and politics—matters. In his introduction, Martin repeatedly forces readers to look at Mr. President as a work that, though suppressed, was contemporary to Ulysses, early Faulkner, Woolf, and Proust. To understand this is to understand the Guatemalan as a modernist innovator, as Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío was for poetry. Unger’s translation must be welcomed, and Mr. President itself must again be praised.

Rival Dictator Stories

Miguel Ángel Asturias was born on October 19, 1899, the year after dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera assumed power. Asturias’s father, Ernesto, was a judge and his mother, Maria, a schoolteacher. “My parents were quite persecuted, though they were not imprisoned or anything of the sort,” Asturias recalled. When he was a toddler, students protested the dictatorship and were arrested. When Asturias’s father showed sympathy and released them, both parents lost their jobs. The family relocated from the capital to Salamá, in Baja Verapaz. Miguel learned the rhythms of the countryside, traversing his grandparents’ farm on horseback with his beloved grandfather. But his Maya nanny, Lola Reyes, instilled a love of folk legends that remained with him, infusing his literary work for decades to come. “Although he returned with his family to Guatemala City [in 1908],” writes translator Gregory Rabassa, “those early rural memories became constant in his vision of life and legend in Guatemala.”

Back in the capital, Miguel spent time at the family’s supply store and grocery, created in response to their blacklisting. In pursuit of his degree at the National Central Institute for Boys, he watched as the unthinkable unfolded. On Christmas Day 1917, a powerful earthquake buried much of the city; aftershocks stretched into the new year. As rescue efforts faltered, the once-powerful Estrada Cabrera’s support plummeted. Joining the so-called Generation of 1920, Asturias saw an opening to become politically active in the wake of the crisis and helped organize strikes. The dictator’s failure to deal with mass protests led the National Assembly to declare him unfit to rule. Refusing exile, Estrada Cabrera was sent to prison.

Around this time, Asturias switched his studies from medicine to law. While a law student, he took a position as secretary to the court that tried the dictator. “Cabrera had come completely under the spell of his own myth,” Rabassa notes, surrounding himself with astrologers, mystics, and soothsayers. “It was in his association with Cabrera that Asturias’s most famous character was formed,” first in a short story, as the young lawyer dealt with the imprisoned leader weekly. Asturias wrote that he “saw him almost every day in the prison. And I found that there’s no doubt that men like that have a special power over people. To the extent that while he was a prisoner people would say: ‘No, that can’t be Estrada Cabrera. The real Estrada Cabrera escaped. This is some poor old man they’ve locked up.’” This intermingling of weakness and omnipotence flowed into his literary style.

In 1923, Asturias graduated top in his class and earned a prestigious award for his thesis on social problems affecting Guatemala’s Indigenous community. The booming family supply store exposed him to Indigenous Maya traders. “His contact with these Indians brought Asturias back to his earlier sojourn in the country,” Rabassa recalled. But soon he was on the run. After remarking critically on the power of the military in Tiempos Nuevos, a weekly launched by Asturias and his colleagues, one colleague was assaulted by government thugs. Asturias was briefly arrested too, and his parents took the hint and sent him abroad to safety.

But even in Europe, events bolstered his fascination with Guatemala’s Maya. He visited the (looted) Maya collection at the British Museum in the early 1920s. In France, he met Professor Georges Raynaud of the Sorbonne, a scholar of Maya religion and culture. Asturias was inspired to translate the Popol Vuh from Raynaud’s French translation. He also published poetry that combined surrealism and Maya legends, as well as a novel, Legends of Guatemala, that brought these legends together with childhood recollections. Throughout the 1920s, Asturias reworked the dictator story begun in 1922, “Political Beggars,” imbuing it with surrealism and modernist techniques.

“Arriving in Europe,” Asturias told the writer Jimena Saénz, “we reunited with friends in the cafes of Montparnasse, and in the cafe chatter there began to grow what we might call a rivalry between the Venezuelans, Guatemalans, Mexicans, as we shared various anecdotes of our respective dictators.”

What rushed back to Asturias in those coffee-fueled duels was an almost intimate, clandestine atmosphere around the dictatorship. Rumors about dictators infiltrated the private lives of Central Americans and imbued the resulting novel with noir undertones: how families would close up their housefronts, receding into the kitchen to whisper not directly of “Estrada Cabrera but of ‘the man,’” speaking “in a low voice of what was happening in the country … of political personalities or situations involving political prisoners, of people in the penitentiary … or those killed by the bomb that exploded by the Callejon del Judio.”

Asturias took the opportunity to befriend and read not only Joyce but also André Breton and Paul Valéry, who praised Legends of Guatemala in its preface. But he also continued to study Maya culture as he dredged up the minutiae of the grotesque dictatorship haunting his youth—details that stretched into more material than would fit in a short story.

The Model

Published in the half-decade before Orwell’s 1984, Mr. President captures the mass propaganda uses of new technologies: “Every night a movie screen was raised like a gallows in the Plaza Central. A hypnotized crowd watched blurred fragments as if witnessing the burning of heretics. … Society’s crème de la crème strolled in circles … while the common folk gazed in awe at the screen in religious silence.” This fear proves atmospheric, as the president’s favorite advisor, Miguel Angel Face, undertakes a secret mission: to prompt the president’s main rival, a general, to go on the run. Why? The president needs a scapegoat, and running is a confession of guilt, he says. But irony is in constant collision with this fear, mirroring the young Asturias’s wonder at the discredited, delusional imprisoned dictator.

Unaware that the president has orchestrated the general’s escape, a judge advocate shouts, “I want to know how he escaped! … That’s why telephones exist; to capture government’s enemies.” This judge also warns a suspected witness: “Lying is a big mistake. The authorities know everything. And they know you spoke to the General.”

Asturias’s work challenged the Boom’s creation myth, part of which held that American culture had inspired and would promote the new oeuvre. But like many great books, “Mr. President” refused to go away.

During celebrations at the presidential residence, a sudden melee on the stairs erupts into gunshots. Finally the shots stop. “It was nothing,” Asturias writes. “Little by little, the guests formed groups; some peed in their pants out of fear, others lost gloves, others recovered their color but were scared mute. … At the foot of a small staircase, the military band’s first drummer lay on the ground. He had rolled down from the second floor, drum and all, setting off the general panic.”

“What could I say?” a paid informant complains over a beer to an aspiring informant. “It’s tougher now to get into the Secret Police than when I joined up. Everyone knows where the future lies.”

Mr. President is at its most magical realist as disembodied hands, eyes, ears, and surveillance networks blossom into dream scenes. Most come in late chapters, such as “Tohil’s Dance,” a reference to the K’iche’ Maya god of fire and warfare, who drinks blood as a ritual sacrifice, and phase back into the plot’s forward action seamlessly.

That chapter ends with propagandists entering a bar—poets hired to rewrite the great president’s abusive record—as the novel culminates in tragedy for most of its principals.

Rival Dictators

After much of El Señor Presidente was written, Asturias traveled through the Middle East and Europe, where he encountered newly explicit fascism. In 1933, he returned to yet another Guatemalan dictatorship, that of Jorge Ubico, who had taken power two years before. Ubico surely tempted the novelist with more vignettes of dark absurdity. Prone to calling himself Napoleon, Ubico relied on a Nazi-supporting police chief named Anzueto, who embezzled properties for his boss. When a minister refused to condone this corruption, he was accused of plotting to overthrow the government, imprisoned, and forced under torture to confess. When a journalist exposed the cover-up, he too was imprisoned.

Asturias watched a new generation of protestors, largely teachers, challenge Ubico, who initially hoped to install the Nazi police chief as his puppet successor. But throngs of well-educated dissidents hastened a process that brought Guatemala’s “Democratic Spring.” Under a new democracy, Asturias became a diplomat. And in this window he finally published El Señor Presidente, funded by his family, in 1946 in Mexico, where he served in the embassy. A change in government brought his second exile. Two years later, the book was published properly, to greater fanfare, by Losada in Buenos Aires, his next ambassadorial post.

But this democratic moment within which Asturias’s work and writing flourished was short-lived, the nation’s last such peaceful handover for decades. In June 1954, with the support of the CIA, United Fruit Company, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, right-wing factions of Guatemala’s military led by Carlos Castillo Armas overthrew the elected President Jacobo Arbenz. As Asturias was sent into his third exile, the CIA’s new outfit, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, was nearing its five-year anniversary.

Weaponized Culture

The Congress for Cultural Freedom was born at a conference in Berlin in 1950. Arguably, FOMO, or fear of missing out, led to its foundation. In occupied Berlin, American officers had seen their own and other Allied troops flooding into the Soviet quarter for concerts and culture. Simultaneously, dozens of magazines were established with the aim of reaching Europe’s cultural set. Like a tycoon’s array of luxe new mansions, London’s Encounter, Berlin’s Der Monat, Paris’s Preuves, and Rome’s Tempo Presente were launched to signal American sophistication through literary achievement. Heeding a call to engage the so-called Third World, a second batch followed—Notebooks of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (Cuadernos del Congreso por la Libertad de la Cultura) among them.

Launched in 1953, a year before the long-planned US coup, Cuadernos would be part of the greater constellation of coup-and-cleanup maneuvers that swept out democratic socialist, nationalist, reformist, or populist regimes like Arbenz’s and installed US-friendly dictators with impunity. But if the US wanted to sound urbane and liberal in these magazines, it also risked blowing its propagandistic cover. Could the right-wing dictatorships it backed be veneered in cultural sophistication?

By the 1960s the Congress’s top officer, Mike Josselson (a covert CIA officer), defended Cuadernos’s politics from Keith Botsford, the roving editor who bristled at the magazine’s lack of uptake on the left. Botsford was an American born in Europe who remembered being brought up in a household filled with “help” and privilege. But he also understood the failure of the CCF to reach the right people in Latin America, calling the current magazine and its editors “the paralytic wing of the liberal reaction.”

Especially after the failed 1961 US invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, Botsford argued for a new magazine that might offer an “opening to the left” in Latin America. After years butting heads, he persuaded Josselson that Cuadernos was too conservative. Latin America’s left ignored it. Conservatives read it, but it was preaching to the choir. A new magazine was needed.

“Sleazed” by the CIA

In 1965, Botsford sent Emir Rodríguez Monegal, a Uruguayan literary critic, an invitation to travel to Yugoslavia for a meeting of PEN, the literary organization for freedom of expression. The two had never met, and Rodríguez Monegal had never even heard of either PEN or the CCF when the letter arrived.

Botsford and his colleagues at the Congress for Cultural Freedom had been “eyeing Monegal” for an editing job, but they broke the ice by first requesting he “cast a vote for the president of the International PEN Club.” The candidates were Asturias, author, most famously, of Mr. President, and the American playwright and Pulitzer Prizewinner Arthur Miller. Botsford disparaged Asturias, a diplomat in France at that time, as an “exquisite sleaze,” stipulating “that Monegal should vote for Miller if he wanted the [Congress] to foot the bill” for his trip. The invitation was alluring and heralded Rodríguez Monegal’s enthusiastic conscription into the war on Asturias. From then on, he would be an avid critic of the author and a determined campaigner against his literary recognition. He would also become the editor in chief of the CCF’s newest magazine, Mundo Nuevo.

Spoiler: the Americans prevailed, and Miller became PEN’s president. Miller came to suspect that he’d been used for a new style of prosecuting the Cold War: “One of the early people who approached me about PEN—I can’t remember his name now—but people later would say about him, ‘Why, that guy was an agent all the time.’”

London Tour Guide

Though the Americans got their way with the PEN presidency, they were apoplectic after Asturias was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1967. Emir Rodríguez Monegal, more than anyone else, threw a literary conniption. In a photograph from the day of the award ceremony, Asturias stands before a much taller man, a Swedish king. The photo is from the point of view of someone beside the king, looking upon the shorter man in his tuxedo with tails, white vest, and tie, smiling faintly, humbly, with tired, kind eyes. He is a man who has been struggling for many years even to make ends meet, finally being recognized, and unsure whether to trust this moment: “King Gustav Adolf of Sweden (left) presents the Nobel Prize for Literature to Guatemala’s Dr. Miguel Angel Asturias during Nobel Prize Award Ceremony at the Concert Hall in Stockholm, Sweden, Dec. 10.”

The young British scholar, Gerald Martin, watched the suppression of Asturias grow overt after the prize. A few years earlier, he had learned of Asturias’s work and soon decided to do his PhD thesis on him. He was smitten with a literary crush, writing and researching quickly. But thanks to a new translation out the year he was finishing, he learned that Asturias would come through the UK for a publicity tour. He eagerly hoped to meet Asturias that May and got to spend a full hour with him before others came to interrupt.

The suppression, defiance, and politics surrounding “Mr. President” matter.

Martin would go on to win many awards and write the official biography of Gabriel García Márquez; his official Mario Vargas Llosa biography is due next. But before he was seasoned by literary feuds, he had no idea, since it was done in secret, that Asturias had been shadow banned out of an important job at PEN. In the years to come, he came to recognize the dishonesty at the heart of the movement to suppress his idol, and fought back.

Initially, when Asturias won the Nobel—the first Latin American novelist; the first and only Central American writer—so soon after Martin began studying him, Martin decided he had been lucky. But in the late 1960s, he read vague dismissals of Asturias’s work. The author of many was Rodríguez Monegal. His remarks over the next half-decade described Asturias’s “slow, rhetorical tone” that “belongs to that generation which believes literature to be something sacred.”

Reviewing Asturias’s The Green Pope (from the Banana Trilogy, a lacerating critique of US policy in Latin America), Rodríguez Monegal wrote in The New York Times in 1971, “Asturias’s failure is not on the documentary level. It is in the fictionalizing of reality.” (This was something Rodríguez Monegal and other CCF operatives had spent the first two decades of the Cold War mastering.) Indeed, the novel unfolds through the lens of “Tropical Banana, Inc.,” a doppelganger for the United Fruit Company. Rodríguez Monegal added that Asturias’s “protagonist and his rivals are unreal not because they do unbelievable things; they are unreal because the presentation of their more than believable actions carries no conviction whatsoever.” “To believe that Asturias’s trilogy represents the best of the Latin American novel today is to be as wrong and outdated as the Swedish Academy was when it gave him the 1967 Nobel Prize.”

Others in the CCF fold were no less gratuitously dismissive of Asturias’s achievement. Writing in Encounter, for instance, Hans Habe described the Nobel Committee as having less than a remarkable record picking winners. Somewhat hilariously, Habe also suggests that recently “the Peace Prize became a piece of political partisanship.” Unlike, say, Encounter.

The most vehement defense probably came from Martin, who was contemptuous of the idea that Asturias’s work was invalidated by its political themes. Martin warned that in forcing a dichotomy between literary and protest writing, Rodríguez Monegal risked reducing the phrase “protest writer” to an excuse not actually to read literature. It implicitly demeaned criticism and reading by only valuing the kind of spontaneous chatter found in a Mundo Nuevo interview. He was, in other words, calling Rodríguez Monegal a part-time hack with a political off switch. Someone had to.

In Mr. President itself, the atmosphere of double-dealing thwarts the protagonist Angel Face’s relationships. Unlike the many characters tortured and sent to prison in the novel, Angel Face in the end is tortured and sent, like Asturias himself, into exile. How does it feel to be the author’s roguish but exiled stand-in? “He felt buried alive,” writes Asturias, “open eyed.”

Asturias died in June 1974, about a week before the 20th anniversary of the US-sponsored coup in Guatemala. Mr. President is decidedly hard to translate, as it relies on poetic alliterations and onomatopoeia, devices learned from surrealism’s inventors and other avant-garde movements. But it also relies on Asturias’s very keen ear to the street, his love of myth and Indigenous culture, and Unger proves to be a masterful transformer. Much of the translation is truly of another time, rendering not just Central American Spanish but also Guatemalan neighborhood-, class-, and period-specific slang.

The praise for Unger’s translation is highly deserved. But the fact of Penguin Classics and Unger choosing this unfairly suppressed book is long overdue, the wait like being unburied, with your eyes open. icon

Featured image: Miguel Angel Asturias, Nobel Prize of Literature 1967, at the UNESCO studios (1968). Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia

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