Column Editor: Donna Jacobs (Retired, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC 29425)
“The Zany fled through the narrow twisting streets of the suburbs, but his frantic cries disturbed neither the calm of the sky nor the sleep of the inhabitants, who were as alike one another in their simulation of death as they would be different when they resumed the struggle for life at sunrise. Some lacked the bare necessities of life and were forced to work hard for their daily bread, others got more than enough from the privileged industries of idleness: as friends of the President; owners of house-property (forty or fifty houses); money-lenders at nine, nine-and-a-half and ten percent a month; officials holding seven or eight different public posts; exploiters of concessions, pensions, professional qualifications, gambling hells, cock-pits, Indians, brandy distilleries, brothels, bars and subsidised (sic) newspapers.
The blood-red juice of dawn was staining the edges of the funnel of mountains encircling the town, as it lay like a crust of scurf in the plain. The streets were tunnels of shadows, through which the earliest workmen were setting out like phantoms in the emptiness of a world that was created anew every morning; they were followed a few hours later by office workers, clerks and students; and at about eleven, when the sun was already high, by important gentlemen walking off their breakfasts and getting up an appetite for lunch, or going to see some influential friend, to get him to join in the purchase of the arrears of starving schoolmasters’ salaries at half price. The streets still lay deep in the shadow when their silence was broken by the rustle of the starched skirts of some townswoman, working without respite — as swine-herd, milk-woman, street-hawker or offal-seller — to keep her family alive, or up early to do her chores; then, when the light paled to a rosy white like a begonia flower, there would be the pattering footsteps of some thin little typist, despised by the grand ladies who waited till the sun was already hot before they left their bedrooms, stretched their legs in the passages, told their dreams to the servants, criticised (sic) the passers-by, fondled the cat, read the newspaper or admired themselves in the looking-glass.”
These opening two paragraphs of Chapter III — “The Flight of the Zany” from Miguel Ángel Asturias’ El Señor Presidente is a perfect illustration of why I study word craft, admire word craft, and particularly the word craft involved with the surreal imagination of Latin American authors. Once again, the translator is inspiring. Frances Partridge provided the English version of Asturias’ Spanish word craft. This novel is centered around the influence of a dictator on the people of an unnamed Latin American country. Asturias was a native of Guatemala and though he never identified his country in the story, the character of “Presidente” exhibits similarities to Manuel Estrada Cabrera, who reigned from 1898-1920 in Guatemala.
Miguel Ángel Asturias was born in Guatemala City, Guatemala in 1899, and died in Madrid, Spain in 1974. In between he traveled extensively; studied abroad; worked as a journalist, novelist, playwright and poet; was elected to the Congress; served as the Guatemalan ambassador to France and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1967 “for his vivid literary achievement, deep-rooted in the national traits and traditions of Indian peoples of Latin America.” Asturias’ biographical information includes discussions on the novel El Señor Presidente. The critically acclaimed work was finished in 1933 but it took until 1946 for it to be published and released privately in Mexico. He penned the work while living in exile in Paris. The influence of the Surrealist movement, his passion for his country, the influence of the Mayan culture, and his concerns about life under a dictator all provided the rich material for this novel.
Sidebar reflection: There is a developing awareness from my goal of reading one work from each of the Nobel Laureates in Literature. Very tough, often difficult, sometimes minute, and many times intense thought provoking subjects and realities are presented to the reader with such beauty that sometimes a few sentences go by before the joy of the word craft meets the ugliness of the subject and the reader is left with his awareness and thoughts. — DJ
Leah was appointed Executive Director of the Charleston Conference in 2017, and has served in various roles with the Charleston Information Group, LLC, since 2004. Prior to working for the conference, she was Assistant Director of Graduate Admissions for the College of Charleston for four years. She lives in a small town near Columbia, SC, with her husband and two kids where they raise a menagerie of farm animals.