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Miguel Ángel Asturias: Hombres de maíz (Men of Maize)

Asturias was very familiar with the Popol Vuh, the book of myths of the Quiché Maya people. It is the Popol Vuh book, and other Native American narratives, that influenced this book, a story that is entirely sympathetic towards the highland Indians of Guatemala. The story is essentially the clash between the world view of these Indians and the ladinos (lowland peasants). The former see the maize as a sacred food, an integral part of their culture and what defines them as a people, while, for the latter, it is merely a commercial crop, without any mythic qualities.

The story, using magic realism but, more particularly, using the mythical style of the Popol Vuh, starts with Gaspar Ilom, one of the highland Indians. He sees the ladinos moving in and realises that he and his people will have to fight to defend their land. His people are beaten from the start. Gaspar is poisoned and his wife disappears. The three major elements that define this story are fire, water and maize, and they soon have their revenge. The people that poisoned Gaspar are soon made to pay, killed by fire flies or burned by fire. Others lose their wife, who leaves them inexplicably. In short, the story takes on a mythical element where magic is key and where the men of maize will be reborn, through supernatural intervention. The whole story is coloured by references to Mayan legend and myth which gives the novel both a unifying theme as well as raising it to much more than just a straightforward story. Initial reaction to this novel was not particularly positive but it has come to be recognised as his greatest novel and one that treats the native American population as true heroes.

Publishing history

First published 1949 by Losada, Buenos Aires
First English translation 1975 by Delacorte
Translated by Gerald Martin