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Miguel Ángel Asturias: El Señor Presidente (The President; El Señor Presidente; Mr. President)
There have been quite a few Latin American novels on despotic dictators – El Otoño del Patriarca (The Autumn of the Patriarch), Yo el Supremo (I, the Supreme), El recurso del método (Reasons of State) and La fiesta del chivo (The Feast of the Goat) being four obvious ones, though there are others. However, this can fairly claim to be, if not the first on a despotic dictator, certainly the first modern Latin American novel to get inside a dictator, using techniques over and above standard realism. Though the president in question is fictitious (as is his country), it is clearly based on Estrada Cabrera. Asturias started writing the book in 1922 and finished it in 1932 but it was not published till 1946.
The story is a straightforward one of brutality, vengeance, control and repression, all carried out at the whim of a cruel dictator. Cara de Angel (Angel Face) is the President’s assistant and is instructed to get rid of General Canales, whom the President considers an enemy of his government. But Cara de Angel makes the mistake of falling in love with General Canales’ daughter, Camila. He tries to help her escape but, of course, the President finds out and, naturally, seeks a very cruel revenge. It is not just Cara de Angel and Camila who get caught up and pay the price but other innocent people as well. Asturias uses satire, language play and magic realism to tell his story and he tells it well, as we will see in the other dictator novels, how one despotic man can control an entire people.
First published 1946 by Costa-Amic, Mexico City
First English translation 1963 by Gollancz, Atheneum
Translated by Frances Partridge, David Unger (Penguin)