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Augusto Roa Bastos: Hijo de hombre (Son of Man)

Roa Bastos’ first major novel is more a collection of unified short stories than a novel but these stories are intended to show Paraguayan history from the perspective of the ordinary people who suffered as victims under exploitation both by the ruling powers (including the church) and foreign interests. The stories show concern for the poor and exploited and all have a religious sensibility underlying them. The first story, for example, which is the title story, is narrated by Miguel Vera, whom we will meet later on, though we see the action through the eyes of old Macario. As a boy Macario had stolen gold from José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, dictator of Paraguay, for whom his father worked and whom we will meet in Bastos’ later novel, Yo el Supremo (I, the Supreme). This ultimately led to the family’s downfall and the family was exiled to different parts of Paraguay, with Macario and his sister in Itapé, where this novel is set. At the start of the story he is a decrepit old man but tells the story of the statue of Christ. His nephew, Gaspar Mora, was a maker of musical instruments and well liked by the people. However, he contracted leprosy and suddenly disappeared. He was later found by accident by a woodcutter, living alone and playing his guitar. The people tried to persuade him to return but he said that as he was already dead, there was no point. They brought him food and drink and left him. At this time the 1910 Halley’s Comet appeared and caused panic. When the people recovered, they realised they had forgotten Gaspar and went in search of him. Eventually, they found him dead but saw what seemed to be someone else in his cave. The someone else turned out to be a life-size carving of Christ. They tried to take it to the church but the priest rejected it, firstly because of the risk of transmitting leprosy and secondly because Mora was not a churchgoer. The priest then instructed the sexton to secretly burn it. The sexton was not successful and hanged himself. The statue was then moved to a hill outside Itapé by Macario where it remained, while Macario gradually faded away and died.

The other stories are of a similar nature. They include a story of a doctor who finds gold coins inside a statue and then demands to be paid with old images but soon goes mad in his search for gold; the story of a family (mother, father and son) escaping from forced labour at a tea plantation with clear parallels to the Flight into Egypt; the story of the son in the previous story and his guerrilla activities and his betrayal of his men and his subsequent heroic act and death; Miguel Vera’s difficult time in the Chaco War and ending with Vera after the war and in charge in Itapé, an unwitting accomplice of the oppressors.

Roa Bastos’ sympathies are clearly with the underdog at all times, while recognising the complexity of the situations men can find themselves in, particularly in times of war. His parallels with the suffering of Christ, while extensive, do not seem forced or artificial and are clearly sincere. He tells an excellent story, while making it clear whose side he is on.

Publishing history

First published by Editorial Losada, Buenos Aires in 1960
First published in English by Gollancz 1965
Translated by Rachel Caffyn