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Augusto Roa Bastos: Yo el Supremo (I, the Supreme)

There are several first-class Latin American novels about dictators. García MárquezEl Otoño del Patriarca (The Autumn of the Patriarch) may be the best known but there are also Alejo Carpentier‘s El recurso del método (Reasons of State), Miguel Angel AsturiasEl señor Presidente (The President) and others. This one stands comparison with all of these and differs from them because the dictator is no fictitious character but is José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, dictator of Paraguay from 1814 to his death in 1840.

The book takes the form of a compilation of various sources about Francia, many of which are, of course, contradictory and some, particularly, Francia’s own diary, are clearly the results of a fevered imagination. Francia is, of course, concerned about preserving his own good name and feels that what he has done he has done for the good of Paraguay. The fact is that, while keeping Paraguay isolated, he has managed to preserve it, more or less, from too much outside influence, that the native population has been better protected from European influence than those in other Latin American countries and that the language – Guarani – was preserved. At the same time, the country remained backward culturally and intellectually. Roa Bastos’ skill is to give us both a portrait of a dictator who may not always have been fully in touch with reality, just as García Márquez and the others mentioned above described, but also to give us a first-class novel about the mixture of reality and fantasy, again as García Márquez and company did. Indeed, this work certainly stands comparison with the others works and should be read by all interested in Latin American literature.

Publishing history

First published by Siglo Veintiuno, Buenos Aires in 1974
First published in English by Knopf 1986
Translated by Helen Lane