El Señor Presidente [The President, 1946] is the Guatemalan author Miguel Ángel Asturias’ best known novel, and one of his most critically lauded works. Its importance in the Latin American literary canon was recognized when Asturias received the Novel Prize for Literature in 1967, the first Latin American novelist to do so. The text had a long genesis and development before it took its final form. It began life as two short stories in 1922, which were later combined in 1924 into one unpublished story entitled “Los mendigos políticos” (Himelblau, 1973: 45). Asturias then departed for Europe, to London and then Paris where, at the Sorbonne, he was able to deepen his interest in Mayan culture, which would culminate in his first acclaimed book of short stories, Leyendas de Guatemala (1930). He also became “immersed in the Parisian avant-garde, above all the Surrealist movement”, which undoubtedly had an impact on his writing style in El Señor Presidente (Martin, 1990: 56). In fact, it was during this period of artistic growth and experimentation that Asturias returned to work on what would become the novel El Señor Presidente, but with the original title Tohil, a reference to the Mayan rain god known for his cruel demands of human sacrifice. By 1932 the draft of Tohil was completed and in 1939 Asturias changed its title to El Señor Presidente. The novel was not published in its present form until 1946, largely because, critics believe, the repressive political situation in Guatamala under General Jorge Ubico made such an endeavour too dangerous (Himelblau, 1973: 49, Rodríguez, 28: 1989, Martin, 1990: 52). Only after Ubico’s resignation in 1944 did Asturias feel able to make minor changes to the manuscript and publish El Señor Presidente in Mexico. The second edition, published in 1948 in Argentina, was that which garnered critical attention and launched Asturias as a writer of great importance in Latin America and beyond (Martin, 1990: 52).
The dazzling reception that El Señor Presidente received was due in large part to the fact that it was considered to be so influential and epoch-making within the Latin American literary canon. The novel is regarded as the forerunner of the “new novel” on the continent, in that it broke with the social realist style so prevalent in the early twentieth-century novel in Latin America. Asturias has been described as the “godfather of magic realism” (Rodríguez: 1989: 34), whose work shows the clear influence of “fantasy and surrealism” (Swanson, 1990: 9). El Señor Presidente was based on a specific social and historical situation — the dictatorship of Manuel Cabrera Estrada, who ruled Guatemala from 1889-1920. However, this is not made explicit in the novel, as the President of the title is never named and the novel’s time and place is also not clarified for the reader. So, although the novel is, as Gerald Martin notes, in the Latin American tradition of the dictator novel, in choosing not to set it in a recognizable location or time period, the author “universalises” the subject of totalitarian rule “to explore the roots of social violence generally and their projection in the patriarchal oppression which Freudian, and, more recently, feminist thought have sought to unmask” (Martin, 1990: 55).
El Señor Presidente begins with the almost accidental murder of a prominent army officer, Parrales Sonriente, by the lunatic beggar, Pelele, who, when he hears the word “mother” goes mad and kills the soldier almost out of fright. The unnamed President uses this incident to purge his regime of public figures whom he no longer trusts: General Eusebio Canales and Abel Carvajal. The novel centres around this main plot, as a series of people are either killed off or rewarded with higher office according to how they execute the President’s wishes. In particular, the novel focuses on an individual caught up in this intrigue: Miguel Cara de Ángel (Angel Face), the President’s favourite. As part of the intrigue, Cara de Ángel is ordered to help General Canales escape. The plan is that the police will then be able to shoot Canales down in cold blood, claiming that he was trying to escape from them. However, the plot goes awry when Canales does actually escape the clutches of the regime and Cara de Ángel falls in love with the general’s daughter, Camila, whom he eventually marries. The growing romance between Miguel Cara de Ángel and Camila precipitates transformative changes in Miguel’s behaviour and attitude, as he changes from being a Presidential lackey to a more ethical, compassionate and free-thinking individual. This romance forms a central and emotionally- charged narrative line in a novel otherwise lacking in detailed character development. Enraged by the fact that he has been disobeyed and by the love affair, the President concocts a fiendish plan to separate the couple, and the novel ends with Cara de Ángel rotting away in an isolated prison cell, finally destroyed when he believes a false rumour spread by a prisoner that Camila has become the President’s mistress.
That the novel ends with incarceration is typical, as it contains many scenes of torture and suffering in prisons, leading a number of critics to apply the metaphor of the panopticon to El Señor Presidente with reference to the overbearing surveillance practiced upon those who reside in the nightmarish land that Asturias recreates for the reader (Rojas Pachas: 2012, Quintero: 2015, Pace: 2009). The “panopticon penitentiary”, first outlined by Jeremy Bentham and later theorized by Michel Foucault, proposes a “circular building, with the prisoners” cells arranged around the outer wall and the central point dominated by an inspection tower. From this building, the prison’s inspector could look into the cells at any time […] though the inmates themselves would never be able to see the inspector” (UCL Bentham Project, 1999-2016). Foucault in Discipline and Punish surmised that this system was “a way of defining power relations” which in effect amounted to “a gross imbalance of power”, as while the state apparatus gathers knowledge its power increases, leaving its citizens, and especially prisoners, incarcerated behind prison walls, ever more powerless (Foucault cited in Pace, 2009).
The proliferation of prison scenes and descriptions of being spied upon also create a sense of claustrophobia. The scene at the very end of the text, where Cara de Ángel suffers in darkness, exemplifies this: “dos horas de luz, veintidós de oscuridad completa, una lata de caldo y una de excrementos, sed en verano, en invierno el diluvio; ésta era la vida en aquellas cárceles subterráneas”(“Two hours of light, twenty-two hours of utter darkness, one tin of soup and one of excrement, thirst in summer, flood in winter; that was life in the underground cells”) (Asturias, 2005: 397, trans. 1972: 280). However, life outside prison does not liberate citizens from being spied upon either, with even the natural world becoming complicit in the President’s extensive programme of surveillance, in a sinister example of the pathetic fallacy. The narrator informs us that the wood separating the President from his enemies is “bosque de árboles de orejas” (“made up of trees with ears”) and that “una red de hilos invisibles, más invisibles que los hilos del telégrafo, comunicaba cada hoja con el Señor Presidente, atento a lo que pasaba en las vísceras más secretas de los cuidadanos” (“a network of invisible threads, more invisible than telegraph wires, connected every leaf with the President, enabling him to keep watch on the most secret thoughts of the townspeople”) (Asturias, 2005: 147; trans.1972: 39).
In countless similar scenes the reader is plunged into the nightmarish world of the characters: their neuroses, fears and the constant threat of violence which surrounds them. In order to construct this powerful sense of paranoia, El Señor Presidente veers away from traditional realism and looks for more imaginative and original forms of presenting reality, such as surrealism, exaggeration, fantasy and structural fragmentation, a process which would reach new heights with the stylistic innovations of the “boom” in Latin American fiction in the 1960s. This text displays a degree of scepticism and uncertainty about the nature of reality, revealing it to be a subjective concept and illustrating that there are always multiple versions of supposed “reality”, all of which deserve consideration, especially taking into account the highly individual experience of dictatorship. The novel thus moves away from a discussion of social issues and towards an examination of the spiritual crisis faced by those living under dictatorship. As Martin comments, El Señor Presidente distinguishes itself as the first Latin American fiction to “explore dictatorship in both its political and psychological context” (54).
In keeping with a novel that has broken with traditional realism, none of the elements normally associated with the traditional novel are present. Aside from the central romance between Miguel and Camila, there is no substantial plot, various scenes loosely tied together, and the text is not really concerned with telling a story or describing the minor characters in a detailed way. With the exception of Miguel and Camila, the characters here are schematic, part of the general format of the novel, but do not drive the narration. Even the title character of the President is a shadowy presence. So, instead of the traditional narrative devices of plot and character, there are three alternative features which provide structure for the novel: the use of myth; the creation of a sinister atmosphere; and the expression of themes not via the external level of plot, but through internal links between episodes and motifs.
The use of myth as an alternate structuring device works on several levels. In the case of El Señor Presidente, the most obvious myth invoked is that of Lucifer’s rebellion against God, casting Cara de Ángel as Lucifer and the President as God. In Biblical terms, Lucifer was the fallen angel and Cara de Ángel, before being redeemed through the love of Camila, certainly appears to have a streak of malice running through him. The constant refrain about him at the start of the novel is “era bello y malo como Satán” (“he was as beautiful and wicked as Satan”) (Asturias, 2005:145; trans. 1972: 37). At this point he plans to kidnap Camila by force, but instead he falls in love with her and becomes a kinder person, although this ironically proves to be his downfall. So the traditional terms of the Biblical myth are inverted, as Cara de Ángel becomes not the malevolent angel rebelling against a benevolent lord, but a good angel rebelling against a tyrant. The notion of the President as an evil deity is further reinforced when Cara de Ángel envisions him in a dream-like surrealistic sequence as the wicked rain god Tohil from Mayan folklore in Chapter 37, “El baile de Tohil” (“Tohil’s Dance”): “Tohil exigía sacrificios humanos. Las tribus trajeron a su presencia los mejores cazadores” (“Tohil demanded human sacrifices. The tribes led their best hunters before him”) (Asturias, 2005: 376; trans. 1972: 260).
Here surrealism comes to the fore as a device which allows Cara de Ángel to unknowingly anticipate his own kidnapping and downfall at the hands of the President and his henchmen as he is transported back to mythic time with Mayan priests chanting to the beat of the drum: “De pronto, se oyó el sonar de un tún, un tún, un tún, un tún, y muchos hombres untados de animales entraron saltando en filas de maíz” (“All at once there was the sound of native drums: tom-tom, tom-tom, tom-tom, tom-tom, and a great many men disguised as animals came leaping in, in Indian file”) (Asturias, 2005: 375; trans. 1972: 259). Here, as elsewhere in the novel, Asturias utilizes onomatopoeia as a technique to convey both the ritualistic beat of the drums and the impending sense of doom that this connotes for Cara de Ángel and the other unfortunate citizens.
The novel illustrates, partly through the inverted mythic structure, how the President’s regime enforces separation from loved ones — and not just physical exile, as occurs with General Canales, but mental exile and desolation. This is endured by the beggar Pelele, forever yearning for his absent mother, with Fedina Rojas, forcibly separated from her baby in prison in some of the most heartrending scenes of the novel, with General Canales, separated from Camila, with Abel Carvajal separated from his wife and, finally, with Camila, separated from Cara de Ángel. Such an environment generates a culture of spying, as citizens attempt to win favour with the fearsome God/President. This is vividly portrayed in chapter 23, “El parte al Señor Presidente” (The President’s Post Bag) where sundry citizens write to the President to inform on others and thus gain his favour.
There is a second aspect to the mythical rebellion of the angels. Alongside the emotional and spiritual rebellion of Cara de Ángel, where “a la muerte únicamente se le puede oponer el amor”(“the only thing that can fight death is love”) (2005: 327; trans. 1972: 213), there is also a political rebellion led by General Canales, who plots a revolt in exile. In keeping with the sense of doom and hopelessness in the novel, he dies before this can be realized. The impact of this inverted mythical structure, then, would seem to be the triumph of the forces of evil over good. The only redemptive aspect lies in the birth of Camila and Cara de Ángel’s son, Miguel, who grows up away from the force of the President’s influence, in the country, which is presented as somehow restorative. The infant, whose name means “Archangel, messenger of God” (Jaeck, 2007: 96), represents new possibilities for the future in a land stymied by the oppression of the God/President. As Lois Marie Jaeck comments, “the struggle for liberation from tyranny is aligned with the phoenix-like power of love to transcend death, of social revolution to construct a new world from the ashes of oppression” (2007: 94). Jaeck sees the imagery of birds as key to building on the mythic significance of an evil god and his hellish kingdom. As she states, most of the birds evoked in the novel “emphasise death and torture under the President’s dictatorship” (96). However, she highlights the significance of the imagery of the hen that continues to flap its wings even after it has died on the night that little Miguel is conceived. This evokes the archetypal phoenix, rising from the ashes of death and destruction and indicates that “Miguel [Cara de Ángel] lives on in little Miguel” (96) and that love has, to an extent, defeated death.
Critic Richard Callan identifies another myth which he believes underpins the text. This is the Babylonian fertility myth, a pre-Christian myth from Mesopotamia which “tells the story of Ishtar, the goddess of love and of war, mother of mankind and its enemy, who fell in love with Tammuz and whose love proved fatal to him; she is portrayed in part by Camila. The role of Tammuz, who embodies fertility and whose death stands for the coming of winter barrenness, is played by Miguel, although little Miguel, a prolongation of himself born the following spring, represents the resurrected Tammuz and suggests the beginning of a cycle, the nature cycle” (1967: 418).
The layering of various ancient mythologies which helps to recreate the infernal world of the President is made more believable through the establishment of a brooding and uneasy atmosphere in the novel. Asturias has chosen to do this in several ways. Firstly, the novel contains the stirrings of magical realism which would be developed in the later fiction of the boom. There are a number of what could be described as surreal scenes when characters, gripped by fear, appear to be experiencing fantastical events which to them seem perfectly real. For instance, Génaro Rodas in Chapter 9, “Ojo de vidrio” (Glass Eye), sees the spectre of death hover over his baby’s cradle, “era un fantasma color de claro de huevo, con nube en los ojos, sin pelo, sin cejas, sin dientes” (“the spectre was the colour of white of egg, with cloudy eyes: it had no hair, eyebrows or teeth”) (2005: 167; trans. 1972: 57). Similarly, another character in extreme distress, Carvajal’s wife, travels to the President’s house to plead for her husband’s life in chapter 31 “Sentinelas de hielo” (Sentinals Made of Ice). However, before she makes the journey she finds herself so shocked by the death sentence handed down to her husband that she freezes, experiencing what Teresa McKenna describes as “dissociation” (1977: 101). She feels herself seized by sentinels of ice and physically disappears inside her clothing “dos tenazas de hielo imposible de romper le apretaban el cuello y el cuerpo se le fue resbalando de los hombres para abajo” (“a pair of ice-cold pincers had her by the neck in a tenacious grip, and her body was gradually slipping downwards from her shoulders to the ground” (329; trans. 215). This kind of description, employing the technique of defamiliarization, perhaps invites readers to question the idea of a monolithic, fixed reality. For these characters, their heightened state of panic enables them to experience reality in an unexpected way, based on their own subjective experience of dictatorship, and also adds to the foreboding atmosphere.
Another contributory feature to the creation of a threatening atmosphere is the impression of constantly being in darkness. The novel is framed by the dark. It begins with the beggars in the Cathedral Porch “atormentados por la oscuridad” (“horrified of the darkness”) (2005: 121; trans. 1972: 13) and ends in the darkness of a squalid prison cell. The weight of this constant darkness functions as a metaphor for the President’s infernal regime, where death has extinguished life and light, “cuando sean más los muertos que los vivos, la noche será eterna, no tendrá fin” (“when there are more dead than living there will be eternal night, night without end”) (2005: 333; trans. 1972: 219). Linked to the darkness are the recurring hallucinations, deliriums and nightmares which punctuate the narrative. In fact, the often almost indecipherable crossover between oneiric states and so-called reality in the text revels the influence of surrealism on the narrative. Pelele has disturbing dreams in the opening chapters and in chapter 26, “Torbellino” (Whirlwind), Cara de Ángel has a nightmare where Camila dies and he cannot reach her. By now it has become clear that the characters in the novel live in a waking nightmare, from which they cannot escape. As the narration states at the start of the chapter, “entre la realidad y el sueño la diferencia es puramente mecánica” (“the difference between reality and dreams is purely artificial”) (2005: 289; trans. 1972: 177). It is telling, too, that Cara de Ángel is awoken from his nightmare by heavy knocking on the door, and incessant knocking on the door also precedes his dream. Whether loud knocking, dogs barking, bells clanging discordantly (as at the start of the novel), houses being smashed up when the President’s men make an arrest, or voices clamoring to be heard in a dark prison cell, excess noise seems to shatter the peace and play on the characters’ nerves. As one of the prisoners states, “el sueño ya no reposa” (“sleep is no longer restful”) (315; trans. 201). It would seem that no one can get any proper rest in the novel, and that includes the President himself, friendless and fearful, who becomes a victim of his own regime by succumbing to the atmosphere of terror that he has created.
The way that language is used also contributes to the dark atmosphere and sense of confusion fostered in El Señor Presidente. There are several scenes where the language appears to become fragmented, such as in Chapter 8, “El titiritero del Portal” (The Puppet Master of the Porch). The grotesque Doña Venjamón’s and her diminutive puppet master husband Don Benjamín’s disagreement during the puppet show takes the form of linguistic gibberish: ““¡Ilógico! ¡Ilógico”! – concluía Don Benjamín. “¡Lógico! Relógico!”- le contradecía Doña Venjamón […] – “Pero es ilógico”… “¡Relógico, vaya! ¡Relógico, recontralógico!” (“Illogical! Illogical”! decided Don Benjamin. “Logical! Relogical!” Doña Venjamon contradicted him […] “But it is logical…” “Relogical, I tell you! Relogical, recontralogical!”) ((Asturias, 2005: 164; trans. 1972: 54). The fragmentation of language here and elsewhere points to the psychological fragmentation of one’s personality while living under the strain of a dictatorship. Mireille Rosello posits that previously established notions about “good” and “bad” and what is “true” and “untrue” in society have been replaced by the reality imposed by the President: “the unique point of reference is no longer an external reality shared by the community but one man’s mind: the president’s. As a result, the narrator, the characters (and the critic) are deprived of a common language” (1990: 93). She points to a “linguistic void” in the novel where characters are deprived of saying anything of real meaning, arguing that “the text is a tentative rendering of how a whole community disintegrates when concepts and language are stolen from the group and become the exclusive property of a single individual” (93). Life under the President, then, is literally a lottery where fortunes rise and fall on his whim and interpretation of events and words.
Asturias masterfully uses language and stylistic techniques in other ways in the novel as well. The opening lines evoking the discordant clanging bells have such an impact partly because of the wordplay and sound patterning which has a defamiliarizing effect: “Alumbra, lumbre de alumbre, Luzbel de piedralumbre!” (“Boom, Bloom, alum-bright, Lucifer of alunite!”) (Asturias, 2005: 115; trans. 1972: 7). Similarly, Pelele, the idiot’s slide into delirium in chapter three, where he hovers between dream and reality, is conveyed by word repetition and paranomasia and is a clear indication of the text’s debt to surrealism. Pelele’s febrile state and intense pain means that he struggles to enunciate his thoughts and his language degenerates into gibberish: “erre, erre, ere, erre, ere, erre… Curvadecurvaencurvadecurvacurvadecurvaencurvala mujer de Lot (¿La que inventó la lotería?) (“Curveofcurveinacurveofacurvecurveofacurveinacurveof Lot’s wife. Did she invent lotteries?”) (2005: 128; trans. 1972: 20). Pelele never recovers his sanity and soon after this episode he is hunted down and killed on the steps of the Cathedral Porch, where the novel begins.
As this discussion of the novel outlines, through techniques such as surrealism/ magical realism, structural fragmentation, atmosphere, word patterning and insertion of myth, Asturias produces a vividly original yet utterly believable picture of life under dictatorship. However, despite the blurring of reality and myth, Martin states, reiterating Jack Himelblau’s thesis, that “far from being merely a nightmarish fantasy, a work of overblown exaggeration, El Señor Presidente is based overwhelmingly on historical fact and is indeed a roman à clef” in which most Guatemalans could recognize their country, customs and the dictatorial features of Cabrera Estrada, even if the regime is never actually named (1990: 58).
The novel has attracted numerous and diverse scholarly approaches. Some of the notable contributions to critical studies of El Señor Presidente include Himelblau’s own work on the historical veracity of the text, “Antecedents, Sources and Reality” (1973), and later work on the theme of love (1974) and the narratorial structure of the novel (2002); Martin’s extensive work on the novel and Asturias’ oeuvre in general, unravelling the writer’s artistic influences and teasing out some of the positive messages of hope in El Señor Presidente (1990); Ricardo Gutiérrez Mouat’s focus on the importance of oral culture in Guatemalan culture and the novel (1987); and Mireille Rosello’s assessment of the way language is warped and misused in El Señor Presidente as an indicator of the ills of dictatorship (1990). Teresa McKenna focuses on hegemony, explained here as “a culture of domination, a complex pattern of structures of human interaction and language” as a central hinge from which to explore the novel (100: 1977). McKenna perceives that the tension between political and cultural oppression and the struggle to “break free” of this is what propels the narrative forward (100). Meanwhile Teresa Rodriguez’s monograph (1989) views the novel from the perspective of the collective search for identity in Guatemala that can productively incorporate the country’s indigenous, hispanic and mestizo cultures. Jorge J. Barrueto approaches the text from a postcolonial perspective and critiques Asturias’ attitude towards the indigenous of Guatemala, to whom, according to Barrueto, he ascribed the nation’s problems (2004: 339). Whilst acknowledging the text’s “great aesthetic achievement in the region” (341), Barrueto detects an inherent “othering” in the novel. He writes that here “the Other is the Guatemalan society (and its inhabitants) which reveals an ideological thinking proposing that primitivism and degeneration are inherent to Latin American societies” (340). Barrueto thus frames his argument within the ongoing civilization versus barbarism debate alive in Latin America since the nineteenth century and which came to prominence with the publication of Civilización y barbarie (1845) by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. This mode of thinking initially looked to Europe for models of civilization and good governance. Barrueto also draws on Homi Bhabha’s model of mimicry “to theorize the behavior of former colonized people who strive or are compelled to behave in a similar way to (European) models” (342). For Barrueto, then, Asturias is typical of other Creole writers in the region, who “glorify European values, and always portray the Old World as the pinnacle of civilization and the model for Latin America” (343). Barrueto’s critical if respectful reading of such a canonical novel is a welcome departure for a text that seems to have been almost exclusively praised for its accomplishments in advancing Latin American literature, and opens up the ground for further discussion. That the novel continues to kindle substantial critical interest and debate is surely testament to its enduring power and ability to engage new generations of readers, drawn into its darkness, but also dazzled by its linguistic and stylistic virtuosity.
Miguel Ángel Asturias. El Señor Presidente. 6ed.
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——. The President (trans. Frances Partridge). Harmondsworth: Penguin 1972.
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Callan, Richard J. “Babylonian Mythology in “El Senor Presidente”“, Hispania: A Journal Devoted to the Teaching of Spanish and Portuguese. Vol.50 (3). September 1967. 417-24.
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Mireille Rosello, “El Señor Presidente: “Moi, la Vérité, je parle”. Modern Language Studies. 1990 Summer. Vol. 20(3). 92-99.
Pace, Donald Gene. “El panóptico dictatorial: La representación de la violencia política en El Señor Presidente (1946) y La noche de Tlatelolco (1971). Sincronía. 2009. Issue 2.
Quintero, Julio. “Panopticism and Monarchical Rule in Miguel Ángel Asturias” El Señor Presidente. Delaware Review of Latin American Studies, Vol.16 (2). December 2015.
Rojas Pachas, Daniel. “El Panóptico Como Modelo De Poder En La Novela El Señor Presidente De Miguel Ángel Asturias. Revista de Filosofía Volumen 68. 2012. 155 – 165.
Swanson, Philip. “Introduction: Background to the Boom” in Swanson, Philip (ed.). Landmarks in Modern Latin American Fiction. London and New York: Routledge. 1990. 1-26.
Teresita Rodríguez. La problemática de la identidad en El Señor Presidente de Miguel Angel Asturias. Amsterdam: Rodopi. 1989. Viewed: 01/09/16.
Citation: Baker, Pascale. "El señor presidente". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 05 September 2017 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=14914, accessed 28 September 2023.]