Augusto Roa Bastos

Author of 'I, the Supreme'

Friday 29 April 2005 00:00 BST

Augusto Antonio Roa Bastos, writer: born Iturbe, Paraguay 13 June 1917; thrice married (five children); died Asunción 26 April 2005.

Paraguay's foremost modern author was compelled to live for over 50 years in exile in Argentina and in Europe. But he never forgot his origins, and often combined in his style both classical Spanish and the native idiom, Guarani, used by the Indians inhabiting Paraguay, Bolivia and southern Brazil. The combination produced a unique and colourful style with haunting inflections. In 1971 his work was awarded a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Prize. In 1989, he was rewarded by the Cervantes Prize for Literature.

Like many novelists, he began by writing poetry, and became known as one of "the 1940 Generation" that included Hérib Campos Cervera, Josefina Pla and a younger fellow exile, Elvio Romero, poet of passionate social protest. Roa Bastos' first poetry collection was El Ruiseñor y la Aurora ("The Nightingale and the Dawn", 1936). It was followed by El Naranjal Ardiente ("Orange Grove Afire", written in 1947-49 but not published until 1960). He did not revert to poetry until later in life, with Metaforismos (1996) and La Tierra sin Mal ("Land of No Evil", 1998). In all his work, he often returns in memory to his childhood in the Indian village of Iturbe near Asunción, where his father ran a sugar refinery. It was the background for much of his future fiction's mythical everyday fantasies.

As a youth, Roa Bastos was full of passionate convictions. At the age of 15 he volunteered as a stretcherbearer in the civil war in the great central plain called the Chaco. He was fascinated by Spanish 17th-century literature, the refined poetic style of Gongora that at first he imitated, and above all by the language of the Guarani Indians. He began writing for newspapers like the independent El País, for which he became for a while the London correspondent. He was also one of the first to write specially for radio.

During the 1947 civil war he was appointed cultural attaché to the Paraguayan government's embassy in Buenos Aires. It was here he began composing his short stories and novels. Among the former, El Trueno entre las Hojas ("Thunder in the Leaves", 1953) rivals in the violence of its social protests the works of the Guatemalan writer Miguel Angel Asturias, whose El señor Presidente (1966) influenced Roa Bastos' Yo el Supremo (1974).

Yo el Supremo, translated into English as I, the Supreme (1986), is one of the major texts of Latin-American literature. "It is," writes his fellow novelist and warm admirer Carlos Fuentes, "a dialogue between Roa Bastos and Roa Bastos covering the course of history through the monstrous and paralysingly cruel dictator José Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia (1816-1840)." The story takes us up to modern times with the war on the Chaco. As always, the humanist in Roa Bastos was stirred to pity for the victims of senseless war: "Only the heroism of the meek and the gentleness of those who suffered can redeem this evil that men commit against their brothers." At the same time, the dictator's spiritual and human defects are honestly revealed as he poses, the Supremo, as a founder and father of the nation. The author takes care to show us that it is possible to reconsider this deranged dictator as a politician of genius who was able to overcome internal oligarchy and foreign threats of intervention.

It was Fuentes who originally suggested this theme, encouraged also by Mario Vargas Llosa. These two great writers from South America imagined a new project for Latin-American writers: each was asked to write a short story inspired by the life of one of the numerous dictators in the history of the continent. The project did not take off; but it produced three fine new novels: Gabriel Garcia Marquez' The Autumn of the Patriarch (1976), Alejo Carpentier's El Recourso del Método (1974) and Yo el Supremo.

Roa Bastos published several collections of his popular short stories, of which El Baldío ("The Wasteland", 1966) is an enthralling search in the wilderness of modern life for genuine metaphysical realities, in contrast to T.S. Eliot's dreary vision of humanity. Los Pies sobre el Agua ("Walking on Water", 1967) is a selected anthology of his shorter works that he produced between novels, or later incorporated into longer fictions. Other collections are Hijo del Hombre (1960, translated as Son of Man, 1965), Madera Quemada ("Burnt Matter", 1968) and Cuerpo Presente y otros textos ("Present Body and Other Texts", 1972).

"All dictators," said Roa Bastos, "exist precisely to fulfil this function - that is, to replace writers, historians, artists, thinkers and so on." The figure of a dictator emerges again, surprisingly, in the figure of Christopher Columbus, anti-hero of Vigilia del Almirante ("The Admiral's Vigil", 1992). In typical debunking manner, Roa Bastos demythifies the heroic legend and shows the true man who thought he had discovered India when the place was America. When he was in Madrid to launch the book, Roa Bastos claimed that his novel was an attempt to take a more "balanced" look at all he had ever read about the colonisation of the New World. He said that it was not a historical novel, but rather "a work of pure fiction - an adventure story about a man who might well be Columbus". Such statements sounded provocative at the time, when all Spain was celebrating Christopher Columbus's quincentenary of his "discovery" of the Americas.

At another press conference Roa Bastos advised people to seize this historic opportunity to consolidate alliances of a cultural nature between all Spanish-speaking peoples, and to seek a "forgiveness for all holocausts inflicted upon the Americas and her native peoples by the former Imperialist Spain - that now no longer exists". He went on to reveal that he had acquired dual nationality - Paraguayan/Spanish - through the intercessions of two dread dictators, Franco and Stroessner, in a bilateral agreement. And he declared that responsibilities for colonial intervention in the Americas lay just as much with mestizos - persons of mixed European and American Indian ancestry - and that they were the worst exploiters of the native Indians, the Guaranis. He ended with a punchy declaration that the Mayas, Incas and Aztecs exploited and destroyed peoples weaker than themselves and ended: "No one's hands are clean - no one can accuse anyone else of colonial barbarism."

After 52 years in exile, Augusto Roa Bastos was finally allowed to return to his homeland. They made amends to him by presenting him with the National Literature Prize awarded by the Ministry of Education, worth $5,000. It was ostensibly for his latest novel, Madame Sui (1995). About time . . .

James Kirkup

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