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A Nobel laureate’s novel about dictatorship gets a welcome new edition

Miguel Ángel Asturias’s ‘Mr. President,’ first published in 1946, is a reminder of the current Guatemalan situation, which that has driven so people to attempt risky illegal entry into the United States

(Penguin Classics)
5 min

If you’ve used one of those online translation tools, you probably quickly figured out that simply generating the literal meaning of a string of words can produce an incomprehensible pile of mush.

Language defies such two-plus-two-equals-four formulism. Instead, it demands a more complex equation, a fusion of literal meanings with an understanding of what the original author was trying to say.

This is one of the many challenges David Unger overcame in his masterful translation of “Mr. President,” a classic but often overlooked novel by Miguel Ángel Asturias. In making this work accessible, Unger didn’t just swap Spanish for English. He also navigated a work that draws from the vernacular of a country where half the residents do not speak Spanish, instead primarily communicating in one of more than 20 Indigenous Mayan languages.

Unger, a self-proclaimed “Guategringo” (born in Guatemala; raised and educated in the United States), spells out his task in a fascinating “Note on the Translation” that gives readers a peek into his artistry. Even a pair of Guatemalan aficionados of Asturias were stumped by some of the 250 questions he needed to check with them.

Unger’s note is one of three — three! — introductory sections to this Penguin Classics translation, which is an obvious tell that some context and buildup were needed to prime the reader for this seminal work of the Latin American dictator genre. In a foreword, the famed Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa — author of one of the best Latin America dictator books, “The Feast of the Goat,” based on the Dominican despot Rafael Trujillo — calls “Mr. President” “qualitatively better than all previous Spanish-language novels.”

Then, in an introduction, Gerald Martin, a professor emeritus of modern languages at the University of Pittsburgh, declares that it was Asturias — not Gabriel García Márquez as generally believed — who invented magical realism. Martin tells the gripping origin story of “Mr. President,” a novel that Asturias partially wrote in Guatemala in 1922 and finished a decade later in Paris in 1932 after he fled political persecution in the country of his birth. Fourteen years more would pass before the book was finally published, in 1946, in Mexico — the delay necessitated by the threat of more political persecution because Asturias, no longer able to afford to live abroad, had been forced to return to Guatemala. The book was a flop.

It wasn’t until “Mr. President,” which is set in the early 20th century, was republished two years later in Argentina that it became an “overnight sensation,” Martin writes. In later years, Asturias, who died in Madrid in 1974, became a Guatemalan diplomat but went into exile after a coup surreptitiously supported by the United States. He once again achieved great literary acclaim in 1967, sealing a reputation as one of the greats of the region, by becoming the first Latin American novelist to win the Nobel Prize.

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The prize renewed interest in “Mr. President,” which draws from the autocratic reign from 1898 to 1920 of the Guatemalan dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera. The book, which even its translator adjudges to have prose that “is often overly poetic, and at times repetitious and redundant,” revolves around the murder of a colonel known as “the Man with the Tiny Mule.”

The search for his killer is manipulated by a callous president, who is never named, and his confidant, a slippery and ultimately tragic figure named Miguel Angel Face, who “like Satan” was “both good and evil.” Face warns one suspect not to “ask whether you’re innocent or guilty. … An innocent man, without the president’s support, is worse off than a guilty person.”

Asturias fills the novel with beggars, the idle rich, simpering aristocrats and political sycophants. There are dungeons, vicious beatings, a capricious execution — all in service to a president fawningly known as the “Supreme Godfather,” the “Benefactor of the People” and the “Defender of the Studious Youth.”

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In the president’s erratic regime, even his closest allies are at risk. Betrayal is the norm. In one military honcho’s household, the maid is spying on the general and the cook, while the cook is spying on the general and the maid.

Given such oppression and mistrust, it only follows that the novel’s characters would be plagued by hallucinations and nightmares, each a manifestation of the traumas they face in their real lives. At times, the graphic gruesomeness and despair in the novel can be hard to stomach. But Asturias knew how to moderate those horrors by, thankfully, releasing the tension with absurd or scathingly mocking scenes. During one such moment, a beggar’s hallucination includes what has to be one of the longer compound words ever printed: “Curveofacurveinacurveofacurveinacurveofacurveinacurve.” (The beggar was in agony, but when I came upon that crazy word I couldn’t help but chuckle.)

Reading “Mr. President,” it’s impossible not to think about the current, sad situation in Guatemala, where endemic corruption, lawlessness, savage drug traffickers, heartless human smugglers and staggering economic inequality — combined with climate change-induced agricultural woes — have driven hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans to attempt risky illegal entry into the United States. (Guatemala consistently is rated among the most corrupt countries by international good-government advocates.)

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As “Mr. President” descends deeper into a chasm of injustice, violence and despair, a prisoner embarks on a long lament that almost reads like a premonition: “We are a cursed country. Heavenly voices shout when it thunders: Vile, filthy creatures! Accomplices of wickedness!

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a Washington Post staff writer who has served as the paper’s bureau chief in Mexico City and Miami.

Mr. President

By Miguel Ángel Asturias. Translated by David Unger

Penguin Classics. 282 pp. Paperback, $17.99

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