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Miguel Ángel Asturias

Miguel Ángel Asturias

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Miguel Ángel Asturias Rosales (October 19, 1899 – June 9, 1974) was a Nobel Prize
Nobel Prize
The Nobel Prizes are annual international awards bestowed by Scandinavian committees in recognition of cultural and scientific advances. The will of the Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, established the prizes in 1895...

–winning Guatemala
Guatemala is a country in Central America bordered by Mexico to the north and west, the Pacific Ocean to the southwest, Belize to the northeast, the Caribbean to the east, and Honduras and El Salvador to the southeast...

n poet
A poet is a person who writes poetry. A poet's work can be literal, meaning that his work is derived from a specific event, or metaphorical, meaning that his work can take on many meanings and forms. Poets have existed since antiquity, in nearly all languages, and have produced works that vary...

, novelist, playwright
A playwright, also called a dramatist, is a person who writes plays.The term is not a variant spelling of "playwrite", but something quite distinct: the word wright is an archaic English term for a craftsman or builder...

, journalist
A journalist collects and distributes news and other information. A journalist's work is referred to as journalism.A reporter is a type of journalist who researchs, writes, and reports on information to be presented in mass media, including print media , electronic media , and digital media A...

 and diplomat
A diplomat is a person appointed by a state to conduct diplomacy with another state or international organization. The main functions of diplomats revolve around the representation and protection of the interests and nationals of the sending state, as well as the promotion of information and...

. Asturias helped establish Latin American literature
Latin American literature
Latin American literature consists of the oral and written literature of Latin America in several languages, particularly in Spanish, Portuguese, and indigenous languages of the Americas. It rose to particular prominence globally during the second half of the 20th century, largely due to the...

's contribution to mainstream Western culture, and at the same time drew attention to the importance of indigenous cultures, especially those of his native Guatemala.

Asturias was born and raised in Guatemala. However, he lived a significant part of his life abroad. He first lived in Paris
Paris is the capital and largest city in France, situated on the river Seine, in northern France, at the heart of the Île-de-France region...

 in the 1920s where he studied anthropology
Anthropology is the study of humanity. It has origins in the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. The term "anthropology" is from the Greek anthrōpos , "man", understood to mean mankind or humanity, and -logia , "discourse" or "study", and was first used in 1501 by German...

 and Indian mythology. Some scholars such as Lourdes Royano Gutiérrez view him as the first Latin American novelist to show how the study of anthropology and linguistics could affect the writing of literature (Gutiérrez, Lourdes Royano. Las novelas de Miguel Angel Asturias. Valladolid: U de Vallodolid, 1993). While in Paris, Asturias also associated with the Surrealist movement, and he is credited with introducing many features of modernist style into Latin American letters. In this way, he is an important precursor of the Latin American Boom
Latin American Boom
The Latin American Boom was a literary movement of the 1960s and 1970s when the work of a group of relatively young Latin American novelists became widely circulated in Europe and throughout the world...

 of the 1960s and 1970s.

One of Asturias' most famous novels, El Señor Presidente
El Señor Presidente
' is a 1946 novel written in Spanish by Nobel Prize–winning Guatemalan writer and diplomat Miguel Ángel Asturias . A landmark text in Latin American literature, explores the nature of political dictatorship and its effects on society. Asturias makes early use of a literary technique now known...

, describes life under a ruthless dictator
A dictatorship is defined as an autocratic form of government in which the government is ruled by an individual, the dictator. It has three possible meanings:...

. Asturias' very public opposition to dictatorial rule led to him spending much of his later life in exile, both in South America and in Europe. The book that is sometimes described as his masterpiece, Hombres de maíz (Men of Maize
Men of Maize
Men of Maize is a 1949 novel by Guatemalan Nobel Prize in Literature winner Miguel Ángel Asturias...

), is a defense of Mayan culture and customs. Asturias combined his extensive knowledge of Mayan beliefs with his political convictions, channeling them into a life of commitment and solidarity. His work is often identified with the social and moral aspirations of the Guatemalan people.

After decades of exile and marginalization, Asturias finally received broad recognition in the 1960s. In 1966, he won the Soviet Union's Lenin Peace Prize
Lenin Peace Prize
The International Lenin Peace Prize was the Soviet Union's equivalent to the Nobel Peace Prize, named in honor of Vladimir Lenin. It was awarded by a panel appointed by the Soviet government, to notable individuals whom the panel indicated had "strengthened peace among peoples"...

. The following year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, only the second Latin American to receive this honor. Asturias spent his final years in Madrid, where he died at the age of 74. He is buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery
Père Lachaise Cemetery
Père Lachaise Cemetery is the largest cemetery in the city of Paris, France , though there are larger cemeteries in the city's suburbs.Père Lachaise is in the 20th arrondissement, and is reputed to be the world's most-visited cemetery, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors annually to the...

 in Paris.

Early life and education

Miguel Ángel Asturias was born in Guatemala City
Guatemala City
Guatemala City , is the capital and largest city of the Republic of Guatemala and Central America...

 on October 19, 1899, the first child of Ernesto Asturias Girón, a lawyer and judge, and María Rosales de Asturias, a schoolteacher. Two years later, his brother, Marco Antonio, was born. Asturias's parents were of Spanish descent, and reasonably distinguished: his father could trace his family line back to colonists who had arrived in Guatemala in the 1660s; his mother, whose ancestry was more mixed, was the daughter of a colonel. In 1905, when the writer was six years old, the Asturias family moved to the house of Asturias' grandparents, where they lived a more comfortable lifestyle.

Despite his relative privilege, Asturias's father opposed the dictatorship of Manuel Estrada Cabrera
Manuel Estrada Cabrera
Manuel José Estrada Cabrera was President of Guatemala from 8 February 1898 to 15 April 1920.Manuel Estrada forcibly took the presidency after the assassination of José María Reina. The Guatemalan cabinet called an emergency meeting to appoint a new successor, but declined to invite the General...

, who had come to power in February 1898. As Asturias later recalled, "My parents were quite persecuted, though they were not imprisoned or anything of the sort". Following an incident in 1904 which, in his capacity as judge, Asturias Sr. set free some students arrested for causing a disturbance, he clashed directly with the dictator, lost his job, and he and his family were forced to move in 1905 to the town of Salamá
Salamá is a city in Guatemala. It is the capital of the department of Baja Verapaz. It is situated at 940 m above sea level.The municipality of Salamá, for which the city of Salamá serves as the administrative centre, covers a total surface area of 776 km² and contains 40,000 people.The...

, the departmental capital of Baja Verapaz
Baja Verapaz
Baja Verapaz is a department in Guatemala. The capital is Salamá.Baja Verapaz houses the Mario Dary Biotope Preserve, preserving the native flora and fauna of the region, especially the endangered national bird of Guatemala, the Resplendent Quetzal....

, where Miguel Ángel Asturias lived on his grandparents' farm. It was here that Asturias first came into contact with Guatemala's indigenous people; his nanny, Lola Reyes, was a young indigenous woman who told him stories of their myths and legends that would later have a great influence on his work.

In 1908, when Asturias was nine, his family returned to the suburbs of Guatemala City. Here they established a supply store where Asturias spent his adolescence. Asturias first attended Colegio del Padre Pedro and then, Colegio del Padre Solís. Asturias began writing as a student and wrote the first draft of a story that would later become his novel El Señor Presidente.

In 1922, Asturias and other students founded the Popular University, a community project whereby "the middle class was encouraged to contribute to the general welfare by teaching free courses to the underprivileged." Asturias spent a year studying medicine before switching to the faculty of law at the Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala
Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala
The Universidad de San Carlos de Guatemala It is the biggest and oldest university of Guatemala, also it is the fourth founded in the Americas....

 in Guatemala City. He obtained his law degree in 1923 and received the Gálvez Prize for his thesis on Indian problems. Asturias was also awarded the Premio Falla for being the top student in his faculty. It was at this university that he founded the Asociación de Estudiantes Universitarios (Association of University Students) and the Asociación de estudiantes El Derecho (Association of Law Students), in addition to actively participating in La Tribuna del Partido Unionista (Platform of the Unionist Party). It was ultimately the latter group which derailed the dictatorship of Estrada Cabrera. Both of the associations he founded have been recognized as being positively associated with Guatemalan patriotism. In reference to literature, Asturias' involvement in all of these organizations influenced many of his scenes in El Señor Presidente. Asturias was thus involved in politics; working as a representative of the Asociación General de Estudiantes Universitarios (General Association of University Students), and traveling to El Salvador
El Salvador
El Salvador or simply Salvador is the smallest and the most densely populated country in Central America. The country's capital city and largest city is San Salvador; Santa Ana and San Miguel are also important cultural and commercial centers in the country and in all of Central America...

 and Honduras
Honduras is a republic in Central America. It was previously known as Spanish Honduras to differentiate it from British Honduras, which became the modern-day state of Belize...

 for his new job. In 1920, Asturias participated in the uprising against the dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera. While enrolled in El Instituto Nacional de Varones (The National Institute for Boys) he took an active role, such as organizing strikes in his high school, in the overthrow of the dictatorship of Estrada Cabrera. He and his fellow classmates formed what is now known to be “La Generación del 20” (The Generation of 20).

Asturias' university thesis, "The Social Problem of the Indian," was published in 1923. In 1923, after receiving his law degree, Asturias moved to Europe. He had originally planned to live in England
England is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. It shares land borders with Scotland to the north and Wales to the west; the Irish Sea is to the north west, the Celtic Sea to the south west, with the North Sea to the east and the English Channel to the south separating it from continental...

 and study political economy, but changed his mind. He soon transferred to Paris, where he studied ethnology
Ethnology is the branch of anthropology that compares and analyzes the origins, distribution, technology, religion, language, and social structure of the ethnic, racial, and/or national divisions of humanity.-Scientific discipline:Compared to ethnography, the study of single groups through direct...

 at the Sorbonne
The Sorbonne is an edifice of the Latin Quarter, in Paris, France, which has been the historical house of the former University of Paris...

 (University of Paris
University of Paris
The University of Paris was a university located in Paris, France and one of the earliest to be established in Europe. It was founded in the mid 12th century, and officially recognized as a university probably between 1160 and 1250...

) and became a dedicated surrealist under the influence of the French poet and literary theorist André Breton
André Breton
André Breton was a French writer and poet. He is known best as the founder of Surrealism. His writings include the first Surrealist Manifesto of 1924, in which he defined surrealism as "pure psychic automatism"....

. While there, he was influenced by the gathering of writers and artists in Montparnasse
Montparnasse is an area of Paris, France, on the left bank of the river Seine, centred at the crossroads of the Boulevard du Montparnasse and the Rue de Rennes, between the Rue de Rennes and boulevard Raspail...

, an area of Paris, and began writing poetry and fiction. During this time, Asturias developed a deep concern for Mayan culture and in 1925 he worked to translate the Mayan sacred text, the Popol Vuh
Popol Vuh
Popol Vuh is a corpus of mytho-historical narratives of the Post Classic Quiché kingdom in Guatemala's western highlands. The title translates as "Book of the Community," "Book of Counsel," or more literally as "Book of the People."...

, into Spanish, a project which he spent 40 years on. He also founded a magazine while in Paris called Tiempos Nuevos or New Times. Asturias stayed in Paris for a total of ten years.

In 1930, Asturias published his first novel Leyendas de Guatemala. A short two years later, in Paris, Asturias received the Sylla Monsegur Prize for the French translations of Leyendas de Guatemala. On July 14, 1933, he returned to Guatemala via America after his ten year stay in Paris had come to an end

Political career

Asturias returned to Guatemala in 1933 and worked as a journalist before serving in his country's diplomatic corps. He founded and edited a radio magazine called El diario del aire. He wrote several volumes of poetry around this time, the first being his Sonetos (Sonnets), which was published in 1936.

In 1942, he was elected to Congress
Congress of Guatemala
The Congress of the Republic is the unicameral legislature of the Republic of Guatemala.It comprises 158 deputies, who are elected by direct universal suffrage to serve four-year terms . Twenty-nine of these are elected from nationwide lists, with the rest on a district list basis...

. In 1946, Asturias started a diplomatic career, continuing to write while serving in several countries in Central and South America. Asturias held diplomatic postings in Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires is the capital and largest city of Argentina, and the second-largest metropolitan area in South America, after São Paulo. It is located on the western shore of the estuary of the Río de la Plata, on the southeastern coast of the South American continent...

 in 1947 and in Paris in 1952.

When Asturias returned to his native country in 1933, he had first encounter with dictator Jorge Ubico
Jorge Ubico
Jorge Ubico y Castañeda was a Guatemalan dictator who held the title of President of Guatemala from 14 February 1931 to 4 July 1944.-Early years:...

 and a regime that would not tolerate his political ideals. Ubico ended up closing the Popular University, which Asturias had founded in 1922. He stayed in Guatemala until 1944. During his time in Guatemala, he published "only poetry, which was characterized by elegant cynicism". Eventually in 1933 he ended his 10 years of writing poetry due to fear of political repression when a more liberal government ruled the country. However, Asturias continued to write poetry once the political climate had begun to change. He eventually published Sien de alondra in 1949, which is an anthology of his poetry. He wrote the novel El Señor Presidente, exploring the world around an unnamed dictator in an unspecified Latin American country. Unfortunately, the novel could not be published during the rule of Ubico because of political limits and so El Señor Presidente was not published until 1946.

Asturias served as an ambassador to Mexico
The United Mexican States , commonly known as Mexico , is a federal constitutional republic in North America. It is bordered on the north by the United States; on the south and west by the Pacific Ocean; on the southeast by Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean Sea; and on the east by the Gulf of...

, Argentina, and El Salvador, between 1946 and 1954. His novel Men of Maize was published in 1949, during his time as ambassador to Mexico. This novel was organized into multiple parts, each dealing with the contrast between traditional Indian culture and modernity.

Exile and rehabilitation

Miguel Ángel Asturias devoted much of his political energy towards supporting the government of Jacobo Arbenz, successor to Juan José Arévalo Bermejo. Asturias was asked following his work as an ambassador to help suppress the threat of rebels from El Salvador. While his efforts were backed by the U.S. and Salvadoran governments, the rebels succeeded in invading Guatemala and overthrew Jacobo Arbenz' rule in 1954. When the government of Jacobo Arbenz fell Asturias was expelled from the country by Carlos Castillo Armas
Carlos Castillo Armas
Carlos Castillo Armas was a Guatemalan Colonel who came to power in a CIA-orchestrated coup in 1954. He held the title of President of Guatemala from July 8, 1954 until his assassination in 1957.-The coup:...

 because of his support for Arbenz. He was stripped of his Guatemalan citizenship and went to live in Buenos Aires and Chile
Chile ,officially the Republic of Chile , is a country in South America occupying a long, narrow coastal strip between the Andes mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. It borders Peru to the north, Bolivia to the northeast, Argentina to the east, and the Drake Passage in the far...

, where he spent the next eight years of his life. Even though he remained in exile, Asturias did not stop his writing. When another change of government in Argentina meant that he once more had to seek a new home, Asturias moved to Europe. While living in exile in Genoa
Genoa |Ligurian]] Zena ; Latin and, archaically, English Genua) is a city and an important seaport in northern Italy, the capital of the Province of Genoa and of the region of Liguria....

 his reputation grew as an author with the release of his novel, Mulata de Tal (1963).

In 1966, democratically elected President Julio César Méndez Montenegro
Julio César Méndez Montenegro
Julio César Méndez Montenegro was the Revolutionary Party President of Guatemala from 1 July 1966 to 1 July 1970. The only civilian to occupy Guatemala's presidency during the long period of military rule between 1954 and 1986, Méndez was not allowed to act independently of the military and was...

 achieved power and Asturias was given back his Guatemalan citizenship. Montenegro appointed Asturias as ambassador to France, where he served until 1970, taking up a permanent residence in Paris. A year later, in 1967, English translations of Mulata de Tal were published in Boston.

Later in Asturias' life he helped found the Popular University of Guatemala. Asturias spent his final years in Madrid, where he died in 1974. He is buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.


Miguel Ángel Asturias married his first wife, Clemencia Amado, in 1939. They had two sons, Miguel and Rodrigo Ángel, before divorcing in 1947.
Asturias then met and married his second wife, Blanca Mora y Araujo, in 1950. Mora y Araujo was Argentinian, and so when Asturias was deported from Guatemala in 1954, he went to live in the Argentinian
Argentina , officially the Argentine Republic , is the second largest country in South America by land area, after Brazil. It is constituted as a federation of 23 provinces and an autonomous city, Buenos Aires...

 capital of Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires is the capital and largest city of Argentina, and the second-largest metropolitan area in South America, after São Paulo. It is located on the western shore of the estuary of the Río de la Plata, on the southeastern coast of the South American continent...

. He lived in his wife's homeland for eight years. Asturias dedicated his novel Week-end en Guatemala to his wife, Blanca, after it was published in 1956. They remained married until Asturias' death in 1974.

Asturias' son from his first marriage, Rodrigo Asturias
Rodrigo Asturias
Rodrigo Asturias Amado was a Guatemalan guerrilla leader and politician.Asturias was born in Guatemala City, the first-born son of Nobel Prize-winning author Miguel Ángel Asturias. He studied law in Chile and travelled extensively through the Southern Cone...

, under the nom de guerre Gaspar Ilom, the name of an indigenous rebel in his father's own novel, Men of Maize, was President of the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG). The URNG was a rebel group active in the 1980s, during the Guatemalan Civil War
Guatemalan Civil War
The Guatemalan Civil War ran from 1960-1996. The thirty-six-year civil war began as a grassroots, popular response to the rightist and military usurpation of civil government , and the President's disrespect for the human and civil rights of the majority of the population...

, and after the peace accords in 1996.

Leyendas de Guatemala

Asturias' first book to be published, Leyendas de Guatemala
Leyendas de Guatemala
Leyendas de Guatemala was the first book to be published by Nobel-prizewinning author Miguel Ángel Asturias. The book is a re-telling of Maya origin stories from Asturias's homeland of Guatemala...

(Legends of Guatemala; 1930), is a collection of nine stories that explore Mayan myths from before the Spanish conquest as well as themes that relate to the development of a Guatemalan national identity. Asturias' fascination with pre-Columbian texts such as Popul Vuh and Anales de los Xahil, as well as his beliefs in popular myths and legends, have heavily influenced the work.
Academic Jean Franco
Jean Franco
Jean Franco is a British-born academic and literary critic known for her pioneering work on Latin American literature. Educated at Manchester and London, she has taught at London, Essex , and Stanford, and is currently professor emerita at Columbia University.-Research:Jean Franco's research is...

 describes the book as, "lyrical recreations of Guatemalan folk-lore gaining inspiration from pre-Columbian
The pre-Columbian era incorporates all period subdivisions in the history and prehistory of the Americas before the appearance of significant European influences on the American continents, spanning the time of the original settlement in the Upper Paleolithic period to European colonization during...

 and colonial sources." For Latin American literature critic Gerald Martin
Gerald Martin
Gerald Martin is a prolific critic of Latin American fiction. He is particularly known for his work on the Guatemalan author Miguel Ángel Asturias and on the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez, both of whom are winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature....

, Leyendas de Guatemala is, "The first major anthropological contribution to Spanish American literature." According to academic Francisco Solares-Larrave, the stories are a precursor to the magical realism movement. Asturias used conventional writing and lyrical prose to tell a story about birds and other animals conversing with other archetypal human beings. Asturias' writing style in Leyendas de Guatemala has been described by some as "historia-sueño-poemas" (history-dream-poem). In each legend, Asturias draws the reader in with a fury of beauty and mystery without being able to comprehend the sense of space and time. Leyendas de Guatemala brought Asturias critical praise in France as well as in Guatemala. The noted French poet and essayist Paul Valéry
Paul Valéry
Ambroise-Paul-Toussaint-Jules Valéry was a French poet, essayist, and philosopher. His interests were sufficiently broad that he can be classified as a polymath...

 wrote of the book, "I found it brought about a tropical dream, which I experienced with singular delight."

El Señor Presidente

One of Asturias' most critically acclaimed novels, El Señor Presidente was completed in 1933 but remained unpublished until 1946, where it was privately released in Mexico. As one of his earliest works, El Señor Presidente showcased Asturias's talent and influence as a novelist. Zimmerman and Rojas describe his work as an "impassioned denunciation of the Guatemalan dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera." The novel was written during Asturias's exile in Paris. While completing the novel, Asturias associated with members of the Surrealist movement as well as fellow future Latin American writers, such as Arturo Uslar Pietri
Arturo Uslar Pietri
Arturo Uslar Pietri , was a Venezuelan intellectual, lawyer, journalist, writer, television producer and politician.- Life :...

 and the Cuban Alejo Carpentier
Alejo Carpentier
Alejo Carpentier y Valmont was a Cuban novelist, essayist, and musicologist who greatly influenced Latin American literature during its famous "boom" period. Born in Lausanne, Switzerland, Carpentier grew up in Havana, Cuba; and despite his European birthplace, Carpentier strongly self-identified...

. El Señor Presidente is one of many novels to explore life under a Latin American dictator and in fact, has been heralded by some as the first real novel exploring the subject of dictatorship. The book has also been called a study of fear because fear is the climate in which it unfolds.

El Señor Presidente uses surrealistic techniques and reflects Asturias' notion that Indian's non-rational awareness of reality is an expression of subconscious forces. Although the author never specifies where the novel takes place, it is clear that the plot is influenced by Guatemalan president, and well-known dictator, Manuel Estrada Cabrera's rule. Asturias's novel examines how evil spreads downward from a powerful political leader, into the streets and homes of the citizens. Many themes, such as justice and love, are mocked in the novel, and escape from the dictator's tyranny is seemingly impossible. Each character within the novel is deeply affected by the dictatorship and must struggle to survive in a terrifying reality. The story opens with the accidental murder of a high official, Colonel Parrales Sonriente. The President uses the Colonel's death to dispose of two men as he decides to frame them both for the murder. The tactics of the President are often viewed as sadistic, as he believes his word is the law which no one shall question. The novel then travels with several characters, some close to the President and some seeking escape from his regime. The dictator's trusted adviser, whom the reader knows as "Angel Face", falls in love with a General Canales's daughter, Camila. Also, Angel Face, under the direct order of the President, convinces General Canales that immediate flight is imperative. Unfortunately, the General is one of the two men the President is trying to frame for murder; the President's plan to make General Canales appear guilty is to have him shot while fleeing. The General is hunted for execution while his daughter is held under house arrest by Angel Face. Angel Face is torn between his love for her and his duty to the President. While the Dictator is never named, he has striking similarities to Manuel Estrada Cabrera.

Playwright Hugo Carrillo adapted El Señor Presidente into a play in 1974.

Men of Maize

Men of Maize
Men of Maize
Men of Maize is a 1949 novel by Guatemalan Nobel Prize in Literature winner Miguel Ángel Asturias...

(Hombres de maíz, 1949) is usually considered to be Asturias's masterpiece, yet remains one of the least understood novels produced by Asturias. The title Hombres de maíz refers to the Maya Indians' belief that their flesh was made of corn. The novel is written in six parts, each exploring the contrast of traditional Indian customs and a progressive, modernizing society. Asturias's book explores the magical world of indigenous communities, a subject which the author was both passionate and knowledgeable of. The novel draws on traditional legend, but the story is of Asturias's own creation. The plot revolves around an isolated Indian community (the men of maize or "people of corn") whose land is under threat by outsiders, with the intent of commercial exploitation. An indigenous leader, Gaspar Ilom, leads the community's resistance to the planters, who kill him in the hope of thwarting the rebellion. Beyond the grave Ilom lives on as a "folk-hero"; despite his efforts, the people still lose their land. In the second half of the novel, the central character is a postman, Nicho, and the story revolves around his search for his lost wife. In the course of his quest he abandons his duties, tied as they are to "white society", and transforms himself into a coyote, which represents his guardian spirit
In Mesoamerican folk religion, a Nagual or Nahual is a human being who has the power to magically turn him- or herself into an animal form: most commonly a donkey, turkey, or dog, but also other and more powerful animals such as the jaguar and puma.Such a Nagual is believed to use his powers for...

. This transformation is yet another reference to Mayan culture; the belief of nahualism, or a man's ability to assume the shape of his guardian animal, is one of the many essential aspects to understanding the hidden meanings in the novel. Through allegory, Asturias shows how European imperialism
Imperialism, as defined by Dictionary of Human Geography, is "the creation and/or maintenance of an unequal economic, cultural, and territorial relationships, usually between states and often in the form of an empire, based on domination and subordination." The imperialism of the last 500 years,...

 dominates and transforms native traditions in the Americas. By the novel's end, as Jean Franco notes, "the magic world of Indian legend has been lost"; but it concludes on a "Utopian note," as the people become ants to transport the maize they have harvested.

Written in the form of a myth, the novel is experimental, ambitious, and difficult to follow. For instance, its "time scheme is a mythic time in which many thousands of years may be compressed and seen as a single moment", and the book's language is also "structured so as to be analogous to Indian languages". Because of its unusual approach, it was some time before the novel was accepted by critics and the public.

The Banana Trilogy

Asturias wrote an epic trilogy about the exploitation of the native Indians on banana plantations. This trilogy comprises three novels: Viento fuerte (Strong Wind; 1950), El Papa Verde (The Green Pope; 1954), and Los ojos de los enterrados (The Eyes of the Interred; 1960). It is a fictional account of the results of foreign control over the Central American banana industry. At first, the volumes were only published in small quantities in his native Guatemala. Asturias finished the last book in the trilogy nearly 20 years after the first two volumes came out. His critique of foreign control of the banana industry and how Guatemalan natives were exploited eventually earned him the Soviet Union's highest prize, the Lenin Peace Prize
Lenin Peace Prize
The International Lenin Peace Prize was the Soviet Union's equivalent to the Nobel Peace Prize, named in honor of Vladimir Lenin. It was awarded by a panel appointed by the Soviet government, to notable individuals whom the panel indicated had "strengthened peace among peoples"...

. This recognition marked Asturias as one of the few authors recognized in both the West and the Communist bloc during the period of the Cold War
Cold War
The Cold War was the continuing state from roughly 1946 to 1991 of political conflict, military tension, proxy wars, and economic competition between the Communist World—primarily the Soviet Union and its satellite states and allies—and the powers of the Western world, primarily the United States...

 for his literary works.

Mulata de tal

Asturias published his novel Mulata de tal while he and his wife were living in Genoa in 1963. His novel received many positive reviews; Ideologies and Literature described it as "a carnival incarnated in the novel. It represents a collision between Mayan Mardi Gras and Hispanic baroque." The novel emerged as a major novel during the 1960s. The plot revolves around the battle between Catalina and Yumí to control Mulata (the moon spirit). Yumí and Catalina become experts in sorcery and are criticized by the Church for their practices. The novel uses Mayan mythology and Catholic tradition to form a distinctive allegory of belief.

Gerald Martin in the Hispanic Review commented that it is "sufficiently obvious that the whole art of this novel rests upon its language". In general, Asturias matches the visual freedom of the cartoon by using every resource the Spanish language offers him. His use of color is striking and immeasurably more liberal than in earlier novels." Asturias built the novel with this unique use of color, liberal theory, and his distinctive use of the Spanish language. His novel also received the Silla Monsegur Prize for the best Spanish-American novel published in France.


Postcolonial Guatemalan identity is influenced by a mixture of Mayan and European culture. Asturias, himself a mestizo
Mestizo is a term traditionally used in Latin America, Philippines and Spain for people of mixed European and Native American heritage or descent...

, proposed a hybrid national soul for Guatemala (ladino
Ladino people
Ladino is a Spanish term used to describe various socio-ethnic categories in Latin America, principally in Central America.The term Ladino is derived from "latino" and usually refers to the mestizo or hispanicized population...

 in its language, Mayan in its mythology). His quest to create an authentic Guatemalan national identity is central to his first published novel, Leyendas de Guatemala, and is a pervasive theme throughout his works. When asked by interviewer Günter W. Lorenz how he perceives his role as a Latin American writer, he responds, “...I felt it was my calling and my duty to write about America, which would someday be of interest to the world.” Later in the interview Asturias identifies himself as a spokesman for Guatemala, saying, "...Among the Indians there's a belief in the Gran Lengua (Big Tongue). The Gran Lengua is the spokesman for the tribe. And in a way that's what I've been: the spokesman for my tribe."


Throughout Asturias' literary career, he was continually involved in politics. He was openly opposed to the Cabrera Dictatorship and worked as an ambassador in various Latin American countries. His political opinions come through in a number of his works. Some political themes found in his books are the following: Spanish colonization of Latin America and the decline of the Maya civilization; the effects of political dictatorships on society; and the exploitation of the Guatemala people by foreign-owned agricultural companies.

Asturias' collection of short stories, Leyendas de Guatemala, is loosely based on Maya mythology and legends. The author chose legends spanning from the creation of the Maya people to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors hundreds of years later. Asturias introduces the Spanish colonizers in his story "Leyenda del tesoro del Lugar Florido" (Legend of the Treasure from the Flowering Place). In this story, a sacrificial ritual is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of "the white man" ("los hombres blancos"). The tribe scatters in fright of the intruders and their treasure is left behind in the hands of the white man. Jimena Sáenz argues that this story represents the fall of the Maya civilization at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors.

El Señor Presidente does not explicitly identify its setting as early twentieth-century Guatemala, however, the novel's title character was inspired by the 1898–1920 presidency of Manuel Estrada Cabrera. The character of the President rarely appears in the story but Asturias employs a number of other characters to show the terrible effects of living under a dictatorship. This book was a notable contribution to the dictator novel genre. Not ironically, Asturias was unable to publish the book in Guatemala for thirteen years because of the strict censorship laws of the Cabrera government.

Following the Second World War, the United States continually increased its presence in Latin American economies. Companies such as United Fruit Company
United Fruit Company
It had a deep and long-lasting impact on the economic and political development of several Latin American countries. Critics often accused it of exploitative neocolonialism and described it as the archetypal example of the influence of a multinational corporation on the internal politics of the...

 manipulated Latin American politicians and exploited land, resources, and Guatemalan laborers. The overall effect was devastating in Guatemala and inspired Asturias to write The Banana Trilogy. It is a collection of three books published in 1950, 1954, and 1960. The three novels revolve around the exploitation of indigenous farm laborers and the monopoly presence of the United Fruit Company in Guatemala.

Asturias was very concerned with the marginalization and poverty of the Maya people in Guatemala. He believed that socio-economic development in Guatemala depended on better integration of indigenous communities, a more equal distribution of wealth in the country, and working to lower the rates of illiteracy amongst other prevalent issues. Asturias' choice to publicize some of the political problems of Guatemala in his novels brought international attention to them. He was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature because of the political criticisms included in his books.


Guatemala and America are, for Asturias, country and continent of nature. Nahum Megged in her article “Artificio y naturaleza en las obras de Miguel Angel Asturias,” writes on how his work embodies the “captivating totality of nature” and how it does not use nature solely as a backdrop for the drama. She explains that the characters in his books who are most in harmony with nature are the protagonists and those who disrupt the balance of nature are the antagonists. The theme of the erotic personification of nature in his novels is pervasive throughout his novels. An example being in Leyendas de Guatemala in which he writes, “El tropico es el sexo de la tierra.”

Writing Style

Asturias was greatly inspired by the Maya culture of Central America. It is an overarching theme in many of his works and greatly influenced the style of this writing.

Mayan influence

The Guatemala that exists today was founded on top of a substratus of Mayan culture. Before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, this civilization was very advanced politically, economically, and socially. This rich Mayan culture has had an undeniable influence on Asturias' literary works. He believed in the sacredness of the Mayan traditions and worked to bring life back into its culture by integrating the Indian imagery and tradition into his novels. Asturias studied at the Sorbonne (the University of Paris at that time) with Georges Raynaud, an expert in the culture of the Quiché Maya. In 1926, he finished a translation of the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Mayas. Fascinated by the mythology of the indigenous people of Guatemala, he wrote Leyendas de Guatemala (Legends of Guatemala). This fictional work re-tells some of the Mayan folkloric stories of his homeland.

Certain aspects of indigenous life were of a unique interest to Asturias. Commonly known as corn, maize is an integral part of Mayan culture. It is not only a main staple in their diet but plays an important role in the Mayan creation story found in the Popul Vuh. This particular story was the influence for Asturias' novel Hombres de maíz (Men of Maize), a mythological fable that introduces readers to the life, customs, and psyche of a Maya Indian.

Asturias did not speak any Mayan dialect and admits that his interpretations of the indigenous psyche were intuitive and speculative. In taking such liberties, there are many possibilities for error. However, Lourdes Royano Gutiérrez argues that his work remains valid because in this literary situation, intuition served as a better tool than scientific analysis. In accordance, Jean Franco
Jean Franco
Jean Franco is a British-born academic and literary critic known for her pioneering work on Latin American literature. Educated at Manchester and London, she has taught at London, Essex , and Stanford, and is currently professor emerita at Columbia University.-Research:Jean Franco's research is...

 categorizes Asturias along with Rosario Castellanos
Rosario Castellanos
Rosario Castellanos was a Mexican poet and author. Along with the other members of the Generation of 1950 , she was one of Mexico's most important literary voices in the last century...

 and José María Arguedas
José María Arguedas
José María Arguedas Altamirano was a Peruvian novelist, poet, and anthropologist who wrote mainly in Spanish, although some of his poetry is in Quechua...

 as "Indianist" authors. She argues that all three of these writers were led to "break with realism precisely because of the limitations of the genre when it came to representing the Indian". For example, Asturias used a lyrical and experimental style in Men of Maize, which Franco believed to be a more authentic way of representing the indigenous mind than traditional prose.

When asked about his method of interpreting the Mayan psyche, Asturias was quoted saying "I listened a lot, I imagined a little, and invented the rest" (Oí mucho, supuse un poco más e inventé el resto). In spite of his inventions, his ability to incorporate his knowledge in Mayan ethnology into his novels make his work authentic and convincing.

Surrealism and Magical Realism

Surrealism has contributed greatly to the works of Asturias. Characterized by its exploration of the subconscious mind, the genre allowed Asturias to cross boundaries of fantasy and reality. Although Asturias' works were seen as preceding magical realism, the author saw many similarities between the two genres. Asturias discussed the idea of magical realism in his own works linking it explicitly to surrealism. He did not, however, use the term to describe his own material. He used it instead in reference to the Mayan stories written before the conquest of America by the Europeans, stories such as Popul Vuh or Los Anales de los Xahilterm. In an interview with his friend and biographer Günter W. Lorenz, Asturias discusses how these stories fit his view of magical realism and relate to surrealism, saying, "Between the "real" and the "magic" there is a third sort of reality. It is a melting of the visible and the tangible, the hallucination and the dream. It is similar to what the surrealists around [André] Breton wanted and it is what we could call "magic realism." Although the two genres shared much in common, magical realism is often considered as having been born in Latin America.

As mentioned above, Maya culture was an important inspiration for Asturias. He saw a direct relationship between magical realism and Indigenous mentality, saying, “...an Indian or a mestizo in a small village might describe how he saw an enormous stone turn into a person or a giant, or a cloud turn into a stone. That is not a tangible reality but one that involves an understanding of supernatural forces. That is why when I have to give it a literary label I call it "magic realism." Similarly, scholar Lourdes Royano Gutiérrez argues that surrealist thought is not entirely different from the indigenous or mestizo worldview. Gutiérrez describes this worldview as one in which the border between reality and dream is porous and not concrete. It is clear from both Asturias' and Gutiérrez' quotes that magical realism was seen as a suitable genre to represent an indigenous character's thoughts. The surrealist/magical realist style is exemplified in Asturias' works Mulata de tal and El señor Presidente.

Use of Language

Asturias was one the first Latin American novelists to realize the enormous potential of language in literature. He had a very profound linguistic style that he employed to convey his literary vision. In his works, language is more than a form of expression or a means to an end and can be quite abstract. Language does not give life to his work, rather the organic language Asturias uses has a life of its own within his work ("El lenguage tiene vida propia").

For example, in his novel "Leyendas de Guatemala", there is a rhythmic, musical style to writing. In many of his works, he is known to have frequently used onomatopeas, repetitions and symbolism, techniques which are also prevalent in pre-Columbian texts. His modern interpretation of the Mayan writing style later became his trademark. Asturias synthesized the liturgic diction found in the ancient Popul Vuh with colourful, exuberant vocabulary. This unique style has been called "tropical baroque" ("barroquismo tropical") by scholar Lourdes Royano Gutiérrez in her analysis of his major works.

In Mulata de tal, Asturias fuses surrealism with indigenous tradition in something called the "great language" ("el gran lengua"). In this Maya tradition, the people bestow magical power to certain words and phrases; similar to a witch's chant or curse. In his stories, Asturias restores this power to words and lets them speak for themselves: "Los toros toronegros, los toros torobravos, los toros torotumbos, los torostorostoros" ("the bulls bullsblack, the bulls bullsbrave, the bulls bullsshake, the bullsbullsbulls").

Asturias uses a significant amount of Mayan vocabulary in his works. A glossary can be found at the end of Hombres de maíz, Leyendas de Guatemala, El Señor Presidente, Viento Fuerte, and El Papa verde in order to better understand the rich combination of colloquial Guatemalan and indigenous words.


After his death in 1974, his home country acknowledged his contribution to Guatemalan literature by establishing literary awards and scholarships in his name. One of these is the country's most distinguished literary prize, the Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize in Literature. In addition, Guatemala City's national theatre, the Centro Cultural Miguel Ángel Asturias
Centro Cultural Miguel Ángel Asturias
The Centro Cultural Miguel Ángel Asturias, commonly named Teatro Nacional, is a cultural center in Guatemala City, Guatemala. It is located in the Centro Cívico of the city and was built in the same place of the old Fuerte de San José. Its form, which emulates a seated jaguar, stands out from the...

 is named after him.

Asturias is remembered as a man who believed strongly in recognizing indigenous culture in Guatemala. For Gerald Martin, Asturias is one of what he terms "the ABC writers—Asturias, Borges
Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges Acevedo , known as Jorge Luis Borges , was an Argentine writer, essayist, poet and translator born in Buenos Aires. In 1914 his family moved to Switzerland where he attended school, receiving his baccalauréat from the Collège de Genève in 1918. The family...

, Carpentier
Alejo Carpentier
Alejo Carpentier y Valmont was a Cuban novelist, essayist, and musicologist who greatly influenced Latin American literature during its famous "boom" period. Born in Lausanne, Switzerland, Carpentier grew up in Havana, Cuba; and despite his European birthplace, Carpentier strongly self-identified...

" who, he argues, "really initiated Latin American modernism." His experimentation with style and language is considered by some scholars as a precursor to the magical realism genre.

Critics compare his fiction to that of Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka was a culturally influential German-language author of short stories and novels. Contemporary critics and academics, including Vladimir Nabokov, regard Kafka as one of the best writers of the 20th century...

, James Joyce
James Joyce
James Augustine Aloysius Joyce was an Irish novelist and poet, considered to be one of the most influential writers in the modernist avant-garde of the early 20th century...

, and William Faulkner
William Faulkner
William Cuthbert Faulkner was an American writer from Oxford, Mississippi. Faulkner worked in a variety of media; he wrote novels, short stories, a play, poetry, essays and screenplays during his career...

 because of the stream-of-consciousness style he employed. His work has been translated into numerous languages such as English
English language
English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria...

, French
French language
French is a Romance language spoken as a first language in France, the Romandy region in Switzerland, Wallonia and Brussels in Belgium, Monaco, the regions of Quebec and Acadia in Canada, and by various communities elsewhere. Second-language speakers of French are distributed throughout many parts...

, German
German language
German is a West Germanic language, related to and classified alongside English and Dutch. With an estimated 90 – 98 million native speakers, German is one of the world's major languages and is the most widely-spoken first language in the European Union....

, Swedish
Swedish language
Swedish is a North Germanic language, spoken by approximately 10 million people, predominantly in Sweden and parts of Finland, especially along its coast and on the Åland islands. It is largely mutually intelligible with Norwegian and Danish...

, Italian
Italian language
Italian is a Romance language spoken mainly in Europe: Italy, Switzerland, San Marino, Vatican City, by minorities in Malta, Monaco, Croatia, Slovenia, France, Libya, Eritrea, and Somalia, and by immigrant communities in the Americas and Australia...

, Portuguese
Portuguese language
Portuguese is a Romance language that arose in the medieval Kingdom of Galicia, nowadays Galicia and Northern Portugal. The southern part of the Kingdom of Galicia became independent as the County of Portugal in 1095...

, Russian
Russian language
Russian is a Slavic language used primarily in Russia, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. It is an unofficial but widely spoken language in Ukraine, Moldova, Latvia, Turkmenistan and Estonia and, to a lesser extent, the other countries that were once constituent republics...

 and many more.


Asturias received many honors and literary awards over the course of his career. One of the more notable awards was the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he received in 1967 for Hombres de maiz. This award caused some controversy at the time because of his relative anonymity outside of Latin America. Robert G. Mead criticized the choice because he thought that there were more well-known deserving candidates. In 1966, Asturias was awarded the Soviet Union
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

's Lenin Peace Prize. He received this recognition for La trilogía bananera (The Banana Trilogy) in which he criticizes the presence of aggressive American companies such as The United Fruit Company in Latin American countries.

Other prizes for Asturias' work include: el Premio Galvez (1923); Chavez Prize (1923); and the Prix Sylla Monsegur (1931), for Leyendas de Guatemala ; as well as the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger
Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger
The Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger is a French literary prize created in 1948. It is awarded yearly in two categories: Novel and Essay for books translated in to French.- Prix du Meilleur livre étranger — Novel :* 2010: Gonçalo M...

 for El señor presidente (1952).

Selected works

What follows is a selected bibliography. A more complete listing can be found at the Nobel Prize website.

See also

  • Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize in Literature, Guatemala's most prestigious literary prize
  • Centro Cultural Miguel Ángel Asturias
    Centro Cultural Miguel Ángel Asturias
    The Centro Cultural Miguel Ángel Asturias, commonly named Teatro Nacional, is a cultural center in Guatemala City, Guatemala. It is located in the Centro Cívico of the city and was built in the same place of the old Fuerte de San José. Its form, which emulates a seated jaguar, stands out from the...

    , national theatre and cultural complex in Guatemala City

External links