Asturias, Miguel Ángel (1899–1974)

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Asturias, Miguel Ángel (1899–1974)

Miguel Ángel Asturias (b. 19 October 1899; d. 9 June 1974), Guatemalan writer and Nobel Prize winner (1967). His country's greatest writer in the twentieth century, Asturias was also one of the forerunners of Latin America's literature boom of the 1960s, along with Jorge Luis Borges of Argentina and Alejo Carpentier of Cuba.

Asturias was born in the old district of La Parroquia in Guatemala City and spent his early years there. His father, a lawyer, fearing persecution by dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898–1920), moved the family to the small town of Salamá, where they lived from 1903 to 1907. In this town the young mestizo (mixed Mayan and Spanish heritage) came into contact with the Mayan lifestyle, something that would mark him for the rest of his life.

In Guatemala City, Asturias completed his secondary education at the nation's top public institution, Instituto de Varones, and enrolled in the law school of the University of San Carlos in 1918. In April 1920 he became active in the overthrow of dictator Estrada Cabrera, emerging as a student leader after this epic struggle. As a result, he traveled to Mexico City with a student delegation and met Mexico's minister of education, José Vascon-celos, a well-known philosopher on ethnic issues and miscegenation. Young Asturias was greatly influenced by his thinking. Asturias received his law degree in 1923 but never practiced. Already the author of poems, short stories, and essays, he left for Paris in 1924.

In Paris, Asturias studied ethnology under Georges Raynaud, a Mayanist, and came to rediscover his own Mayan roots as a result. He was also a correspondent for El Imparcial, one of Guatemala's leading newspapers, and traveled extensively throughout Europe. His first published book was Leyendas de Guatemala (Legends of Guatemala, 1930), in which the prehuman forces and creatures of Mayan myth are given new life, and Mayans are placed in that landscape.

In 1933 Asturias returned to Guatemala, then under the control of another dictator, General Jorge Ubico (1931–1944). Unable to make a living as a writer, Asturias was forced to work for the official newspaper, El Liberal Progresista. Later he founded the first radio news program in Guatemala, "Diario del Aire" (Radio Newspaper, 1937).

In 1944, when the Ubico dictatorship was overthrown, Asturias fled to Mexico, where he published his best-known novel, El señor presidente (The President, 1946). Of this work, critic Gerald Martin says that it "exemplifies more clearly than any other novel the crucial link between European Surrealism and Latin American Magical Realism" (1989). It remains the single most famous Latin American "dictator novel."

One year later the new democratic government of Juan José Arévalo (1945–1951) named Asturias cultural attaché in Mexico. Three years later he was appointed ambassador to Argentina, where he published his masterpiece, Hombres de maíz in 1949 (translated as Men of Maize in 1975). Soon after, he began his ideological transition toward leftist politics. Men of Maize is considered by some critics to be the first unmistakable magical realist Joycean novel in Latin America, the most ambitious to this day, and perhaps the greatest of the twentieth century. According to Chilean critic Ariel Dorfman (1992), the contemporary Spanish American novel begins with its publication. It anticipates by fifty years many issues popular at the end of the twentieth century, such as ecology, feminism, global consciousness, and a defense of native peoples. Gerald Martin describes it as "a profound meditation on the history of Guatemala, contained within a symbolic history of Latin America since the conquest, contained within the history of humanity's passage from so-called barbarism to so-called civilization since the Greeks, contained within the novelist's own reflections on the human condition."

Asturias was ambassador to El Salvador in 1954 when the country was invaded by a mercenary army and the democratic process was interrupted. He went into exile in Argentina, then moved to Genoa, Italy, where he published his last truly memorable novel, Mulata de tal (1963), a work that, fusing the experience of Quetzalcoatl with that of Dante, anticipates Latin America's literature boom.

In 1966 Asturias's old university friend Julio César Méndez Montenegro was elected president of Guatemala and named Asturias ambassador to France. That same year Asturias won the Lenin Peace Prize, and the following year, the Nobel Prize for literature.

When General Carlos Arana Osorio gained control of Guatemala in 1970, Asturias resigned as ambassador and gave the Nobel Prize money to his son, Rodrigo, who apparently used it to found a guerrilla organization. Asturias died in Madrid and is buried in the Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Asturias, essentially a novelist, also wrote poetry, plays, and journal articles. His books are Leyendas de Guatemala (stories, 1930); Émulo Lipolidón (play, 1935); Alclasán (play, 1940); El señor presidente (novel, 1946); Sien de alondra (poetry, 1949); Hombres de maíz (novel, 1949); Viento fuerte (novel, 1949); El papa verde (novel, 1954); Weekend en Guatemala (stories, 1955); Soluna (play, 1955); Los ojos de los enterrados (novel, 1960); El Alhajadito (novella, 1961); Mulata de tal (novel, 1963); Clarivigilia primaveral (poetry, 1965); Letanías del desterrado (poetry, 1966); El espejo de Lida Sal (stories, 1967); Maladrón (novel, 1969); Tres de cuatro soles (poetry, 1971); and Viernes de dolores (novel, 1972).

See alsoLiterature: Spanish Americaxml .


Luis Harss and Barbara Dohmann, "Miguel Ángel Asturias," in their Into the Mainstream: Conversations with Latin American Writers (1967).

Richard J. Callahan, Miguel Ángel Asturias (1970).

Ariel Dorfman, "Myth as Time and Word," translated by Paula Speck, in Review 75, no. 15 (1975): 12-22.

Jean Franco, "Miguel Ángel Asturias," in Latin American Writers, vol. 2, edited by Carlos A. Solé (1989), pp. 865-873.

Gerald Martin, Journeys Through the Labyrinth: Latin American Fiction in the Twentieth Century (1989).

Ariel Dorfman, "Hombres de Maíz: El mito como tiempo y palabra in Gerald Martin, ed., Asturias's Hombres de Maíz: Critical Edition (1992).

Additional Bibliography

Asturias Montenegro, G. Miguel Angel Asturias: Biografía breve Guatemala: Editorial Cultura, 1999.

Preble-Niemi, Oralia. Cien años de magia: Ensayos críticos sobre la obra de Miguel Ángel Asturias. Guatemala: F & G Editores, 2006.

                                    Arturo Arias