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by Bamber Gascoigne

Miguel Ángel Asturias (1899-1974)


Guatemalan poet, novelist, diplomat, and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1967 for his "highly colored writings, rooted in a national individuality and Indian traditions." Asturias's writings combine the mysticism of the Maya with epic impulse toward social protest. His most famous novel is El Señor Presidente (1946), about people under the rule of a ruthless dictator. Asturias spent much of his life in exile.

"If you write novels merely to entertain – then burn them! This might be the message delivered with evangelical fervour since if you do not burn them they will anyway be erased from the memory of the people where a poet or novelist should aspire to remain. Just consider how many writers there have been who – down the ages – have written novels to entertain! And who remembers them now?" (in Nobel Lecture, 1967)

Miguel Angel Asturias was born in Guatemala City, the son of Ernesto Asturias, a magistrate of the Supreme Court of Justice, and María Rosales, a schoolteacher. On his mother's side Asturias's American lineage went back before the Spanish arrive in the New World. Both of his parents were liberal-minded.

When his father refused to take legal actions against antigovernmet student demonstrators, they lost their jobs. The family moved to the town of Salamá, where Asturias's maternal grandfather Colonel Gabino Gómez lived. Their clash with the Guatemalan dictator Estrada Cabrera taught Asturias his first lesson in fighting oppressive forms of power. During this period Asturias also came in direct contact with Indians. His Indian nanny, Lola Reyes, was later portrayed in the play Soluna (1955). After returning to Guatemala City with his family, Ernesto Asturias became a sugar and flour importer.

In 1917 Asturias entered the university, where he studied medicine for a year and then transferred to law. He was active in the student protest movements against the regime of the dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera. When Estrada Cabrera was brought down and taken to prison, Asturias served as a secretary to the court in which the dictator was prosecuted. "I saw him almost daily in jail," Asturias recalled. "And I realized that undoubtedly such men enjoy special powers of some sort. To the point that when he was behind bars people said: No, that couldn't be Estrada Cabrera. The real Estrada Cabrera got away. . . . In other words, the myth couldn't be in prison." (The Epic of Latin America by John A. Crow, 1980, p. 750)

As a representative of the Asociación General de Estudiantes Universitarios, Asturias traveled to Honduras and El Salvador. In 1921 he went to Mexico as one of Guatemala's spokesmen to the International Student Congress. Besides coming in contact with diplomats and influential politicians, Asturias met the Spanis novelist and playwright Ramón María del Valle-Inclán, whose Tirano Banderas (1926, The Tyrant Banderas), would have a deep impact in his own work.

Asturias received in 1923 his doctor of law degree at San Carlos University. His dissertation dealt with social problems of the Guastemalan Indians. Asturias was one of thefounders of the weekly newspaper Tiempos Nuevos (New Times). His outspoken articles drew the attention of the authorities. Feeling that his life was in danger, Asturias left his homecountry, and continued his education in Europe. .

Instead of taking economics as his father had intended him to do, Asturias studied anthropology in Paris at the Sorbonne (1923-28), where he encountered French translations of Mayan writings. Under the influence of Georges Raynaud, his teacher at the Sorbonne, he developed a deep concern for the Mayan culture. According to a friend, the author himself looked exactly like a Mayan statue. He was relatively tall, heavy set, very bronzed, and had thick lips, an eagle nose, and oval eyes. ('Asturias, Miguel Angel,' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman, 1975, p. 92) In 1925 Asturias translated the sacred Mayan text Popol Vuh into Spanish, but from a French translation. During these years Asturias also began to write poetry and fiction. Interested in the workings of the subconscious, he associated with André Breton, Paul Éluard, and other Surrealists.

Asturias lived in Paris for ten years. He referred to his homeland as "a country that doesn't exist" partly because the property was in the hands of foreigners and he saw that the people had a disdain for the cultural heritage of their own country. A French poet told him: "You must not stay here. I assure you that you write things about which we, Europeans, don't even dream. You come from a world in the making, your spirit seethes with an excitement like that of soil, the volcanoes, and nature. You must rapidly return over there so as not to lose it." (Miguel Ángel Asturias's Archaeology of Return by René Prieto, 1990, p. 263)

Leyendas de Guatemala (1930), based on a Mayan myth, established Asturias's reputation as a stylist. The Leyendaswere half fairy-tales, half poetry, composed in a lyrical Spanish. Paul Válery wrote the preface. "What a mixture of torrid nature, of confused botany, of indigenous magic, theology of Salamance in which the Volcano, the friars, the Sleep Man (Hombre Adormadera), the Merchant of Priceless Jewels, the flocks of dominical parrots, the master magicians that go to the villages to teach how to weave and the value of the Zero compose the most delirious of dreams." (The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City: Latin America in the Cold War by Jean Franco, 2002, p. 167)

Two years later Asturias wrote his first novel on the theme of Latin American dictatorship. El Señor Presidente, which begun in 1922 as a short story, was completed in 1933 but it did not appear until 1946. The society of the novel is corrupted; evil spreads downwards from the ruler. Justice is a mockery, and army officers spend their time plotting or in brothels. El Señor Presidente utilized surrealistic techniques; it reflected Asturias's idea that Indians' nonrational perception of reality is an expression of the subconscious forces, the collective dream of mankind. "In the city of Copan, the King walks his silver-skinned does in the Palace gardens. The royal shoulder is adorned with a jewelled feather of nahual. He wears on his breast magic shells, woven upon golden thread." Though story is partly based on real events, it has no precise time or locale. Estrada Cabrera, the dictator of Guatemala from 1898 to 1920, made his political adversary, Manuel Paz, believe that Paz's wife had been unfaithful to him. In the novel, set in the unnamed capital of an unnamed state, the President tries to eliminate two of his enemies, General Canales and a lawyer, Carvajal. The General manages to escape, and the President's favorite, Miguel Cara de Ángel falls in love with his daughter, Camila. General Canales dies of heart failure on reading a false newspaper report that the President had attended his daughter's wedding; Cara de Ángel is arrested and he receives a false report that Camila has become the President's mistress.

--"An angel!" The wood-cutter couldn't take his eyes from him. "An angel," he repeated, "an angel!"
--"It's obvious from his clothes that he's very poor," said the newcomer. "What a sad thing it is to be poor!"
--"That depends; everything in this world depends on something else. Look at me; I'm very poor; but I've got my work, my wife and my hut, and I don't think I'm to be pitied," stammered the wood-cutter like a man talking in his sleep, hoping to ingratiate himself with this angel, who might recompense his Christian resignation by changing him from a wood-cutter to a king, if he so wished. And for a second he saw himself dressed in gold, with a red cloak, a crown on his head and a scepter set with jewels in his hand. The rubbish dump seemed far away..."
(from Mr. President)

Upon returning to Guatemala in 1933 Asturias worked as a journalist and made broadcasts for El Diaro del Aire. In 1942 he was elected to the National Congress. With the fall of Jorge Ubico, he entered diplomatic career, and served as a cultural attaché in Mexico (1945-47) and held a number of other diplomatic posts. From 1947 to 1953 he was in Buenos Aires, in Paris in 1952-53, and as ambassador to San Salvador in 1953-54. After separating from his first wife Clemencia Amado in 1946, Asturias became interested in the theories of Freud and Jung. His psychoanalyst followed him to Paris, where he lived for a period with Asturias and the author's new wife, the Argentinian Blanca Mora y Araujo. Asturas's career in the diplomatic corps ended for a while when he was banished by the right-wing forces of Carlos Castillo Armas. With the secret support of CIA, Armas seized power from Jacobo Arbenz Guzman's progreessive government. Asturias lost his citizenship, he was never to live in Guatemala again permanently. During his years in Argentina Asturias served as a correspondent for Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional and as an adviser to the traditional publishing house Editorial Losada.

Hombres de maíz (1949, Men of Corn) is generally considered Asturias's masterpiece. Ariel Dorfman said in his essay on the novel, that "Along with Alejo Carpentier's remarkable The Kingdom of This Wold, which was also published in 1949, [Hombres de maiz] could well be said to inaugurate the extraordinary renaissance of the contemporary Latin American novel. And yet it has been consistently underrated by critics and neglected by readers." (Some Write to the Future: Essays on Contemporary Latin American Fiction by Ariel Dorfman, 1992, p. 1) The novel depicted a rebellion by a remote tribe of Indians against desecration of their mountains and their annihilation by the army. Asturias plunged deep into the magic world view of Indians. Utilizing his knowledge of pre-Columbian literature Asturias told the story in a form of a myth. Gaspar Ilóm, the first of the myth-figures presented by the author, is an undying voice of truth: "Thus he spoke with his head separated from his body, pointed, warm, wrapped in the grey mop of the moon. Gaspar Ilóm grew old as he was speaking. His head had fallen to the ground like a flower pot sown with little feet of thoughts..." Gaspar leads a rebellion against the maize planters, and becomes a legend. Eventually the Indians lose their land, and their magic. Because of the complex narrative structure, the book was ignored for a long time.

In the 1950s Asturias wrote the so-called Banana Trilogy, Viento fuerte (1950), El papa verde (1954), and Los ojos de los enterrados (1960), revealing the evils of the United Fruit Company. These works depict how a plantation is set up in a small Central American state, and how the villages are seized and burned. In the last volume the central action concerns the efforts of Octavio Sansur to arrange a general strike. In the end both peasant/worker cooperatives and labour unionism face formidable obstacles. Asturias's trilogy received the Lenin Prize in 1966.

Week-end en Guatemala (1956) a collection of short stories, dealt with the intervention of the United States against the Arbenz government, which had initiated a land reform program. Asturias himself had advocated since his youth the concept of small, peasant-owned farms. When colonel Castillo Armas took power in 1954, Asturias lived in exile in Chile with the poet Pablo Neruda and later in Buenos Aires where he worked as a correspondent for the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional. In 1962 Argentinian policy forced him into exile again. Asturias moved to Italy as a cultural exchange programme member. Though he regarded Colonel Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán as his true president, Asturias was named in 1966 by the new leader of Guatemala as ambassador to France, resigning from his post in 1970, when Méndez Montenegro left the presicency. Asturias spent his final years in Madrid, where died on a lecture tour on June 9, 1974, but he was buried in Pére Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

For further reading: Into the Mainstream: Conversations with the Latin-American Writers by L. Harss & B. Dohmann (1967) Myth and Social Realism in Miguel Ángel Asturias by Luis Leal (1968); An Introduction to Spanish-American Literature by Jean Franco (1969); Miguel Angel Asturias by R.J. Callan (1970); Miguel Ángel Asturias by Eladia León Hill (1972); Conversaciones con Miguel Ángel Asturias by Álvarez Luis López (1974); 'Asturias, Miguel Angel,' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman (1975); De tirasnos, héroes y brujos by Giuseppe Bellini (1982); La problemática de la identidad en "El Señor Presidente" de Miguel Ángel Asturias by Teresita Rodríquez (1989); Miguel Ángel Asturias's Archaeology of Return by René Prieto (1990); Las Novelas de Miguel Ángel Asturias desde la teoría de la recepción by Lourdes Royano Gutiérrez (1993); India's Mythology in the Novel El alhajadito (The bejeweled boy) by Miguel Angel Asturias by Richard J. Callan (2003); Literature Suppressed on Political Grounds by Nicholas J. Karolides; preface by Ken Wachsberger (rev. ed., 2006); Diorama en torno a la obra de Miguel Ángel Asturias by Mario Alberto Carrera (2017)

Selected bibliography:

  • Sociologia guatemalteca: el problema social del Indio, 1923 - Guatemalan Sociology: The Social Problem of the Indian (translated by Maureen Ahern, 1977)
  • Rayito de estrella, 1925 [Little Starbeam]
  • La Arquitectura de la Vida Nueva, 1928
  • Leyendas de Guatemala, 1930 [Legends of Guatemala]
  • Emulo lipolidón, 1935
  • Sonetos, 1936
  • Alclasán, 1939
  • Anoche, 10 de marzo de 1543, 1943
  • El Señor Presidente, 1946 - El Señor Presidente / The President (translated by Frances Partridge, 1963) - Herra Presidentti (suom. Pirkko Lokka, Pentti Saaritsa, 1966) - Film 1970, dir. Marcos Madanes, screenplay by Marcos Madanes, cast: Luis Brandoni, Alejandra Da Passano, Pedro Buchardo, Nelly Prono, Margarita Corona
  • Sien de alondra, 1948
  • Poesía, 1949
  • Hombres de Maíz, 1949 - Men of Maize (translated by Gerald Martin, 1975)
  • Viento fuerte, 1950 - The Cyclone (translated by Darwin Flakoll and Claribel Alegría, 1967) / Strong Winds (translated by Gregory Rabassa, 1968)
  • Ejercicios poéticos en forma de soneto sombre temas de Horacio, 1951
  • Carta aérea a mis amigos de América, 1952
  • El papa verde, 1954 - The Green Pope (translated by Gregory Rabassa, 1971)
  • Bolívar, 1955
  • Obras escogidas, 1955 (3 vols.)
  • Soluna, 1955 - Film 1969, dir. Marcos Madanes, starring Luis Medina Castro, Dora Baret, Héctor Carrión, Mikaela, David Llewelyn
  • Week-end en Guatemala, 1956 - Weekend Guatemalassa (suom. Pentti Saaritsa, 1968)
  • La audiencia de los confines, 1957
  • Nombe custodio, e Imagen pasajera, 1959
  • Los ojos de los enterrados, 1960 - The Eyes of the Interred (translated by Gregory Rabassa, 1974)
  • El alhajadito, 1961 - The Bejeweled Boy (translated by Martin Shuttleworth, 1971)
  • Mulata de tal, 1963 - Mulatta (translated by Gregory Rabassa, 1967) / The Mulatta and Mr. Fly (translated by Gregory Rabassa, 1967)
  • Juan Girador, 1964
  • Teatro, 1964
  • Rumania, sua nueva imagen, 1964
  • Obras escogidas, 1964 (2 vols.)
  • Sonetos de Italia, 1965
  • Clarivigilia primaveral, 1965
  • El espejo de Lida Sal, 1967 - The Mirror of Lida Sal: Tales Based on Mayan Myths and Guatemalan Legends (translated by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert, 1997)
  • Torotumbo, La audiencia de los confines; Mensajes indios, 1968
  • Latinoamérica y otros ensyaos, 1968
  • Antología, 1968
  • Obras completas, 1968 (3 vols.)
  • Maladrón, 1969
  • Comiendo en Hungaría, 1969 (with Pablo Neruda) - Sentimental Journey around the Hungarian Cuisine (translated by Barna Balogh, 1969)
  • Novelas y cuentos de juventud, 1971
  • En novelista en la universidad, 1971
  • The Talking Machine, 1971 (translated by Beverly Koch)
  • Viernes de dolores, 1972 [Good Friday]
  • Juárez, 1972
  • América, fábula de fábulas y otros ensayos, 1972
  • Mi mejor obra, 1974
  • Tres obras, 1977
  • Tres de cuatro soles, 1977
  • Edición crítica de las obras completas, 1977 (24 vols.)
  • Actos de fe en Guatemala, 1980 (photographs by Sara Facin and María Christina Orive)
  • Sinceridades, 1980 (edited by Epaminondas Quintana)
  • Viajes, ensayos y fantasías, 1981
  • El hombre que lo tenía todo, todo, todo, 1981 (illustrated by Jacqueline Duheme)
  • Paris 1922-1923, 1988
  • Cartas de amor, 1989 (ed. Felipe Mellizo)
  • París 1924-1933: periodismo y creación literaria, 1996 (ed. Amos Segala)
  • Teatro, 2003 (ed. Lucrecia Méndez de Penedo)
  • Sociología guatemalteca: el problema social del indio, 2007 (edición e introducción Julio César Pinto Soria; originally published in 1923)
  • Legends of Guatemala, 2011 (translated by Kelly Washbourne)
  • Week-end en Guatemala, 2013 (introducción, edición crítica y notas de Dora Sales)
  • Hombres de maíz, 2014 (edición de José Mejía)

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