Men of Maize is an incredible tale of Indian life in Latin America during the early twentieth century, woven poetically by Asturias. In six parts he simultaneously creates and re-tells history, blurring the distinctions between reality and myth. He interweaves the past, present and future, giving the background tale, then continuing on to show how that tale would become the folklore of the future.
In Maize, there is a strong undercurrent of the clash of cultures that fuels the fires of conflict between the Ladinos, Mestizos and Indians. The Indians see themselves as made of maize, and to have their flesh and blood grown by foreigners for profit is abhorrent to them. As they are evermore forced off their land to clear fields for the commercial maizegrowers they begin to rebel. It is here that Asturias starts his novel, with an attack on Indian Chief Gaspar Ilóm led by soldiers and maizegrowers. The death of Ilóm, one of the magical firefly wizards, wreaks a cycle of revenge that affects all who were involved. A series of battles ensue, and tensions rise, giving way to permanent distrust and dislike between the two groups. Asturias then takes the reader farther through time, showing how the past discords (and the legends that arose from it) give hope and motivation to the generations of the future, as they struggle against the same forces their ancestors struggled with. He creates the tales of many different players in different periods of time, such as the great Chief Ilóm, the Indian postman, and Goyo Yic, the blind Indian beggar. Asturias connects these seemingly unrelated lives with a common theme: each man is gradually alienated from a "progressing" society through losing his land, his woman, and eventually his own self. By this Asturias describes the reality for an indigenous person living in an ever-fluctuating post-colonial Latin America.
Crucial to understanding this clash of cultures is understanding the Indian way of life. For the indigenous of Latin America, the answer to everything lay in the every day activities and choices of the people. The Maya are a highly ritualized culture, even the smallest activity, such as eating or drinking, is governed by unwritten rules. The clothes, the huipil, the essential food, maize, and the petate mat on which they sleep, each play their part in appeasing a higher power (by now syncretized into a Christian God). Asturias makes hundreds of references to these daily activities and the beliefs they represent. Of central importance is the maize, the crop of the Maya, their sustenance, and the basis for their existence. To interfere with the growing of the maize is to interfere with the very core of a Maya, himself being made of maize. Another recurring theme in this book is the importance of the nahual, or "soul double" that each person is assigned at birth. The nahuales take the form of animals, and those animals serve as a connection for each person to the animal world, as aides and companions.
In a loose sense the novel does progress linearly through the years of the early 1900's, though the reader immediately feels a more cyclical motion of time. Often unsure of how much time has passed between stories, and whether the events being described are in "real" time or dream time, the reader is swirled into the reality of the tale. However, by the end of the book the reader, almost surprised, finds each story tied to another in some form, with the final revelation of the identity of the betrayess, María Tecún, completing all cycles.
Asturias' ability to write from the native perspective is amazing. He has succeeded in making this novel a mystical and magical experience for the reader. Through his poetic language Asturias places the reader right in the heart of the forest, with magical fireflies swarming about and rain pelting down on the dusty paths. He has masterfully recreated in writing the lack of acknowledgement of time that is pervasive throughout Latin America. It is no easy feat to put in writing la magia de lo real, or, the magic of reality, and Asturias has done it well. He has shared with the reader an existence contrary to "Western" consciousness, where no thing is governed by "Western" rules, yet this existence found itself trying to reconcile itself with the ever-"Westernizing" world. Through fiction Asturias painst the picture of reality - the cruelty and tragedy of the idigenous struggle to survive in post-colonial Latin America.