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on 24 May 2011
It is a terrible shame that this book has been so neglected by readers and critics alike (many of whom were unable to understand the book's hidden meanings), but then again that seems to be the fate of most works of exceptional genius in our times. This book deals with a number of deep and complex issues, and was pioneering in its time; in it, Asturias presages the advent of feminism, ecology (long before the terms existed), and a renewal of interest in mankind's indigenous heritage - a fact which is remarkable considering that it was written in 1949. The narrative traces the archetypal process of man's separation from nature and the end of the 'dream-time' (symbolised by the 'eyelids' of the earth, which the maize growers hack away at with axes and fire), or the state of unconscious communion with nature. It is a rallying cry for a return to reverence for all that is feminine in the world - the earth, intuition, the hidden planes of the unconscious mind, art, poetry, the nahual (animal spirit-guide). Asturias details the universal process of internal separation from this feminine principle as an archetypal passage through a series of trials by fire and water, heavily inspired by the Mayan Popul Vuh (Quiche creation myth) and other ancient Mayan texts (not to mention the Greek mythic tradition). Ostensibly set in Guatemala, the meaning of the book is relevant to all parts of the world where the pain of separation from nature and one's indigenous ancestry is a lived experience. As a celebration of 'indigenous' modes of thought, another major theme is the subversion of the idea that Europe should be the dominant cultural model.
Asturias also has a profound interest in the notion of the creation of 'truth' by means of story-telling, challenging us to reconsider our collective sense of security in what we accept, unquestioningly, as 'fact'. Fiction and reality mutually imitate one another and cannot be easily extricated. Sadly, perhaps because of this, readers have been put off by the book's 'inaccessibility' (in can be hard to follow at times, it is true), and have criticised its 'lack of unity'. But these features - amplified by the author's preference for a highly surrealist writing style - are a part of the very point the author is trying to make: that the poetic ramblings of the dream-time mind are infinitely more meaningful than the cold, knife-like incision of logical discourse. His work, in this spirit, has been compared to Escher or the patternings of 'primitive' Guatemalan textile design. The preference for rythmn, repetition, circles and spirals over points, lines and sharp edges reminds one more of the Mandelbrot set than of conventional prose styles.
In sum, the book seeks to subvert the dominant paradigms of nature-as-profit, woman-as-object, femininity-as-weakness, culture-as-anachronism, 'progress'-as-advance, myth-as-superstition, and fact-as-finality. Actually it challenges almsot every dominant paradigm of our age, and, given the deepening crisis of our times, Men of Maize is more relevant now than ever.
on 24 January 2014
This is "the" original `magical realism' Latin American novel written by the Nobel winning author Asturias. It was written in 1949 (perhaps including parts written separately and earlier) and set ostensively at the turn of the century 1900s Guatemala (given telegraphs and light bulbs are mentioned). This is the third Asturias novel I've read (including `Mulatta and Mr Fly' and I think only his second after `The President') so I did know what to expect.
This is one of those potentially "difficult to follow", "hard to grasp the story", challengingly descriptive style, muddled novels which could end up boring and poorly rated if the style is a surprise to you. This is a mix of Faulkener's "Absalom", GGM "Hundred Years", virtually any of Cela's novels (e.g. The Hive) and the realism of Torres "The Land".
This critical edition is virtually a college book with almost as many pages dedicated to the introduction, notes to the text, translation, history, Nobel speech and several other sections as the novel itself (about 300 pages). For example the translation has to deal with many indigenous words which are relatively unknown to normal Portuguese - thereby at the end of chapter 1, only 17 sides you're already on footnote 68.
The basic story, which you only really get to understand at the end is: Gaspar Ilom is a local rebel leader of an uprising against the colonial leaders like Colonel Godoy on behalf of the abuse by Maize growers (burning forest, depleting the land etc). Gaspar, fails to defend the massacre of his troops, and is poisoned with the help of the Zacatones family (and vanishes/dies). Godoy's son Machojon never reaches Candelaria Reinosa to propose. Maria Zacatones becomes the sole survivor of her family after a revenge attack aged just one. Years later her blind husband, Goyo Yic, realises she's gone missing, under her new name of Maria Tecun, seeks her - thus fulfilling the myth/legend of vanished Tecunas. Nicho Aquino, the postman, delivering money laden letters across the Maria Tecun ridge is feared lost and Hilario is sent to catch up with him - Nicho becomes the legendary coyote in the mountain mist and too vanishes. I could go on and mention our characters but then it gets complicated.
The style is very engaging, poetic, metaphorical, symbolic. The analogy and life of the jungle life oozes from the descriptions of vegetations, wildlife, the people, the clash of cultures. The tale is complicated, and if you like your stories layed out simply then this isn't for you.
A couple of quotes:
"Night like day. Solitude of a great mirror. Vegetation creeping like smoke along rocky soil. Squirrels with the leap of chocolate froth in their tails. Moles moving like lava trying to perforate the earth before it grows cold, and lolling this way and that. Gigantic parasites with flowers of porcelain and candy floss. Pine cones like bodies of tiny motionless birds, sacrificed birds of dry petrified with terror on the ever convulsing branches. And the unceasing lament leaves dragged along by the wind. Sadness of the cold burnished moon. The maize-blighting moon."
"But maize costs the sacrifice of the earth, which is also human. I'd like to see you carry a maizefield on your back, like the poor earth does. And what they're doing now is even more uncivilised, growing maize to sell it"
I think I did actually prefer the more extreme `Mulatta and Mr Fly' for style. I can understand why this is a crucial work for depth etc but equally why you would be entitled to score it lowly for story.