Saturday, June 7, 2014

I The Supreme / Yo el Supremo

I The Supreme / Yo el Supremo - Augustus Roa Bastos
(translated by Helen Lane for Vintage Books. Published in 1987)
"It's awkward being alive and dead at the same time."
"imagination, mistress of error and falsehood?"

I read this in parallel with Richard at Caravano de Recuerdos. He has already posted three commentaries on Yo el Supremo, bringing to bear his greater familiarity with and understanding of South American literature and history. What do I have to offer? How do eccentric conclusions based on inaccurate speculation sound? Welcome to the home of vapour trails and reflections, or smoke and mirrors if you like that better.

This is a sprawling book with one of the craziest narrators in literary history. Fusing paranoia, puns and power El Supremo fires fusillades of vitriol mixed with artillery barrages of self-justification at his bewildered reader, forcing words to fit the flow of his conversation and dispensing with such things as temporal and character stability. By the end we feel we may be hearing the story from a consciousness born of it's own volition in a skull, long stored in a noodle box, that may or may not be the skull of El Supremo. But boy, can he rant! This is from the second page: "..all they know how to do is squeal. They haven't shut up to this day. They keep finding new ways of secreting their accursed poison. They get out pamphlets, pasquinades, lampoons, caricatures. I am an indispensable figure for slander. For all I care they can manufacture their paper from consecrated rags. Write it, print it with consecrated letters on a consecrated press. Go print your drivel on Mount Sinai if that will unshrivel your souls, you cacogenic latrinographers!"
On one level Yo El Supremo is a historical novel about the nineteenth century Paraguayan political leader Dr. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia y Velasco. On another it is sprawling, surrealist shaggy (dead) dog meditation on tyranny, power, language, nationalism, colonialism, myth and religion. And many other themes I can't put my mind on right now. According to my intensive research (reading Wikipedia page) Dr. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia y Velasco was inspired by Napoleon and French republicanism. He was anti-clerical, anti-colonialism, anti-matrimony... He became more arbitrary and despotic as he got older. He imprisoned and executed large numbers of people, the executions being carried out in a spot he could look down on from his window. Looking through this potted history it is surprising to see how much is reflected in the novel, which at times seems like a fantastical fable bearing little relationship to reality.

The book opens with a pasquinade pinned to the door of the cathedral. Written in the style of El Supremo (I the Supreme Dictator of the Republic order that on the occasion of my death my corpse be decapiated...) it is a new form of an ongoing strand of resistance to El Supremo. "They're daring to parody my Supreme Decrees now. They imitate my language, my handwriting, trying to infiltrate by way of it; to get to me from their lairs." The people he accuses are mostly prisoners; "The dungeons, down in the dungeons, go have a look in the dungeons."

An early indicator of how prisoners were treated is buried in this passage where El Supremo is considering memory. The one thing he can't take away from prisoners denied everything else is their memory. "They may not have light and air. But they have a memory. A memory just like yours. The memory of an archive-cockroach, three hundred million years older than homo sapiens. The memory of the fish, of the frog, of the parrot that always cleans its beak on the same side. Which doesn't mean they're intelligent. Quite the contrary. Can you state categorically that the scalded cat flees even cold water is possessed of a good memory? No, merely that it's a cat that's afraid. The scalding has penetrated its memory. Memory doesn't recall the fear. It has become fear itself." I found myself wondering if the prisoners were sensitised to fear like the cat but also felt that memory and fear were closely related for El Supremo as well. This is far more of a memory novel than a history novel, far more interested in what is remembered than what happened, and there are lots of competing memories and interpretations. "Later on there will come those who pen more voluminous libels. They will call them History Books, novels, accounts of imaginary facts seasoned to suit the taste of the moment or their interests. Prophets of the past, they will recount in them their invented falsehoods, the story of what has not happened."

Memory is seen as largely a function of language and the book is 'assembled' from many 'sources'. The circular being dictated to El Supremo's amanuensis Policarpo Patiño is constantly being edited and El Supremo doesn't trust that his words are being written down. His use of personal neologism doesn't help this. There are numerous footnotes and quotes from books and narrator's notes and the papers of El Supremo that are used are often marked as being partially burnt.   Dr. José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia y Velasco did actually burn his papers before he died and his body was disinterred and thrown in a river. But although these tropes (footnotes/quotes/framing voices) are often used to create a sense of false reality, here they almost serve to heighten the fictionality of the book. This is reminiscent of many other books but particularly brought to mind Don Quixote, a clear source for Roa Bastos and also a model for the relationship between the two main characters, El Supremo and his faithful scribe Policarpo Patiño.

There is a lot of tension between Spanish and Guaraní, the two languages of Paraguay, in this novel. This can really only be intuited in translation, although there are plenty of notes to help keep the reader aware of the use of the two languages and many neologisms. I was reminded of Joyce and the way his work became at times (particularly in Finnegans Wake), a virtual assault on the English language. The use of multilingual puns and the coining of words through the collision of languages and a joy in alliteration and rampant associative thought is also what I would consider Joycean. But Yo El Supremo is a lot more accessible than Finnegans Wake, although sharing its huge breadth of reference. Does their mutual dissatisfaction with their main language arise from post-colonial anger? Both certainly spend time exploring the toxic influence of colonialism which El Supremo calls "the millstone of misfortune that had been crushing Paraguay for more than two centuries".

Not that Roa Bastos is afraid of the weight of tradition. In his three posts on Yo El Supremo Richard at Caravana de Recuerdos has pointed out some of the signposts in the literary labyrinth that the book sucks you deep inside. There is no fear or false modesty here and Roa Bastos is happy to call up the shades of authors from the colonisers traditions from Homer to De Sade; from Shakespeare to Joyce to Lovelace to Cervantes as well as the South American canon. The diverticulating dictator has aspirations to be a writer and perhaps being the creator of foundational myths for the new Paraguay. He is, in his mind, one and the same as the people of Paraguay which puts him in a unique position,,,
"Books have a destiny, though destiny has no book. Without the people from which they have been cut off by sign and story even the prophets would not have been able to write the Bible. The Greek people called Homer composed the Iliad. The Egyptians and the Chinese dictated their histories to scribes who dreamed of being the people, not copyists who sneezed the way you do on what you've written. A Homer-people creates a novel. Presents it as such. As such it was received. No one doubts that Troy and Agamemnon existed, in the same way as the Golden Fleece, the Candiré of Peru, the Land-without-Evil and the Radiant-City of our indigenous legends.
Cervantes, one-armed, writes his great novel with his missing hand. Who could maintain that the Gaunt Knight in the Green Greatcoat is less real than the author himself? Who could deny that his fat secretary-squire is less real than you; mounted on his mule, plodding along behind his master's old nag, more real than you mounted on the basin, awkwardly bridling your goose quill?"
This passage is nicely undercut in a quote from a letter between two of the Dictator's critics: "To our novelist Dictator's misfortune, he is not missing an arm like Cervantes, who lost it in the glorious battle of Lepanto, and at the same time he is more than lacking in brains and wit."

We have a passage where he tries to give birth to his own consciousness in a skull. "To be", indeed. Hamlet is here, as it is in Ulysses, a central text. One scene has a skull dug up that talks in a clown's voice and we get a paraphrasing of part of the scene with Yorick's skull in the graveyard. El Supremo is both son and ghost, and father to himself.  Indeed, he becomes so wound up in his own myth that we are never sure if he is the author not only of his circulars, judgements and fictions but of the pasquinades also. He comments on the innocence of the individual letters of the alphabet if we ignore the words they are a part of. But it is also at that level, the level of letters and punctuation marks, that he says the author of the pasquinades will give himself away. "The wasp-spider that has woven his web will fall into the trap all by itself. It will be tripped up by a single phrase, a single comma. The blackness of its conscience will cause it to lose its way in the delirium of similarity." He assigns tribes of scribes to read through the archives, comparing writing styles with that on the note from the cathedral door. Of course, when you can assign guilt on a whim, it is possible to solve every crime.

In the mind of El Supremo it appears that he must take on this power as no-one else is ready for it. He must oversee everything. He is, or so he seems to believe, incorruptible. However, the wishes of others for power is suspect: "Yet you can see that ever since Independence, here as in the rest of America, the virus of monarchy has been floating about in the air, as much as or more so than the croup or the carbuncle that attacks cattle. Valets, confidential clerks, doctors, the military, men of the cloth. They've all caught a bad case of the itch to be kings." He sees himself as a republican and makes many references to Napoleonic France. A line is drawn between him and the most infamous supporter of revolution in France, the Marquis de Sade, when a man who "met and became a particularly good friend of the libertine marquis whom Napoleon had ordered arrested because of a clandestine pamphlet that the nobel rakehell had circulated against the Great Man and his mistress Josephine de Beauharnais." The marquis was not, we are told the author of the "extraordinarily corrosive" pamphlet but was the author of many tracts predicting and encouraging the people to rise against "despotism". El Supremo does not waste the chance to note that "There was not a single case of that sort among the whoring oligarchons whom I was obliged to bastille. And the same goes both for the tonsured rabble and the milicasters, not to mention the cacographic bookshitters who considered themselves born of Minerva and were nothing but mongrels sired by Diogenes' dog and whelped by Erostratus' bitch." I love the "obliged" in this rant, as he distances himself from the brutalities he has enacted. We find out that De Sade died the year El Supremo came to power and that he too, spent most of his life in isolation and had his skull stolen from his grave. They seem like dim distorted reflections of each other.

El Supremo's relationship to the outside world is volatile. Paraguay is largely bound by three large rivers and this becomes a kind of pyscho-geography of isolation, an isolation that is multiplied by El Supremo. He intrigues to gain Paraguay clear passage to the sea so she can trade more freely with the world but this is unsuccessful. He seems to particularly hate the Porteños, traders from Buenos Aires. He imagines that if it didn't have to deal with these intermediaries Paraguay would take its place to the table of the world's great powers, using its wealth of resources. He seems mostly concerned with his inability to trade for arms. He wants South America to found a confederation of equals but is deeply committed to preserving Paraguay's independence. One recurring character is Manuel Belgrano, who I was only aware of through the ship that borrowed his name which was infamously sunk during the Falkland's War to preserve Margaret Thatcher's power in Britain. He had led an unsuccessful campaign to free Paraguay from Spanish rule which, however, did lead to Paraguay seceding from Spain soon after. Although he died in 1920 Belgrano remains in contact with El Supremo and is one of the few people he seems to have respect for. Simón Bolívar, the liberator of many of the countries to the north of South America doesn't get such respect. He, apparently, threatened to invade Paraguay "to liberate his friend Bonpland" the famous naturalist and ""to liberate it (Paraguay) from the talons of a rebel and restore it to Rio De La Plata as a province."" El Supremo dubs Bolívar "the liberticide liberator" and plans to "allow him cross the frontier just so that I can make him my orderly and head groom."

At other times things become weirder. El Supremo has a meteor in his study which he had dragged through the jungle which seems possessed of strange powers and from which he has ammunition made. Even stranger is the sequence in an isolated prison camp called Tevego, where the prisoners and the guards seem to have metamorphosed into stone through some strange fault in time. A young man who tries to enter is pulled out a moment later an old man. The sequence reminded me of something by Lovecraft, with the sense of the ancient and the modern in an uneasy co-existence. A long sequence where his shade talks with the skeleton of his old dog Sultan is wonderful; the dog, a true cynic, shines a light into some of the darker corners of El Supremo's soul. "You ordered the death of the man corrupted by nature only because you were unable to understand what a corrupt nature is." El Supremo, he suggests, has forgotten what it is to be human: "Adam didn't have a navel. You, ex supreme, have lost yours. Don't you remember your rakehell life as a gambler, a vihuela-player, and a woman-chaser?"

El Supremo makes an interesting comparison with Thomas Cromwell in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies. Both confiscate much church property and 'nationalise' the church, removing the influence of Rome. He invokes the dissolution of the clergy to justify himself. "I did not confiscate the possessions, the convents, the innumerable properties of the Church with the aim of hereticizing the country. I did so with the aim of clipping the wings of the dissolute servants of God who in reality made him serve their purposes as they led their crapulous lives at the expense of the ignorant people." Being El Supremo's friend was almost as risky as marrying Henry Tudor, too. He also "promulgated the Patrial Reformed Cathecism". In this system he becomes the "soul of iron to watch over, guide, and protect nature and man." There is much further vilifying of the church which, in the form of the Jesuits in particular, had held much power in Paraguay. "You pollarded padres speak of God by painting shadows and sketching abysses in your rat-trap churches. It is not by believing but by doubting that one can attain to the truth, which is ever changing form and condition. You clericocks paint God in the likeness of a man. But you also paint the devil in the likeness of a man. The difference, then, lies in the beard and the tail. You say: Jesus was born under Pontius Pilate. Was crucified. Descended into hells. The third day he rose again from the dead and ascended into the Heavens. But I ask you: Where was Jesus born? In the world Céspedes. Where did he do his work? In the world. Where did he suffer his martyrdom? In the world. Where did he die/ In the world. Where did he rise again from the dead? In the world. So then, where are the hells? In the world, that's where. Hell is in the world and it's you who are the devils and imps of Satan, with a tonsure and a tail hanging down in front."

I could continue to pluck quote after quote from this novel and travel, as I fear I have so far, in circles that lead nowhere. I have rarely marked anything like as many quotes as I have in this book. It is vibrant with ideas and vivid passages. It lives at the very forefront of world fiction; rich, daring and profound. It is a book that I got lost in and not one to attempt while in an insomniac fug, which I spend far too much time in.  However, the rewards easily overshadow the difficulties. This is a book that works through the accretion of detail and one which grows more impressive the longer I spend digesting it. And the indigestible? Well, "what if the world itself were only a sort of bezoar? Hairy excremental material, petrified in the intestine of the cosmos."



  1. Cacogenic latrinographers! This duo read is fascinating for revealing many riches in a dictator novel. Memory, history, nationalism, colonialism. Heady stuff in what appears to be a grand playful narrative.

    1. This is one to reread - I feel it will probably reveal a whole lot more second time around. And I've really only sampled the themes explored and the methods used.

  2. Excellent review. Thanks for writing. You and Richard have exposed me to a great novel!

    1. Discovery, that's what it's all about. An early favourite for my book of the year.

  3. Wow, what a great, inspiring post, Séamus! I love how you worked so many of the Supreme's rants into it--something I haven't managed to do yet with multiple posts (!)--and of course the description of the Supreme as a guy "who fires fusillades of vitriol mixed with artillery barrages of self-justification" is one I wish I had thought up! "This is far more of a memory novel than a history novel" is another interesting insight given all the veneer of history in the work, and I hope to tackle a related point in part of my next/hopefully final post on the novel. Couldn't agree more that the work "is vibrant with ideas and vivid passages"--thanks so much for reading it and enthusing it about it along with me!

    1. Richard, thanks for inspiring me to pull it from my shelves!