Friday, July 22, 2022

Men of Maize by Miguel Ángel Asturias

Mayan myth for modern times
Miguel Ángel Asturias of Guatemala was the first Latin American novelist to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1974. His novel Men of Maize, originally published in 1949, was extremely influential to the succeeding generation of authors who became prominent in the Latin American literary boom of the 1960s. Though not overtly specified, the setting of the novel seems to be in Guatemala from roughly the 1890s to the 1940s. The story heavily references Mayan beliefs and literature, and most of the characters are at least partially Native Mesoamerican Indians.

The novel is divided into six parts with different protagonists. On the surface these sections seem unconnected, but they constantly make reference to each other in a secret grand overall scheme. In the novel’s opening chapter, an Indian warrior named Gaspar Ilóm wages a rebellion against the Ladinos (Guatemalan Mestizos) who have encroached upon his ancestral lands to turn forests into cornfields. The ramifications of this battle echo through the rest of the book as generations of characters face karmic retribution for sins perpetrated against nature and the Native race. In Asturias’s view of Central American history, the formerly sacred practice of growing maize became profaned when man chose to grow the crop for profit, thus driving a wedge between mankind and holy nature akin to the expulsion from Eden in the Christian mythos. The farther man departs from his natural origins the more he succumbs to evil, discontent, and dehumanization. Another frequent theme in the book is that of women fleeing their abusive husbands, which further symbolizes the destruction of the family and the subjugation suffered by women in modern society.

The story frequently wavers back and forth between passages of modern realism and supernatural myth. In fact, one of the main themes in the novel is the creation of legends and how they compete with history. While much of the plot takes place in a lifelike representation of 20th century Guatemala, it is not unusual to witness a man transforming into an animal or vanishing into thin air. Much of part five is devoted to two Indians traveling with a hefty load of liquor in an absurdly protracted comedic sequence reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, while part six morphs into a sort of Dante’s Inferno built upon Mayan myths of the underworld rather than on Christian biblical visions of Hell.

Those looking for an English translation of Men of Maize may find the 1993 edition published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in association with Collección Archivos, Paris. Translator and editor Gerald Martin has tried to make this the definitive English edition by heavily annotating the text. The notes are sometimes helpful in pointing out parallels between the novel and ancient Mayan myths like the Popol Vuh and the Books of Chilam Balam. More often than not, however, Martin’s notes are merely expressions of his own opinions and worse, they often spoil the plot. Far more helpful for understanding Asturias’s cryptic novel is the critical essay by Argentine-Chilean novelist Ariel Dorfman, who does a fine job of clarifying the plot details that Asturias himself goes to such great lengths to obscure.

When the Old and New Worlds met in 1492, the initial contact of two alien cultures must have been similar to an encounter between beings from separate planets. The White Western reader gets a sense of that disconnect from reading Men of Maize, which is built more upon the religion and philosophy of the Maya than on the Western Judeo-Christian literary tradition. The disorienting atmosphere makes for a unique and fascinating reading experience, one that will appeal especially to those interested in Latin American history and Mesoamerican culture.
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