I the Supreme: A NOVEL <i> by Augusto Roa Bastos; translated by Helen Lane (Knopf: $18.95; 433 pp.)</i>
AUGUSTO ROA BASTOS’ “I the Supreme” is the culmination of a long series of works about Latin American dictators which includes Joseph Conrad’s “Nostromo” and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Autumn of the Patriarch.” Roa Bastos achieves something that most of the other novelists never even attempt, however: the impersonation of the dictator, in this case Dr. Francia, the fascinating dictator of Paraguay from 1814 to 1840, an intellectual much influenced by the French Enlightenment, who was the subject of an admiring essay by Thomas Carlisle in 1843. Carlisle writes: “If a writer of genius arrives there (in Paraguay) he is hereby invited to the enterprise” of writing a biography of Francia, a challenge Roa Bastos has taken up after a lapse of more than a century.
The language and attitude of the Supreme Dictator of Paraguay is, as the name implies, one who imposes his speech, whose monologues allow for no reply or commentary. Roa Bastos’ dictator is a profoundly solitary man, whose identification of his country with himself is so extreme as to be solipsistic.
Roa Bastos was born in Paraguay in 1917 and has lived in exile, first in Argentina and more recently in France, since 1947. Although he has written masterful short stories and poetry in the Paraguayan Indian language Guarani as well as in Spanish, his best-known earlier work is “Hijo de Hombre” (Son of Man, 1960), an epic novel of the history of Paraguay from the 1830s to the Chaco War in 1932-1935. In this work, Roa Bastos shows the mystical heroism and stoic strength of a people ravaged by oppression, war and disease. Though “Hijo de Hombre” was one of the classics of modern Latin American literature and Roa Bastos was considered the outstanding writer of Paraguay, his writing already seemed a little old-fashioned in the wake of the narrative experiments of Julio Cortazar, Mario Vargas Llosa and other novelists of the Boom. No one was prepared for the tour de force that was “I the Supreme” when it was published by Siglo XXI in 1974. A text of a verbal density that recalls the later James Joyce, a web of intertextual reference never seen in modern Spanish outside of Borges, Roa Bastos’ novel has challenged and fascinated thousands of readers around the Spanish world in the 12 years since its publication. We can only be grateful to Knopf for the daring decision to bring this novel to North American readers, and to Helen Lane for her extraordinary translation.
“I the Supreme” is a highly serious yet comic novel full of innumerable puns. The puns, surprisingly enough, have survived the process of translation in large measure, perhaps because they often are plays on concept more than on the sounds of words, as when the Dictator speaks of “the difficult art of scriptuary science, which is not, as you believe, the art of tracing flowery figures but of deflowering signs.”
“I the Supreme” differs from previous dictator novels of Latin America by reason of the intensity of its authoritarianism, which is transferred from the thematic sphere to the discursive one. Roa Bastos’ dictator is nearly solipsistic in that he admits of no interlocutor: His amanuensis is expected to take dictation without reflecting on it, and his subjects are supposed to translate his words immediately to action. The dictator announces that his book is “read first and written afterwards,” and this reversal of the usual order of things is intended to produce an unambiguous, authoritative reading of an authorial discourse which admits of no reply.
In the writing lesson that the dictator gives his amanuensis, he makes fun of those writers who presume that literature is somehow sacred. He says: “Pretended high priests of letters make pretentious ceremonies of their works. In them, the characters spin fabrications out of reality or out of language. They appear to be celebrating their Mass vested in supreme authority, but in reality they are filled with turbation (perturbation) in the face of the fingers emerging from their hands, which it is their belief that they create.”
The novelist’s pretense of supreme authority--we may think of Faulkner or Juan Carlos Onetti--is contrasted to the truly supreme authority of the dictator. That authority consists in creating an other, a reality. Authority so conceived is absolute but solipsistic. The Supreme Author’s creation--the republic--is mute, or perhaps asleep like the “son” in Borges’ “Circular Ruins.” It is no interlocutor, since it exists only in function of the Dictator’s will.
The word will refers both to the Dictator’s resolve and to his written legacy. The republic is heir to both that will to be and that last testament: It is a sort of Janus figure, with an eye to the future and an eye to the past. The prophetic streak is important throughout the novel, but particularly in regard to Paraguayan history for the period following Francia’s rule: hence, the references to the future Paraguayan dictator Francisco Solano Lopez, who ruled from 1862 to 1869, to a general in the Chaco War, and the veiled references to Alfredo Stroessner, who is a more recent avatar of the authoritarian streak seen in Francia but without those redeeming social values--honesty, vision, intelligence--which Francia so abundantly possesses in the novel.
This double sense of Francia’s will is in keeping with the insistent doubling which is so characteristic of Roa Bastos’ novel (and which some have seen as characteristic of the Guarani language and the Paraguayan psyche). I/The Supreme: the private and the public, the personal and the impersonal. As Francia says in the writing lesson: “When I dictate to you, the words have a meaning; when you write them, another. So that we speak two different languages.” The amanuensis does not speak, however, or at least does not speak in the same register as the Dictator. His “speech” is the recorded speech of the Dictator, his discourse the impersonal recording of history.
Many readers will feel a kind of claustrophobia as they make their way through “I the Supreme.” It is surely a mark of Roa Bastos’ craft that we feel oppressed by a dictator who died almost 150 years ago (as Roa Bastos himself also suffered, as he testifies in one of his published letters). The novel is an airless prison fashioned of words.
The ultimate prisoner of the Dictator’s web is he, himself. His Corpus is his corpse, and he is caught in the web of his own words. “I the Supreme” is fundamentally the story of a self-multiplication of that self-mutilation which is inherent in all solipsism. When he denies others he cuts himself off from dialogue. Ultimately, he dictates only to himself, in the grave. By violating the conventions of discourse, he does violence not only to his enemies but also, and especially, to himself.