History Becomes Myth Which Is Made History : MEN OF MAIZE <i> by Miguel Angel Asturias; translated by Gerald Martin (Verso: $19.95; 335 pp.; 0-86091-190-X)</i>

<i> Galeano is the author, among other works, of "Memory of Fire." The article was translated from the Spanish by Elena Brunet</i>

This novel, a Latin American classic, offers a universal echo of the voice of the Mayan Indians, from the Guatemala of our times.

“Men of Maize” is the most profound, and also the least accessible novel by Miguel Angel Asturias. Although Asturias received the Nobel Prize in 1967, when he was already an elder writer of considerable repute, “Men of Maize” never escaped the fate of certain other masterpieces: those works that everyone admires and that few have read from beginning to end.

To a large extent, this has been the unavoidable consequence to an author who proposed to articulate in narrative form the intricate cosmic vision of his country’s Indians. “Men of Maize” is written in specific impenetrable codes, difficult to decipher, that give access to a civilization that was born before Christ and that holds magnificent principles, still hidden and unknown. The dominant Western culture looks down on that which it is uninformed about; and its conquered have been forced to camouflage themselves in order to survive.


It has to be recognized, in addition, that the reading is particularly thorny in the most baroque sections of the work, where the author lapses into repetition and rhetorical excess. The overload of lyricism exhausts the pages, some pages; but the style bases its enchantment in the continual re-creation of the people’s speech, and the changes in cadence avoid monotony.

The plot of “Men of Maize” is the story of a curse. The assassination of Gaspar Ilom, the leader of an indigenous uprising at the turn of the last century, kindles the fire of vengeance. The curse persecutes and burns its prisoners, or it decapitates them, or renders them sterile. Asturias’ character, Gaspar Ilom, existed in real life. Years after the publication of “Men of Maize,” the novelist’s son, Rodrigo Asturias, became the leader of the indigenous band of guerrillas in Guatemala. His war name is Gaspar Ilom: The myth thus returns to the reality from which it came.

Of course no one today can deny that Asturias has achieved an attractive synthesis of events and legends. Men and gods mingle in the most natural way in this dazzling story, which becomes myth to conclude newly converted into history. Nevertheless, when the novel was published in 1949, it met limited resonance in its readers and it had no better response on the part of the critics. The critical recognition of “Men of Maize” came much later.

Like many other Latin American writers, Asturias has been tenaciously pursued by bad luck. His first novel, “The President,” which in my opinion continues to be the best novel about dictators ever written in Latin America, waited 14 years before being published. At last, in 1946, a small Mexican publishing house believed that the novel was worth a try; but the bulk of the printing ended up in its storehouses. Asturias went around with the original under his arm since 1933, and at that time he was the obscure radio commentator, infamous for his notorious drift toward the tavern. The dogs of bad luck also nipped at the ankles of Juan Carlos Onetti, the most significant Uruguayan novelist; his masterpiece, “La Vida Breve,” was delayed 10 years before being sold in its first edition of 3,000 copies. Alejo Carpentier, the Cuban novelist, had to pay out of his own pocket for the first copies of his works, until at last fame kissed his brow at age 70; and his countryman, Nicolas Guillen, was able to publish his most popular work, “Songoro Cosongo,” thanks to a win at the lottery.

To some extent, “Men of Maize” is also a metaphor for those years of obscurity and drunkenness in its author’s life. The novel can be read as an underground journey. The delirium of its hell expresses the tragic fate of the Mayan Indians--disowned, disdained, maimed--but speaking through them the author recounts his own wretched journey through life. For this reason, his writing calls to mind Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano,” although in its ambition and technical daring it can also be compared to none other than James Joyce’s “Ulysses”; and it does not strike me as madness to claim that “Men of Maize” is a sort of “Ulysses” from Guatemala.

Asturias, who is not Indian, penetrated the indigenous soul of his land. His heroic feat only finds parallel further to the south, in Peru, in the work of the chronicler Jose Maria Arguedas. But as opposed to Asturias, Arguedas originated from an indigenous cultural matrix. “Los rios profundos” (“The Deep Rivers”), an intimate testimony by Arguedas written in the manner of a close confession, shares the magnitude of “Men of Maize,” but I find it difficult to imagine similar depth, whether by or about the indigenous people, anywhere in Latin American literature.

The translation, by Gerald Martin, is at the level of its challenge. It is an achievement unto itself.