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I the Supreme: A NOVEL by Augusto Roa Bastos; translated by Helen Lane (Knopf: $18.95; 433 pp.)

July 13, 1986| Daniel Balderston | Balderston has recently published a study of Borges and Stevenson (Sudamericana), and has translated the novellas of Jose Bianco from the Spanish (Latin American Literary Review Press). and

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.

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