by Augusto Roa Bastos
This book was my last pick for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge, and by finishing it I also have completed my first official reading challenge!
Of the books on my list I The Supreme was the one I was least interested in reading, and while I usually like to get the tough stuff over with first and save the best for last, I obviously didn’t manage to pull that trick on myself this time! To my dismay I reached the final month of what had already been an intense and difficult challenge, and found Dr. Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia staring at me from slitted, suspicious eyes…
Easily one of the densest books I read this year, I The Supreme was by turns incomprehensible and fascinating. It is based on the life of Paraguay’s nineteenth century dictator, who’s immense name I’ve already spelled out. It can’t be called either documentary or historical though, since Roa approached it through what can only be an imagined first-person narrative. The bulk of the book is the written or dictated words of Francia himself, although a sort of historical sense is provided by a “compiler” who frequently references other works, etc.
The book has very little plot, and the familiar trajectory of the novel form is entirely lacking – it would be hard to map out a beginning, middle, and end. Why the events unfold as they do is completely unrelated to anything that might provide a point of reference. This is all because the book is the mad ramblings of the dying (or sometimes already seemingly dead?) Francia. What becomes apparent the farther you are swept into his dizzying mind, is that the book is an exploration of and argument for his own severely edited self-image.
This re-imagining of the career of a man who was “elected” Supreme Dictator for Life in 1814 is fascinating in this sense. Here is a man who succeeded in imposing his mad dreams for perfect order on an entire country, and to hear him tell it, he’s brought nothing but peace and security, and Paraguay is at least aimed for prosperity. He certainly doesn’t mince words about the horrifying prisons and tortures that await those who oppose him, or the firing squad that meets beneath the orange trees, or the foreign diplomats or merchants that he detained for years, or his own friends whom at some point he felt the need to send into exile or have executed…! He’s unapologetic because he believes utterly in his own will.
This book is more than just an examination of power. It is also about the nature of language. Francia was a great reader, and loved the written word. He also has some interesting things to say about the spoken word, and how fallible the combination of memory and scribbles on a page can be. You get the sense that whatever it is he really wants to say, to leave behind as a testament when he dies, can’t be captured in words, or at least he can’t find the right ones.
I enjoyed parts of this book quite a lot – the bits of folklore that got tumbled in somehow, or the crazy stories that his secretary felt compelled to share with the Supreme were intriguing. It was astonishingly wordy – my vocabulary has to have expanded by 15% from this book alone!
Overall it was very difficult, but having finished it I find that I am blown over by a feeling of amazement. I The Supreme is a bizarrely great piece of writing, and I’m not sorry in the end that I saved it for last! 🙂