More on Roa Bastos’s Yo el supremo…
“En cuanto a mí veo ya el pasado confundido con el futuro” (369)
I the Supreme is a historical novel in more than one sense of this phrase. In the first place, it is a novel set in the past: Roa Bastos has chosen to write about a figure who had been dead over a century by the time of the book’s publication. In this sense (and not unlike even the “pulp fiction” of, say, a Catherine Cookson) the novel functions to animate or dramatise–bring to life or “make real”–a period with which its readers will have no direct experience. Historical fiction works (and finds much of its justification) because of the way in which the license allowed to the novelist enables him or her to fill in the gaps left the historical record, to give us some imagined sense of what it must have been like to live in a particular epoch or now past period by giving us the emotions, voices (often interior or psychological) voices and motivations that have not survived in the archive of historical documentation. Here, the historical novel points to and makes use of the deficiencies of other forms of history.
Second, however, this novel also quotes and uses these same historical sources; it is not merely set in the past, it also provides us with excerpts from many of the kinds of documents that professional historians also use to shed light on the actual events and figures that it also treats fictionally. Often therefore we are presented both with a fictionalized version of situations or happenings and (by means of the footnotes, a device more usually found in texts that are thought to be factual) also a version of those same situations as they have been recorded in documents, letters, and publications of the nineteenth century. On several occasions these different accounts seem to contradict each other: to be more precise, the “compiler” presents the historical record as a correction to the account that is presented in the voice of the Supreme. Here, the novel would seem to be pointing to the deficiencies of either memory (if we take the Supreme’s narrative at face value as a remembrance of incidents in which he has played a part) or fiction itself.
Third, then, this is also a novel that thematizes history as one of its key concerns. This thematization takes place on a number of levels, one of which involves the way in which the Supreme (above all in his “perpetual circular,” an ascription that also has something to say about the writing of history) narrates the historical foundation of the Paraguayan republic, and his role in the construction of the nation, in part to justify and legitimate his own hold on power in the (novel’s) present. At the same time, prompted by the reminder of his mortality that opens the story (the “historia” in Spanish), the Supreme is also concerned to establish a sense of his legacy to the country. Hence there is a concern with history as it is written (and as it is therefore perpetuated), as opposed to history as it is (mis)remembered in an oral tradition. The novel thus repeats (or mirrors) on another level some of the concerns that we have also seen shared by the compiler, that is, the difference between memory (or myth) and written, documented, history.
Finally (though there is as always much more that could be said), the novel is historical in the sense that it was written at a particular historical conjuncture (now over thirty years past), that is, the epoch in which dictatorial or military regimes ruled in many Latin American countries, not least Paraguay (under Stroessner), and at a point when Argentina (where the book was written) was also about to be subject to the military coup of 1976. We can therefore read the book in the light of the historical context of its production–as well as the context of a literary history for which, some argue, this is the last great modernist novel of world literature (or the first great postmodernist novel of Latin American literature).