Half-way through Augusto Roa Bastos’s first novel, Hijo de hombre (“Son of Man”), comes a point at which the narrator of this particular section, a military man who’s been sent to the Paraguayan provinces under a cloud, is confronted by a large group of would-be rebels. They ask him to join their rebellion, to guide them as they form an anti-government militia. The narrator asks for time to think, but reflects to himself that he “already knew right then that sooner or later I’d say yes. The cycle was starting again, and once more I was caught up in it.” He then asks himself: “Was it not possible, then, to stay on the margin?” (182). Writing from or about what would seem to be the periphery of the periphery–rural Paraguay in the first half of the twentieth century–Roa Bastos questions the very dichotomy between periphery and center. We are always in the thick of things, whether we like it or not.
Hijo de hombre also plays with circularity, in both theme and style. The narrative, for instance, is far from linear: it is repeatedly drawn to certain points of intensity, geographical and temporal, such as the Sapukai railway station and the huge blast that destroyed it during a previous insurrection. The railway itself is of course the model of a straight line, but its apparent advantages (speed, direction) are soon shown to be weaknesses when a train loaded with explosives is bearing down upon you. In the aftermath of the destruction, one of the train’s wagons, thrown many hundreds of yards from the site of the impact, becomes home to a family determined to take it quite literally off the rails. Slowly and surreptitiously, over a period of many years, they haul it deeper into the undergrowth. A small deviation from the line gradually expands. And it is here, by this ruin that testifies both to the indiscriminate violence of the state and to the tenacious persistence of the people, that the encounter between proto-guerrilla and treacherous guide takes place.
It may be, Roa Bastos appears to suggest, that the quickest and surest route is not the straightest but the most circuitous. The couple who end up in the railway wagon get there after a daring escape from indentured servitude. But it is only thanks to the fact that, on leaving the estate on which they had been sequestered, they first wandered around in circles, that they could make good their flight. Their overlapping, directionless tracks confuse the bloodhounds sent to hunt them down. And the novel’s own rather free-wheeling, roundabout, sometimes repetitive style also thereby perhaps takes us better into the heart of things. For each time we return to a place, a character, a moment in time, we may find we know it a little better. As we are always in the thick of things, we keep bumping up against what Roa Bastos is telling us are the central aspects of poor Paraguayans’ experience in the twentieth century: violence, repression, and fear, but also humour, ingenuity, and faith. There’s no straight line of redemption from slavery to freedom, no mechanistic dialectic of progress or liberation. But there are moments of freedom, small deviations to which we insistently return to enhance and expand.