Roa Bastosmachine


Presented at LASA 2015
San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 2015

“Roa Bastosmachine: Explosiveness and Multitude in the Boom”

This is the third of a trio of essays, at present in varying states of completion, in which I explore the relationship between Latin American literature and posthegemony. Each of the three is dedicated to a distinct aspect of posthegemony, though collectively they are united by an interest in machines and the machinic. Hence with their titles I appropriate the formulation of East German playwright Heiner Müller, whose Hamletmachine is a well-known recasting and reinvention of Shakespeare. The other two essays are “Arguedasmachine” (on affect) and “Borgesmachine” (on habit). Together, these essays are also intended to constitute a re-reading of the Latin American canon, and so to suggest that posthegemony is far from being a marginal aspect of literary production, but rather a central and ineludible feature of the so-called mainstream. For there is, of course, no hegemony and never has been.

Boom! Already the name itself of Latin America’s most famous and influential literary movement indicates unpredictability, disruption, and not a little violence. The pity is that it was so quickly and so easily defused, domesticated, captured. Boom! Already the name itself is transcultural, transculturated, transculturating: an English term to describe a phenomenon with global ramifications, from Buenos Aires to Barcelona; Paris, Mexico City, New York. And yet the movement’s key texts are still read in regionalist or localist terms, as national allegories or tales of underdevelopment. Boom! Already the name itself is onomatopoeic rather than signifying, interjection rather than sign: it does not so much refer to something elsewhere, as instantiate and reproduce an sensation here and now; its impact is intense and affective, a matter of feeling and the body rather than interpretation or consent. And yet our reading of the movement’s authors is endlessly wrapped up in issues of representation and representativity. Boom! Already with the name itself there is nothing natural or organic here, rather an explosion that shatters boundaries and sows disorder with immediate effect, before we even have time to catch our breath. It is a mad machine, or volatile conjunction of machinery, that works always by breaking down, in fits and starts, setting off a chain reaction that multiplies and resonates with an entire multitude. What a mistake to have ever said the Boom, as though it were once and once only. Boom! As Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari put it in another context, “Everywhere it is machines [. . .] machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections” (). Everywhere they fire and discharge, detonate and recompose something new from the pieces. Boom! Boom! BOOM!

Read more… (.pdf file)

Hijo de hombre II

Augusto Roa Bastos, Hijo de hombre

The second half of Roa Bastos’s Hijo de hombre takes us to the War of the Chaco (1932-35), which Bolivia and Paraguay fought out in the inhospitable and almost uninhabited territory of the Gran Chaco. Ostensibly, this was a conflict over oil, which had been discovered in small quantities near the border. But in the war’s aftermath no significant reserves were found until in 2012 the Paraguayan government proudly announced the discovery of a huge oilfield, as belated consolation for the loss of 30,000 men some eighty years previously. At the time, however, the struggle was presented as a fight for national survival. The country had already been devastated by the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-70), in which the combined armies of Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, plus starvation and disease, had inflicted extraordinary casualties (perhaps 60% of the entire population, and a particularly high percentage of adult males) and led to Paraguay losing almost half its territory. Given this precedent, the war with Bolivia was perceived as an existential threat rather than a simple squabble over remote border outposts and forts. Accordingly, the country scrambled into fullscale national mobilization and total war.

Hence Roa Bastos shows the disparate characters to whom we have been introduced in the novel’s first half as they are swept up by the war machine, whatever their previous histories and relations to the Paraguayan state. Rebels and renegades alike, plucked from prisons where necessary, are transported to the front line halfway between Asunción and the Bolivian border. Here they join the siege of Boquerón, trying to wrest back an isolated outpost from the opposing side. Conditions are terrible, and the Paraguayans end up struggling against the land and the environment as much as they also have to defend themselves from Bolivian attempts to break the siege. Miguel Vega, who lends this fragmented novel much of its meager sense of continuity, finds himself the head of a detachment of troops cut off from the rest of the Paraguayan forces in a dusty canyon. Above all, what they need is water. In a series of diary entries Vega tells the tale of devastation and increasing delirium as around him his men die of hunger and thirst. Everything becomes “unreal,” but nonetheless he continues to write: “I hold on for the end, clinging to this final glimmer of reason, this scrap of pencil. Every time it feels heavier, as if I were writing with the carbonized skeleton of a tree” (271). We are at the absolute limit of bodily endurance and graphic representation alike, as Vega wrestles with an implement that has become less a means of expression than the physical incarnation of blasted nature.

In parallel to Vega’s account, we are given the story of the small convoy that sets out to rescue him. Led by his former rebel comrade-in-arms, Cristóbal Jara, from the start we know that this is effectively a suicide mission. Here, there is little that is metaphorical about Jara’s absorption into the war machine: driving a water tanker, he is described as “form[ing] part of the truck, a living, feeling element that radiated force and will to the metallic tendons and nerves of the battered vehicle” (294). Later, he has one injured and gangrenous arm tied with wire to the steering wheel, the other to the gearstick. Throughout, half-man, half-machine, he embraces his fate as though it were freedom itself:

Now there was no other option than to go on, go on forever, go on at any cost. [. . .] What other destiny could a man like Cristóbal Jara have, other than to propel his obsession like a slave through a narrow trail in the forest or across the infinite plains, overflowing with the savage stench of liberty. To be opening the way through the savage thicket of the facts on the ground, shedding his flesh in them, but transforming them too with the aspect of that will whose power grew precisely the more he became one with them. (322)

This is an extraordinary passage: a paean to immanence, to freedom through what is apparently self-sacrifice, to the transfiguration of the real through absolute acceptance.

In his commentary on Roa Bastos’s novel, Horacio Legras notes that “War is the historical event par excellence” (Literature and Subjection 167). Which in many ways it no doubt is, not least in the case of Paraguay, a country whose history can be narrated precisely in terms of a catalogue of armed conflicts both external and internal. But in the account given by Hijo de hombre, war becomes more even than the scenario for existential survival or demise; it becomes an ontological test, an expression of constituent power and conatus in their most basic expressions. No wonder that after the conflict some veterans should seem lost without it: the final chapter gives us the story of Crisanto Villalba, whose lament is that “our war, which was so lovely, is at an end” (354). It’s hard to know how to take such investment in bloody conflict that otherwise seems so senseless and self-defeating, waged over a barren wasteland in the name of the Fatherland. There are surely echoes (or presentiments) of a quasi-fascist triumph of the will. But Roa Bastos himself seems to present this ontological struggle in more positive terms:

They feel alive in the facts. They feel united in the passion of an instant that projects them out of themselves, binding them to some cause whether it be true or false, but at least it’s something… There is no other life as far as they are concerned. [. . .] Even the sense of loss felt by Cristanto Villalba is an all-consuming passion like life. [. . .] Their God is the force of their indestructible brotherhood. They crush it, they break it, they tear it into pieces, but it is forever rebuilt from the fragments, each time more alive and more powerful. (362)

Ultimately Miguel Vega, who mostly and indeed perhaps entirely narrates the novel, and who surely stands in for Roa Bastos (however much he would rather see himself as the oral storyteller, Macario Francia), is uncertain whether to marvel at or be horrified by the brute force and stubborn perseverance–but equally stubborn self-immolation–of the Paraguayan “sons of men.” As he puts it at the end of his manuscript:

There has to be some way out from this monstrous paradox of man crucified by man. Because otherwise we’d be forced to think that the human race is forever cursed, that this is Hell itself and that we can hope for no salvation.

There has to be some way out, because otherwise… (369)

In that uncertain repetition and final ellipsis is all the ambivalence of this troubled and troubling text.

Hijo de hombre I

Augusto Roa Bastos, Hijo de hombre

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.


Still more Roa Bastos…

The Body

“Usted mismo, Señor, dice que los hechos no son narrables” (568)

As much as this is a book about language or power, it is also a book about the limits of both, which it identifies at least in part with the materiality of the body. Indeed, even history, in so far as it is a narrative of or about power, finds its limit in the physicality (and corruptibility) of the matter that constitutes us. In fact, the book’s broad narrative could perhaps be summarized in terms of an attempt to use language to stave off the bodily dissolution threatened by the anonymous decree, an attempt ultimately doomed to failure as the Supreme recognizes the futility of the struggle to impose narrative on events.

The main body of the book (and that the book also has a body is not insignificant) ends with a conflagration engulfing the Supreme’s papers, and a vision of the dictator’s body consumed by worms. We take, I think, this to be the conflagration that has partially destroyed the texts with which the compiler constructs the novel we have before us. That the compiler is continually forced to interpolate comments (more frequent in the final pages than hitherto) indicating the state of these texts (burnt, illegible, missing) reminds us that language has to be incarnated in some physical medium for it to be transmitted. We are constantly reminded that literature has a real (not simply an ideal) presence, that the letter is also material, and so subject to the vicissitudes that may befall all material things. At the same time, the partial survival of the Supreme’s papers point to another, contrasting aspect to the letter’s materiality: the fact that the dictator is unable fully to destroy his papers demonstrates that once committed to paper his thoughts have a stubborn presence that cannot easily be revoked. In short, the paradox of materiality is that it is both obstinately resistant to change and yet also always mutable, never self-similar.

Likewise, then, the Supreme’s predicament might be described as a combination of the fact that his written or spoken dictates are insufficiently powerful to provide him with absolute power over the Paraguayan social body, yet his words will inevitably prove more durable than his own decaying flesh. On the one hand, his power is not powerful enough; on the other, his power far outstrips his own body.

Traditionally, one way in which to conceptualize this second dislocation between the mortality of those who wield power and the presumed eternity of power itself revolves around the concept of the “king’s two bodies.” As a subject of power, the king’s body is incorruptible and immortal, transcending any particular individual (hence the instantaneousness of transition articulated in the declaration “The king is dead, long live the king!”); as a human subject, however, it is recognized that the king’s body may suffer illness and decrepitude. The separation between “yo” and “él” that we see in Roa Bastos’s novel expresses therefore not only a linguistic complexity, but also a material doubling. Yet even in this neat solution to the question of power’s materiality, problems arise in the intricate relation between these two bodies. What happens, for instance, when the king seems to go mad (as with George III)? And, more fundamentally, rather than preserving an ideal, untouchable body is not this doubling itself a form of monstrosity?

As an attempt to resolve these contradictions, the Supreme’s discourse therefore attempts a constant dialogue between language itself and materiality. Yet this is always inevitably a failed dialogue, as there can be no dialogue between language and what is not language; by definition a dialogue can only be established within language. The material will always remain forever mute and (at least in part) unknowable.


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).


Some old notes on Augusto Roa Bastos’s Yo el supremo, which follow on from a previous post on dictation, which dealt with language in the novel:


Dr Francia“Here the generality of the people is embodied in the State. Here I can affirm with perfect reason: I-am-the-State, since the people have made me their supreme potestate” (166)

In the first and last instance, I the Supreme is a novel about power. As we have seen, the title itself is a declaration of power and authority: power is here made to speak, performatively. The first person declares himself to be first among the equals that constitute the republic in a relation of apposition that is to go without saying, for “I, the Supreme” presupposes the initial foundation “I am the Supreme.” This foundation is to be taken for granted; the Supreme insists that he (and only he) has the right to speak as supreme authority. He is the state.

But as we have seen, the novel also revolves around the fact that the parody found pinned to the cathedral door threatens to undermine this assumption of supreme power. It would seem that somebody is attempting to usurp the Supreme’s right to absolute authority by forging his authorship of state decrees. Hence the book threatens to undo the assumption contained within its title, and the Supreme finds himself forced to justify and so (re)legitimate his place as head of state. The novel unfolds as an anatomy not only of power but also of (potential) counter-powers.

The dictator reasserts his right to supreme authority not only through repression but also by narratively re-enacting the history of the state’s coming into being, its struggle for independence first from Spanish rule and second from the threat posed by the neighboring states of Argentina and Brazil. Thus the Supreme re-tells the story not only of the battles but also (more importantly from his standpoint) of the negotiations in which he played a key part in maintaining Paraguay’s autonomy as the various parts of what was previously the Spanish Empire reconstituted themselves as sovereign nations. The establishment of Paraguayan sovereignty is represented as a process that is both material and discursive, a question of force and persuasion. Even the most absolute of dictatorial powers feels the need for discursive legitimation.

We should note particularly that the discourse to which the dictator has recourse establishes Paraguay as a distinctively modern state, and thus the Supreme’s power as a specifically modern power, in so far as his narrative is one that invokes the people as the source of legitimate power. Rather than the divine right that was invoked to justify monarchical power, the Supreme appeals to the notion of a social contract as elaborated by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Indeed, he signals that he is more modern than the Argentina delegation who come to Asunción with their talk of power politics and pragmatics. He is frustrated that there is not more opportunity to talk further about the principles of political philosophy and their adaptability to the nascent American republics: “I would have liked to discuss at that moment the principles of the Social Contract as applied to our countries” (205). Paraguay was, after all, the first Latin American republic, and the Supreme’s concern is in part how to found this new type of regime from the ashes of a discredited Empire.

Rousseau’s notion of the Social Contract is an attempt to legitimate the State through reason and consent, rather than tradition (or theology). A newly independent Paraguay has no republican tradition on which it can draw (and has turned its back on the church). All that remains is reason, and it is important to recognize therefore that the Supreme is a profoundly rational man in so far as his power is founded upon reason’s dictates. This is so even as and when we see his reason dissolving or becoming unreasonable. We should still see that his attempts to consolidate his power have also to be presented at attempts to ward off the irrational. And after all, in so far as his power is undercut, it is never by reasoned argument, but rather by parody, multiplicity, or material decay (of either his body or his text).

What we have, therefore, is a hyper-politicized version of Borges’s concern with the limits of reason. In the person of the Supreme, the Borgesian preoccupation with reason and order is immediately also a concern with the legitimation of the social. The crisis that afflicts the dictator (and if this is a novel about power, it is also a novel about power in crisis) concerns the extent to which not only his will but also rationality itself can be imposed upon a recalcitrant world. There is an echo of Hamlet, here quoted in the dictator’s conversation with the Robertsons–“There’s a Divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will!” (129). The Supreme’s wager is that he can invoke a republican power that supersedes the things of heaven and earth: “I am the final judge. I can decide how things will go. Contrive the facts. Invent the events” (196).

In a sense, then, dictatorship is presented not so much as the power of the individual counterposed against that of the people, for the people, the State, and the individual are a single entity incarnated in the body of the people’s supreme representative; rather dictatorship here involves the attempt to assert the power of reason over that of history.


Over at Waggish, in an entry mostly on Bolaño, it is suggested that “As English, French, and West German writers seem often to have dealt with this theme [of literature’s complicity in mortal crimes and political horrors] from too theoretical a standpoint (see Coetzee, Blanchot, Grass, etc.), the visceral approach of Latin American writers like Bolano and Augusto Roa Bastos makes a necessary counterweight.”

Something’s up with the commenting system at Waggish, so consider this a displaced comment: I’m not convinced by the notion that Bolaño and Roa Bastos, or indeed “Latin American writers” in general, are more “visceral” than other authors. (NB there is something at best quaint about describing Coetzee as English and Grass as West German.) As well as suffering all the usual weaknesses of such sweeping comments, and as well as buying in to the traditional neo-colonial ideology that allocates theory to the metropolis and corporeality to the periphery, the choice of Roa Bastos as an example is simply bizarre.

Roa Bastos’s masterpiece Yo, el supremo is many things, among them probably the greatest novel written in twentieth-century Latin America. But to imply it is untheoretical is nonsense. And to label it “visceral” is, well, at best misleading.

Alfredo StroessnerThe novel opens with the declaration that also serves as the book’s title: “Yo el supremo Dictador de la Republica” (7). This sentence would appear to be the first line of an official declaration, marked by its performative invocation of authority. “Yo el supremo” refers to the ultimate power in Paraguay, José Gaspar Rodríguez Francia, and the phrase apparently initiates another of his dictates to the Paraguayan people.

It soon becomes evident, however, that authority and authorship are here more muddled and uncertain than first appearances suggest. For the declaration is fake–a subversive parody–pinned by unknown hands on Asunción’s cathedral door. Who then is this “yo,” this “I” who would be “supreme”? There is a double reference here: the text purports to have been written (or to have been dictated) by Francia, but Francia himself (and his secretary, Policarpo Patiño) are determined to discover the missive’s true author. Someone, it seems, is determined to usurp the language that only the dictator himself may use, and so to infiltrate the place of power itself: “Remedan mi lenguaje, mi letra, buscando infiltrarse a través de él; llegar hasta mí desde sus madrigueras” (9).

Underlying Francia’s anxiety is the assumption that a dictator’s power is founded on language, on the ability to sign and give orders. It is after all language that enables the systematization of power, in the form of decrees, laws, and communiqués. “El Supremo Dictador habla siempre a los demás. Dirige su voz delante de sí para ser oído, escuchado, obedecido” (28). The novel analyses this process of dictation in its two senses of absolute power and inscription of the voice. Francia endlessly speaks, while Patiño listens, obeys, writes, and transmits the dictator’s pronouncements.

Language enables power to be communicated and distributed, to become absolute throughout the territory. Language is social (“el sonido del pensamiento […] nunca es un murmullo solitario por más íntimo que sea” [28]) and enables its dictator to manage the social.

Yet language’s distributive powers are double-edged. Its transferability and communicability open up a gap between the subject and what that subject enunciates, or between the person and the grammatical subject (“yo”). As Francia notes, “Lo que significa es que en el Supremo por lo menos hay dos” (28). And in this division, in this doubling, availing themselves of the shifting quality of personal pronouns, other persons can present themselves as the “first” person. They can position themselves in the space of the grammatical subject. In the end, what is to stop anyone from declaring (in imitation, by repetition) “Yo [también], el supremo,” I too am supreme, so mocking sovereignty’s claim to uniqueness?