I The Supreme, Augusto Roa Bastos

letters couldn’t care less whether what is written with them is true or false.

[The Supreme]

Why is it you don’t write these true things down among all the lies that your hand borrows from other lies, believing that they’re your truths?

[The ghost of the Supreme’s dog, Sultan.]

Pupil Liberta Patricia Nuñez, age 12: “The Supreme Dictator is a thousand years old like God and has shoes with gold buckles edged and trimmed with leather. The Supreme decides when we should be born and that all those who die should go to heaven, so that there are far too many people there and the Lord God doesn’t have enough maize or manioc to feed all the beggars of his Divine Beatitude.”

Pupil Juan de Mena y Mompox, age 11: “The Supreme Dictator is the one who gave us the Revolution. He’s in command now, because he wants to be, forever and ever.

Don’t you think that I could be made into a fabulous story?

José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia y Velasco, the Supreme, ruled Paraguay almost continuously from 1813 until his death in 1840. He managed steered Paraguay through a period of independence, one of moderate economic prosperity, and one of racial toleration. And he did so through creating a brutal police state and largely isolating Paraguay from the world. He never married, but fathered multiple illegitimate children, one of whom reputedly became a prostitute. He forced the Spanish aristocracy to marry natives. He nationalized the catholic church, established mandatory schooling, and waged a war on corruption and excess, himself living a simple ascetic lifestyle. In these ways, The Supreme stands in contrast to the next dynasty of Paraguayan dictators. It is these contradictions that Augusto Roa Bastos explores in I The Supreme.

Despite the titillation wrapped up in The Supreme’s inventive insults (“pharisaical farceur,” “cacogenic latrinographer,” “scribonic plague”), I The Supreme is not a titillating account of an eccentric and over-the-top dictator. The story opens with a decree nailed to the church door, signed by the Supreme, declaring that he wants his ministers to be executed upon his death, their bodies tossed into the field, and his own head put on display and people summoned to witness it. The Supreme orders his secretary to find out who is responsible for this latest slander. What follows is a sprawling retrospective of The Supreme’s rule that creates a continuous narrative by joining the transcription of the discussion between The Supreme and his secretary, the private notebooks, the perpetual circular to be sent to government officials, the notes of the compiler, and passages from contemporary commentators. This retrospective doubles as a diatribe against those writers who would dare to write about The Supreme, let alone critique him.

The narrative is presented as a stream of thought and he is a thoroughly unreliable narrator–but so too are the other authors, grinding their axes for one reason or another. They are convinced that he is a monster, and he is to those people whose lives he upended by stopping their rule and corruption. He is unrepentant about the political prisoners he has sentenced, including one sentenced to row forever against the current, and points out that his so-called reign of terror killed fewer than one hundred people. He is Supreme and refuses to promote governors because he alone is immune to corruption. He accepts the flattery of the students and acknowledges that they need to get better teachers. His dream is an impossibility, his faith is in progress that might exist only in his imagination, and his existence creates his enemies.

I The Supreme is a dense book that slips between speakers, scenes, and dates with little warning. A critique of dictatorship, it is not an out and out condemnation of Dr. Francia, who is presented as the best of a bad lot of options. Roa Bastos accepts that he was an able administrator, stamped out corruption, kept Paraguay free, and yet presents him as an egotistical, fickle and ruthless dictator. However, there is an added layer of critique of Paraguayan dictators: that Francia is the best of the lot in that he kept the country out of debt, kept what would be considered human rights violations to a minimum (though he did commit them), and, rather than precipitating the wholesale slaughter of citizens, kept Paraguay out of wars with its neighbors.

I The Supreme is one of the densest books I have ever read and I found the internet a welcome reading aid, both for primers on Paraguayan history, of which I knew nothing, and as a dictionary reference to puzzle through The Supreme’s wordplay. It is challenging, but it is also an immensely rewarding read.

For a learned take, see this review, though I found Roa Bastos’ portrait of The Supreme somewhat more charitable than the reviewer did.

Next up, I am reading Post Captain, the second in O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series.

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