On Giving

Guatemala’s Nobel Laureate in Literature, Miguel Ángel Asturias

Miguel Ángel Asturias (1899-1974) was the greatest writer that Guatemala ever produced. Although many of his owrks were translated into English, most are out of print now and hard to find. Here is a short poem by Asturias that I hope you’ll like. It’s called “Caudal (The Fortune)”:

To give is to love,
To give prodigiously:
For every drop of water
To return a torrent.

We were made that way,
Made to scatter
Seeds in the furrow
And stars in the ocean.

Woe to him, Lord,
who doesn’t exhaust his supply,
And, on returning, tells you:
“Like an empty satchel
Is my heart.”

Mayan Stela at Père Lachaise Cemetery Commemorating Asturias

When Martine and I visited Paris’s Père Lachaise cemetery in 2000, we turned a corner and suddenly found a very Mayan stela commemorating the Guatemalan writer.

 

 

Miguel Ángel Asturias

Grave of Miguel Ángel Asturias at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris

It was almost twenty years ago that Martine and I were wandering through Paris’s gigantic Père Lachaise cemetery in the 20th Arrondissement. There were a number of surprises, one of which was the grave of Miguel Ángel Asturias, who died in 1974. Rising above a bronze funerary plaque is a Maya stela similar to the ones found at the ruins of Quiriguá in his native country. To this day, he is Central America’s lone winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, which was awarded to him in 1967.

I have been interested in visiting Guatemala for many years. During the time I was most available to go, Guatemala was in the middle of fighting an armed insurrection by a mostly Maya peasantry who were tired of being forced off their land, enslaved, or massacred. Between 1960 and 1966, some 200,000 Guatemalans died fighting, mostly Maya campesinos. I have just finished re-reading Asturias’s first major novel, El Señor Presidente, set during the presidency of Manuel Estrada Cabrera, who ruled from 1898 to 1920. I have been a big Asturias fan since 1975.

Miguel Ángel Asturias

Now that I am pretty much decided on Guatemala as my next vacation destination, I will add at least two or three more Asturias novels to the ones I have already read. To date, I have finished:

  • El Señor Presidente (1946), his most famous novel
  • Men of Maize (1949)
  • Strong Wind (1950), the first volume of the United Fruit Company trilogy
  • Mulata (1963)

I plan to finish the other two volumes in the trilogy—The Green Pope (1954) and The Eyes of the Interred (1960)—both of which were translated by Gregory Rabassa, one of my favorite translators from the Spanish.

Although Asturias is so identified with the Maya, it is interesting to note that he comes from a well-to-do Creole family that could trace its origins back to 1660.