First Impression Friday will be a meme where you talk about a book that you JUST STARTED! Maybe you’re only a chapter or two in, maybe a little farther. Based on this sampling of your current read, give a few impressions and predict what you’ll think by the end.
Latin America has seen, time and again, the rise of dictators, Supreme Leaders possessed of the dream of absolute power, who sought to impose their mad visions of Perfect Order on their own peoples. Latin American writers, in turn, have responded with fictional portraits of such figures, and no novel of this genre is as universally esteemed as Augusto Roa Bastos’ I the Supreme, a book that draws on and reimagines the career of the man who was “elected” Supreme Dictator for Life in Paraguay in 1814.
It is Friday again! Yes, we have survived another work week. My mind is starting to relax as the weekend is just over the horizon. The weekend has become some sort of of a respite, a temporary break from the tediousness of my professional career, as I am pretty sure it is the same for most. The weekend is also an opportunity to do things we don’t normally during the work week. On another note, I hope everyone is healthy and is doing well despite the pandemic and the pandemonium that is going on in various parts of the world. Apparently, today is World Day of Cultural Diversity. I wish and pray that we all reconcile our differences so that we can live in peace. I also pray that the pandemic will end soon.
But before we can move to the weekends, it is time for another First Impression Friday update. I am still immersing in works of Latin American and Caribbean literature and my current read has transported me into a country that I have never been to before, both in reality and in the world of literature. Augusto Roa Bastos’ I the Supreme is my first novel set in Paraguay; last year, I read my first novel that has allusions to Bolivia through Isabel Ibanez’s Woven in Moonlight. I the Supreme was one of my random purchases last year but the image, the title and even the book’s author piqued my interest as well.
Originally published in 1974 in Spanish as Yo, el Supremo, I the Supreme is the fictionalized account of José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, the first dictator of Paraguay. The book’s title is a reference to how Dr. Francia, as he is known to most, referred to himself, “El Supremo” or “the Supreme.” In the history of Paraguay, Dr. Francia was the first of a long line of dictators who have alternated in ruling over the landlocked South American nation after its independence from Spanish rule in 1811. When Roa Bastos started writing the novel, Paraguay was under the regime of another dictator Alfredo Stroessner, who ruled even longer than Dr. Francia.
The narrative involved two primary characters – Dr. Francia and his efficient and loyal secretary, Policarpo Patiño. A hefty portion of the story involved their conversations. Dr. Francia is often painted giving orders to his secretary or engaging him in a discourse. There were also soliloquys as Dr. Francia reflects on Paraguayan history, culture, its people and his important role. However, there seemed to be no palpable plot as the novel borrowed various elements of Paraguayan history.
What stood out in I the Supreme was its complex structure which requires concentration and full engagement. Roa Bastos employed a score of narration types such as notebook entries, transcriptions of dialogues, a logbook, and the installments of the perpetual circular. There also seems to be more than one writer – Roa Bastos himself, the compiler, and an “implied” author. The Compiler has compiled and arranged various historical texts to “craft the story”, even adding footnotes to further elucidate on how the book was put together. The novel’s complexity contributed to my sluggish reading pace.
I the Supreme, I have learned, is a seminal work in the annals of the dictator novel, a genre of Latin American Literature. It also reminded me of the tumultuous histories we all share, with dictators and their regimes just among them. Prior to immersing in world literature, I would have never learned of this, or of them and how they have shaped their country’s history. We have Ferdinand Marcos, Chile has Augusto Pinochet, Dominican Republic has Rafael Trujillo, and the list, unfortunately, seems to be infinite. The insatiable appetite for power and control has corroded our humanity. I hope we all learn from the lessons of history and never let it repeat itself.
I am barely halfway through the book but I hope that I finish it over the weekend. It certainly is no walk in the park. How about you fellow reader, what book are you going to read this weekend? I hope it is a book that you’ve been looking forward to and I hope you enjoy it. Keep safe, and happy weekend