The Portrait of a Dictator

When the term “dictator” was first used during the Roman Republic (509 to 27 BC), it was not with the same dark implication it implies in the contemporary. Back then, “dictator” was used to refer to a temporary magistrate who was granted by the Roman Senate absolute authority in order for him to come up with a solution to a state problem or concern assigned to him. They were conferred with power only when there arose a crisis that demanded their expertise, such as in the time of an invasion or struggles within the Roman society itself. Among the most renowned Roman dictators is Julius Caesar, whose name transcended time. The term “crossing the Rubicon” is a phrase attributed to him.

However, with the passage of time, the word dictator has also evolved. Modern dictators, with which world history is riddled, are feared by many because of the atrocities they have committed over the course of their stranglehold on power. Violent upheavals have become synonymous with the word. Modern dictators have the same level of authority as Roman dictators but modern dictators use every ounce of power in order to ensure that they stay in power. Such can be gleaned in the cases of infamous dictators like the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos, North Korea’s Kim regime, and Germany’s Adolf Hitler. Many regimes would eventually crumble under the rising discontent of the denizens but not even the passage of time can heal the wounds that they caused.

For nearly two centuries, Latin American nations have been grappling with and enduring the villainies of dictators who have started sprouting all over the continent following the decline of colonialism in the 19th century. Among the most infamous dictators that have sown seeds of fear in contemporary Latin American history are the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo, Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, and Paraguay’s Alfredo Stroessner. The proliferation of dictators leaving marks in Latin America gave rise to the literary genre novelas de dictadores or dictator novels. This genre sought to challenge the legacy of dictatorship in modern Latin American society and history. Included in this literary genre are Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch (El otoño del patriarca, 1975) and Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat (La fiesta del chivo, 2000).

“Our first knowledge of fire gives rise to a social prohibition. This is thus the real basis of the respect for flames. If the child brings his hand close to the fire, his father gives him a fillip on the fingers. The fire does this without any need to hit out. Its language of punishment is to say I burn. The problem to be solved is deliberate disobedience.”

~ Augusto Roa Bastos, I the Supreme

Another literary work that is considered by many as the quintessence of dictator novels is Paraguayan writer August Roa Bastos’ I The Supreme. The novel charted the story of Paraguayan dictator José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia y Velasco. Also referred to as Dr. Francia, he was born on Jan. 6, 1766, in Asunción, Río de la Plata. He studied and taught theology but would eventually shift to law practice after he was dismissed for his liberal ideas on religion and politics. Francia’s path to politics came in 1807 when he served on the municipal council of Asunción until 1809. While serving on the council, Francia gained political experience and, at the same time, respect from his colleagues. Both proved to be crucial in propelling him to be promoted as a secretary of the revolutionary junta in 1811.

By the time the junta overthrew the Spanish colonialists, Francia has gained substantial influence and popularity. The first Paraguayan constitution, adopted by Congress in October 1813, was written by Francia. In the same year, he played a seminal role in the separation of Paraguay from Argentina. A year later, he was elected by the National Congress as a supreme dictator and, riding the wave of momentum, he was elected as a perpetual dictator on June 5, 1816. This is a stark dichotomy to the limited terms of Roman dictators which last only six months, sometimes shorter if the crisis has been averted or resolved. The Roman dictators never reneged on the agreement with the Roman Senate, peacefully relinquishing the power conferred to them at the end of the crisis. However, modern dictators like Francia have a proclivity for staying in power for a longer period. True to his word, Francia served as Paraguay’s ruler until his death on September 20, 1840.

Originally published in Spanish in 1974 as Yo el supremo, I the Supreme is a fictionalized account of Dr. Francia’s life. During his term as dictator for life, Dr. Francia often referred to himself as “El Supremo” or “The Supreme“, hence the book’s title. Narrated from the first-person point of view of Dr. Francia, the novel captured his twilight moments. The novel itself opened with an ominous note nailed to the door of a cathedral:

“I the Supreme Dictator of the Republic
Order that on the occasion of my death my corpse be decapitated; my head placed on a pike for three days in the Plaza de la Republica, to which the people are to be summoned by the sounding of a full peal of bells.
All my civil and military servants are to be hanged. Their corpses are to be buried in pastures outside the walls with neither cross nor mark to commemorate their names.
At the end of the aforementioned period, I order that my remains be buried and my ashes thrown into the river.”

The pronouncement was signed by Dr. Francia but it was eventually learned that it was a pasquinade and that the El Supremo’s signature was forged. What ensued was a discussion between Dr. Francia and his secretary, Policarpo Patiño. Patiño was tasked to get to the bottom of the satirical note. The perpetrator was never discovered but the story started to diverge. Dr. Francia’s mind got muddled by present concerns that he had to grapple with. The original storyline got buried in ramblings about meteors, prison camps, and the separation of Paraguay from Spain and Argentina. His memory was further blurred by ruminations on the past. All of these contributed to the portrait of a mind that was starting to decline, a body in the throes of death.

“The heart expands in every direction when it loves. The one who falls in love because of a person’s beauty: is that the person who is the beloved? No, because the smallpox that kills beauty without killing the person would cause the lover to cease to love. One does not love persons. It is their qualities one loves.”

~ Augusto Roa Bastos, I the Supreme

The novel was bereft of a solid plot. Rather, it was an extensive character study with Roa Bastos providing the readers an intimate peek into Dr. Francia’s complex psychological profile. We read of the qualities that are common denominators among dictators. Their desire to stay in power and their populism were two common attributes. In I The Supreme we also read of Dr. Francia’s delusions but also of his visions of a Paraguay that was free of every vestige of colonialism. His grand ambitions made him cut ties with the rest of the world, believing that self-sufficiency was imperative for building a truly independent nation. Foreign trade was banned while industries were nationalized. Very few Paraguayans were allowed to leave the country. Paraguay was virtually isolated, a hermit kingdom in the heart of South America.

As the narrative moved forward, we also read of a man who is self-justifying and is increasingly drawn to peculiar ideas. As he started to lose his mental faculties, Dr. Francia’s paranoia increasingly become more palpable and he found it more difficult to trust anyone. His worst personal abuse was towards Patiño who he kept berating. Dr. Francia also had an innate dislike for writers. For all his cruelties and micromanaging, Dr. Francia did have his redeeming qualities. He belonged to the rare group of dictators who saw their position as a platform to institute real changes and not as a means to live a lavish life. Dr. Francia saw himself as his newly-independent country’s best option and his actions were in line with how he projected himself. He was an individual brimming with contrasts.

Dr. Francia’s reign was a precursor to the fate that would befall Paraguay. Succeeding Dr. Francia are more dictators, two more in the same century. In fact, a couple of years after leaving Paraguay for Buenos Aires in 1947 – Roa Bastos went into exile after speaking out against President Higinio Moríñigo – a new dictator in Alfredo Stroessner Matiauda seized power. General Stroessner reigned from 1954 to 1989, staying in power longer than the El Supremo. It is thus not difficult to see I The Supreme, which was brimming with Dr. Francia’s atrocities, as a direct challenge to Stroessner and to dictatorship in Latin America. Roa Bastos also found himself a victim of Stroessner’s atrocities and the book itself was the subject of Stroessner’s implied censure. I The Supreme is truly the quintessence of the dictator novel.

I The Supreme was not only scintillating in its examination of Dr. Francia. The novel was also rich in historical context, mostly seen through the lenses of the El Supremo. On the backdrop, Roa Bastos captured the vivid portrait of a nation that was still struggling to come to terms with its newfound independence. In the early days of Paraguay, we see a young nation still grappling with the remnants of colonialism, an infantile nation that was still confused about its place in the grand scheme of things. The circumstances were ripe and all for Dr. Francia’s taking.

They mistook mongrels for greyhounds. My genealogical tree is growing sideways in the chapter hall. Although I have no father or mother, and haven’t even been born yet, I have been had and procreated legitimately, according to the perjuries of notaries. Stink of an obscure heredity falsified on the coat-of-arms of my non-house: a black cat suckling a white rat on gray quarters in the gules abysses of the nine partitions, parturitions, and disparitions.”

~ Augusto Roa Bastos, I the Supreme

The novel’s fine qualities came together under Roa Bastos’ masterful writing. While the lyrical quality of his prose glued the story together, it extensively requires the reader’s attention. Patience is required to break through the complicated narrative. The profile of Dr. Francia was taken from a bevy of sources such as official documents, diplomatic dispatches, and snippets from biographies. Fragments from memoirs of Paraguayan historical figures also comprised the story. The structure was as complex as the sources used by Roa Bastos. Apart from the dialogue between the two main characters, we read about intimate notebook entries made by Dr. Francia, a logbook, transcriptions of dialogues, and the installments of the perpetual circular.

The decline of Dr. Francia’s mental faculties resulted in the narrative weaving in and out of different timelines. Add to the complexity of the structure and the shifting timelines the plurality of voices that was juxtaposed to Dr. Francia’s voice. The annotations of a second “author” referred to as the “compiler” were integral to the narrative. These notes either supported or contradicted El Supremo’s contemplations. Roa Bastos as well made his presence felt in the story. On top of the compiler’s notes, there were footnotes by the translator, Helen Lane, who also preserved some of the Guarani terms which were defined in an endnote. All of these elements converged to paint an equally complicated narrative.

In I The Supreme, Roa Bastos challenged dictatorship by painting an evocative profile of Paraguay’s very first dictator. While his era ended in 1840, many elements of Dr. Francia’s tyrannical rule in Paraguay continue to resonate in the contemporary, including Paraguay’s General Stroessner. Roa Bastos painted a vivid portrait of the modern tyrant. There were attributes that distinguished Dr. Francia but he was nonetheless the very definition of a dictator, at least the modern definition of it. Complex but engaging, ambitious but lyrical, I The Supreme was a lush historical novel and character study. It was a testament to Roa Bastos’ writing prowess, hence, his recognition as the foremost Paraguayan writer. Albeit its complexity, I The Supreme is regarded by many Paraguayans as their greatest novel.

Ratings

78%

Characters (30%) – 24%
Plot (30%) – 
19%
Writing (25%) – 
21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
14%

Prior to 2020, I have never heard of Augusto Roa Bastos and his novel, I The Supreme. It was out of sheer curiosity that I obtained a copy of the book the moment I encountered it. The thrill of discovering a new voice was simply irresistible. When I learned Augusto Roa Bastos was Paraguayan, I made the book part of my first-ever Latin American reading month. It was the first book written by a Paraguayan writer I read and man did it challenge my mind. It was also through the book that I learned about dictator novels, which made sense because of Latin America’s colorful albeit tumultuous history. The complexity of I The Supreme cannot be denied. It took me time to get used to its different elements, especially its labyrinthine structure. But once I got over this barrier, a clearer image of Dr. Francia started taking shape. He was not an easy character to understand but then again, the novel captured the last moments of his life, when his mind has become muddled by memory and by history. I also learned that the book was the second installment of a trilogy about Paraguayan history that Roa Bastos wrote. I hope I get to obtain copies of the first and third installments.

Book Specs

Author: Augusto Roa Bastos
Translator (from Spanish): Helen Lane
Publisher: Aventura
Publishing Date: May 1987
Number of Pages: 435
Genre: Historical Fiction, Dictator Novel

Synopsis

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.

About the Author

Augusto Antonio Roa Bastos was born on June 13, 1917 in Asunción, Paraguay. He grew up in the provincial town of Iturbe in the Guaria region, some 200 kilometers to the south of Asunción, where his father, Lucio Roa, worked as an administrator on a sugar plantation. In 1925, he moved back to Asuncion to attend a military school. He lived with his uncle, Hermenegildo Roa, a Catholic priest who paid for his education. In 1932, when he was just 15, he volunteered as a hospital assistant during the Chaco War. After the war, he worked as a bank clerk. On the sly, he pursued his passion for writing; at a young age, he was exposed to the works of Shakespeare and other influential writers by his mother. He would, later on, gain an appreciation for Spanish literature while studying.

His foray into writing started with poems and plays. His first published work, El ruiseñor de la aurora (The Nightingale of the Dawn, 1942), was a collection of poetry. However, he renounced it, calling it an imitation of other writers. He penned more poems towards the end of the 1940s but only the pamphlet El naranjal ardiente (The Burning Orange Grove, 1960) was published. His plays were also performed but they were never published. In 1944, Roa Bastos was awarded by the British Council a nine-month fellowship for journalism in London. Upon returning to Asunción, he wrote for the local paper El Pais. In 1947, Roa Bastos was forced into exile to Buenos Aires, Argentina during the Paraguayan Civil War after speaking out against President Higinio Moríñigo.

While in exile, he worked as a cultural attaché in the embassy and as a journalist. In 1953, he published his short story collection, El trueno entre las hojas (Thunder Among the Leaves), and seven years later, his first published novel, Hijo de hombre (Son of Man, 1960). His most ambitious and most renowned novel, Yo, el supremo (I, the Supreme), was published in 1974. His other short story collections include  El baldío (The Untilled, 1966),  Los pies sobre el agua (The Feet on the Water, 1967), and Madera quemada (Burnt Madeira, 1967). Over his long and prolific career, he has written screenplays, anthologies, and translations. For his work, he has received several awards. His unpublished first novel, Fulgencio Miranda, won the Ateneo Paraguayo Prize in 1941. He won the Premio Cervantes Prize in 1989 for his career, donating his award money to buy books for the Paraguayan people.

In 1971, Roa Bastos earned a fellowship with the Guggenheim Foundation for Creative Arts. He also taught at the University of Toulouse II in France from 1976 to 1985. Roa Bastos was finally able to move freely between France and Paraguay after the ouster of the dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay. Roa Bastos passed away on June 13, 1917.