A wonderful novel about a terrible topic, “The President” won the Nobel Prize in literature for Miguel Angel Asturias. A Latin American dictator rules through fear and arbitrariness. The most careful lackey can die on an enemy’s vicious rumor hitting the President’s ears. Whimsical decisions bring imprisonment, poverty, and death to favorites. The third-person narrator focuses on one favorite, Angel Face, and his sinister plot to kidnap Camilia, the daughter of General Canales, when he is arrested on bogus charges of treason.
Miguel Asturias was a Guatemalan diplomat, lending realism to the book’s setting in a Central American ‘Republic’. The author writes with humor and wit. It is stylistically realistic, and features page after page of exceptional prose and economical word count. A character description, emblematic of this book’s wit and directness, “A man with his face daubed like a woman played piano. Both his mouth and the piano had a few ivories missing.”
On a deeper level, “The President” shows the lethal dangers of rule by personality cult and the absence of the rule of law. There is no due process, no fair trial by jury, no free press in this Republic. Great evil grows in the loose soil of lawlessness. This story is psychological, showing how friends and relations turn, instantly, against each other when someone loses favor with the dictator. As Angel Face learns, interactions with a person tainted by ‘treason’ put oneself in jeopardy.