fiction, review

Mr. President

Indonesian edition cover

Totalitarianism seems to be an always relevant topic to discuss, for there is still one or two countries applying the said system and having the world amazed and scared at the same time. It cannot be helped since total freedom seems what people want most, and democracy has become some sort of a god. People worship it, people idolize it. And people do not want any regime to control any part of their lives. And so any contrast to it will be talked about forever, especially in literature where people are sharing and spreading what they are thinking.

Mr. President by Miguel Ángel Asturias is only one example of this kind of medium. First published in 1946, it depicts how bad life under a dictatorial regime is, how turbulent times affect people living under such regime, and how politics works in such country.

It opens with an unintentional killing of one colonel José Parrales Sonriente by a deeply traumatized, mentally ill beggar in front of a public church. The witnesses are there, so it should not be difficult to investigate and close the case as such. The problem is, however, Colonel Sonriente is one of Mr. President’s close friends and his murder is deemed an act of treachery. In short, it is considered impossible for a higher official with such connection to be murdered by a crazy beggar who doesn’t even know whose life he has taken. Therefore, quite intentionally (I would say so), the blame is laid on the president’s enemies: General Canales and the lawyer Carvajal. They in fact are not even his true enemies, they merely have a different opinion from his.

And so, as is predicted, the hunting begins. Both Canales and Carvajal are charged with murder and treachery, and given the death sentence. The president then asks his another close friend, Miguel Cara de Ángel, to pretend to help Canales run away (so he will definitely look “guilty”) and sets to catch him in the act. Unfortunately, the general really manages to escape while Miguel gets his hands on the general’s beautiful daughter, Camila, making him unable to hold his ground and change sides. But it might not seem strange in the middle of political turmoil to switch sides and betray each other, for General Canales, innocently charged with betrayal himself, eventually sees why he should take actions against the president.

Rulers of this kind of regime can be very paranoid and manipulative. And that’s not a very good combination. The president of the fictional republic described in the book is obviously so afraid of losing his power and position that he must suspect everyone and anyone even those who innocently (or, unconsciously) express an opposing opinion to his. He deems everything against him as a thread, not only to him but to the entire country. Hence the law is literally blind before everything and everyone. One can be punished for saying the truth, and another can be rewarded for telling lies. It’s all for the sake of maintaining power and sovereignty, as is described by Asturias.

For all his unfair treatment of the people, Mr. President here is the central and interesting character to look at. People are not being bad or cruel without any particular reason. Though this is not what the writer intends to convey, it’s coming out through his words nonetheless. Mr. President, both the protagonist and antagonist of the book trying to control and silence everyone under his regime through any possible, imaginable means, is actually a mere weak person who is deeply hurt by his horrible past. Basically from a poor family with no privilege whatsoever, he has to survive and fight his way to the top—where he eventually has power to make the unfair society pay for what they have done to him. On the one hand, it could be (I say it could be) understandable that he becomes the dictator that he is. On the other hand, however, we will perhaps question his mentality and sanity and ask, “Do people become a leader just so they can seek revenge for their past? Is becoming a tyrant is a way to prove yourself?” Most of us will surely say no, but a leader with Mr. President’s mentality will likely say yes, it is.

Mr. President has a very powerful narrative and the president himself, though rarely seen and mostly described through his enemies’ or friends’ words, is a very strong character. The reader should not be worried about the so many side characters (those enemies and friends) because Asturias tells about their entanglement pretty clearly, despite their changing sides and whatnot. The realistic and surrealistic parts of the story are also nicely woven, so seamlessly, however, that readers might not be able to recognize which is which—which then becomes a hardship rather than pleasure. It also ends rather openly, but instead of giving hope (after all the characters have gone through), it only affirms that authoritarianism might not see its end very soon.

Overall, Mr. President by Miguel Ángel Asturias is undoubtedly a great novel, almost technically perfect and engaging. It’s just exhausting at times, for its surrealistic parts and for the military tortures done by the president’s cronies which seem to never stop.

Rating: 4/5

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