El Señor Presidente (1946)
By Miguel Ángel Asturias (1899-1974)

Two passages translated by William Little© (2008)


"… What officers have to put up with!"
            "What're you saying, pop?"
            In old Canales' heart the feelings that accompany the storms that rage in the soul of an upright man in the face of injustice were unraveling. His country pained him as if his blood had become putrefied. He hurt on the outside and in his guts, at the roots of his hair, underneath his fingernails, between his teeth. Where was reality? Not to have ever thought with his head, always to have thought though with his kepi. To be an officer in order to keep control over a social caste of thieves, exploiters, and deified traitors is much sadder—because it's disgraceful—than being ostracized and dying of hunger. What godly reason is there to require officers to be loyal to regimes that break faith with ideals, the land, and the race of our people…
            The Indian was observing the general as if he were some kind of strange fetish, but without understanding the little he was saying.
            "Let's git, grandpa…, the mountid police's going to come!"
            Canales suggested the Indian come with him to another country, and the Indian, who, cut off from his land was like a tree without roots, accepted. The pay was good.
            They left the cabin without extinguishing the fire. A path through the forest was opened with machetes. Ahead a panther's footprints were lost. Shadow. Light. Shadow. Light. Leaves sewn together. Behind they saw the cabin burning like a meteor. Noon. Immobile clouds. Immobile trees. Despair. Blank white blindness. Stones and more stones. Insects. Cleaned off bones, hot, like recently ironed underwear. Simmering fermentation. Sudden flight of birds. Water with thirst. The tropics. Change without time, the heat the same, always the same, always…
            The general was wearing a scarf around his neck for a sun covering. The Indian was walking step for step with the mule, at his side.
            "I think, if we walk all night, tomorrow we can reach the border, and it would not be a bad idea to risk taking the royal highway, since I have to go to the Villages to stop by the house of some women friends…"
            "Pop, the reyal highway! What're you going to do? The mountid police's going to find you!"
            "Be a stout fellow! Follow me, for he who risks nothing gains nothing, and those women friends can help us a lot."
            "Oh, no, pop!
            And the startled Indian added:
            "Listen. Do you hear that, pop?"
            A troop of horses was approaching, but soon the wind stopped, and then, as if they were returning, the sound faded away.
            "The mountid police, pop, I know what I'm tellin' you, and now there're only damned traps around here, even though we have to take a big detourning to get to the Villages."


The smuggler and the general proceeded by leaping from one little island to another in the river, each holding a pistol, silently. Their shadows pursued them like lizards. The lizards like their shadows. Clouds of insects bit them. Winged poison in the wind. It smelled like the sea, the sea caught in a fishing net forest, with all its fish, its stars, its coral beds, its coral reefs, its deeps, its currents… The moss swung its octopus drool above their heads like the last sign of life. The wild beasts did not even dare menace them along their paths. Canales would turn his head from side to side, lost amidst that fateful, unapproachable, destructive nature, which was like the soul of his race. A lizard that surely had tasted human flesh attacked the smuggler, but he managed to leap away in time; yet the general couldn't, because, trying to defend himself, he attempted to turn back, and he stopped as if he were at the edge of a one-second-long bolt of lightening when he was confronted by another lizard waiting for him with open jaws. A decisive moment. His spine shot death through his whole body. He felt its hairy leather hide on his face. Its tongue shot out. He averted his hands. Three shots rang out each followed by its own echo while he, taking advantage of the flight of the wounded animal that had been blocking his way, was jumping clear safe and sound. The smuggler fired several more times. The general regained his composure and ran to shake his hand, but he burned his fingers on the barrel of the weapon the smuggler was brandishing.
            At the break of dawn, at the border, they parted. Above the emerald fields, above the thickly forested mountains that the birds were converting into music boxes, and above the jungle, clouds were floating by in the shape of a lizard carrying light treasures on its back.[3]

[1] Miguel Ángel Asturias, El señor presidente. Editorial Piedra Santa: Guatemala City, Guatemala, 2002, 202. This brief passage is from Part II, Chapter 27, titled "On the Way to Exile". General Canales, who has been the highest ranking officer in the Guatemalan Army, has been falsely charged with treason by the dictator-president of Guatemala (who is never named throughout the novel), and here he is in the process of escaping the country through Guatemala's remote interior.

[2] This passage ends Part II, Chapter 27: p. 209.

[3] The novel's third section is titled: "Third part: weeks, months, years…"