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1926: Rafael Arévalo Martínez

 

This week I'm thinking about La oficina de paz de Orolandia, a 1926 satirical novel by Guatemalan modernista writer Rafael Arévalo Martínez.

Original cover to the library copy I read.

Original cover to the library copy I read.

Or rather, a "novel" (a phrase that could head nearly all the entries under Modernismos), in the venerable Spanish tradition of a work of fiction that is as much a symposium of ideas as a chronicle of events. It appears to be loosely based on Arévalo Martínez' own experience working for the Central American Office, a US-sponsored institution founded in 1907 with the supposed goal of working towards a closer union of the five countries of Central America (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica), but in practice little but a sinecure for well-connected diplomats of no particular ability to produce idealistic propaganda, which was then roundly ignored by anyone in any position of power.

The first chapters detail the experiences of Felix Buendía, a competent but unsuccessful poet, as he becomes the Secretary of the Peace Office of the fictional Latin American state of Orolandia (an allegory for the five Central American nations, although they are all also mentioned as distinct nation-states, presumably in order to throw angry patriots off the scent). There is plenty of simple comedy in his misadventures writing speeches for the delegates of the different Orolandian regions, his struggles with the miserable bookkeeping of his predecessors, and the contradictory orders of the five delegates (one of them, for example, demands that the institution's library be organized by subject matter, while another insists that it be organized alphabetically; and since the charter states that neither of them can outrank the other, Buendía has to do both). This section reads a bit like Kafka as filtered through the jovial prose of Dickens: all effort is useless, but what are you gonna do?

But then history intrudes, and Arévalo Martínez paints a hyperbolic but essentially accurate portrait of the downfall of Guatemalan dictator Manuel Estrada Cabrera (who had been propped up by the US government in return for his land grants to the United Fruit Company), which necessarily means the end of the Peace Office. The back half of the book is primarily a series of conversations between Buendía and the only one of the delegates with any sense of irony or perspective, General Eladio Casarrica, in which they theorize about the possibility of Orolandia being absorbed into the United States of the North, try to find apt metaphors for the differences between the Anglo-Saxon and Hispanoamerican nations, and argue over whether geography or innate racial characteristics are responsible for the economic and military strength of North America versus the relative weakness of Latin America. It's difficult to tell with how much seriousness Arévalo Martínez means any of this (especially since the whole book begins with a letter in English from a real American diplomat and editor), but his casual adoption of the language of white supremacy (misreading Nietzsche in much the same way that Nazis were doing at the time) and contempt for the indigenous population of Central America is probably not as satirically intended as a post-1960s reading would almost habitually make it.

In 1966, Arévalo Martínez published a revised (in his words, condensed) edition of the book. I haven't yet read it, although I own a copy; I'll be curious to see how the passage of forty years and much more tumultuous political history (not to mention US imperial activity within Central America) modified it. His afterword notes that the book was originally published under the "big stick" era of American diplomacy, and that the revision was made in the "good neighbor" era — both of which are misleading, as those particular policies were associated with the two Roosevelt presidencies, but as is often the case with Arévalo Martínez, it's unclear whether he's being ironic.

This is the third of the four or five novels by Guatemalan writers in the 1920s that I intend to read and, hopefully, write about more extensively. (Previously: Maelstrom and El evangelio del amor.) Historically, Arévalo Martínez slots into the generation after Gómez Carrillo: more politically engaged and less heavily aestheticized (although his early work is also considered part of the Modernismo canon), he also still very much represents the point of view of the criollo (white, moneyed) minority, perhaps in its more liberal aspect. Perhaps. I have a lot more reading I need to do before I can deploy judgments like that.