Friday, 14 July 2017

The Green Pope by Miguel Ángel Asturias’s not a particularly secret wisdom that those who have wealth are likely to have power too. After all, it’s money that makes the world go round… at least a materialistic world like ours. Little wonder that our society produces considerable numbers of men and women whose primary goal in life is to gain money and ever more money. In The Green Pope by Miguel Ángel Asturias, Guatemalan winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 1967 “for his vivid literary achievement, deep-rooted in the national traits and traditions of Indian peoples of Latin-America”, a young American who cares for nothing but wealth and power starts a banana plantation in Guatemala mercilessly ruining, driving out or even killing small local farmers and opponents on his rise. Neither the suicide of his fiancé, the death of his wife in childbirth or the pregnancy of his unmarried daughter make him reconsider his priorities.

Miguel Ángel Asturias Rosales was born in Guatemala City, Guatemala, in October 1899. Already as a student of law in Guatemala and of ethnology in 1920s’ Paris, France, he wrote poems and essays publishing his first important book Legends of Guatemala (Leyendas de Guatemala) in 1930. Back in Guatemala, he worked as journalist and university lecturer until he became a diplomat in 1944. During the following decade Miguel Ángel Asturias brought out the novels The President (El Señor Presidente: 1946) and Men of Maize (Hombres de maíz: 1949) along with the first two parts of the Banana Trilogy, namely Strong Wind (Viento fuerte: 1950) and The Green Pope (El Papa verde: 1954), while its last part, The Eyes of the Interred (Los ojos de los enterrados: 1960), only appeared after his expulsion from Guatemala. The most notable of his other novels written in exile from 1954 through 1966 are The Mulatta and Mr. Fly (Mulata de Tal: 1963) and The Mirror of Lida Sal (El espejo de Lida Sal: 1966). After the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1967, he published among others the novels Tres de cuatro soles (1971; Three of Four Suns) and Viernes de dolores (1972; Friday of Sorrows). Miguel Ángel Asturias died in Madrid, Spain, in June 1974.

George Maker Thompson from Chicago is twenty-five years old when he comes to Guatemala to make a name for himself as The Green Pope following in the footsteps of Sir Francis Drake known as the pope of the pirates. His plan is to take hold of the land of the small farmers and to become an important banana planter for Tropical Banana Inc. seated in the USA making the former owners slave away for him. When George meets Mayarí, the daughter of a wealthy widow from the area, he at first sight falls in love with the dark beauty. They get engaged, but unlike her fiancé Mayarí cares about the local people and when she finds out that he bribes the officials to let his thugs terrorise the farmers who refuse to sell their land cheaply to him, she begins to secretly work against him. As the wedding approaches, Mayarí realises that her fight is hopeless and she drowns herself in the river. George isn’t devastated by the loss and later marries her mother Flora who dies giving birth to their daughter Aurelia. While the girl is brought up by nuns in a convent in Belize, George continues his rise to power in Guatemala and within Tropical Banana Inc. Grown-up Aurelia lives on her father’s plantation where she meets a young anthropologist who seduces and then leaves her with child. After a while it turns out that the seducer actually was a company spy gathering information about her father’s dubious and ruthless business practices. The revelation thwarts the attempt to annex Guatemala as a new state to the USA and forces George to renounce becoming president of Tropical Banana Inc. He retreats to his plantation and raises his grandson although he has all but given up his aspirations to power…

Told from the point of view of an omniscient and unconcerned third-person narrator, The Green Pope recounts the story of land theft and exploitation both of natural resources as well as native population that seem to have been something like standard business practice of aggressive foreign companies in Latin-America during the first half of the twentieth century and long after, if they aren’t in modified form until the present day. In other words, it deals with economic rather than national imperialism (although it also shows an attempt at the latter), thus with the modern variety of colonialism, and therefore it’s little wonder that the author received the Communist Lenin Prize 1966 not just for this novel but for the entire Banana Trilogy. That the plot is for the most part plain and that the characters are much more stereotypical than psychologically deep, probably was a deliberate choice to emphasise the similarity of events and players in Latin-American countries. At least in Spanish the novel is permeated with expressions of Mayan origin that make the read quite a challenge although they are translated or explained respectively in a vocabulary at the end of the book. Nonetheless, I took pleasure in it.

In fact, I liked The Green Pope by Miguel Ángel Asturias quite a lot because it’s a poignant and in my opinion timeless critique of the conceit and selfishness that the rich and powerful – represented by an average, though ambitious citizen of the economically advanced USA – use to show in our ways of dealing with the poor and weak – in this case the economically less developed indigenous farmers of Central America. Although the book was first published more than 60 years ago and the opening of the story is set about 100 years ago, the basic mechanisms of how world economy and globalisation work haven’t changed. Otherwise, there would be no more need for associations promoting fair trade or for humanitarian projects helping people to open perspectives for a decent living… and there would be no streams of migrants seeking a better life in countries that don’t want them. In brief, it’s a book that I highly recommend.

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  1. Thanks for another novel to add to my list by this Nobel winner. I wonder if his trilogy caused those areas to be called The Banana Republics?

    1. I wondered too, but didn't bother to find out. Besides, the bananas were before the Asturias's novels...


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