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Writing in Exile, Working for Justice: 100 Years of Augusto Roa Bastos

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(The following is a post by Talía Guzmán-González, Reference Librarian in the Hispanic Division.)

“Escribir no significa convertir lo real en palabras sino hacer que la palabra sea real”
Augusto Roa Bastos, Yo el supremo (51)

“To write does not mean to convert the real into words but to make the power of the word real”
Augusto Roa Bastos, I the Supreme (59; Trans. Helen Lee)

This year we celebrate the centenary of the birth of Paraguayan writer Augusto Roa Bastos, born on June 13, 1917, in the city of Asunción del Paraguay. Roa Bastos grew up speaking Spanish and Guarani, the two official languages of Paraguay. Although he wrote in Spanish, the indigenous Guarani language permeates much of his prose and poetry.

Μap of Paraguay. United States Central Intelligence Agency, 1998. Geography and Map Division.

As a young man Roa Bastos left his uncle’s house to fight in the Chaco War between Paraguay and Bolivia (1932-1935), a violent confrontation between the two neighboring countries over control of the Chaco Boreal, a region believed to be rich in oil. This conflict marked the young Roa Bastos who later depicted it in his novels and short stories. Many of the themes found in his literature are linked to the turbulent history of his native country: economic and political instability, political repression, and the experience of exile as a result of Alfredo Stroessner’s authoritarian regime in Paraguay from 1954 to 1989. Roa Bastos wrote most of his oeuvre during his 40-year exile that started in 1947 when he left for Argentina after the civil war. His first novel, “Hijo de hombre” (1960) (“Son of Man,” 1965), is frequently described as the Paraguayan epic novel, with a historical background stretching from the dictatorship of Dr. Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (1814-1840) to the end of the Chaco War in 1935. His best-known work and most ambitious literary project, “Yo el Supremo” (1974) (“I the Supreme,” 1986), centers on the historic moment of Gaspar de Francia’s dictatorship. The experimental and original structure of the novel brings to the fore stylistic and thematic choices that can be seen throughout his work, such as the binary structure of good vs. evil, and the bicultural and bilingual (Spanish and Guarani) nature of Paraguayan society.

Chaco war (Bolivia)
Bolivians train anti-air gun on Chaco enemy. 1934. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Augusto Roa Bastos only published two books of poetry: “El ruiseñor de la aurora y otros poemas” (“The Nightingale of Dawn and Other Poems”) and “El naranjal ardiente: nocturno paraguayo” (“The Burning Orange Grove: Paraguayan Nocturn”). He was a contemporary of some of Paraguay’s best poets, such as Josefina Plá. He penned more than a dozen movie scripts, some of which were based on his novels, and was also a prolific journalist, dramatist, lyricist (he loved to compose songs and sing!), as well as a professor of Spanish and Guarani at the University of Toulouse in France.

On October 31st, 1958, Augusto Roa Bastos recorded “El Viejo señor Obispo” (The Old Bishop) for the Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape at the Library of Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he was exiled. This short story is included in “El trueno entre las hojas” (Thunder among the Leaves) and is an excellent illustration of the elements that characterize his literature: Guarani language alongside Spanish as a mark of national identity, religious references, and a discussion of social justice. He received the Cervantes Prize in 1989 from the Ministry of Culture in Spain. Augusto Roa Bastos died in Asunción, Paraguay on April 26, 2005. You can find all his works at the Library of Congress. If you’d like to learn more about one of Latin America’s most original voices, please visit us in the Hispanic Reading Room!

Chaco War (Paraguay)
Scenes from Chaco war. 1934. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.


Pacheco, Carlos. “Augusto Roa Bastos” in “Diccionario enciclopédico de las letras de América Latina” (Encyclopedic Dictionary of Latin American Letters). Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho Monte Avila Editores Latinoamericana, 1995. 4129-4138.

Roa Bastos, Augusto. “Yo el supremo.” Caracas: Biblioteca Ayacucho Monte Avila Editores Latinoamericana, 1986.

Roa Bastos, Augusto. “I the Supreme.” Trans. Helen Lee. New York: Dalkey Archive Press, 2000.

Smith, Verity, ed. “Concise Encyclopedia of Latin American Literature.” London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2000.

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