Fri, Aug 22, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Fact and fiction merge in odyssey from Guatemala

By Alistair Bell  /  REUTERS , GUATEMALA CITY

The son of Guatemala's only Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Rodrigo Asturias, could easily have become a sedate man of letters like his father.

Instead, he chose the gun and ended up as one of Latin America's longest-serving guerrilla commanders in a bitter civil war that cost the lives of 200,000 people.

He has now put behind him more than 30 years of violence, exile and prohibition and is standing as a presidential candidate for the party born out of his former rebel movement in elections on Nov. 9.

Although he has no hope of winning, Asturias has converted himself into a full-fledged politician. He chain smokes US-made cigarettes at his party's offices in a large house in suburban Guatemala City.

But he has never fully emerged from the shadow of his late father, Miguel Angel Asturias.

Under an alias taken from one his father's novels, Asturias spent years fighting in the mountains and jungles of this verdant Central American nation, often sick and hungry.

That was not the life his father, who figured among the 20th century greats of Spanish-language literature and who died in 1974, had envisaged for him.

"I had lots of opportunities: I was with my father, I had an academic career, but my interests and convictions took me on another path," said Asturias.

Asturias had studied law in Buenos Aires and travelled abroad with his father as his secretary. He looked set for a privileged life as a diplomat or lawyer.

But in his early 20s he joined an armed uprising against Guatemala's US-backed military rulers in 1962 and later went on to lead the country's leftist rebel movement.

"It was the only way we had, the path of the armed struggle. All other doors had been closed," said Asturias, a mild-mannered 63-year-old.

Although his father moved abroad after divorcing his mother when Asturias was seven, the former rebel says he inherited a social conscience from the novelist.

The writer's 1946 novel El Senor Presidente [Mr President] is a condemnation of a Guatemalan dictator who ruled at the turn of the last century.

Asturias' nom-de-guerre was Gaspar Ilom after an Indian peasant hero in his father's 1949 book Hombres de Maiz [Men of Maize] which tells of the struggles of poor Mayan Indians.

To let his father know he was well, Asturias once sent a message from the field on a small piece of paper which was then rolled up, stuffed into a cigarette emptied of its tobacco and smuggled via Mexico to the novelist in exile in Spain.

It read simply: "The Men of Maize have turned into fighters," and was signed Gaspar Ilom.

"I knew he was very worried about me, as were the parents of hundreds of combatants, and being far away, they didn't understand our way of seeing things, what we believed in," Asturias said.

The fictional Gaspar Ilom was based on a real Indian peasant of the same name so by taking that alias Asturias ensured that fiction rooted in truth became fact once again, in a blurred reality typical of Latin American fiction.

Miguel Angel Asturias won the 1967 Nobel Prize for Literature and was hailed in the citation as an "an ardent foe of tyranny, slavery, injustice."

Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes and Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa both hold up his sometimes baroque and lyrical style as an influence on their work.

The guerrilla leader himself wrote 27 publications mostly on politics that were published clandestinely.

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