Dr Helena Buffery
is a lecturer in the
Department of Hispanic
Studies at the University
of Birmingham. She
modern Latin American
and Peninsular literature,
and nineteenth- and
How to cite this article:
"Roa Bastos and the
Question of Cultural
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Hispanic Journal of Theory
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The recent death of Paraguayan author and intellectual Augusto Roa Bastos has produced
numerous reflections on his significance both as a writer within the Hispanic canon and as a
representative and defender of Paraguayan culture. Most pieces have centred on the literary
and linguistic experimentation of his earlier work, the short stories and the novels Hijo de
hombre (1960) and Yo el supremo (1974), contrasting this with the relative silence in which
he spent his last years since his return to Paraguay, dedicating himself to the promotion of
the Guaraní language and culture. His legacy thus presents itself as a dual one: on the one
hand, he is perceived to have incorporated a distinctly “other” voice into the literary canon,
giving the Western reader access to Paraguayan culture through a global language; on the
other, his commitment to his native language and culture led him to “silently” immerse
himself in its continued survival. Here, I propose to negotiate the apparent contradictions
produced by such a dual legacy, by addressing the translatability of Roa Bastos’ work for
the Western reader and the way in which it foregrounds the question of transculturation; the
very translatability of, here Paraguayan, culture. Whilst there has been a shift towards
seeing Roa Bastos’ work in similar terms in recent years, as a writing that is resistant to
cultural imperialism, much of this has focused on the short stories and Hijo de hombre,
which represent most directly the experience and voices of the Paraguayan campesino
(Michel-Nagy). I will reflect here on the later novels, primarily El fiscal (1993) and Madama
Sui (1995), produced after the symbolic recognition of his work with the Premio Cervantes
in 1989. As texts which enact the process of telling – understood both as ordering and
narrating – the “other”, these address and deconstruct most fully the ambivalence of the
Western reader of otherness.
There can be no doubt that one of Roa Bastos’ major concerns in his writing was the
question of how to represent Paraguayan experience, inseparable from expression in a
bilingual culture produced by a history of imperial domination. On the one hand, he is faced
with the dilemma of the language in which to write; with written Guaraní being accessible
only to very few readers, and the increasing hybridization of Spanish and Guaraní into
Yopará perceived as a symptom of the unequal power relations in Paraguayan society. On
the other, he must translate what is a primarily oral culture into writing. As he himself
Aparte de su carácter bilingüe, la cultura paraguaya tiene ese otro componente esencial: su oralidad
dominante. Un crítico francés me decía que las narraciones paraguayas le parecían traducciones,
relatos hechos “con los ojos tapados”. Y es exacto: están tapados los ojos de una lengua cuando
funciona la otra, hay que traducir ese medio mundo de silencio que no llega al otro medio mundo (Roa
Bastos, Semana 75).
His decision to “translate” into the language of domination, the karaí ñe'é (language of the
master), is one that he nevertheless recognizes as an act of symbolic violence throughout his
career, and underlies the many re-writings, deconstructions and reconstructions that
characterize his output:
De ahí la difícil y denodada labor de un escritor que, como tantas veces se ha señalado, intenta
formular, traducir, los aspectos esenciales del sentir y pensar de un pueblo, los fundamentos simbólicos
de los modos de estructuración de una realidad en una lengua cuyos parámetros no enlazan con la
original, que no alcanza cubrir todos sus dominios (Moreno 58).
Whereas on the one hand, as we shall see in examples from his novels, this enterprise is
represented as one that is doomed to failure, as reflected in the theoretical writings of
postcolonial critics from Said (1983) to Spivak (1993); on the other, his fictions have long been
perceived as offering a privileged access to a marginalized, silenced and forgotten culture.
En la palabra y escritura de Roa Bastos late el ruido de un sonido profundo, lejano y acallado; voces
vencidas y propósitos renovados; el ansia de conocer el mito y la leyenda de aquellos momentos
virginales de la creación en que un pueblo, el Guaraní, da nombre y sentido al cosmos, inventa su
lenguaje y crea su cultura casi silenciada. Su palabra siempre está pendiente de una voz exterior, de un
silbo, de unas huellas que se dibujan tenues en el tiempo. Y en ese eco y texto olvidado se recogen
todas las señales, los pasos, los caminos y las palabras de cuantos indignamente han sido exterminados
por los otros; pero que, a su vez, muestran su impotencia, porque siempre brota intangible un retoño
pletórico de vida y salud, fuente de nueva creación y presencia. Un tiempo y un espacio poblados por
los ecos de las voces nunca definitivamente acalladas por ningún tirano, pretencioso y dogmático. En
su obra se presiente siempre la escucha de algo previo a la escritura (Tovar 3).
Translation as a mode of betrayal and symbolic violence, simultaneously marking and (re)
producing the silence of another language and culture: these perceptions confront the
inevitable failure of translation, the concept of untranslatability, with its rhetorical
persuasiveness as a figure of translatability. Together they map a particular itinerary for
reading Roa Bastos’ work, one which borders on recent interest in translation and its effects
as a process on culture. Although I do not wish to assimilate Roa Bastos’ particular
configuration of translatability to that espoused by contemporary translation and cultural
studies, his work does raise a number of questions as to the role of the intellectual in the
construction, interpretation and representation of culture, as well as the difficulty, if not
impossibility, of avoiding continued intellectual imperialism.
Let us reframe this scrutiny of Roa Bastos’ work in terms of the second part of my title, as a
journey; a figure which appears continuously in Roa Bastos’ works and reflects the other
great paradox in his status as representative and spokesperson for Paraguayan culture, the
fact that most of his literary output is produced in exile, with all attempts to return frustrated.
As he himself wryly admitted in interviews following acceptance of the Premio Cervantes in
1989, Roa Bastos presented one of the few ways an international readership might get to
Paraguay, a place isolated temporally, spatially and culturally due to the vicissitudes of its
history – so isolated, in fact, that it rarely makes much of an appearance even in histories of
the Americas. His Yo El Supremo (1974) is more widely read than any text on Paraguayan
history, much to the chagrin of Paraguayan historians, notwithstanding its overt rhetorical
positioning as an anti-historical narrative. The trilogy this novel forms with Hijo de hombre
(1960) and El fiscal (1993) spans the whole history of independent Paraguay, exploring how
it has been shaped by the violent after-life of its colonial and neo-colonial history. Exploring
Paraguay’s cultural, political and economic relations with its neighbours, Argentina,
Uruguay, Brazil and Bolivia, as well as with the United States and Europe, his work traces
the rootedness of the series of dictatorships which have ruled it to its socioeconomic
conditions. In contrast, his country’s cultural survival is traced to deeper, anthropological
characteristics, still discernible in its unusual sociolinguistic make-up. Although his work
has been read beyond these representational characteristics, as part of a utopian and
universalist project to identify and critique the alienation of the modern individual (Piccini),
and as a primarily literary achievement; more recently, following his own declarations in 1989
(Tovar 16-21), it has been subsumed into wider explorations of testimonial discourse, as a key
to the “real” Paraguay.
La narrativa de Roa Bastos, a partir de la particular evolución histórica del Paraguay y a partir de la
herencia de la cultura y del pensamiento de los antiguos guaraníes (basado en el principio de la no-
contradicción y en la creencia en los dobles), se rige por la voluntad de restaurar la unidad de múltiples
escisiones (oralidad-escritura, individuo-colectividad, testimonio-ficción, pasado-futuro). Una posición
de compromiso con la colectividad a la que pertenece está en la base de su obra que constituye al
mismo tiempo una interrogación sobre la posibilidad del individuo (escritor) de ser portavoz; es decir,
la posibilidad de dar expresión a este compromiso y tener eficacia en el interior de la colectividad.
Dado que la realidad del país al que pertenece ha conocido una historia trágica que lleva al escritor a
hablar de realidad “irreal”, abortada, y de proceso de ruptura en la evolución de las dos vertientes de su
cultura mestiza, no nombrar directamente un hecho es una necesidad impuesta...
.... la escritura literaria, que pone en escena su propio génesis, puede hacer vislumbrar lo que no puede
expresar directamente, gracias a la exploración de sus tareas y de sus limitaciones (Michel-Nagy 299-
The Concept of Translatability
Translatability is commonly understood as the communicative possibilities of a text, and has
in recent years expanded to embrace the possibilities of cultural communication per se
(Budick and Iser, Dingwaney and Maier): How far can a cultural text be translated for a
different audience; how far can different cultures read each other at all? Thus, as a concept,
it offers a different perspective on the question of how does one get to Paraguay. How is
Paraguay constructed in different representations? Can other cultures understand Paraguay;
is it recoverable for the Western reader, experienceable? Exactly how is its translatability
figured; how do other cultures and their representatives/agents think they understand
Paraguay, through discourses such as history, culture, politics and economics? Given the
propensity of linking cultural translation to mapping, travel and other spatial metaphors – as
ways of imagining, representing and demarcating difference – I have deliberately bracketed
the question of how one gets to Paraguay, as a metaphor for cultural translatability but also
as an ironically alienated one. Roa Bastos, often read in terms of a nostalgia for origins, in
terms of his rootedness, as a way of getting to Paraguay and recovering its realities, also
underlines the impossibility even for him of getting to Paraguay (El portón de los sueños).
Yet is this demarcation of its otherness, its untranslatability, in fact always already a sign of
The process of translation between languages is one that demands negotiation of those
aspects of a language that are unique to a given culture. This process can rarely take place
on neutral ground, as has been observed in studies of the alternate pulls between
domestication and exoticism in translation history; indeed, translation often contributes to
shaping the very ground on which future negotiation will take place. Thus, as explored in
Budick and Iser, the ethics of translation underpin the possibility of cross-cultural discourse.
The discourse of translation, in its time-honoured use of spatial boundaries – and also gender
metaphors – to express cultural processes, fits in well with recent focus on the
representative but simultaneously unrepresentative nature of national boundaries, essential
identities, concepts of the self, and global relations. Translation offers an understanding of
culture as a negotiation process between subjects, yet as we have seen in Roa Bastos’
metaphor of blindness, there can be no real subject negotiation in translation. At best it is
virtual: the text in many ways is created by the reader. For Spivak (1993), translation is a
rhetorical process which can only betray the voice of the other. However, although she
suggests the only proper solution is for people (particularly monolingual anglophone
students!) to learn more languages, her negative answer to the question “Can the Subaltern
speak?” (Spivak 1985) surely also points to the inevitability of some sort of
translation/representation, to the necessity of that betrayal. This is what leads to her positing
of a resistant mode of translation, one of a kind of automatic writing to produce an “othering”
of language (Spivak 1993).
Interestingly, this both undermines the value of her own theory – for in this version of events,
reflecting otherness is intuitive, a way of suggesting a space between, bringing us back to a
sense of a non-culturally constructed self – and it recalls the earlier theories of Walter
Benjamin (1923). In his critique of the role of translation throughout history – “The Task of
the Translator” – rooted in terms of his own practice, he raises questions which take us
beyond the usual dichotomies in translation theory. Instead Benjamin offers an alternative
focus on the translatability of the original text (which in some ways resembles our own
untranslatability). In fact we find ourselves in a dialectic of catachresis – so central to
postcolonialism – where the sayable/unsayable are simultaneously the opposite and the
same sides of the same coin, as are its translatability and untranslatability.
The originality of Benjamin’s arguments for translation lies in their replacement of the notion
of original meaning or essence with an alternative original translatability which underpins
and is necessary to the process of translation. He suggests there is something in the source
text that calls to be translated, so that in some ways the original is created by the translation
at a particular historical moment. “Translation is a mode. To comprehend it as mode one
most go back to the original, for that contains the law governing the translation: its
translatability” (Benjamin 71). Translation here is perceived as a process, a way of reading
rather than a product. In order to understand it Benjamin insists it must be read
dialectically, to see how the original contains the translation (its translatability), but also how
the translation contains the original. On the one hand translation fixes meaning, by meaning
in a particular context – the trope faces the target culture; on the other the translation is
meaningless – the trope faces the source translatability, which can only be observed through
translation. The translation owes its existence to the translatability of the original, but the
existence of that translatability can only be observed through a rhetorical substitution based
on translation. Translatability hence contains and is dependent on a paradox: the original
has no meaning without translation. “The Task of the Translator”, and in particular the
concept of translatability, may in fact be seen as a rehearsal of Benjamin’s later theories of
how meaning is constituted historically, through the dialectic between past and present.
Fynsk suggests that it is Benjamin’s concept of the dialectical image which fully expands
this historical recasting of the notion of truth, and perceives this as a move beyond the
continued concern with “origins” in Benjamin’s earlier essay on translation. However, if we
understand Benjamin’s notion of origins as a figure of persuasion itself, of the purposiveness
of language, the concept of translatability moves a lot closer to the dialectical image as being
“a matter of the present’s capacity to define itself: to be and to be historically (from the basis
of the concrete historical conditions whose truth is offered to it out of the sudden dialectic of
past and present)”(Fynsk 223).
In attempting to explain the notion of translatability, Benjamin underlines the rhetorical
operation of translation, as something persuasive or purposeful:
All purposeful manifestations of life, including their very purposiveness, in the final analysis have their
end not in life, but in the expression of its nature, in the representation of its significance. Translation
thus ultimately serves the purpose of expressing the central reciprocal relationship between languages.
It cannot possibly reveal or establish this hidden relationship itself; but it can represent it by realising it
in embryonic or intensive form (Benjamin 73, my emphasis).
Translation’s purposiveness is hence presented as lying in the expression of the original
purposiveness of language (itself a rhetorical act). There is the sense that the one essential
thing about translation is its figuration of origins, the persuasion of a relationship between
languages. This translation activity is what makes languages cease to be strangers through
its focus on the activity of how meaning is made, rather than through its transference of
essential meanings shared by all cultures. Purposiveness should not then be understood as a
willful renaming of pragmatics or communication. It is the rhetorical act of trying to convince
or persuade of the possibility of pragmatic communication.
Whereas deconstructivists might see the perception of the wholy, unembarrassedly
rhetorical base for translation as a further demonstration of the deconstructive aporia of
language, of the ultimate futility of any attempt to identify meaning (Derrida, De Man),
recognition of the different rhetorical processes of translation can in fact lead beyond the
problem in other approaches to translation of an only partial transcendence of the
natural/metaphorical dichotomy. Any identification of meaning is dependent on the
rhetorical figuration of that meaning through cultural translation and contextualisation.
What becomes clear in Benjamin’s account is not so much what translatability is essentially
– except given our more pragmatic understandings of translation in terms of communicating
meaning, as something equal to untraslatability (i.e. translatability only exists when the text
is not just about communicating information from one vessel to another) – but how it is, as a
metaphor, more central to the translation process than the notion of original meaning.
Benjamin’s at times rather messianic arguments instead offer a picture of an original
fragmentation, as a series of metonymy for pure language. What translation is in this model
is a rhetorical process which seeks to create or convince of origins, and hence of
translatability. It is only through translation that we see original meaning.
Benjamin’s recasting of the process of translation in terms of the play of translatability or
untranslatability rather than judging the authenticity of different versions, is what might be
seen to coincide with current debates in cultural theory – with their emphasis on the
simultaneous transparency and opacity of alterity in cultural representation. Although we
might find Benjamin’s appeal to an original, pure language in translatability rather
mystifying, his argument is useful in its identification of the performative aspect of language
and identity, rather than essential qualities: How ultimately the very translatability of
cultures is their untranslatability, and is what causes the specific problem of representation,
of translating each into different contexts, of perceiving origins. Authenticity is, then,
something of rhetorical persuasion and is persuaded relationally. Furthermore, as the idea of
the dialectical image reveals, there are always ideological configurations involved in these
relations, determining every instance of transculturation.
Roa Bastos and Translatability
To make my point, I would first like to take one particular example from Roa Bastos here. In
El fiscal, the central character and narrator for much of the book, Félix Moral, is concerned
to locate his own origins and the origins of his story (the decision to assassinate Stroessner),
which he judges to be inseparable from the origins of the Paraguayan people. As an exile, he
is doubly alienated; having no immediate access to the real situation, history or origins of
Paraguay, he seeks them in and through European representations, showing us one of the
traditionally-held functions of art, to give meaning to one’s own experience via identification.
This narrative process, however, can be read in a number of ways. On the one hand it can be
seen as the imposition of the Western subject on the Paraguayan other, contributing to, by
demarcating the other’s silence, its inability to represent itself. The process of getting to
Paraguay through Europe can also be seen ironically (as in my earlier bracketing, ultimately
showing the limits of Western epistemologies) as a counter-appropriation of the Western
narratives which have produced the othering, as a form of writing back. Alternatively, as has
been argued, it could be read as a scrutiny of the intellectual’s attempt to assimilate, judge
and make meaning from a position of authority. This would make Félix Moral “el fiscal”,
seeking to persuade of his right to represent the people of Paraguay, in overthrowing
domination. Indeed, one reader points to the parallels between “el concepto de poder
político ejercido por la voluntad de un solo individuo” and “la actividad intelectual concebida
como transferencia de verdades que se presumen ajenas en el primero”, ultimately placing
the novel in the current arena of debate over alterity, caught between the two extremes of
whether to “anegarse en el silencio de la otredad o inmolarse en aras de cierta concepción
de justicia absoluta” (Rohena pars. 20, 9).
Critics attempting to grapple with Roa Bastos, see his work in terms of a quest for origins, for
authentic Paraguayan expression – through the search for “real” language, and the recovery
of “real” history. Their way of getting to Paraguay is in him getting to Paraguay.
Interestingly, in a train journey represented in one of his last novels, Contravida (1994), a
journey undertaken by Roa Bastos’ alter-ego Él, the train is driven by a man with the voice of
El Supremo, in many ways the founding father of modern Paraguay, and the central
protagonist of Roa Bastos’ earlier novel Yo El Supremo (1974). The journey is impelled (as it
is represented here) by the name of the father, the patronymic, rather than in any real urge
for origins. It is produced by relationships of domination. Why there is so much focus on the
location of Paraguay in reading Roa Bastos, might then, as I have been hinting so far, be as
much a reflection of our own problem as it is the problematic of Roa Bastos’ own texts: the
need to produce a clear relation between Paraguay and the rest of Latin America, such a
popular object of study in our academic institutions; the need to account for the Western gap
in the grasp of that culture. Here we begin to see issues of cultural translatability in terms of
what they really are, a reflection of the power relationships between cultures.
Roa Bastos’ texts are indeed rooted in personal history, in the exile experience and the
vicissitudes of Paraguayan history; furthermore, his writings on fiction portray an urge to
testimony. However, the proliferation of his narratives, his endless re-telling of the same
story, suggests engagement with the bigger problem of the impossibility and the necessity of
translation, the need to try to say the unsayable. Thus, in what remains of this discussion, I
would like to look at some ways in which Roa Bastos approaches the question of
translatability in his work, on the level of the representation of history, the representation of
self, and the representation of particular others such as Madama Sui.
The most obvious site or instance of translation in Roa Bastos’ work, as he presents it, is in
the relationship between Spanish and Guaraní, between oral and written culture, and its
reflection of a diglossic situation. Different strategies are used throughout his work, including
incorporation, agglutination and the interpolation of oral myths, and these often lead to the
creation of différance, identified as an avant la lettre feature of Guaraní. This linguistic play is
seen as a way of approaching what is sayable and unsayable in both languages, as a way of
figuring the space between. As he writes in the preface to Hijo de hombre:
En la literatura de este país, las particularidades de su cultura bilingüe, única en su especie en América
Latina, constriñen a los escritores paraguayos, en el momento de escribir en castellano, a oír los sonidos
de un discurso oral informulado aún, pero presente ya en la vertiente emocional y mítica del guaraní.
Este discurso, este texto no escrito, subyace en el universo lingüístico bivalente hispano-guaraní,
escindido entre la escritura y la oralidad. Es un texto en que el escritor no piensa, pero que lo piensa a
él. Así, esta presencia lingüística del guaraní se impone desde la interioridad misma del mundo afectivo
de los paraguayos. Plasma su expresión coloquial cotidiana, así como la expresión simbólica de su
noción del mundo, de sus mitos sociales, de sus experiencias de vida individuales y colectivas. En su
conjunto, mis obras de ficción están compuestas en la matriz de este texto primero….(Hijo de hombre,
15-16, my emphasis).
Roa Bastos relates his own origins as a writer to this linguistic scene, hence presenting them
as clearly rhetorical origins, pointing to the performative nature of identity. The same
impulse can be traced in his representation of the quest for identity in his work – so central
to the first part of El fiscal, and so mystified by critical readings. In The Log Book of Yo El
Supremo (329-35), we find the dictator Francia seeking out his own genealogy, in parallel
with a journey into the heart of darkness. He rejects the different and conflicting versions of
his genealogy in order to make way for self-origination. This we can see as an allegory of
how Francia (and/as El Supremo) imposes himself as the patronymic of Paraguayan
culture, seeking to contain, represent and assimilate everything – to stand for complete
transparency. It is an urge that is shown to be only possible through a process of
domination and exclusion, underlined in the texture of the novel through recourse to
counter-arguments in the margins of the Supremo’s texts, the inclusion of alternative
versions of the same events, and in the dialogic nature of His conversations with other
protagonists. As such, this quest for total representation reflects on Augusto Roa Bastos’
writing of the novel itself, hence his need to position himself rhetorically as a compiler. In
El fiscal, too, the reader is drawn to the rooted nature of the quest, in terms of the exile
experience. The narrator’s search for traces of his experience in age-old artifacts is not the
categorical search of the anthropologist; instead we see the origins of the quest for the
assassination of the dictator linked to his quest for origins in various myths. We glimpse the
origins of Félix Moral’s psychosis, perhaps; his (self)-containment in a narrative nightmare
of history. Origins (and they are rhetorical ones) in El fiscal are linked to endings, both
quests being frustrated in this novel. Félix Moral’s quest to stand for the people of
Paraguay, as his (mis)understanding of his role as a committed intellectual (Kraniauskas),
to translate their needs, is set against the position of Jimena, his ideal partner, with her
commitment to oral testimony. She is constructed as the ideal reader in the novel, as the
only one capable of reading between the lines of Félix’s narrative. She completes his
narrative; hence, symbolically, her position is to be seen as one of complicity with the
“other”, as the only possible way of recovering “otherness”.
Vio en la adolescencia llegar en París el frustrado mayo del 68. Viajó a México y vio los muertos que ese
mismo “mayo” mexicano tumbó a balazos en la plaza de Tlatelolco. … Optó por seguir su propia
peregrinación. Se internó en el pasado legendario de los nahuas. Aprendió la lengua con los naturales,
siguiendo el vía crucis de los códices de P. Sahagún, saqueados, fragmentados, destazados, dispersos,
como si hubieran sido sometidos al potro de los descuartizamientos de Hernán Cortés. Se sabía casi de
memoria los principales cronistas del imperio. Mejor conocía los relatos de los cronistas naturales que
hablaban de otras historias; de esas historias que sólo pueden ser contadas en voz alta – solía decir
Jimena -. Y mejor aún si lo son por la voz colectiva (El fiscal 63, my emphasis).
In some ways Augusto Roa Bastos’ trilogy is more about scrutinizing foundational narratives,
the kind of imagined community we see critiqued by Bhabha (1990 and 1994); to show how
they seek to contain difference, and, further, to recover the hidden histories they obscure. In
this, Roa Bastos’ work can be linked to the aims of the testimonial form, in trying to recover
the voices of the silenced and the oppressed, and represent them, which he does by enacting
a process of “othering” himself – a position validated in the representation of Jimena.
Pasó al Paraguay y aprendió guaraní. Le deslumbró la cara oscura de la gente campesina que no habla
español ni es ya indígena. Le impresionó ese misterio racial, no personal, de las mujeres descalzas más
fuertes que la fatalidad, silenciosas, como envueltas en una emanación protectora de algo mudo y
oscuro que no les impedía la risa y el humor mientras fumaban… Jimena vivió dos años con una
anciana del lugar, dejándose penetrar por el magnetismo de la tierra, de la gente, del tiempo inmóvil,
aprendió a hablar y amar la lengua vernácula y a odiar con toda su alma la ciega perversidad y
abyección de los hombres. (El fiscal 63-4)
Where this process has been most clearly embraced, surely in response to the scrutiny of
political domination and its corollary in intellectual imperialism in the trilogy, is in Madama
Sui, although this would also be a way of reading Contravida (the counterhistory of the trilogy
from the perspective of ÉL). Roa Bastos’ last novel presents a focus on the relationship
between knowledge, power and violence exposed in his other novels, through the medium of
sexual oppression and domination. Thus, it both presents Woman as a key to the experience
of modern Paraguay, and allows observation of modes of domination. For this reason there
are different levels of “translation” to be observed in the novel. On one level Madama Sui is
overtly about recovering the voice of a figure from popular memory, that of a child ostracised
by her community because of her overt sexuality and mixed background, a child who was
prostituted and died by the age of twenty: supremely “other”. The reader is presented with
the idea that Sui’s own voice can be recovered through her notebooks, but there is rhetorical
emphasis on the need for a reader (resembling the Jimena, perhaps, of El fiscal) to fill in the
gaps. On another level Sui is to be seen as a representative of the suffering, oppression and
domination of the Paraguayan people:
En la dicotomía, no siempre bien definida entre lo individual y lo colectivo, el relato de la historia de un
personaje representativo envuelve siempre como trasfondo el panorama de una época, el modo de ser
colectivo de una sociedad, sin lo cual la sustancia del personaje - la carnadura de su historia –
carecería de un soporte real verosímil. Quiéralo o no, el narrador siempre presenta o representa en la
ficción ese lugar de la Mancha, “del cual no quiere acordarse” (Madama Sui 12, my emphasis).
To represent her voice, the narrator feels impelled to write as a woman:
Por todo lo que antecede con respecto al drama de las mujeres en un país casi desconocido de América
del Sur, he tratado de escribir la historia de Madama Sui tal como la hubiera escrito una mujer. Quiero
decir: he tratado de hacerlo con la sensibilidad y la noción del mundo, con el estilo y el lenguaje
propios de la mujer, a quien su capacidad de engendrar vida, de asegurar la continuidad de la especie,
de preservar lo esencial de la condición humana, le otorga la intuición natural de saberlo todo aun no
sabiendo que lo sabe. Don casi siempre negado a la imaginación masculina’(Madama Sui 14);
whilst Sui is also to represent the changing role of women in contemporary culture.
También la mujer, hacedora de vida, se está haciendo a sí misma. O sea, se está transformando, en
procura del lugar que le corresponde en la vida social, en la que a pesar de sus progresos sigue estando
sometida a la normas de un mundo construido por el hombre a imagen de sus privilegios; del hombre
dominador y a la vez eunucoide, cuya virilidad no es más que brutalidad (Madama Sui 13).
This is all part of a basically humanist project, suggesting that the ultimate translatability of
Madama Sui is as follows:
Ambos, mujer sacrificada e incompleta, hombre sumido en su barbarie primitiva, no han comprendido
todavía… que lo esencial para un ser humano es convertirse en un ser humano, en el equilibrio de la
igualdad y respeto de las diferencias, cualesquiera sean sus razas, sus costumbres, sus religiones, sus
ideas (Madama Sui: 13).
However, this “original” translatability is placed in question throughout the novel, in the
gaps and discontinuities of the text, but also in the discussion between Doria and the
narrator of the responsibility of the artist and, in particular, the narrator’s responsibility to Sui.
-¿Cómo piensa usted escribir la historia de esa muchacha?
Yo iba a contestar sin saber a ciencia cierta lo que iba a decir….
-Si lo hace alguna vez… hágalo como si escribiera la historia de su propia vida, aunque la suya no sea
tan interesante como la de Sui. Me refiero sólo a la actitud moral frente al compromiso con la verdad.
Cuando se describe o se trata de interpretar la vida de una criatura semejante no caben el sarcasmo, la
compasión. Menos aún, la moralina maníquea que divide a los seres humanos en buenos y malos.
Puede un novelista presumir de ser un testigo omnisciente del misterio humano, incluido por supuesto
el propio, indescifrable para él mismo. La omniscencia del autor es una de las convenciones
fraudulentas … Más eficaz… es utilizar la energía multidimensional de los símbolos, que dicen más por
lo que ocultan, que por lo que revelan, en su manera de decir que dice por la manera. O contar
únicamente lo que se sabe sobre algo o alguien, pero sin pretender, como Dios, saber todo de todo
(Madama Sui 165-66, my emphasis).
Ultimately there is a sense of failure to fill in the story: it is another one of Roa Bastos’
spectacular ruins, as is constantly hinted throughout the text. The greatest gap comes in the
narrator’s failure to recover the truth of Sui’s relationship with ÉL, her true love, which he
takes to stand as the sign of her innocence throughout her time as Stroessner’s favourite
prostitute. Is ÉL the narrator, or one of his classmates? The text remains ambiguous on this
matter. It is on this level that I would like to suggest that Sui has become a vehicle for the
exploration of translatability more than anything else. Sui – a representation of innocence,
who never thinks nor tries to distance herself or resist until her return home from Asunción
(and the text even marks her first moment of thinking!) – becomes one of Stroessner’s
concubines, is prostituted, made into an object, othered. But underneath, her “authentic”
self, that which the narrator is attempting to mediate, remains true to ÉL. Who is ÉL – the
other – that she is able to contain? Metaphorically, this idea is presented as “una isla
rodeada de tierra” (Madama Sui 31, 202): Sui’s body representing Paraguay and ÉL the
Paraguayan “other”; the oppressed, persecuted apátrida with whom Roa Bastos is often
identified and identifies. In some ways, then, Sui’s body represents the desire for
translatability of the narrator, reflects its inseparability from representation in a new context.
However, the structure of the text draws attention to the rhetorical nature of that
representation and to the other side of the coin: the complete effacement of the self in
turning to the source translatability (which is the untranslatability of the original). This is
represented in the silences of the text, but also in the completion of the ruins in the death of
Doria (Madama Sui 181), Sui’s visit to the ruins of Hiroshima and her final identification with
the suffering of ÉL in her self-immolation in the tarumá tree at the end of the novel (Madama
Sui 181,259,290). It is a call for an imaginative leap out of the self, hard for any of us to do, and
surely even harder to convince anyone else of it. There is no perfect closure; we are left with
“sólo una manera de decir lo indecible” (Madama Sui 291).
In this textual marking of silence we are forced to confront the concept of a “space
between”. Indeed, Madama Sui enacts all the types of transposition of “otherness” explored
in Budick and Iser (298). The narrator’s disconcerting encounters with the traces of Sui
produce in the reader a heightened sense of difference through awareness of a duality. His
incorporation of the visit to Japan, and the resulting assimilation of the ruins of Hiroshima to
those of Paraguay, lead us to ponder the politics of cultural relations. The bracketing of the
suffering of the pueblo as the ÉL contained within Sui’s mind and body allows for the
exploration of difference that leads to such disparity. The very appropriation of Sui as
“woman, giver of life” appears as a way of overcoming the deficiencies of the current social
and political order. The narrator's reflection in Sui, as and through ÉL, entails a process of
confrontation and scrutiny of the self, whilst his recognition of the “other” as primordial
generates an ethical call to commitment.
As we have seen, to a great extent Paraguay only really appears as an object of knowledge in
relation to other cultures, reflecting and representing a wider problem, that of continued
economic imperialism. Roa Bastos himself made this clear in the following comments on the
current particular situation of Paraguay:
Es un momento de transición. Por eso, a pesar de estar ingresando lentamente a la era moderna,
todavía somos países primitivos. Las estadísticas hablan de nuestra relación con los centros de poder
mundial, donde el gran poderoso, EEUU, empuja hacia un determinado lugar. Tal es el caso de
Inglaterra en el pasado, el país que propulsó la guerra de la Triple Alianza … fue producto del
imperialismo inglés (y, a ese imperialismo, los latinoamericanos deberíamos contestar con humanismo.
Ese poder fue la fuerza que empezó la opresión y el atraso de nuestro pueblo (Roa Bastos and Sábato
We might want to debate further the humanism Roa Bastos appeals to here as the
originating point for his cultural representations and translations. Like Doria and the
narrator of Madama Sui, we might say that “Era un ardiente defensor de la quimera de la
utopía, de las empresas inasequibles, de la construcción de ruinas flamantes” (Madama Sui
181 ). Yet we are also reminded here that translatability clearly depends on the position
from where you start: how one gets to Paraguay depends on who one is, where one comes
from. Thus, Paraguay’s simultaneous transparency and opacity alert us to the dual
translatability of culture, and Roa Bastos’ constant deconstruction of his “ruinas flamantes”
reveals modes of resisting domination. None the less, his relative silence on the international
market after the publication of Madama Sui and the Metaforismos of 1996 might suggest a
more pessimistic conclusion to his scrutiny of the intellectual’s ability to translate
 The “ruinas flamantes” of Doria (Madama Sui 181) enact a “living metaphor” within the
text, as architectural traces that are both there and may never have existed; the product of
an artistic imagination that sought to translate a singular image from memory (in this case,
an image from European cultural heritage) whilst simultaneously recognising and
celebrating the utopian impossibility of such an enterprise. Given the proliferation of such
“living ruins” within the text, it is tempting to see them as a metafictional key to Roa Bastos'
oeuvre, encompassing both the “flaming ruins” of the original version of El fiscal, which was
supposedly burned due to its anachronism, and the obsessive deconstruction and
reconstruction of his narratives throughout his career.
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University of Birmingham
|Roa Bastos and the Question
of Cultural Translatability
(or how does one get to Paraguay?)
|… He de hacer que la voz vuelva a fluir por los huesos…
Y haré que vuelva a encarnarnos el habla…
Después que se pierde este tiempo y un nuevo tiempo amanezca
(Silenciario 5, reproduced in Mauro 36)
Y esto también es sólo una manera de decir lo indecible (Madama Sui 291)