Saturday, 8 August 2015

The Mulatta & Mister Fly

The Mulatta & Mister Fly - Miguel Angel Asturias

As August has been united with July under the umbrella of #SpanishLitMonth (at Caravana De Recuerdos, WinstonsDad's Blog & on Twitter) it means that this post is not my usual #SpanishLateMonth. Although, as I'm now reading my fourth book there is plenty of time to be late yet...

This is the first novel I have read from the Nobel prize winner Asturias, and I have to say that it was not quite what I expected. The book is less a narrative than an incantation: an amalgam of myth, history, sex and politics that seems more closely related to the Joyce of Finnegans Wake, or William Burroughs, than to other South American writers I have read.

This isn't the whole picture, though. The book is soaked in the myth-story of South America and clearly draws on the same sources as Galeano's Memory of Fire. Indeed the author note in my copy says that Asturias "studied the philosophy and religion of the Mayan civilisation at the Sorbonne." This clearly gave Asturias the foundation upon which to build this strange world. At times the book heads into very weird terrain, as is shown this quote I scanned and posted on Twitter as I read.

All this might make The Mulatta & Mister Fly sound like a difficult read but I didn't find it so. It has enough narrative drive to pull you in and then enough humour, strangeness and verbal inventiveness to pull you through (or at least to pull me through). It is a book of metamorphoses, and characters change name, appearance and conditions any number of times. It does, however, stick with three central characters all to the end of the book, even if one spends quite a while offstage.

These characters are Mister Fly / Celestino Yumi / Hayomihaha / Chiltic; his first wife Catalina Zabala / Niniloj / Juana Puj / Lilli Putti / Hazabalahaha / Giroma and his second wife The Mulatta / That Certain Mulatta posses Jerónimo de la Degollación and merges with Tipumalona.

The basic premise is that Celestino Yumi makes a pact with the corn god Tazol to go to a number of fairs with his fly open, which is sure to lead to women having unclean thoughts. For this, and with Yumi's wife Catalina/Catarina thrown in, Tazol promises to make Yumi a rich man. This all happens and Yumi becomes the richest man in the region who, no matter what he does, continues to increase his wealth. Attending a fair (with his fly closed - the bargain is complete), he meets and then marries the Mulatta in order to satisfy the lust she inspires in him. His temptation is reminiscent of someone else who was to be driven from an apparent paradise:
"But the Mulatta, after giving in for a minute, pushed him away from her.
'First the wallet!' she repeated imperiously, rubbing against him with everything there was in her of a flexible root, a root that had been buried for centuries under ebony wood, and was now dressed up in flesh, just as ready to be a snake as to be a woman."

The Mulatta is later revealed to be a hermaphrodite, ("the most daring of them pointed at her sex, her double sex") although Yumi is left in the dark, only ever being presented with the sorceresses' back, or moon side, a choice she will not, or cannot reverse. Yumi is embittered for "The back says so little when on the other side there are eyes, mouth, lips, face, all that is beautiful and ugly in a person." She is associated with powers beyond the human, in ways that seem similar to many early myths in which gods, often in the form of animals, take human partners : "She was not a woman, she was a wild animal. She was a sea. A sea of waves that had claws.." 

All this time Yumi has been taking the land and possessions that have made him wealthy from a box that Tazol placed in a cave for him. In the box there is a small shepherdess who seems to represent Yumi's first wife. When he finally picks her from the box she is returned to life although not to her full size:
"...she moved her eyes and they were Catalina Zabala's pretty eyes, and she moved her hands, and all of her was moving, walking, and with a leap and with Yumí's help, she came up out of the crèche.
             But, oh, woe! she was a little dwarf..."
At Catalina's prompting she becomes the plaything of the Mulatta but in this world situations are apt to change dramatically and so they do. Later Yumi himself will undergo a transformation into a dwarf, "minimal and horrifying, just like a foetus with a moustache."

All the while it is clear that Asturias is using his form of the folk fable to explore issues around exploitation, slavery, religion, history, identity, gender and capitalism. It is a kind of socio-economic history on psychotropic fungi. The following quote shows one of the ways that multiple identities can be interpreted, where taking the names of the dead can keep them alive; in this case those who died of smallpox, which so ravaged much of South America. (This reminded me of Pancho Villa, who wasn't in fact Pancho Villa but a friend of a dead Pancho Villa. He took his friend's name in order to keep it alive.)

The real story seems to me to be that of a battle between catholicism and the earlier gods and indeed one of the big set pieces towards the novel's close involves a struggle between a priest and Yumi, who is representing one of the devils. The town in which it takes place, Tierrapaulita, is a hotbed of sorcery and witchcraft and a home of many devils and other supernatural beings. It is a town where buildings, streets and people are twisted and asymmetrical, with the forces of magic and earthquakes doing the twisting. "As you can see, nothing is straight here, just as they told us. The streets are bent, like stone ribs, the houses are crooked, the square is crooked, and the church ...ha! ...ha!, one tower this way and the other one the other way, and the dome looks like an accordion..."

Christianity is brought by a demon who has fallen form heaven and who wants the people to have more and more children to increase the harvest of souls for hell. He wanders the town at night crying "Breeding tiiime! Breeding tiiime today!" And if his exhortations were ignored, well: "It was whispered about that among the remiss, those who did not respond properly to the call, that they would have the devil's rooster turned on them, and it would be the rooster who played the male. And that was why, at the sound of the first "Bree..." the women would uncover themselves with quick hands which they would then place over their breasts, because in that business of children, the best thing was to make the most of it, because it was not right to make their husband wear horns by lying with the devil's rooster, who did not wear horns but spurs."

The most powerful of the older gods, Cashtoc, speaks out against the way man is seen as central in the Christian worldview; and how the individual replaces the collective, which was so central in pre-conquistadorial South America: "Plants, animals, stars ... they all exist together, all together as they were created! It has occurred to none of them to make a separate existence, to take life for his exclusive use, only man, who must be destroyed because of his presumption of existing in isolation, alien to the millions of destinies that are being woven and unwoven around him."

 The climactic battle sees Yumi as a hedgehog with eleven thousand spikes representing the devil's eleven thousand horns taking on a priest who grows eleven thousand arms so that he can grab the devil by his eleven thousand horns. Simple really. This is an strange and hypnotic book, full of puns, vivid descriptions and wild flights of fancy. I will certainly be seeking out more books by Asturias, and thinking about this one for a long while.


  1. I normally have little patience for this kind of genre, but your description of the mythical, fantastical, magical, metaphysical aspects of the story makes me think hard of it too. Certainly a unique choice for the Spanish Lit Month(s).

    1. It's a strange book that requires some patience with it's extravagances but would probably open up even further for those with more knowledge than I have of the history and myth that underpin it. I have a feeling that other books by Asturias will be more accessible.

  2. Weirdness! I already have Asturias' El Señor Presidente waiting at home, and so I suspect I'll get to that one before I ever try checking out this weird ass homage to the pre-Conquest myths. Still, it was fun to read your piece after seeing Obooki's memorable but skeletal (if you'll pardon the pun) early reference(s) to this "novel." Did any of these "extravagances" remind you of Roa Bastos' I, the Supreme, by any chance? Some of it seems similar, other stuff not so. You ought to copyright #SpanishLateMonth, by the way, and make some money off that clever wordsmithing endeavor.

    1. It has some similarities to Roa Bastos, even if only the sheer singularity and baroque insanity of its style! El Supremo has made an appearance in Galeano's Memory of Fire, which is truly magnificent. I have been thinking of chasing down El Señor Presidente having noted Obooki's high rating of it.

      (I will unfortunately have to invoice you for your use of #SpanishLateMonth. My solicitors inform me that to allow anyone to use the term gratis would undermine my ownership of the phrase.)

    2. Touché re: the invoice! I intend to pay via my Sex Pistols/Virgin punk rock credit card, of course!

    3. The invoice was returned unpaid. The bank said your account was pretty vacant!