Augusto Roa Bastos

READ THE WORD – Paraguay: I, the Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos

Translated by Helen Lane.

I, the Supreme is a historical novel that’s a fictionalised account of the nineteenth-century Paraguayan dictator José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia aka El Supremo. The opening pages present a sign that they had found nailed to the wall of a cathedral, purportedly written by El Supremo himself and ordering the execution of all of his servants upon his death. This sign is revealed to be a forgery, which takes the leader and his secretary Policarpo Patiño, into a larger discussion about the nature of truth and the fallibility of the written word.

I feel like I should preface this review by saying that anything I say about this book is what I think was happening and I have no concrete idea if that was the case as I was often left confused by everything that was in this novel.

I found I, the Supreme really hard to read due to how it was written. There aren’t any speech marks when characters are talking, there’s long paragraphs, and it often it read like a stream of consciousness as characters seem to go on so many tangents. Obviously, I concentrate/pay attention whenever I read a book but with I, the Supreme I felt I had to put so much more effort in to follow what was happening and still I ended up lost a lot of times. The lack of speech marks was especially difficult as characters appeared to have conversations in the same paragraph. This may be because it’s a story that started off as two characters discussing things so a character recounts what someone else said in their own dialogue. Whatever the reason, it still made it hard to read.

I, the Supreme appeared to follow the life of El Supremo but not in a linear order. It would jump around and it would take time and many pages later to realise the connections between certain events or people mentioned. There were a lot of footnotes in the book which were helpful in providing true historical context for the events the book was depicting or bending slightly. In the latter half of the book there was almost footnotes or asides in the main body of the text, giving context in a way that you couldn’t avoid – perhaps to show how important that information was to understand the fictionalised account.

There were sections that seemed far removed from the life of El Supremo or seemed to be a fantastical take on things. For instance, in multiple chapters there are sections that focus on a talking skull which I think is supposed to be El Supremo’s talking skull but I’m really not sure.

Naturally a dictator does abhorrent things and the way they were depicted had a wry or dark sense of humour to them sometimes which again made them difficult to read about. I, the Supreme also depicted El Supremo as a dangerous child who’d have temper tantrums and suddenly change their mind about people or situations to deadly results. Maybe that’s what dictators are though? Impulsive people with too much power and people who are too afraid to say no.

Unlike other historical novels I’ve read during my Read the World Project I don’t think I learnt too much about Paraguay in the 1800s because I didn’t understand a lot of I, the Supreme. I don’t mind a non-linear narrative but I think the way I, the Supreme is written with its lack of speech marks and jumping to different times, places, and characters points of views without being clear about when, where and who we’re now with made it very difficult to read. In the end I don’t think I took much of this story in at all.