It’s not everyday you get a book with this violent a cover in the post! Perfectly featuring a mad giant dismembering (with his teeth?) a bloody corpse, Yasumasa Morimura’s Exchange of Devouring in and of itself nicely introduces the mad violence in and frenetic tone of Ramón del Valle-Inclán’s Tyrant Banderas (Tirano Banderas, 1926; tr. from the Spanish by Peter Bush, 2012). This work may need to be introduced to most of us, since, despite it being a classic and a forerunner to the massively successful line of books about Latin American dictators, it has been out of print in English nearly since it was first published.
Tyrant Banderas is set in a fictional Latin American country, Santa Fe de Tierra Firme. Del Valle-Inclán himself was Spanish, but, according to Alberto Manguel’s introduction (which I needed), in 1892 and then again in 1921 he travelled in Mexico. Critical of Spanish dictator Primo de Rivera, but knowing he’d never be able to write a book quite like this if he based it solely on de Rivera, del Valle-Inclán decided to set this disturbing book in a place that looked and felt like the Mexico he was familiar with, under a dictator who — if you weren’t looking too closely — could be said to be like Porfiro Díaz or any number of other Latin American dictators (there are so many to choose from). The book was immensely successful, and it’s clear why. Not only is the subject matter of deep interest, but the style and vim make this a work of art.
When I opened it up, given its status as trailblazer for other authors writing about Latin American tyrants, I thought I already knew how this book would unfold. It was not what I was expecting. Instead of lengthy tracts showing inhumanity and a hypocritical leader (though that’s certainly there), this book’s pace is like a whip cracking ceaselessly: it never slows down and is constantly jolting in one direction or another, to fantastic effect. The short book is organized into seven parts, each part is divided into three books (except for the middle part, which has seven books), and each book is further divided into even smaller units. Each small unit is made simply of a quick scene of dialogue or perhaps a description, but still the book moves steadily forward, quickly, never quite allowing the reader to settle down.
Here are some of the basics of the story, though the story is not why this book is a great read. Banderas is a ruthless dictator who pays lip service to democracy and dissent (meanwhile, the sharks surrounding his palace tire of human flesh). Banderas, who like any good dictator is referred to by many fawning names throughout (as well as many not-so-fawning names, like the mummy), gets his power propped up from outside the country, ruling with an iron fist over the native Indians. But on this Day of the Dead, a revolution has broken out, and shockingly it is headed by Don Roque Cepeda. In a particularly dark and funny scene, “a Yankee adventurer with mining interests,” Mr. Contum says to a couple of anti-revolutionaries that he is interested in hearing Don Cepeda at a rally. A Spanish landowner – a “dimwhitted, dour fanatic from Álava” – named Don Teodosio del Araco, shouts at Mr. Contum (or, rather, “expanded his bilious grimace”) that Don Cepeda is “[a] lunatic! An idiot! It’s incredible that a man in his financial position sides with the revolution, people without a share to their name.”
While this setup may be somewhat familiar, it’s the side stories that are so fascinating and powerful. It’s the marvelous control and playfulness that del Valle-Inclán inserts into his prose, creating a darkly comic and grotesque work of art that is more than a simple political diatribe. Each part moves the story quickly in and out of the revolution’s fire as individuals on both sides struggle with the madness going on around them. The tone shifts just as quickly from light to dark. Here, for example, we find an Indian named Zac returning home after helping a man escape. While he was gone, his wife sought to pawn a valuable ring the man gave her for payment. The pawn shop owner, much to his regret later, turned her in, and the police force simply made her abandon her son.
The dog barks and buzzards sweep into the sky, their black wings flapping above the swamp slime. And Zac stands there, horrified, grim-faced, lifting up a bloody mess. It is all that is left of his child! Face and hands devoured by pigs; heart pecked out by buzzards. The Indian goes back to the hut. He puts the remains in a bag and sets it down at his feet. He thinks. He’s standing completely still. Flies settled on his body. Lizards sunbathe at his side.
I guess, then, that I misspoke a bit above when I said the book doesn’t slow down; in this scene, we too stop and sit numbly with Zac.
That such a dark scene can be surrounded by tinges of comedy and a surplus of wordplay — and that it all works together with the structure to form a cohesive work – shows just how much this relatively short book contains. And following that form, the book ends happily yet still feels tragic, which shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did.