The grotesque is central to much of Spanish novelist Ramón del Valle-Inclán's work. After witnessing horrifying political violence in Latin America and his native Spain in the early years of the 20th century, Valle-Inclán developed the style he called esperpento, which sought to bring out "the comic side of the tragedy of life." In works of esperpento, reality is contorted until actors come to physically resemble the unwholesomeness of their actions. Evil isn't so banal when seen though Valle-Inclán's eyes. Valle-Inclán set the standard for his invented genre with Tyrant Banderas, a novel about an absolute dictator who blows his loosening grip on power into carnival-like proportions.
The title character of Valle-Inclán's Tyrant Banderas casts a long shadow as the long-serving president of a fictional Latin American republic. From his headquarters in a converted monastery, Tyrant Banderas presides over a brutal status quo of creoles—or "whiteys" from the "mother country"—and a servile indigenous population. He is dictator of this world: he can order torture without having to say why, and tolerates opposition only so long as he can control it. His minions are pot-bellied and pampered, and the opposition, led by a messianic creole who speaks "with the feverish glow of a dying man receiving final sacraments," is no better. Outside the monastery is a society frayed by racial and class tensions: Journalists and diplomats disdain Indian land ownership while Indians attend opposition rallies and chant "kill all whiteys."
The novel opens on the Day of the Dead, and quickly descends into an orgy of buffoonery and violence. The narrative is partitioned into seven parts which in turn are split into three books (with the exception of the plot-accelerating fourth which has seven books). Sections within these books are often short and read like comedic sketches. Banderas orders a minion's arrest over broken glassware, but the man escapes with the help of a clairvoyant whore. In his place, another man is sent to an infamous prison run by a cruel peg-legged governor who throws dead subversives to the sharks. Similarly bizarre plotlines run alongside this one: An Indian peasant carries the remains of his murdered, dismembered son in a bag as a good luck charm. A dandyish Spanish minister tries to hide his young male lover from the tyrant. Readers are guided through the chaos by a disdainful omniscient narrator who nicknames Banderas "the mummy," watches him skulk around his monastery like a "snoopy rat," and is disgusted by his smile, tainted green from a coca leaf habit. Not all of the plot elements cohere into a whole, but they do contribute to a sense of madness that teeters on the brink of outright catastrophe.
Tyrant Banderas not only captures a chaotic political atmosphere but also the linguistic and cultural complexities of late twentieth century Latin America. Valle-Inclán's use of formal Castilian as well as Mexican sub-dialects, according to Alberto Manguel's helpful introduction, made the book (which hasn't appeared in English since 1929) daunting to translate, but Peter Bush's translation is fittingly manic and perverse. An old Italian women has "a beak as big as Dante's"; a colonel's paunch sticks out "as big as a Tibetan god's"; a perturbed prisoner "hiss[es] biliously like a punctured bladder"; a fear-struck character "cring[es] like a catcalled, tongue-tied comedian." Despite his air of the surreal, Valle-Inclán starkly depicts the clashing of cultures and races that has fueled a great deal of conflict in Latin America, and to an extent, still does.
Valle-Inclán visited Mexico twice, once in the early Diaz era in the 1890s and again in the post-Diaz revolutionary era in the 1920s. He was taken with its chaotic social atmosphere, and happy to leave behind the legal troubles he had gotten into in Spain after criticizing his own caudillo. While Banderas was likely modeled on Porfirio Diaz, any other imperial Latin American president can easily stand in in the novel. Take away Banderas's sickening appearance, and what you have left is a megalomania that is recognizable in authoritarians the world over, whether it be Hugo Chavez, Vladimir Putin or Bashar al-Assad. Valle-Inclán died in 1936, which saved him the trouble of having to witness the civil war and the oppressive Franco regime that followed. That might have been for the best: No doubt Valle-Inclán would have been incapable of stifling his terror and delight over the emergence of yet another brutal and mediocre dictator.
Chris R. Morgan is the publisher and editor of Biopsy magazine.