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By Miguel Angel Asturias
New York: Delacorte Press, 1971
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 75-29331
386 pages

Bob Corbett October 2014

For the past several years I have been reading many of the authors who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. There have been 110 of them and I have now reviewed 83 of them and have 27 to go. One whom I have just read is Miguel Asturias. When I decided to read him I went to the internet to see what his reputed best work was. The general view was that it was Men of Maize. So I got that novel and began to read it. It was a shocking experience for me. I’ve been an avid reader since I was a young child and this was a book that I could make no sense of at all. I could read the words, it was indeed an English translation, but I couldn’t understand the sentences, almost none of them. I kept at it for at least 20 or so pages and gave up. Then, and only then did I go back to the computer to read about that work and what was wrong with me. There were many critics who argued this was such a difficult work, a creation of an entire fictional culture with vocabulary to go with it, that very few seemed to “like” this work and few actually read it, though it had a very strong reputation from some critics.

I gave up and picked a second novel that seemed it might well be interesting and I choose The Bejeweled Boy. It sounded interesting. Wrong for me again. This work is deeply rooted in Hindu mythology and I didn’t understand too much. I could at least read this novel were I to wish to, but it would be very much work and I didn’t think I’d even enjoy it, plus I would have to do lots of side research to make sense of the images.

Finally I chose The Green Pope. I was a bit discouraged with myself and worried about what I would find. Wow! Have I been joyfully shocked. I found this to be a stunning novel, dealing with the banana plantations in Guatemala from about 1910 to just before WWII. I am so very happy that I didn’t just give up on Asturias and move on. My patience allowed me to be rewarded with a marvelous read.

The title, The Green Pope, seems to apply to Sir Francis Drake who terrorized the Caribbean and appointed himself to be the leader of the pirates of the region. He came to be known as the “pope” of the pirates.

In a similar way the central character of this work, George Maker Thompson has plans of his own. He is a 25 year old seaman, who owns a run-down ferry ship from New Orleans to Guatemala. He is a much respected seaman, competent at what he does, however, he has watched the development of banana plantations which had recently come to this region, and he decides to sell his rundown ship and get into the banana business. He has such a reputation for ruthlessness in his dealings that he has come to be called The Green Pope, the 20th century recreation of Drake.

To put it mildly he is ruthless in his manner of carrying out his plans. He already knows the banana business well and realizes that it is devastating the lives of virtually all the peasants who work in it, and that this banana-based economy is being run by capitalists who care nothing for the workers and see them as mere tools, much like many might still regard work animals on farms.

This doesn’t bother Thompson in the slightest. He views the world as divided into two groups of people: leaders, who, if they have the good sense he thinks he has, will be ruthless and use their abilities to control the rest of humanity, who, on The Green Pope’s view are not far removed from “other” animals, and that people like him and his colleagues at The Tropical Banana Company, are the “real” people of the world, the only ones who matter. His fundamental view of business is to stay ahead of your competitors and do all in your power to control (and exploit) your workers while making enough money for yourself to increase your power, since money is power.

Once he starts working for Tropical Banana he moves into the lead and basically runs the show. He falls in love with the beautiful Mayari Palma, a native of the country and daughter of a wealthy woman who has lots of interests in the banana business and who very much shares George’s view of the world and labor.

However, his beloved Mayari, whom he is about to marry, doesn’t share his world view and she is attracted to an opposition force and eventually runs off to help them. When it becomes clear that she will fail, she commits suicide. He is never able to forget her, but her desertion to the enemy is something he can never forgive nor understand. In what I found to be a huge surprise of plot is that he marries her mother, who, again, is much more like him, and they have a daughter on whom he dotes.

There is an opposition force among the peasants. However, it is never those local people whom George sees as a force to be dealt with. He sees the locals as inept and not a serious opposition; he just disdains them.

As the second and third generation of peasants deal with the banana industry they come more and more to simply accept it as part of nature:

“The orphans, more docile than their parents, became involved in the work of the plantations. Another of the many advantages of liquidating rebellious people. Their deaths produced many workers. Children whom orphanhood was pushing into manhood, adolescents who, unprotected, became young men, older boys who through necessity began to strut as adults, all resigned themselves easily to the abundant work and the pay that could not be better, resigned but not forgetting the ‘Chos, chos, moyon, con!’ (a first generation movement of rebellion) of the mulatto children which in their ears seemed to say: ‘They’ve taken us!’”

I was very appreciative that Asturias, though raging at the injustice of these peasants, nonetheless he points to the irony of the 400 year old roots of how these peasants families came to own this land was a movement even more violent than that of the banana plantation owerner. This novel is clearly to attack the banana plantations and viciousness of western, especially American businessmen who ran the plantations. However, he doesn’t forget the similar Spanish rape of the indigenous peoples.

He notes this irony:

“Fire, which in the hands of the Spaniards had burned the Indians’ painted wood, their manuscripts on amatle bark, their idols and insignias, now, four hundred years later, was devouring and reducing the smoldering ashes: christs, virginmarys, saintanthonies, holycrosses, books of prayers and novenas, rosaries, relics, and metals. Outside, the roar, inside the phonograph; outside, the landscape, inside the photograph; outside, the intoxicating essences, inside, the bottles of whiskey. A different god was arriving: the Dollar, and a different religion, that of the Big Stick.”

George, The Green Pope, develops a plan that the U.S. should simply annex Guatemala to U.S., using the model of the recent annexation of Hawaii. Problems arise with this notion of annexation because of the others’ national interests. Eg. The British in British Honduras didn’t want the U.S. on their border. Germany and Japan both had interests in the area as well.

George seems on the verge of winning all. Then his daughter’s lover, who had been masquerading as an anthropologist, turns out be a man who had been gathering data against George and the banana industry. When he releases this data, and when the annexation question finally comes to an end, George resigns and refuses, not only to become president of the company, but to even work for them (though he does keep his massive holdings of stock).

At this point the first part of the book ends. It’s almost as if there is a second novel here. In the first part George had set out to become the President of his company and to have absolute control by having made the country a part of the U.S. Once that failed he seems to bail out.

Part II of the novel seems to tackle a different problem. There is a second banana company near the border of Guatemala and a neighboring nation (curiously never named). We have skipped 10 years and the “old” George Maker Thompson is now seemingly retired. He quit the firm when they wouldn’t follow his demand to seek statehood, and seems to have retired at that time, 10 years earlier.

His daughter had been in love with the guy who gathered all the information on George, and had even had a son with him. She now lives a somewhat rakish life in New Orleans, having lots of money left to her by her mother.

There are two lines of the plot is section two. The first concerns one wealthy American plantation owner who is not like the others. He makes a great deal of money with his plantation, yes. However, he pays his workers better, treats them better and insures lots of social services in the region. In short, he makes lots of money, but does make significant sacrifices (especially in the eyes of the other banana companies.

He and wife die and he leaves millions of dollar to 7 or 8 poor workers he had around his plantation. He detested the treatment of the natives by the Tropical Banana Company.

Most of them take their millions and flee to the U.S. However, a few do what he has hoped and take over the company trying to run it as it had been run before with even greater attention to the workers.

This is sort of a side theme and there isn’t any clear resolution in this novel, but it is fascinating to read the section of their coming to wealth and how they deal with it.

The central part of the second section is that the Honeyfruit Company, which is a huge banana operation in an unnamed bordering country has brought up a suit against Tropical Banana, arguing that their land is actually NOT in Guatemala, but in the other nation and thus they must forfeit the land to that nation. A war between the two nations seems to be coming.

In the end this whole plot sort of fizzles out in a rather unlikely manner. The old George Maker Thompson knows that there is a secret document of some 400 years ago from the Spanish king which clearly defines Tropical’s lands as in Guatemala. However, since most believe the international ruling will go the other way, the stock of Tropical plunges, and George buys it all up. When the old document turns the tables he is once again the leader of Tropical and this time, in his last days, does become the president of the company.

This novel reads much more like two different works. The first half is a stunning and gripping novel of the beginnings of and development of the banana plantations in Central America. For me the second was not nearly as interesting, but in the end The Green Pope’s company won the needed boundary dispute and The Green Pope engineered the outcome of the arbitration and was able to buy the majority control of Tropical Banana. Nonetheless, this second half lacked the coherence and detail and drama of the first half.

Despite this bit of disappointment with section two of the novel, overall I think it is quite worth reading in its entirety, with the first half standing out as simply exceptional writing and storytelling.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett