Friday, 30 August 2019

Book Review: To Bury Our Fathers by Sergio Ramírez

It’s people who make history by way of passing on knowledge about the more or less heroic deeds of individuals and groups to later generations not just through different memorabilia, but also as stories that over time may even turn into legends. Above all, turbulent times that are exceptional with regard to what people have to go through and bear with – be they wars or revolutions, be they periods of voluntary or forced migration, just to give a few examples – are a hotbed for such stories. And wherever people come together it’s likely to hear the one or other of them like in To Bury Our Fathers by Sergio Ramírez, a Nicaraguan novel from the 1970s that evokes from different perspectives the country’s (or actually the whole region’s) tragic that is history marked by terror regimes and armed resistence with or without the meddling of the USA and the USSR.

Sergio Ramírez Mercado was born in Masatepe, Nicaragua, in August 1942. As a law student at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua of León he made his literary debut publishing short stories in magazines and in his first book, Cuentos (1963; tr. Short Stories), but only after graduation in 1964 he brought out his first novel Tiempo de fulgor (1970; tr. Time of Splendour). Along with political work for the Sandinist cause, which first forced him into exile and then made him Vice-President of Nicaragua from 1985 through 1990, he wrote essays and journalistic work as well as fiction, among others the novels To Bury Our Fathers (¿Te dio miedo la sangre?: 1978) and Divine Punishment (Castigo Divino: 1988). Internationally, he became first known with the award-winning novel Margarita, How Beautiful the Sea (Margarita, está linda la mar: 1998) followed by several short story collections and novels, notably Adios muchachos (Adiós muchachos: 1999), A Thousand Deaths Plus One (Mil y una muertes: 2004), El cielo llora por mí (2009; tr. The Sky Cries For Me), La fugitiva (2011; tr. The Fugitive), and Ya nadie llora por mí (2017; Already Nobody Cries For Me). Sergio Ramírez lives in Managua, Nicaragua.

By 1961, when Bolívar travels to Guatemala City to take his late exiled father Alberto “the Indio” Larios home for his final rest in León in Nicaragua, many had to do their duty To Bury Our Fathers. In 1930, then still a loyal officer of the National Guard, the Indio saved from court martial young Coronel Catalino López whose negligence cost the lives of all his men in a rebel attack and whose mentor he becomes. Fourteen years later the Indio took part in a failed revolt against “el hombre”, i.e. the member of the Somoza clan in power who ordered to manipulate the outcome of the just finished Presidential elections, and Coronel López had to arrest him. The Indio, however, managed to escape to Guatemala where he earned his living making piñatas for birthday parties. In 1950, Santiago “the Turco” Taleno graduated from Military Academy and became aide-de-camp of “el hombre” with brilliant perspectives thanks to his father’s business connections to influential Coronel López. Always critical of the regime, though, he became one of the leaders of the April revolt of 1954 he was captured, tortured and interrogated by the very Coronel López before he could escape to Honduras and his father disowned him. Others, too, can tell colourful stories of battles, murder and flight from the terror of the Somoza clan and their willing executioner Cornel López like at the Copacabana, a bar in Managua, where the remaining members of a musical trio and the bar owner like to evoke their friend, the rebel Mauricio “the Jilguero” Rosales. In their Guatemalan exile, the Indio, the Turco and the Jilguero seize the opportunity of Cornel López coming to the city for a state funeral to take revenge on him for killed friends and family and for their own sufferings…

In reviews and comments, To Bury Our Fathers is often referred to as a “novel of Nicaragua”, but above all it’s a chronicle of armed fight against the members of the Somoza clan ruling the country as cruel dictators from the 1930s until far into the 1970s. Probably, the bloodshed during those decades inspired the original Spanish title ¿Te dio miedo la sangre? meaning “did the blood frighten you?” and citing a rhyme from a Nicaraguan children’s game. Having little knowledge of the country’s history it was rather difficult for me to follow the complex plot, not least because each chapter is made up of six subdivisions that – in complete defiance of linearity of time – deal with independent, though interconnected episodes in the past or present happening in different places of Nicaragua or her neighbouring countries and centring each on another protagonist. For better understanding, the novel starts with a cast of characters that includes the quintessence of their biographies along with the print motives marking their respective subdivisions further on and the author appended a very helpful chronology of events. The Spanish text excels in powerful and remarkably varied language packed into long sentences that require quite some concentration.

Admittedly, To Bury Our Fathers by Sergio Ramírez turned out to be an unexpectedly difficult, not to say challenging read, but it was definitely worth my time and effort. Nonetheless, it feels completely out of turn to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the novel. After all, it bursts with exceedingly lively as well as authentic descriptions of misery, exile, intrigue, menace, beatings, torture, and killings in a country ruled by a ruthless dictator and his power-hungry associates. At any rate, it was very interesting to learn a few things about modern Latin-American history for a change, notably about the sufferings of a population torn between autocratic regimes all too ready to use violence to stay in power and opposition movements fighting for freedom by force of arms. I’m glad to have come across this Nicaraguan time piece that is little known outside its region – and undeservedly so, thus my recommendation.

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