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Literature and Politics in the Central American Revolutions.

It is rare to be able to review a work that can be said to have founded a "field" of literary study. Such is is the case, however, with John Beverley's and Marc Zimmerman's truly remarkable Literature and Politics in the Central American Revolutions. There is, of course, much already written on the revolutionary (or "committed") literature of Central America, but what has been missing up until now is the arduous labor of synthesis, of establishing boundaries and mapping terrain, which these two authors have carried out so conscientiously. For the first time ever we have a comprehensive grasp of most significant writers, the bibliographical information about their works, a solid sense of the evolution of the different currents within this type of literature and a detailed view of its interaction with the historical circumstances in which it was produced.

These observations might lead one to think that Literature and Politics is an exercise in "literary history," and to a certain extent it is. And thankfully so, I might add, at least as concerns its study within conventional academic contexts. Without such efforts at systematization, it is especially difficult for bodies of literature such as this -- originating in marginal geographical areas and hindered by the "wrong politics" -- to gain a foothold there.

But to call Literature and Politics a "literary history" is also to do it an injustice, for it transcends by far what is usually understood by the term. In the preface and the first two chapters Beverley and Zimmerman develop a nuanced theoretical framework that provides fertile ways of understanding how cultural production can affect the process of political and socioeconomic emancipation not just in Central America, but in other areas of the world as well. The authors begin their preface by stating that the point of departure for their book was the "intuition . . . that what had been happening in modern Nicaraguan poetry was crucial to the development and eventual victory of the Sandinista Revolution" (ix). Such a notion might raise eyebrows among the latter's supporters and detractors alike, and even more so when Beverley and Zimmerman go on to assert that poetry has been a "materially decisive force" (xiii, my emphasis) in the Central American revolutionary process.

As it turns out, their argument is much more complex than the statements cited might suggest. In a complex but compelling line of analysis, they weave together strands from Althusser (on ideology), Gramsci (on hegemony and the notion of the "national-popular"), and Laclau and Mouffe (on discursive practices) to try to explain why literature, and especially poetry, has become such an integral part of revolutionary mobilization in Central America. They do not downplay the effects of economic exploitation and political repression in engendering emancipatory struggle; rather, they point out -- and with complete justification -- that these alone do not spark people into action; that other things need to happen before they may be willing to risk life and limb to overthrow oppressive governments.

Literature, according to the authors, can be one of those contributing factors. Indeed, most of the works studied in Literature and Politics were written in the conviction that their "finality as art is to activate, mobilize, and maintain revolutionary consciousness and organizations" (9). Beverley and Zimmerman take care to point out that the immediate audience tends to be the radicalized intelligentsia (often of middle -- and upper-middle-class origins) which typically provides the initial core of revolutionary movements rather than the mostly illiterate sectors of the rural and urban poor. But even though the "masses" often are not interpellated directly by this literature, it has nevertheless had a crucial effect in forging that alliance of social sectors which is responsible for recent revolutionary efforts. These, in turn, have affected the status of poetry itself as an "elite" phenomenon: "The logic of our argument suggests that poetry became in Central America an ideological signifier that could be transposed from its original class location to a new, popular-democratic and revolutionary context" (15).

To explain how this occurred the authors go back to the special place carved out for poetry within Central American culture by Ruben Dario and the modernista movement, positioning it to become the dominant literary genre as social struggles heightened in the succeeding decades. They also convincingly demonstrate the role of literature in general in the radicalization of middle-class intellectuals such as Carlos Fonseca, one of the founders of the Sandinista movement, claiming that it probably had at least as much of an impact as his readings in Marxism.

Subsequent chapters focus on the specific role of poetry in the revolutionary processes of Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The "protagonist" of the two chapters on Nicaragua is Ernesto Cardenal, perhaps the best-known of all the authors covered in Literature and Politics. Our critics do a good job of explicating the complex -- and controversial -- melding of Catholicism, Marxism, and Precolumbian indigenous elements in his work. Starting with his famous Hora O |Zero Hour~, they show how "Cardenal's poems are a sort of palimpsest in which fragments of a past that has been written over by previous stages of historical domination resurface" (70). As for the "mystical" vision of history and revolution in many of his texts, Beverley and Zimmerman point out that it "stems in part from Teilhard de Chardin's concept of an intertwining of biological, historical, and cosmic process having as its center a Christian teleological perspective" (84). For Cardenal, social revolution is a key agent in pushing that process forward.

Also covered in the chapters on Nicaragua are Sandinista poets such as Tomas Borge, Leonel Rugama, and Ricardo Morales Aviles, as well as the remarkable development of poetry written by women. Particularly important are those dubbed "the Six" by Nicaraguans, including Gioconda Belli, Rosario Murillo, and Daisy Zamora. Other developments covered include the simple yet searing poetry written by combatants in the final insurrectionary stage of the Revolution and the flourishing of the poetry workshops (talleres) under the tutelage of Cardenal and his Ministry of Culture. Informative -- and somewhat depressing -- is Beverley and Zimmerman's account of the infighting which emerged between the latter and the Asociacion Sandinista de Trabajadores de la Cultura (ASTC) |Sandinista Association of Cultural Workers~ headed by Rosario Murillo. While the talleres no doubt had their shortcomings, they were an unprecedented development in popular participation in cultural production, and should not have been undercut in the way they eventually were.

Infighting is also very much at the forefront of the discussion of Salvadoran revolutionary poetry. Compared to Nicaragua or Guatemala, "it is fair to say that Salvadoran left culture is more secular and urbane, but also much more sectarian" (115). As one might expect, the key figure in this chapter is the vexingly brilliant and cantankerous Roque Dalton. The prototype of the "poeta guerrillero" |guerrilla poet~, Dalton was as much at home tossing off cuttingly funny political verse as he was at planning military strategy for El Salvador's armed resistance: a kind of Jonathan Swift with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder. I agree with Beverley and Zimmerman that much of his poetry is too sophisticated in its irony and allusiveness to be very effective in the larger social arena, and that his machismo -- albeit self-mocking -- may not wear well nowadays. Nevertheless his place as one of the great political poets of all times -- and not only in Central America -- is undisputable.

Other figures covered in this chapter include El Salvador's many outstanding women poets. First and foremost is Claribel Alegria, whose work has received recognition throughout the Spanish-speaking world, but Beverley and Zimmerman also give well-deserved attention to the many women activists and combatants whose poetry has tended in the more testimonial direction that downplays the role of the individual "creator": "One of the characteristics of the new |women's~ poetry is precisely its insistence on the relative anonymity or selflessness of the poetic voice, the sense that it speaks from and in the name of collective experience" (138).

After noting that poetry has been less prominent in Guatemala than in the previous two countries discussed, and having clarified the considerable impact of the large indigenous population on its culture and politics, Beverley and Zimmerman go on to focus on the greatest Guatemalan revolutionary poet, Otto Rene Castillo. A friend of Dalton and another classic example of the "guerrilla poet," his more self-reflexive and lyric voice was worlds apart from the latter's antic causticity: "What Castillo was fashioning . . . was a new kind of political poetry, a committed but also intensely lyric form designed to appeal to the idealism of young people facing difficult problems of choice and commitment in both their emotional and political lives . . ." (158). Also in marked contrast with Dalton is his attitude toward women. For Beverley and Zimmerman, Castillo "anticipated in a limited way the process of feminization of Central American revolutionary culture," characterized in his case by a "new image of woman as companera, coequal in the struggle for political and personal liberation" (159).

In what for me were the best chapters of the book, the two authors analyze the appearance of a new genre in Central American literature: testimonial narrative. Though "testimonio" (as it is called in Spanish) does have its roots in earlier forms (e. g., the colonial cronicas) |chronicles~, it is a peculiarly distinct narrative vehicle whose characteristics Beverley and Zimmerman synthesize admirably:

|It~ is a novel or novella-length narrative, told in the first-person by a narrator who is also the actual protagonist or witness of the events she or he recounts. The unit of narration is usually a life or a significant life episode (e. g., the experience of being a prisoner). . . . the production of a testimonio |often~ involves the recording and/or transcription and editing of an oral account by an interlocutor who is a journalist, writer, or social activist. (173)

As for the special overtones of the term "testimonio," Beverley and Zimmerman point out that it "suggests the act of testifying or bearing witness in a legal or religious sense. That connotation is important, because it distinguishes testimonio from a simple recorded participant narrative" (173).

The emergence of "testimonio" marks an extraordinarily significant turning point in the cultural production of the region (and beyond) in that it suddenly gives voice to that enormous block of people which has been marginalized because of their lack of access to the written word. If our authors are right, we are also witnessing the appearance of new "content" which no longer fits the traditional generic molds: "To produce testimonio . . . means that there are experiences in the world today that cannot be adequately expressed in forms like the novel, the short story, lyric poetry, or autobiography . . ." (178).

Among the specific examples Beverley and Zimmerman explore are the well-known Me llamo Rigoberta Menchu |My Name is Rigoberta Menchu~ and Dalton's collaboration with the "grandfather" of Salvadoran revolutionary movement, Miguel Marmol. Especially noteworthy is their analysis of the ways in which testimonio is having a great effect on traditional forms such as the novel and autobiography. They point to Manlio Argueta's masterful Un dia en la vida |One Day of Life~ as an instance of "pseudotestimonio" (i. e., a fictional work presented in the form of "testimonio"), or the use of "testimonial voices" in "complex boom-style narrative structures" such as found in Sergio Ramirez's Te dio miedo la sangre? |Did the Blood Frighten You?~ (178). This is clearly an area that merits substantial further research.

What makes this chapter as a whole more interesting than the others is the extent to which it digs into theoretical and formal questions. Among the few bones I have to pick with Beverley and Zimmerman is that they drop many of the speculative concerns aired in the first chapters as they go about bringing to the fore names, dates, movements, internecine squabbles, etc. To the extent they are engaging in literary history, this effort is, of course, eminently necessary. I only wish that some of the initial theoretical verve had been sustained later in the work.

One aspect of their theorizing that is carried over and with which I am not particularly sympathetic is their attempt, albeit brief, to fit much of what they are studying into the framework of the "postmodern." While I confess that I may be overreacting to the whiff of artsy self-complacency and "despair" which accompanies much of what goes under the rubric of postmodernism nowadays, I am still at a loss to see its real usefulness for Beverley and Zimmerman's analysis, centering, as it does, on a part of the world whose modernity is a project yet to be completed.

This, however, is only a minor criticism which should not overshadow the two authors' extraordinary achievement. Founding a field, after all, is no mean feat. For those planning courses on any aspect of contemporary Central American culture, this book (with its numerous English translations of texts, I should add) provides a marvelous point of departure.
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Author:Iffland, James
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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