Last November, Central American literature, and Nicaraguan literature in particular, received a tremendous pat on the back when, as we know, Sergio Ramírez was named the winner of the 2017 Cervantes Prize. This is no small feat, since throughout the region’s history the Isthmus has appeared only sporadically in the continental European imagination, the majority of times owing to its military dictatorships, political instability, organized crime, and/or widespread violence. In the literary headlines, since the great seer Rubén Darío made the region appear on the world map at the turn of the twentieth century, with the exception of the achievements of the Guatemalan Nobel Prize winner Miguel Ángel Asturias some time later, very little has been heard of the region’s literature. Nonetheless, the writers of these generations laid the foundations for others to continue chipping away at the stone, little by little, with all due respect to the critics who have done their part to help the literature of the isthmus gain recognition at other parts of the map, making names such as those of Asturias, Augusto Monterroso, Claribel Alegría, Roque Dalton, Ernesto Cardenal, Gioconda Belli, and a long etcetera familiar to those well versed (and not so well versed) in the area. More recent generations who have developed with greater freedom, promoted in part by “Centroamérica cuenta,” an annual meeting of writers that takes place in Nicaragua (with a spot at the Guadalajara International Book Fair), created and presided over by Sergio Ramírez himself, have already produced a good number of works, many of which have been translated to other languages: Horacio Castellanos Moya, Jacinta Escudos, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, among others. This means that today, while Central American literatura does not boast the same circulation as Mexican or Argentine literature, we can confirm that, little by little, it is peeking into the literary universe, and it is ever more common to come across good news regarding this part of America; news, for example, like that of the Cervantes Prize.
Sergio Ramírez’s body of work is vast, and it has been widely and deeply studied. He is a writer who has approached the development of his work without missing out any genre (“I’m not so good at poetry,” he said on one occasion, “and so I don’t frequent it”), including children’s stories. But, from my perspective, Sergio is a born storyteller. I can easily imagine him at the dawn of literature: oral communication, with his listeners seated around a fire as evening falls, and him making up stories to entertain his audience, because he is also a great conversationalist. This is the impression one gets from reading his first stories, published in 1963 in a volume with a simple title, Cuentos [Stories], a mix of autobiography and fiction, where one notes the simplicity, freshness, and imagination of the first drafts of a budding writer. Later, in his first full-length text, Tiempo de fulgor [Time of fame] (1970), he proves that the teachings of the masters of the boom have fallen on fertile ground, and we read interior monologue, soliloquy, dialogue, omniscient narration, the creation of myths; this is a novel that doubtlessly gives away the stylistic influence of its era. But these times were also marked by political conflicts, such that De tropeles y tropelías [Of hordes and outrages] (1972) parodies, in a series of short texts and vignettes accompanied by a set of prints by the German artist Dieter Masuhr, a persistent and diabolical character in Latin America: the dictator. The carnival, the fable, the grotesque give life to this character whose image evokes the Somoza dynasty (the dictators of Nicaragua at the time) as it is published during the revolutionary period.
Later, in Charles Atlas también muere [Charles Atlas also dies] (1976), the writer dares to go further in the question of style and the exploration of technique. Along with this, his ever more frequent use of imagination in the formation of his stories comes to a head in ¿Te dio miedo la sangre? [Did the blood scare you?] (1977), which is a myriad of stories told at the same time; the majority run parallel to others, although they catch glimpses of each other from time to time in order to establish a generalized vision of the effervescent revolutionary society. With Castigo divino [Divine punishment] (1988), he inaugurates his entry into the mystery novel, a genre that, as will be seen later in El cielo llora por mí [The sky cries for me] (2008) and Ya nadie llora por mí [No one cries for me anymore] (2017), he will continue to explore. He was even awarded the Dashiell Hammett Award in 1990. The novel centers on the character of Oliverio Castañeda, a serial killer who must be stopped since he has poisoned several women, and its nucleus is the investigation and eventual resolution of the case.
Ramírez later returned—he had never really abandoned it—to the genre of his beginnings: short narrative. Clave de sol [Treble clef] (1992) is a series of short stories in which the protagonist is a Nicaragua conceived of internally from different perspectives. The realistic nature of the protagonist, if we want to consider Nicaragua as such, is established as the experience of reading the stories gives off the color and heat necessary to feel that we are observing the country from within. Perhaps the only exception is “Heiliger Nikolaus,” which takes place in a German city on Christmas Day; we might even say that this story is out of place, that perhaps it is more of a breath, a parenthesis, a moment of distraction from Nicaraguan everyday reality. There is a novel that strikes us as unique, Un baile de máscaras [A dance of masks] (1995), in the sense that, faithful to the exploration and evolution of his writing, Ramírez creates a novel whose action takes place on a single day: August 5, 1942, which is the author’s date of birth. This novel is a sort of universal overview of the happenings of a single day in the history of humanity compared to this same day in Masatepe, his hometown. It is a story of family, nostalgic in the end. And, keeping focus on memory as the essential starting point for his production, he then published a historical novel, Margarita, está linda la mar [Margarita, the sea looks pretty] (1998), winner of the first Alfaguara Prize, which tells the story of Rubén Darío’s return to Nicaragua at the start of the twentieth century after becoming the seer who had revolutionized poetry and created the special shine of Modernismo. Darío returns to die in his native country and wants his brain to become an object of study, to understand why Darío is Darío. But then the absurd transforms it into an object and nothing more. But the story remains, refusing to be forgotten.
The last Latin American revolution of the twentieth century, the Sandinista Revolution, is a constant in the prize-winner’s literature. “In Central American literature one always hears the gunshots of the war,” or similar words, said Ramírez on one occasion. For this reason, aiming to settle scores with post-conflict history and critics, he writes a book of memoirs, Adiós muchachos [Goodbye boys] (1999), with a subtitle reading “Memoria de la Revolución Sandinista” [Memoir of the Sandinista Revolution]. In this book, Ramírez tells his tale of the revolution “How I lived it, not how they told me it was,” such that we read an intimate interpretation of the facts, with a round of applause for the participation of women. A similar perspective can be noted in Catalina y Catalina [Catalina and Catalina] (2001), a collection of short stories that betray a dominion of narrative spaces and the realism imposed on the stories, balancing them with the memory of the revolution. Thematic plurality and universality separate this collection, to some extent, from previous offerings, but the traditions of his homeland are not relegated to second place; on the contrary, from the very first story, the process and value of the customs of Nicaraguan society shine through.
The tradition of the novel of the dictatorship in Latin America already has a deservedly won space in the literary canon, and Sombras nada más [Shadows, nothing more] (2002) is proof that Ramírez does not avoid it, much less having been an active participant in Nicaragua’s revolutionary process. This novel, nonetheless, is not just another novel dedicated to this subject. Here, narrative complexity stands out as a tool to address the subject of the dictator, placing the character in the background and treating him tangentially, in the style of the New Historical Novel. The same style is used in Mil y una muertes [A thousand and one deaths] (2005) when the narrator, Sergio Ramírez, Vice President of Nicaragua according to the novel, comes across the photographs taken by Castellón, the Nicaraguan photographer, on a trip to Poland. The chapters alternate in their narration, always in first person, between the narrator and Castellón himself. The subject of the novel is the attempt to (re)create the possible existence of the photographer based on information discovered by Ramírez and the experience of Castellón himself.
El reino animal [The animal kingdom] (2007) is a different book, whose collection of tales breaks completely with the tradition that Ramírez himself imposed over his stories. It is a sort of experiment, a bestiary that attracts precisely due to its difference, although it is worth saying that this writer would have wished for the continuity of an already well established style in a well carved-out niche. In passing, I might mention that perhaps Ramírez himself felt the same way, and in his next collection, Flores oscuras [Dark flowers] (2013), he gets back to his roots and offers twelve stories in which he demonstrates absolute control of short narrative. Ramírez moves through the genre like a fish in water, and he highlights trivial details of society in order to transform them into transcendental stories. He goes from autobiography to events with no real importance, like a chat with a stranger in an Italian city.
El cielo llora por mí (2008) is a mystery novel that takes place in post-war Nicaragua and its central character, the detective, has a rather revealing name: Dolores Morales. As has been said, this is a mystery novel with a dead body, a few gunshots, a detective (haggard), and a case that is finally solved. Before, with Castigo divino, Ramírez had dabbled in the genre, but he did not cultivate it in the manner of the great sagas of Padura Fuentes, Taibo II, or Díaz Eterovich, for example. Nonetheless, Ramírez’s latest novel, Ya nadie llora por mí (2017), points in this direction, inasmuch as its protagonists are the same characters and it boasts an open ending, whose strategy indicates that there will be, at least, a third novel focusing on Inspector Dolores Morales.
In his penultimate novel, Sara (2015), Ramírez rewrites the story of Sarah and Abraham, this time from her perspective. The nucleus of the novel is held up by the tense relationship between Sara and the “Mago” or magician (read “God”), and by the character’s strength as a woman. Sara questions the Mago’s designs, and she develops in the novel as a character with much higher expectations and much greater personality than the one we read about in the Holy Book.
On the other hand, the narrative production of Sergio Ramírez is not limited to fiction and memoirs; it goes further, and interspersed with the publication of novels and short story collections there are a large number of essay collections, individual essays, anthologies, prologues, conferences, profane prose, articles, and opinion columns in various publications: La Jornada and El País, among many others. The subjects of the essays and columns cover all the angles in the development of a society: literature, politics, forms of government, popular culture, etc. The space provided for this note is insufficient to lay out all of his work in detail, so, without being exhaustive, I will name some of the most outstanding examples: Antología del cuento centroamericano [Anthology of the Central American short story] (1973), Puertos abiertos: Antología del cuento centroamericano [Open ports: anthology of the Central American short story] (2011), Puertas abiertas: antología de poesía centroamericana [Open doors: anthology of Central American poetry] (2011), Un espejo roto: antología del nuevo cuento de Centroamérica y República Dominicana [A broken mirror: anthology of the new short story of Central America and the Dominican Republic] (2014), El alba de oro [The golden dawn] (1983), El pensamiento vivo de Sandino [The living thought of Sandino] (1984), Seguimos de frente [We carry on forward] (1985), Balcanes y volcanes [Balkans and volcanoes] (1985), Julio, estás en Nicaragua [Julio, you’re in Nicaragua] (1986), Las armas del futuro [The weapons of the future] (1987), Oficios compartidos [Shared trades] (1994), Mentiras verdaderas [True lies] (2001), El viejo arte de mentir [The old art of lying] (2004), Señor de los tristes [Lord of the sad] (2006), Tambor olvidado [Forgotten drum] (2007), La manzana de oro [The golden apple] (2012), and, as was anticipated, a long etcetera.
I will end on a personal note. I learned of Sergio Ramírez in 1994 (or was it ‘95?) when, at the University of New Mexico, I read for the first time his short story “El estudiante” [The student], which is found in a volume called Cuentos [Stories], which was part of a special series on short fiction published by UNAM. The stars aligned and I later realized that Sergio and his work would be important in my career, since I was still studying for my bachelor’s. One or two years later, it was my good fortune that Sergio was on a political campaign in hopes of becoming President of Nicaragua, and he visited the University of New Mexico, where I finally met him in person. Suffice it to say that the meeting confirmed the fact that the stars were still aligned in my favor. There I discovered that the ex-revolutionary, and later ex-Vice President of Nicaragua after the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution, and presidential candidate, besides being very tall (he looked like a basketball player), was generous, modest, with a frank smile, that he did not scrimp on his time to converse a little with that student who then hoped to earn a master’s in Spanish; all in all, I discovered that Sergio was what’s known as “a great guy.”
And as it happens, on November 16, 2017, the jury of the Cervantes Prize unanimously chose Sergio Ramírez as the winner of the award, which is perhaps the most prestigious in the Spanish language. I was immediately overwhelmed by happy thoughts when I found out, and I remembered at that moment the many occasions when I had the privilege of conversing with him: Maryland, Guatemala, Managua, Oklahoma, Guadalajara, Arkansass, etc., always after him, as his work has been one of my main objects of study and he, I’ll say again, is inexhaustibly generous. In the end, I reaffirmed my conviction that, however you look at it, the prize was well deserved.
José Juan Colín
University of Oklahoma
Translated by Arthur Dixon