Near Lake Xolotlán in Nicaragua, we see a set of footprints left imprinted in the mud two thousand years ago. Footsteps of adults and of children, attesting to their flight from a volcanic eruption, rivers of lava, skies aflame, the earth shaking.
From that moment on, we have always been running away from something: earthquakes and hurricanes, civil wars, plagues and tyrants. The first was Pedrarias Dávila, the Furor Domini, who died still in power at the age of ninety-one, and who had a funeral mass said for himself every year, recumbent on a catafalque on the the high altar of León Cathedral, from which he would arise to set dogs on the refractory Indians. And, centuries later, the tyrant who now ages in his bed and on his throne, always another and always the same, rants and raves his commandments and caprices, still imposing silence, filling jails, condemning to exile; a new face superimposed on the old face, a phantasmagoria centuries-long.
Arms have always taken their toll on the letters that strive for freedom, for the vocation of writing is free by nature, and power—when it wishes to be absolute—fails to cloak its aversion to imagination, which is free and critical of power and contradictory, and rebels against bondage by nature. The plural word against the singular word.
Tyrannies castigate the jibes and fictions of novels, ordering their prohibition and forcing their writers to pay with exile, to face the pretense that they would take your country from you, erase your place and date of birth, your memory and your past and your words because, in the delirium of conceits that take hold of tyrants’ minds, they believe themselves able to make you disappear, like a spell from La Camacha de Mantilla, the sorceress from The Dialogue of the Dogs who “congealed the clouds when she pleased, and covered the face of the sun with them; and when the whim seized her, she made the murkiest sky clear up at once.”
Words do not quietly accept the silence that strips them of their primary virtue, which is to fly free from the mouth to the ears, to awaken and warn, to reveal and remind. And the words of books will always be there, steeled and pointed; they will always come back to our eyes, every time we open a book once-banned, to tell us again what the tyrants—in their malefic dreams of power and grandeur—did not want to hear, or wanted to forbid.
“Little book, go without me—I don’t begrudge it—to the city. Ah, alas, that your master’s not allowed to go! Go, but without ornament, as is fitting for an exile’s: sad one, wear the clothing of these times…” sings Ovid in the Tristia, from the solitude of his exile at the frontier of Ponto Euxino.
“The booksellers will reject us. The SS assault troops will break the shop windows… the word has died, men bark like dogs,” writes Joseph Roth in a letter to Stefan Zweig in October of 1933, speaking with prophetic power of the Nazi catastrophe that crept ever closer to cut lives off, to cut lives short, to set words alight on pyres. “Language of mine, / I have served you. / […] You have been my homeland, because I had no other…” wrote Czesław Miłosz, condemned to nonexistence in Poland because all his books had been banned, and he himself sentenced to exile.
But it is impossible to erase words. “Literature is the only form of moral insurance that a society has… if only because human diversity is literature’s lock and stock, as well as its raison d’être,” another banished man, Joseph Brodsky, reminds us from exile.
The writers of Latin America, which is my homeland, and of Spain, which is likewise my homeland, have seen fit before to temper their lives in the fires of exile, which has molded their solitudes and longings. The glimmer of return to the lost land is infinite in memory and endless in language, ever awake.
“Country of memory where I was born / I died / had substance / little bones I gathered to light / earth that would bury me forever,” says Juan Gelman, exiled from his homeland by another dictatorship. Each has had their own, in the end; their piece of bitter bread on a corroded tongue.
And from that side, the other side of the vast, ocean-spanning territory of La Mancha, to which so many Spaniards turned to meet America in exile, Luis Cernuda writes:
If I am Spanish, I am
In the sense of those who can be
Nothing else: and of all the charges
Fate filed against me, at birth,
This one has been the harshest.
I have not changed lands,
Because one cannot while one’s tongue is tied,
till death, to the need for poetry.
If I am Nicaraguan, I am in the sense of those who can be nothing else. Nicaraguan by my tongue, which is the tongue in all mouths, from which there is no possible exile because this tongue takes me everywhere, releases me from jails and exiles, frees me. Mine is a tongue without borders. The tongue no one can take from me and from which I cannot be banished.
The tongue that is my homeland.
Translated by Arthur Malcolm Dixon