Sara. Sergio Ramírez. Madrid: Alfaguara. 2015. 249 pages.
Ever since the publication of his first stories at the start of the 1970s, Nicaraguan writer Sergio Ramírez has provided us with memorable moments throughout his literary career, save for an obligatory pause from 1975 to 1985 caused by the war against the dictatorship of the Somoza dynasty. And this trend has not ceased. In his latest novel, published in 2015, with a simple title still heavy with symbolism – Sara – Ramírez travels down untrodden paths and focuses his curious gaze on Biblical history, this time from the perspective of the titular character. Through the filter of literature, the Nicaraguan writer not only offers us one of many possibilities in the interpretation of the “life” of an individual/character; he also simultaneously suggests, as is already suspected, that innumerable interpretations could exist in the evolution of her condition as a fictional character.
A great deal of literature has been written with Biblical stories as the starting point or inspiration: The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and Cain by José Saramago, “Three Versions of Judas” by Jorge Luis Borges, and Paradise Lost by John Milton are only a few examples. There have also been many interpretations of the Bible in the interests of countless different ends. Ramírez is by no means the first Nicaraguan whose intellectual curiosity has driven him to approach Biblical stories: Carlos Martínez Rivas (“Beso para la mujer de Lot” [Kiss for Lot’s wife]), Pablo Antonio Cuadra (Book of Hours), and, of course, the unforgettable Psalms of Ernesto Cardenal, which would be interpreted later, with good reason, as diatribes against the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza and his dynasty.
In Sara, Ramírez shows off a fluent technique with which he skillfully mixes irony, sarcasm, tragedy, and love, weaving a web that inevitably traps the reader. At the same time, the text makes use of an eye-opening, dynamic, ironic, sometimes dark humor that counters the solemnity of the original Biblical story. The ludic tone allows no tragedy (not even death) to take control over Sara’s decisions. For the most part, the novel’s narrator pulls the strings of humor, since humor – as we can feel in the novel – is the best way to confront the catastrophe of human existence represented by the tragedy of Sodom and Gomorrah or the sacrifice of Isaac, which draws the novel to its climax.
The novel is made up of twenty chapters, and the story is told chronologically from Sara’s perspective. The novel is narrated in two voices between the protagonist and a picaresque narrator who fills in the spaces she leaves empty, providing the humor that permeates the novel. The story’s tone demands an active reader, since the narrator seems to question the audience; to speak with an interlocutor, as if in a face-to-face conversation whose nature is inferred through the use of the first-person plural form of the verb: “All that about old men, although it comes from Sara’s mouth, is a saying with little support. If we stop listening, we’ll understand that it’s just a way to ask the Magi to leave her alone. She has also complained that she feels tired, and that’s another expression we should take with a pinch of salt, coming from an energetic woman, undaunted by any effort or task who, perceptive and acute in her judgments, has her head firmly fastened onto her shoulders” (20). The language is simple (but not simplistic) and easy to understand for the average reader, and it moves with an agile vocabulary that, while corresponding to the era in question, modernizes the register.
The book is attractive for its revision and consequent reconstruction of one of many Biblical characters and, with this foundation, for the creation of an alternate history through the imagination and exploration of distinct possibilities. It is worth noting that the novel begins with the suggestion that Sara is a peripheral, voiceless character, but that this does not make her silent. Among the most salient indicators of this argument, it is clear – following Biblical parameters – that the greatest burden on this character is her status as a woman: “the Magi had the power to grant or deny her children. She was his prisoner. And if she concealed hostile sentiments toward the men that visited them with no prior warning, it was because, as well as deceived and put out, she felt excluded. They never spoke a word to her while she served them food and drink, not even to thank her, and they never said goodbye. Before their eyes, she did not exist” (15).
Taking the Book of Genesis as context, we can explain Sara’s marginal position in her society in accordance with tradition. That is where we see the role of Ramírez as a writer, weighing out the different alternatives offered by the few Bible verses that reference his main character and thereby undertaking a sort of juggling act with form, language, Sara, the narrator, and the Magi (a representation of God) that we comprehend as a result of the reading. The novel is rendered all the more attractive through Sara’s evolution in its development and the way in which a personality is created that advances the story. In Sara, Ramírez takes up a well-known story from the Judeo-Christian tradition and lets loose his imagination to fill the spaces and the silences surrounding this character, creating an identity for her that is alternative but, above all, very entertaining.
José Juan Colín
University de Oklahoma