Sergio Ramírez - Passion, money, sex, gossip, political intrigue, medical malpractice and judicial corruption all merge into a novel that reads like a courtroom drama wrapped in yellow journalism disguised as historical fiction posing as a scandal of the first order


Sergio Ramírez, Divine Punishment. Trans. by Nick Caistor with Hebe Powell, McPherson & Co., 2015.

Upon its original publication, Carlos Fuentes declared Divine Punishment to be the quintessential Central American novel. In this, the greatest work of a storied literary career, Sergio Ramírez transforms the most celebrated criminal trial in Nicaraguan history—the alleged murders in 1933 of two high society women and his employer by a Casanova named Oliverio Castañeda—into an examination of the entire Nicaraguan society at the brink of the first Somosa dictatorship. Passion, money, sex, gossip, political intrigue, medical malpractice and judicial corruption all merge into a novel that reads like a courtroom drama wrapped in yellow journalism disguised as historical fiction posing as a scandal of the first order.

Divine Punishment is by far the best novel by Sergio Ramírez, former vice-president of Nicaragua, and one of my favorite novels, period. Set in the Nicaraguan city of León in the 1930s, and based on a true story, it concerns the case of Oliverio Castaneda, a young charmer and social climber accused of killing neighbors, patrons, and lovers by poisoning. The convoluted affair (still used as a case study in Central American law schools) was never solved, and Ramírez himself cagily leaves it open-ended. Hilarious, riveting, beautifully constructed and written.” – Dan Bellm

“... Ramírez extends Flaubert's techniques to a whole society, which becomes a true microcosm of Central America, for although located in Leon, Nicaragua, the action reverberates in Costa Rica and Guatemala. . . . Melodrama is comedy without humor. Sergio Ramírez returns the smile to the newspaper serial, but in the end this smile freezes on the lips—we are back in the heart of the darkness. Between the fullness of comedy and the imminence of tragedy, Sergio Ramírez has written the great novel of Central America—the novel that it was necessary to have in order to reach an intimacy with its peoples, to visit the edge between their traditional recalcitrance and their potential for renewal. . .”—Carlos Fuentes

“As with the works of Henry James, Divine Punishment is an epic of consciousness. But unlike them, the consciousness stirred here is not individual but collective ... Sergio Ramírez draws one of the most formidable portraits of bourgeois hypocrisy ever written in Latin America...”—Tomás Eloy Martinez

“...the main character is language, as well as the entire society of the city of Leon. . . . [Divine Punishment] is a poetic novel, as well as being dramatic and pathetic, and tragic, humorous, macabre, romantic, realistic, and political . . .”—Ernesto Cardenal

Ramirez, former vice president of Nicaragua, published this noirish tale of murder and deceit while in office in 1988, and it appears in English for the first time in a wonderful translation by Caistor. The story, based on a real series of unsolved poisonings, takes the form of a legal case, replete with court reports, interviews, testimonies, depositions, and letters from the main players. This interesting and complex structure includes a barrage of character names, places, subplots, and substories—Ramirez effectively recreates an entire world of intrigue around the case. But the central story line revolves around the motives of the accused murderer, Oliverio Castaneda. Ramirez animates the small town world of 1930s Leon, Nicaragua, and its criminal justice system at a time that coincides with the country’s struggle to operate under a civil and judicial, rather than military, government. The fictionalized version of Castaneda’s crimes are driven partly by love and revenge and partly by his desire to control a large financial fortune. The novel also ratchets up the tension between the curiosity of a nosy media and the public’s nearly insatiable appetite for a scandalous trial. This is a big, beautiful novel—a compelling historical drama of competing narratives and colorful characters that is self-aware and tinged with black humor. The author’s afterword and translator’s note provide helpful context for American readers. - Publishers Weekly

Divine Punishment is closely based on an actual criminal case and prosecution in 1930s León, Nicaragua's second city, when Oliverio Castañeda, then in his mid-thirties, was tried for murder. Months after the sudden death of his considerably younger wife, in February, 1933, two members of the Contreras family also died in quick succession: older daughter Matilde (on 2 October), and pater familias Don Carmen, a successful businessman (on 9 October). Castañeda had ingratiated himself with the Contreras family, but after Don Carmen's death suspicion fell on him having poisoned the man and his daughter -- and his own wife.
       Ramírez's novel is in many ways documentary in character -- but not straightforwardly so. Much of the narrative relies on what is presented as verbatim testimony from the trial and hearings, along with other documentary material -- though almost always woven into the narrative rather than left stand-alone. It does not unfold neatly chronologically, instead circling back over events, facts, and testimony again and again, Late into the novel, one chapter is even presented entirely in the form of a fictional account of events as written by local journalist Rosalío Usulutlán -- a succinct fictional take and résumé of the case that then, given its finger-pointing spin as to what happened, becomes part of the proceedings as well.
       While the first chapters set part of the stage -- focusing on the poisoning of some local dogs using strychnine, which is presumed to be the poison Castañeda also then used in his murders, and possibly explains how he got his hands on it -- and the situation he finds himself in is already addressed early on, including in an interview of the then-jailed Castañeda by Rosalío Usulutlán after his October 1933 arrest -- Ramírez presents the story in such a spiraling roundabout way that the third section of the four-part novel, well over two-hundred pages in, begins by re-stating the obvious and long-known:
     On Monday, 9 October 1933, on the sudden death of Don Carmen Contreras, one of the most celebrated cases in the judicial history of Nicaragua began. It is to the many complex events surrounding this trial that the book is devoted.
       Occasionally, Ramírez even explicitly reminds: "At this point we have to leaf back through a few pages of our calendar of events", but the entire novel is one of reconstruction -- the past repeatedly revisited, from different vantage points and in different lights.
       In presenting the facts, as they were known, and the unfolding events, Ramírez offers not a neatly built-up mystery, but rather a much more true-to-life legal procedural, with all the conflicting reports and recollections, and the uncertainty about so many of the details. There's little doubt that Castañeda is a killer, but both proof and understanding remain difficult to ascertain.
       Set in a Nicaragua just freeing itself from US occupation, the backdrop includes a young director of the National Guard, Anastasio Somoza (who would effectively take power a few years later, ruling Nicaragua for some two decades) -- a significant if shadowy presence in the case's final resolution --, and the Central American politics of the time do loom over the novel, as the foreigner Castañeda also faced trouble (and was suspected of murder ...) in his own homeland, Guatemala.
       A compatriot who knew Castañeda in his younger days describes him as: "an incorrigible fantasist", and repeatedly Castañeda tries to reframe the narrative being spun around him to his own advantage, trying to present himself, and his actions, in ways that may fit the facts but suggest an entirely different scenario leading to them. In interviews, testimony, and letters he, like many accused, argues he, and his actions, are being seen and interpreted in the wrong way; in particular, he tries to paint a different picture of himself -- difficult to do, in the case of this arrogant man who has always dressed in dark mourning clothes, since the death of his mother when he was a teen. Something of a charmer, the hold he appears to have over the various Contreras women -- mother and both daughters -- doesn't help his case, neither the gossip about their relationships nor, ultimately, the support the surviving Contreras women provide, at least for a while. His late admission that the Contreras he was most intimately involved with was María ("my common-law spouse, since I have had marital relations with her"), hardly comes as a surprise, but is part of his final effort to assume control of what is by then a trial-narrative. (Born in 1918 -- some seven years younger than her sister -- María was only fourteen when her relationship with Castañeda began, and still only fifteen when her father and sister died and Castañeda brought to trial.)
       As one newspaper article writes about the Contreras family -- though it applies to the story as a whole --:
This family, overwhelmed by a tragedy that seems to know no end, seem to be living through a drama straight from the pages of Aeschylus.
       As so often in Greek tragedy, there is also no neat, happy resolution; indeed, Castañeda's fate seems ultimately left up to the fates: it is not the almost incidental trial (just one part of the much larger trial of public (etc.) opinion Castañeda faces) which determines what becomes of Castañeda -- while the actual events surrounding the final resolution remain also cloaked in mystery.
       Late in the novel the author's presence is acknowledged, as he mentions collecting some information -- and even speaking with some of those involved -- decades after the fact. (A short Afterword describes the circumstances surrounding the writing of the novel a bit more closely.) Long-buried information comes to light -- the material that allows Ramírez to reconstruct the case, half a century later -- but some answers remain elusive.
       Divine Punishment is a chronicle of (apparent) murder and the prosecution of the man presumably responsible, but it's also a portrait of the society and structures of that time. Among the conflicts that form part of the narrative is the ongoing one between two of the local doctors, who take very different positions regarding the causes of death (and the proper assessment of the post mortem evidence) -- a charged relationship between mentor and student that shifts as the case progresses. Though arguably provincial, this León is not some simple backwater town; among the interesting dynamics are also those between the local establishment and the outsiders involved in the case (notably the judge and, of course, Castañeda).
       Even as so much documentation is presented in Divine Punishment, Ramírez's novel does not feel simply documentary; it is not a simple case-account or procedural. Yet Ramírez also scrupulously avoids taking advantage of his authorial position in guiding readers to specific conclusions: even as the unpleasant Castañeda's guilt can hardly be questioned, Divine Punishment remains in many ways a murky tale (appropriately sinking in particularly dark mire in its resolution, and Castañeda's fate).
       All in all, it's an unusual piece of fiction: part legal-criminal thriller, part period-piece, often with a subversive little humorous touch, Divine Punishment doesn't conform to many expectations, but proves, in going its own (distinctive, roundabout) way, successful in its own right. - M.A.Orthofer

When Sergio Ramírez published a book this spring about his experiences as a leader of the Sandinista revolution, he called it ''Adiós, Muchachos,'' or ''Goodbye, Boys.''
The title was appropriate because several years ago Mr. Ramírez quit the Sandinista movement and dropped out of politics. He is pursuing a literary career that has won him renown not only in Latin American but in Europe and beyond. Few would argue with the judgment of a Nicaraguan critic who recently asserted that he has become ''one of the most distinguished figures in Spanish-American literature.''
In Nicaragua, where Mr. Ramírez helped lead the leftist and highly controversial Sandinista Front for nearly two decades, he is now almost universally admired. His books are best sellers, crowds gather when he speaks and reviewers gush over his work. His Web site (www.sergioramirez.org.ni) is among this country's most popular.
Few nations treat their writers with such emotion. Mr. Ramírez is Nicaragua's latest literary star in a line that stretches back to the passionately beloved poet Rubén Darío, who died in 1916.
''People in this country are proud of their writers,'' Mr. Ramírez said. ''Literature is not marginal here.'' Sitting in his book-lined study in Managua, where pre-Columbian artifacts take up one shelf and opera CD's another, Mr. Ramírez, 59, seemed at ease with his new life. ''These days I see myself as a writer, and if I have opinions they are a writer's opinions,'' he said. ''I can't deny or get away from the fact that I was part of a political process that deeply divided this country. When I'm asked a question, I answer it. But my active political life is over.''
Mr. Ramírez has been a writer for most of his adult life, but until the mid-1990's he balanced writing with revolution. Now he does little else but write and occasionally teach. His most recent novel, ''Margarita, Está Linda la Mar,'' has a title that Nicaraguans instantly recognize because the phrase is the opening line of a famous Darío poem. The book won the 1998 Alfaguara Prize in Madrid, an honor that bestows not only considerable attention but also the equivalent of $175,000. Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican novelist, headed the jury.
The novel is written in Mr. Ramírez's typical style. He takes events from Nicaraguan history, which is unusually turbulent and colorful, and adds imaginary characters and situations.
The book interweaves the story of Darío's last years with that of a poet born after his death, Rigoberto López Pérez, who assassinated the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza García in 1956. A stream-of-consciousness sentence describing the fatal gunshot takes up more than a page.
The novel remains faithful to events, and an appendix tells what later happened to historical figures in the book.
These days Mr. Ramírez is working on a novel set during more recent Nicaraguan history. It will open, he said, with a chilling episode that occurred in May 1979, when the Sandinista rebellion was reaching its peak. A squad of Sandinista fighters captured a former adviser to the dictatorship near his beach house, and then set him before a crowd. He was made to plead for his life, and told that if the crowd applauded his appeal, he would be spared. But the crowd was unmoved, there was no applause and the prisoner was summarily executed.
''I recognize that this may have been a bad man, but what happened that day was awful,'' Mr. Ramírez said. ''This man and his fate have a sort of symbolic resonance in our history.''
In the early 1970's, Mr. Ramírez was a young writer in Berlin. When he read about the gathering revolution in his homeland, he returned and soon became one of the most articulate leaders of the Sandinista Front, which led an armed rebellion against the Somoza family dictatorship and later formed a government friendly with Cuba and the Soviet Union. Told to choose a pseudonym, he picked Balthazar, because at the time he was reading Lawrence Durrell's novel of that name.
Mr. Ramírez was part of the junta that governed Nicaragua after the Sandinista victory in 1979, and from 1985-90 he was vice president under Daniel Ortega. After the two were defeated in their re-election bid, they became political rivals. Mr. Ramírez ran for president in 1996, finishing with few votes and many debts.
Today he is much in demand as a guest professor and takes temporary posts at institutions ranging from the University of Maryland to the Free University in Berlin. His newest nonfiction book is a collection of lectures he gave in Mexico on the arts of writing and reading, called ''True Lies.'' (An English-language excerpt is available on his Web site.) During a recent author's reading at a Managua bookshop, he also offered advice to budding writers.
''Books are not written on tables at cantinas or in cafes or by sitting around telling people what you're writing,'' he said. ''Books are written in absolute solitude, in isolation. You write books by writing, by hours of work as if you were a monk. There is no way to create literature other than work, work, work, and then by creative correcting, by seeing what is good and what's bad. You have to have the cold courage of the surgeon and cut what doesn't work. Realizing what isn't good is the writer's hardest job.''
Despite his success, only snatches of Mr. Ramírez's work are available in English, and at least one deal with a large New York publisher has fallen through. Next year Curbstone Press, in Willimantic, Conn., is to publish an English version of ''Margarita, Está Linda la Mar'' as ''Margarita, How Beautiful the Sea.''
Mr. Ramírez's bookshelves hold mostly classics, from Cicero and Virgil to Cervantes and Dante. Of 20th-century writers, he especially admires Faulkner.

''Faulkner's style never stops influencing me,'' he said. ''The atmosphere of the American South is very much like rural Nicaragua.'' - STEPHEN KINZER

For Sergio Ramirez, poet, author and vice president of Nicaragua's revolutionary government, the mixing of art and politics is first and foremost a question of logistics.
Every day, between an early-morning jog and arrival at his Managua office, the Sandinista leader spends 2 1/2 hours at his personal computer tapping out novels. On an official visit here last week to meet with outgoing President Miguel de la Madrid and President-elect Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Ramirez squeezed in time to plug the latest fruit of this early-morning labor, a 450-page novel titled "Divine Punishment."
"I divide my time between literature and politics," Ramirez said in an interview before introducing the Mexican edition of his book at the Rufino Tamayo Museum. "I think I have managed to work in the two areas without allowing either one to prejudice the other."
But if he had his druthers, Ramirez said, if war-torn Nicaragua were back on its feet, the Sandinista revolution stable and safe from attack, the vice president would leave his government post to dedicate himself full-time to literature and leading a workshop for young writers.
"If I had the opportunity," he said, "I would only be a writer."
His newest book is a fictionalized account of a high-society triple murder in the provincial city of Leon in 1933 and of Oliverio Castaneda, the handsome and charismatic lawyer convicted of the killings.
While some critics at home charge that Ramirez meant the story of murder and adultery to portray a pre-revolutionary elite as immoral, Ramirez says there was no political motive for writing the book.
"This is the story of an interesting individual, a character. If I weren't vice president of Nicaragua, no one would pay any attention to the political elements of this. . . . I would have written this book even if I had never been a leader of the revolution," he said.
Nicaragua's political opposition, including its most prominent poet, Pablo Antonio Cuadra, has long accused the Sandinistas of making the arts subservient to the revolution, of confusing literature with propaganda.
Ramirez disagrees. He says the Sandinistas have never dictated what subject authors should address or what form their work should take. There is no "revolutionary recipe," he said, pointing to his book, which borrows in style from traditional thrillers, soap operas and old-style newspaper serials.
Nonetheless, as in the rest of Latin America, authors and artists have great prestige in Nicaragua and have long served as a social conscience for the country. Nicaragua's most famous poet, Ruben Dario, wrote protests against U.S. imperialism early this century. Like Ramirez, many Sandinista authors are directly involved in politics: Poet Ernesto Cardenal is the Sandinistas' minister of Culture and President Daniel Ortega's wife, Rosario Murillo, is a recognized poet.
It also was a poet, Rigoberto Lopez, who in 1956 assassinated the dictator Gen. Anastasio Somoza Garcia, father of Gen. Anastasio Somoza Debayle, whom the Sandinistas ousted in 1979. That assassination took place in the same hall in Leon where Oliverio Castaneda's trial had been held before overflow crowds.
The Castaneda case was famous in Nicaragua in the 1930s and was nearly folklore by 1959 when Ramirez entered law school at the University of Leon, 25 years after his protagonist. In Leon, mothers commonly told the murder tale to their children, who often relived it in vivid nightmares. But Ramirez first learned the details of the Castaneda case in a criminal law class.
Charming Young Lawyer
The facts were the following: Castaneda, a native of Guatemala, moved to Leon, where he made a name for himself as a charming young lawyer and was said to have engaged in extramarital affairs with several local society women.
On Jan. 13, 1933, Castaneda's wife died suddenly of unknown causes. He moved in with the well-to-do Gurdian family. That October, one of the daughters, with whom he reputedly was having an affair, also died suddenly. A week later, her father died.
Castaneda, who was known to have bought strychnine from a pharmacist to kill wild dogs, was arrested and charged with murder in the three deaths. His lengthy trial captured the imagination and emotions of Nicaragua, which split over the question of his guilt. Women and the poor particularly were convinced of his innocence.

Already drawn to literature and studying law only at his father's insistence, Ramirez immediately saw the story's potential for a novel. Politics and a popular insurrection intervened, however, and nearly 30 years passed before Ramirez completed the work. He obtained the record of Castaneda's trial in 1980, a year after the Sandinista victory, and finally found time to take up the yarn in 1984, following his election as vice president. He finished in October, 1987, and "Divine Punishment" was published in Nicaragua and Spain last April.
Controversy erupted anew with the publication, including charges from critics who felt that it was insensitive of Ramirez to revive the painful case for members of the Gurdian family who are still alive. The book was serialized in the newspaper, forums were held and, once again, Nicaragua was divided over the Castaneda case.
Although no proof was presented, Castaneda was convicted of the crimes on circumstantial evidence and sentenced to die, but before his execution he was shot to death by jail guards, allegedly while trying to escape.
Over the years, Castaneda's name has remained a household word in Leon and even the source of local humor. Before she died, his wife was rumored to have cried, "Olie, Olie, what have you given me?"--a line echoed by many in jest when feeling ill.
Agustin Prio, owner of the Casa Prio ice cream shop (who appears in the opening scene of the book), said in a telephone interview that elderly women who visit his nearly 100-year-old parlor still argue Castaneda's innocence. Some people believe that the lawyer's killing was political, he said, as Castaneda had been an outspoken opponent of the Guatemalan dictator at the time, Jorge Ubico. They said Ubico had his friend and fellow dictator, Somoza Garcia, kill Castaneda for him .
"I knew Castaneda. He had a personal magnetism, his gestures, his intelligence, his education," the 75-year-old Prio recalled. "I couldn't believe such an intelligent man could be involved with murder."
In the end, Prio said, he was convinced of Castaneda's guilt by "the eight days" separating the death of the two Gurdians.
Ramirez said he, too, became convinced of Castaneda's guilt, although he does not take a position in "Divine Punishment."
In Spain, the book has won critical acclaim. Mexican author Carlos Fuentes wrote in the Spanish newspaper El Pais that Ramirez has written "the great Central American novel" and compared the work to French author Gustave Flaubert's "Madame Bovary."
Ramirez said his Spanish publisher currently is negotiating the English-language rights with a U.S. publisher. Two books by Ramirez--a volume of short stories and a novel titled "To Bury Our Fathers"--are available in translation in the United States.
Mexican author Hector Aguilar Camin called the book a social mosaic that recreates the Nicaraguan bourgeoisie in the 1930s, with details such as Kelvinator refrigerators, Underwood typewriters and the 1932 Charles Laughton murder-suspense movie "Payment Deferred," from whose Spanish title, "Castigo Divina," Ramirez took the title of his novel.
"It is an extraordinary novel," Aguilar Camin said in an interview. "What is surprising is that a politician of this level has written a book this good." - MARJORIE MILLER


Sergio Ramírez, A Thousand Deaths Plus One, Trans. by Leland H. Chambers, McPherson & Co., 2009.

In 1987, while on a state visit to Warsaw, the author happened upon an exhibition of remarkable works by a hitherto unknown Nicaraguan photographer, Juan Castellón, who plied his craft in Europe between roughly 1880 and 1940. This improbable discovery launches Ramirez on a consuming quest to reveal the forgotten artist's identity -- an obsession that eventually takes him from Nicaragua to Vienna to Mallorca, and leads him to sift through the evidentiary remains of a raffish entourage of European and Latin American madmen, nobles, adventurers, and poets. Meanwhile, in alternating chapters, Castellón tells his own side of the story, from his fantastic conception in Nicaragua, to an education in France courtesy of Napoleon III, to nights of debauchery in the company of his compatriot-in-exile Rubén Darío, to a final and unexpected residence in a Nazi concentration camp. A Thousand Deaths Plus One is a coruscating novel that recapitulates, in the biographical snapshots of an exceptionally ordinary man, the history of the exceptionally unfortunate, not to say "nonexistent," country of Nicaragua.

"With this compulsive masterpiece, Sergio Ramírez will enchant American readers as he has been delighting us in the Spanish-speaking world for many years. Through the quest for an elusive photographer, Ramírez reveals and celebrates the history of Nicaragua, but indeed of the whole Western world in the last two centuries, and does so in ways that are as entertaining as they are profound." — Ariel Dorfman

Nicaraguan author Sergio Ramirez's fragmented, multinarrated—and at times frustrating—novel recounts a quest to recover a mysterious photographer's past. In 1987 Warsaw, an unnamed narrator becomes obsessed with a photographer named Castellón when he stumbles upon an exhibit showing the same scenes before and during the Nazi occupation. He learns that Castellón was Nicaraguan and took the photos while traveling with the Nazis, who had murdered his daughter and son-in-law. From here, the book shifts to Castellón's own voice as the story moves back and forth in time, connecting Castellón to luminaries such as Chopin, George Sand, Turgenev and Flaubert. Although an intriguing look into Nicaraguan history—as well as Europe between 1870 and 1940—the constantly shifting narratives and occasionally stiff translation make this novel difficult to navigate. Still, those who stick with the literary puzzle are likely to come away with a new understanding of Nicaragua and its culture.- Publishers Weekly

Sergio Ramírez's A Thousand Deaths Plus One, translated from Spanish by Leland H. Chambers, interweaves historical fact with outrageous fiction, painstaking truth with barefaced lies. In the novel, author and narrator become indistinguishable, memoir and invention collide, and the reader becomes wrapped in a complex net of interlocking anecdotes. A Thousand Deaths Plus One is what critics tend to call a "novel of ideas," but as with any great piece of writing, its rich conceptual structure does not mean that it lacks humor, compassion, or other less esoteric elements of human experience.
The novel is divided into two sections, each beginning with a chapter attributed to another major Latin American author. The first is ascribed to Rubén Darío, Nicaragua's beloved national poet and the father of Latin American Modernismo (which, perplexingly to the Anglophone reader, is the stylistic opposite of literary modernism in English, resembling instead the baroque prose of Ramírez's novel). The second credits Colombian novelist and journalist José María Vargas Vila, known for his aggressive critiques of imperialism and conservatism. The very first words of the novel thus thrust the reader into an elaborate literary game in which truth and fiction are indistinguishable.
Ramírez was vice president of Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega, and the framing narrative of A Thousand Deaths Plus One involves a diplomatic trip—in this case, a journey to Warsaw in 1987—on which the fictionalized author discovers an exhibition of work by an obscure Nicaraguan photographer, Juan Castellón, whose photos serve as a documentation of modern European history. Fascinated by the images, Ramírez delves into the life of Castellón, who seems to him "like a character who should be in a novel." Much of the book is formed around the photographer's narrative, which gives an account of his father's life as well as describing his own. This device ties Nicaragua irretrievably to Europe, slotting it into the broad sweep of Western history, where it is usually invisible. Thus, just as Ramírez echoes the Cervantine technique of confusing author and narrator, he has also written a national novel analogous to Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children.
The history of the Nicaraguan nation, as experienced by Castellón's father, is one of obscurity, and vulnerability to the whims of more powerful nations. As the hapless diplomat tries to persuade European aristocrats that his own narrow nation, rather than the more commonly proposed Panamanian option, is the better place to build the canal that will link two oceans, few of them can even find the country on their maps. The construction of the canal farther to the south dooms Nicaragua to universal oblivion, and the grandiose dream of transforming the nation from "a huge cattle ranch where flies were always buzzing around, if not bullets" into a nation of consequence on the world stage, fizzles out.
Yet A Thousand Deaths Plus One presents ways to remedy that obscurity. The novel is about how history is recorded—in official accounts, in old black-and-white photographs, in novels of ideas by former vice presidents—and about the labyrinthine links that tie major and minor narratives together, making them indistinguishable from each other. The confusion of fact and fiction, Ramírez suggests, is as endemic to history as it is to literature, and the story of an impassioned Nicaraguan spreading out maps before an imprisoned king is as consequential to the history of one nation as the building of the canal eventually was to another. Still, the documentation of history itself helps shape the content of historical narratives. As the narrator tells the photographer's grandson near the end of the novel, "If Castellón had not taken that picture, you would not exist for me."
As a parade of historical figures and anecdotes rushes past, the reader is left uncertain which elements of the novel are fictional and which based in fact. This sense of disorientation, one begins to think, would be appropriate in any encounter with either fact or fiction, as both are inevitably present in either. Even Castellón's photographs, it turns out—although we tend to accept the realism of documentary photography as being somehow the same as its reality—are not as straightforward as they appear. Throughout the novel, Ramírez also undermines exalted historical and cultural figures and established histories—presenting Darío as a raving drunk and Flaubert ravaged by syphilis, describing Nicaragua as an uncivilized backwater and Europe as a decadent imperialistic power— and thereby calls into question the grand myths upon which national identities are constructed. This weakens the myths and transforms the identities of the nations or historical figures themselves since, in being pulled down to a more human and realistic level, they are made sympathetic despite their faults and frailties.
This ambitious novel is unfortunately hampered somewhat by its translation. The exaggerated excess of Ramírez's prose is challenging to render elegantly in English, whose literary traditions are so much less forgiving of elaborate sentence structures and elevated language. Although Chambers does an adequate, even admirable, job for such a complex text, the translation nevertheless contains a steady supply of jarring syntaxes and odd word choices. Mil y una muertes, the Spanish original, is clearly a beast of a book from a translator's point of view, and it's a shame the translation was not more diligently edited.
Still, A Thousand Deaths Plus One is an intriguing and provocative novel and well worth a look. While it poses profound philosophical, cultural, political, and historical questions, its reliance on first-person narratives and human anecdotes keeps it from becoming abstruse. Ramírez has created an intricate work of literature that strains against the strictures of fact and fiction. And just as apparent fact can turn out to be fiction, fiction can reveal fundamental truths. - Andrea Rosenberg

A Thousand Deaths Plus One pieces together the story of a photographer named Castellón. It is presented in two parts, 'Camera Oscura' and 'Camera Lucida', each of which opens with a piece attributed to another author: the first an account by Rubén Darío (who plays a central role in Ramírez's Margarita, How Beautiful the Sea), the second -- 'The Drunken Faun', about Darío -- by Colombian author José María Vargas Vila (1860-1933). The remaining chapters alternate between Ramírez's own account of how he comes across this mysterious photographer and searches for additional information about him, and another first person autobiographical account that one assumes is Castellón's own. There is some an overlap between the pieces attributed to Darío and Vargas Vila and Ramírez's journey of discovery, as well as Castellón's own reality; indeed, Castellón figures prominently in the Vargas Vila-piece. It all has the feel of an elaborate literary game of the sort that Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Marías are fond of playing. 
       Darío's short sketch includes the observation:
For my part, I contemplate him as if this were a matter of a photograph before turning over the page in an album.
       Ramírez, of course, can only rely on photographs (and writing, with its similar turn-the-page quality) when trying to get a sense of these various historic figures, and this contrast between real-life and the image that is fixed in photographs (or writing) is a central part of the story.
       Ramírez appears simply as himself: at one point he writes about working on Margarita, How Beautiful the Sea, and many of these trips he takes to Europe are on business, in his official capacities. It is when he is in Warsaw in 1987 that he stumbles across an exhibition of 'Castellón the Photographer in Warsaw', in which the photographs are paired up, to show the same scenes not as before and after, but rather as: Before the Nazi Occupation and During the Nazi Occupation . It is the immediacy of being a witness to history that seems to appeal to Ramírez: Castellón does not merely document the consequences but is in the midst of them, and what is central is not just the final outcome but rather what happened. Later he is even more specific:
the artist is a pathologist who must preserve the dried-up pieces in the formol-filled flasks of his memory; any other way would be to take on the role of redeemer. They can be stripping the skin off your own mother, your own daughter, but your duty is to register the fact. 
     Perhaps (Castellón would probably say now) after having taken the photograph of the naked body, being neutral consists in seeing one's own self as an object, even at the moment when, before penetrating her, the syphilitic digs around inside a prostitute's vagina with fingers that are moving there to learn something about the sensations of the touching, but as if they were not his own, the artist who may infect another body with his own but does not infect the page or negative.
       Castellón becomes a sort of obsession of Ramírez's over the years -- "He never stops fascinating me, like a character who should be in a novel", he admits to someone at one point -- and he slowly accumulates bits of information about him. It is a neatly interlinking set of coincidences that mesh together, from the fact that the photographer was also Nicaraguan to connexions that include Chopin, George Sand, Turgenev, and, of course, Rubén Darío, much of which Ramírez stumbles across on his various trips over the years.
       The historical accounts -- presumably Castellón's own, focussed especially on his father's efforts to obtain support for the building of the canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific through Nicaragua, rather than in Panama -- are a nice contrast that also link with the larger picture Ramírez is building up. One of the difficulties with convincing anyone to build the canal in Nicaragua is that so few seem even to believe in the country's existence -- or can find it on a globe.
       Castellón's photographs are documentary evidence of history, but his account (and Ramírez's) are, of course, far more uncertain; much of what Castellón reports is hearsay, for example -- as readers are nicely reminded when he completes a scene and notes: "What I wouldn't have given to be able to take that picture !" (Of course, he has taken that picture -- but only using words, which are inherently far less reliable .....) Castellón's account turns out not to be exactly what it seemed either ("But very faithful", Ramírez is assured ...). And even Castellón's photographs -- especially those final ones -- are open to some interpretation, especially as to his own role and place.
       A Thousand Deaths Plus One is an elaborate fiction that stakes itself firmly in the real. A fascinating set of stories and bits of history, it also neatly addresses the issue of capturing history and human fates, in photographs or in writing -- both documentary and fictional.
       Well worthwhile. - The Complete Review

 Originally published in Spanish in 2004 this is the most recent novel by an author generally agreed to be among the foremost Latin American literary figures at work today. Nicaraguas premier living writer Sergio Ramirez has played an important role in the countrys intellectual and political history for decades: he led the Group of Twelve who sparked the 1979 Sandinista revolution against the Somoza regime and subsequently became vice-president of Nicaragua a post he held until political differences with President Daniel Ortega prompted him to retire from government. Since 1963 he has published thirty works of fiction and nonfiction but only a few have been translated into English.
As one might expect of a man whose books have won many major awards A Thousand Deaths Plus One is an accomplished novel ably translated by Leland H. Chambers. Intricate and initially somewhat baffling it weaves together three basic storylines all anchored in the first person which skillfully evoke the history of Nicaragua over the past century and a half even though much of the action is set in Europe.
The framing device describes the author himself in the recent past as he becomes fascinated by an early-twentieth-century Nicaraguan-born photographer named Castellon. Castellon tells the story of his own family beginning in the mid-nineteenth century when English French and American interests vied to build a canal across Central America. Panama was ultimately chosen as its site but for a while Nicaragua was under serious consideration and thus attracted more attention from the Great Powers than its culture and development would ordinarily have commanded. Ramirez introduces memories of Castellon from sources of uncertain reliability. This combination of perspectives creates a hall-of-mirrors effect raising questions about truth identity and narrative-both literary and historical.
Many and perhaps most of the characters are actual figures: Prince Louis Napoleon (later Napoleon III); William Walker an American mercenary who tried to create a private empire in Nicaragua; national poet Ruben Dario; and Castellon himself who roistered through Europe until he wound up in a Nazi concentration camp as an old man. These tales unfold in an offhand often elliptical style mingling storytelling literary history psychology and philosophy in a thought-provoking though sometimes rather opaque fashion.
This is decidedly literary fiction of greatest appeal to readers who can leap with the author from Chopin to Turgenev to the Central American jungle to Mautthausen. Those who are familiar with Ramirezs next-most-recent novel in translation Margarita How Beautiful the Sea will have an idea of what to expect: serious yet playful challenging and rewarding writing for anyone who wants to sample the best of todays Spanish-language fiction. -  

Reminiscent of Borges in its maze-like complexity of shadowy figures and surreal situations, A Thousand Deaths Plus One is as unpredictable a work as it is intricate in construction. Sergio Ramirez’s novel is essentially a work of intrigue. In 1987 the author found himself in Warsaw on a state visit. Ramirez was vice-president of Nicaragua from 1984-1990. This visit to Europe serves as the fuel that feeds the plot of the novel.
While in Poland’s capital, Ramirez, who doubles as the narrator, discovers the work of a compatriot photographer named Juan Castellon. Castellon, he is pleased to discover, had worked in Europe from 1880 to 1940. The author becomes curious as to the identity of this Nicaraguan photographer and the circumstances that brought him to Europe. The action of the novel begins with this otherwise inconspicuous revelation. The animated plot sequences and narration oscillate between Ramirez’s description of the world around him, his psychological desire to understand Castellon and Nicaraguan history, and Castellon’s own part in telling his side of the story.
 A Thousand Deaths Plus One is a complex fictional yarn that does not easily telegraph its punches. Employing occasional Borges-like narrative techniques: “I believe I recall, but this could be a fabrication of my memory...” the author weaves a multi-layered story that after a while makes it next to impossible to separate truth from fiction. As it turns out, Castellon, who came to Poland in 1929 by way of Barcelona, was a friend of the Nicaraguan writer Ruben Dario. This friendship serves as a vehicle to introduce cultural and historical snippets of that Central American nation, or what the author refers to as “a country that does not exist.” As a form of storytelling, this entanglement works very well. Only pedants will concern themselves with the historical authenticity of the events and characters that Ramirez unveils or concocts, as the case may be.
The story traces both the author and Castellon’s exploits throughout Europe, and how these eventually are linked to their homeland. Without question, Ruben Dario, the poet and originator of the Spanish-American literary movement known as Modernismo, serves as the link between the author and his main character.
Also of considerable interest is Ramirez’s use of a prologue and epilogue in the novel. The former is by Ruben Dario, while the latter, which is much more interesting, is Castellon’s seemingly final clarification of the events of the novel. The use of an epilogue as a literary technique brings to mind the brilliance of Miguel de Unamuno in his majestic nivolas, novels in which he employed similar tropes. Perhaps appropriately, A Thousand Deaths Plus One ends with a dream sequence where Castellon tells us, “And my final recollection then is that of a dream. Last night I dreamt I had returned to Nicaragua in some future time, at the end of the century.” This closes the circle of A Thousand Deaths Plus One, as it were, by releasing Castellon into the pen of Ramirez, as author/narrator. - Pedro Blas Gonzalez



Sergio Ramírez, Margarita, How Beautiful the Sea, Trans. by Michael Miller, Curbstone Books, 2007.


León, Nicaragua, 1907. During a tribute he delivers during his triumphal return to his native city, Rubén Darío writes on the fan of a little girl one of his most famous poems, "Margarita, How Beautiful the Sea."
In 1956 in a cafe in León, a group of literati gather, dedicated, among other things, to the rigorous reconstruction of the legend surrounding Darío-but also to conspire. There will be an attempt against dictator Somoza's life, and that little girl with the fan a half-century before will not be a disinterested party.
In Margarita, How Beautiful the Sea, Sergio Ramírez encompasses, in a complete metaphor of reality and legend, the entire history of his country. The narrative moves along paths fifty years apart, which inevitably converge. The story becomes a fascinating exercise on the power of memory, on the influence of the past, fictitious or not, in the finality of reality.

Margarita, How Beautiful the Sea is centered around two of the most significant Nicaraguan figures of the first half of the twentieth century, the great poet Rubén Darío and the dictatorial (and dynasty-founding) Anastasio Somoza, president of Nicaragua from 1947 until his assassination in 1956. The title already suggests the peculiar everyone-knows-everyone smallness of Nicaragua, as it refers to to the lines Darío wrote on the fan of the young daughters of doctor Louis Henri Debayle upon his triumphal return to Nicaragua in 1907. Debayle 'treated' Darío in 1916, when the poet died, while one of the Debayle-daughters, Salvadorita, would go on to marry Somoza (and eventually become the Nicaraguan 'first lady').
       The novel shifts back and forth in time, with much of the focus on the plot to assassinate Somoza. It begins with Darío's return to Nicaragua in 1907, then echoes that in the ship-journey bringing some of the conspirators planning to kill Somoza to Léon in 1956 -- with a long-lost statue of Darío aboard as well, a second homecoming for the poet.
       Around each man there are myths that blur reality: as they note long after his grand funeral, Darío may have been a famous figure but was perhaps better known for his celebrity than his work:
     "All because he was adored like a saint. Everybody in Nicaragua knew his poetry by heart from having read it so much," Captain Prío said. 
     "In fact, his poetry had hardly been read at all in Nicaragua, Captain," Rigoberto said, checking his journal. "According to Customs' records, the total number of books imported in 1906 was one thousand three hundred twenty. How many of those were Rubén's ? No one knows. Perhaps not even fifty of them. And not one of his was printed here."
       Meanwhile, Ramírez also offers a handy Somoza-chronology, noting that Somoza already asked for Salvadora's hand on the very day of Darío's funeral (with papa Debayle turning him down) and then went on to work as a meter-reader and outhouse inspector before slowly achieving greater success (and winning the doctor's consent to marry Salvadora).
       For the most part, both Darío and Somoza aren't in the best of physical condition, with Darío constantly overindulging in alcohol while Somoza doesn't even have an asshole -- "They removed it at the Oschner Clinic in New Orleans, and never put it back" (i.e. he had a colostomy). But then neither has very long to live .....
       There's a large cast of characters here, some bridging both eras. It's a very colourful cast, too, many referred to by nicknames, such as The Alligator Woman (whom the fingers-in-everything Dr. Debayle 'helps' -- at Somoza's behest -- with a sex change operation, which, of course, merely results in yet another Debayle-debacle) or Darío's ex-wife, La Maligna (who truly does malignantly haunt him). The horrific experimentations of Debayle, representative for what the state can mindlessly inflict on its citizens, are fairly prominently placed -- and include the heart-wrenching scene of Darío's death at his hands, the poet pleading to another physician: "Doctor, save me from this barbarian". And for grisly comedic relief there's Debayle's removal of Darío's brain -- bigger than any he's ever heard of before -- and the ensuing struggle for ownership .....
       Margarita, How Beautiful the Sea shifts back and forth in time and place, a quilt of stories and dialogue. Darío takes a central (if often inebriated) role, while Somoza is deservedly peripheral, repeatedly glimpsed but barely focussed on. There is a play that is set to be produced, with some of those involved in it also figuring prominently in the story, but it is a book full of the orchestrated and planned, as if these were all plays, from Darío's 1907 return to Nicaragua to the unveiling of his statue decades later -- and, of course, to the carefully planned assassination of Somoza. Much goes wrong and is improvised, but the feel of attempting to script history -- small and large -- is present throughout.
       Sliding around as it does, the narrative can be frustrating to follow, but for the most part it is quite riveting. Yet Ramírez almost seems intimidated by the absurdity of many of the coincidences and occurrences, and while he (entertainingly) presents those facts that are stranger than fiction he sometimes seems to back off in the areas of pure invention.
       A fascinating story, and a fairly winning mix of fact and fiction. - The Complete Review

Sergio Ramírez, Adiós Muchachos: A Memoir of the Sandinista Revolution, Trans. by Stacey Alba D. Skar, Duke University Press Books, 2011.

Adiós Muchachos is a candid insider’s account of the leftist Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. During the 1970s, Sergio Ramírez led prominent intellectuals, priests, and business leaders to support the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), against Anastasio Somoza’s dictatorship. After the Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza regime in 1979, Ramírez served as vice-president under Daniel Ortega from 1985 until 1990, when the FSLN lost power in a national election. Disillusioned by his former comrades’ increasing intolerance of dissent and resistance to democratization, Ramírez defected from the Sandinistas in 1995 and founded the Sandinista Renovation Movement. In Adiós Muchachos, he describes the utopian aspirations for liberation and reform that motivated the Sandinista revolution against the Somoza regime, as well as the triumphs and shortcomings of the movement’s leadership as it struggled to turn an insurrection into a government, reconstruct a country beset by poverty and internal conflict, and defend the revolution against the Contras, an armed counterinsurgency supported by the United States. Adiós Muchachos was first published in 1999. Based on a later edition, this translation includes Ramírez’s thoughts on more recent developments, including the re-election of Daniel Ortega as president in 2006.

"In this poignant memoir, Ramírez extols the idealism of the youthful Sandinistas, too many of whom fell as martyrs in their bloody battles against the tyrannical Somoza dynasty. At the same time, he recognizes the many errors the inexperienced revolutionaries committed once in power." - Richard Feinberg


“The English translation of Sergio Ramírez’s 1999 memoir allows the reader a fascinating entrée into the life and work of one of Central America’s most compelling personages and leading writers. This excellent translation of the former revolutionary junta member and vice president of Nicaragua’s 1998 book offers a fine introduction, filled with indispensable insights into the romance and tragedy of the revolution.” - Jeffrey L. Gould

“This is an analytically astute if, to say the least, idiosyncratically organized account of the Sandinista Revolution (both and before and after the fall of Anastasio Somoza Debayle). For those who consider the author one of the most thoughtful commentators on his country’s political life, the book is a treasure, and well worth close examination by scholars interested in Latin American political history in general and the history of revolutionary change in particular.” - Andrew J. Kirkendall

“Beyond being a valid and interesting source, Ramírez is also an accomplished writer, whose literary skill shines through in every detail of the memoir. . . . In short, a lot can be learned from this book that transcends history and present day affairs. Adiós Muchachos provides the reader with inside knowledge of revolutions, global politics, and human aspirations. And perhaps the best gift this book offers is the opportunity to learn while enjoying a great read.” - Contemporary Sociology


Adiós Muchachos is an extraordinary memoir of the origins, triumphs, and ultimate decline of the Sandinista Revolution. It is written by Sergio Ramírez, one of Nicaragua’s and Central America’s leading literary figures and an influential politician and statesman during the crucial decades he discusses, the 1970s through the 1990s. Few memoirs of the Sandinista period treat the movement’s ultimate defeat from a critical perspective, and fewer still have been written by one of that period’s leading political actors, let alone crafted in such an engrossing fashion, with such an eye for intimate political and cultural detail.”—Gilbert M. Joseph

Sergio Ramírez is a leading (and much underappreciated, in the United States) Latin American writer; Adiós Muchachos is a memoir, but often feels more like a work of fiction than documentary history. Ramírez shifts back and forth in time, and repeatedly shifts focus. A detailed Chronology does list the significant events and provides a useful timeline, while Ramírez is more focused on color and personalities.
       The Sandinista-led Nicaraguan revolution overthrew the ultra-corrupt Anastasio Somoza in 1979, with Ramírez going on to serve as the country's vice-president from 1985 to 1990. While then still American president Jimmy Carter was generally supportive of the new regime when the Sandinistas took over, his election defeat to Ronald Reagan in that year's election led to a very pro-active anti-Sandinista American policy and support for the anti-government Contras (culminating, of course, in the shameful Iran-Contra debacle). Ramírez notes that: "Anti-imperialism was always the most profound expression of the Sandinista movement", and suspicion of the US -- long supportive of Somoza-dynasty that ruled the land for decades -- was naturally high from the beginning; disagreement was, Ramírez notes, inevitable ("They were the source of everything that had gone wrong in our history") and Reagan's messy and debilitating intervention was also hardly anything new or unexpected:
No other country in Latin America had been the victim of as many abuses and military interventions by the United States as Nicaragua.
       American assistance, or at least a more or less hands-off neutrality, would certainly have made things easier, but Ramírez wistfully notes that, regardless of the American position, the Sandinistas were woefully unprepared for the necessary political and economic overhaul of the nation that for so long had been essentially the fiefdom of a very few privileged families -- much less wholesale implementation of their radical (and, as he admits, in many respects unrealistic) program. From some of the failed large-scale projects to the bumbling of Pope John Paul II's visit to the conservatively religious nation in 1983 he describes much that didn't go quite (or at all) right: typically, grandiose projects like one he favored, an ambitious plan for a coast-to-coast broad-gauge railway, soon petered out for want of funds or expertise -- in the case of the railway, after a mere seven kilometers of track were laid. Yes:
Plans were obsolete before they were put into practice, and the model for the centralized economy turned out to be little more than an idea.
       The one lasting legacy Ramírez is particularly proud of is the widespread acceptance of democracy -- beginning with the smooth transition following the 1990 elections, in which the Unified Nicaraguan Opposition party defeated the heavily favored FSLN (the ruling Sandinist National Liberation Front). Ramírez's account of the surprising defeat of his party offers a variety of explanations -- from mistakes they made to the American invasion of Panama, shortly before the election -- but he still seems to have difficulty getting over the surprise; with hindsight, though, he acknowledges that the proof that democratic principles and procedures could be embraced and tolerated by all might well have been worth the price.
       Adiós Muchachos meanders about a bit, and introduces -- generally very fleetingly -- a large cast of characters and martyrs, situating it uncomfortably between a very personal account for insiders, intimately familiar with the who and what, and a more general historical overview. Philosophically realistic about many of the revolution's failings (in particular the attempts at imposing a planned economy), and not nearly as bitter about the subversive activities of both locals and foreign powers (most notably the US), Ramírez's account does offer considerable insight and many points of interest, but it is neither detailed nor critical enough to be a definitive account of even just his role in the revolution and the government -- a shame, because he certainly has the stories to tell, and he's a writer who could tell them well. Perhaps still too close to the subject matter, it doesn't feel like his heart is entirely in it here, as he takes stabs at conveying different significant times and events, but shows a somewhat limited follow-through, not daring or willing to dig deeper. - M.A.Orthofer

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