The Essays of Sergio Ramírez
The essayistic work of Sergio Ramírez Mercado (Masatepe 1942), the newest recipient of the Cervantes Prize, is vast and reflects a great variety of interests that have occupied the writer over the years. We can divide his essays into three large groups: his political essays that dominated the first stage of his life, until 1995 when he separated from the Sandinista Front and wrote Adiós muchachos (1999). His literary essays, which he begins to write at the start of his career, but have become more frequent and profound from 1995 to the present. And lastly his reportage, short essays, newspaper articles, columns, and blogs.
His first essays are political, connected by the events he lived in Nicaragua while a law student in León. Mis días con el rector (1965) [My days with the rector] compiles articles related to his work with Dr. Mariano Fiallos Gil, Rector of the Universidad Nacional de Nicaragua, and primary ideologist of the university’s autonomy. As a result of that fight the University would add the word Autonomous to its name. Years later Ramírez would expand this work into a Biography. Mariano Fiallos Gil (1997), paying homage to a person who was his mentor, his friend, and also a fictional character in his novel Divine Punishment (1988). His second essay was also biographical, adopting the figure of Abelardo Cuadra in Hombre del Caribe (1977) [Man from the Caribbean]. This interesting figure in the history of Nicaragua is useful in that he allows Ramírez to delve into the dark corners of the struggle against Somoza, and to begin to develop a type of narrative that will become characteristic of his work. A kind of mixture between narration and documentation, transposing the points of view, such that story becomes entertaining, with suspense and plot, but without missing the solid documentation, the textual historical reference, the detail, and the constant presence of the historical file as a source of information that supports the narrative.
Next, Ramírez began to do his work compiling, ordering and publishing the letters and manifesto of Augusto C. Sandino. It was the end of the seventies. The fight against the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza occupied all his time. The ideology of Sandino had been recovered by Carlos Fonseca Amador, but there was no reliable and complete biography, and his numerous letters and documents had never been published. This is how El muchacho de Niquinohomo, ensayo biográfico sobre Sandino (1981) [The Boy from Niquinohomo, a biographical essay on Sandino], and El pensamiento vivo de Sandino (2 volumes, 1981) [The living thought of Sandino] emerged. Apart from the enormous importance of publishing Sandino's correspondence and the documents of the Ejército Defensor de la Soberanía Nacional [Army in Defense of National Sovereignty], El muchacho de Noquinohomo, to a large extent, continues the narrative strategy of the previous biographies. Sandino's epic is narrated almost like a novel, with its epic moments:
Thirty men remained with him, and with them he went into the already familiar reaches in the cold heights of Yucapuca, three days after having married Blanca Aráuz, the telegraph girl in San Rafael del Norte.
And its tragic moments:
Meanwhile Sandino and his two lieutenant generals were taken to their place of execution—some vacant lots on the outskirts of the city near the airfield. They were lined up before a trench that had been dug earlier and, under the light of the headlamps of a truck, were murdered with machine gun and rifle fire. Their bodies were dumped in a ditch, once stripped of clothing and such personal effects as watches and rings, to be sold the next day in Managua. The location of the grave would thenceforth be kept as a state secret, and is unknown to this day.
Sergio Ramírez worked two years on this text, from 1975, in Berlin, until 1977 in San José de Costa Rica. Immediately after having written ¿Te dio miedo la sangre? [Did the blood frighten you?], one of the most structurally complex novels of his entire work. In the years that followed, this would become a fundamental text for a thorough understanding of Sandino's epic, since for the first time there was access to the entirely of his documents, letters, telegrams and reports, allowing an overview of the ideology, thoughts and strategies of the General de Hombres Libres [General of Free Men]. In 1984 this book was reissued, in two volumes, under the imprint of the publishing house Nueva Nicaragua, with additional documents recovered in Mexico, and a final study. The essay and the archival work of Sergio Ramírez was a great contribution to the ideological bases of Sandinismo, contributing to the consolidation of the Sandinista revolution.
His next book of essays was Balcanes y volcanes (1983) [Balkans and volcanoes]. The title essay however had been written ten years earlier and had been published in a collection in Mexico, by Siglo XXI, entitled Centroamérica hoy [Central America today]. The first part, “Cultura y caficultura” [Culture and coffee growing] develops an analysis that, beginning with the production mode, establishes parallels with the cultural production of Central American countries, and discusses the reception of that culture by foreigners, and the way in which the Central American subject has been represented as a stereotype. “That noble savage, idle and content, is the exact antecedent of the touristic and literary image that always represents the peasant asleep under a palm tree, or playing the guitar, enjoying his Arcadia when he manages to survive.” In the second article of this book of essays, Sergio Ramírez begins to develop his literary essays, which he will extend in many more books, covering a wide variety of topics and cultural aspects. In “La pluma bajo el sombrero” [The feather under the hat] Ramírez develops his vision of the literary field in Central America at the end of the 19th century, and explains the opposition between costumbrismo and modernismo, both markedly European movements. Then he goes on to propose Dario's modernismo as the constituent element of Central American poetry, although the examples he cites are properly Nicaraguan. He points out that the poetry of Salomón de la Selva represents the new Nicaraguan poetry in the second decade of the 20th century, before ending with some comments about the Vanguardia group from the city of Granada. To a great extent, Sergio Ramírez’s literary analysis of this era is dominated by a materialist and historical thought of literature. Literary phenomena explain them—not incorrectly—by way of the economic and social phenomena in which they are set, following the tradition of Ángel Rama, with sensitivity towards literary phenomena, but privileging the factors of social class, economic development, and means of production.
That is why it is not surprising that the following essay, “Musa paradisíaca” [Sublime muse] revolves around the banana companies and the state organization based on the mass production of this product for export to the United States, with the consequent influence of the United Fruit Company in all aspects of the state. Ramírez draws a real-life and depressing portrait of the situation of the Central American nations, of the folklore of their dictators, and of the limitation of their cultural institutions, to later talk about the novel of the banana companies and end with Miguel Ángel Asturias. It is in this period that Augusto C. Sandino emerges in Nicaragua, who according to Ramírez, “will produce from the struggle, with the rudimentary instruments that he sharpens, the coup itself, for the first time a complete and popular vision of the Central American nation.”
The second part of the Balcanes y volcanes includes a series of essays on literature. The first, “Seis falsos golpes contra la literatura centroamericana” [Six false blows against Central American literature] are notes from a seminar he gave in Costa Rica on art and society in Central America. This work begins a series of essays that Ramírez will publish in the future based on the courses he gave at the University of Maryland and other institutions. The “Seis falsos golpes” discusses oft-debated assumptions in Latin America in the second half of the 20th century: the relationship between reality and language, the importance of fiction in the perception of reality, the role of the novel and the imagination, and the importance of literature on the world scene. All important issues and very timely at the time in Central American literature. At that time, the writer's political commitment was a matter of debate both in the context of the Sandinista revolution that was beginning to gain strength, and in the proposals of Jean Paul Sartre and the international left. Sergio Ramírez takes up the theme in his speech “Los intelectuales y el futuro revolucionario” [Intellectuals and the revolutionary future], which he delivered at the First Meeting of Cultural Workers, in 1980. Partly because of the context in which this speech is presented, partly because of the moment of revolutionary fervor that Sergio Ramírez was living at the time, the essay suffers from populism and condemns the way in which culture had developed before 1979. The five proposals that structure the essay are today undoubtedly dogmatic, and the author himself would probably renounce them. This essay reveals a Sergio Ramírez who quotes Antonio Gramsci, who speaks of the authenticity of revolutionary culture and of the deep populist content that culture must have. Excesses in which Sergio Ramírez will not fall again.
The essay “Salarrué: El ángel del espejo” [Salarrué: the angel in the mirror] was written as a prologue to the Ayacucho edition of the Salvadoran writer's work. An essay that rightly selects the best of Salarrué's extensive work and correctly evaluates its successes and failures. His opinion of Tale of Clay summarizes in a few sentences the richness and value of this book, “seduces by its ability to materialize artistically a world of popular roots through a magical exaltation of language.” And in this analysis of language, Ramírez will pause to demonstrate the procedures by which Salarrué manages to reveal the beauty of the Salvadoran indigenous and peasant world. He correctly points out the metaphorical resources and the function of memory in Salarrué's work, relates his narrative with his painting and with his love of spiritualism, and situates well the period in which he lived, and the artistic tendencies in which he developed. It is therefore a model literary essay, and a shining example of recovery and selection of the work of a multifaceted and fascinating man without equal.
He will continue to develop this line of thought and literary criticism in numerous articles and essays, but especially in Mentiras verdaderas (2001) [True lies], in which he brings together talks from the Julio Cortázar Chair at the Universidad de Guadalajara in 1997, at the Centro Cultural Consolidado de Caracas in 1995, and in the Congreso Internacional de Lengua at the Universidad de Zacatecas in 1997. By this time Sergio Ramírez had definitively left politics and decided to devote himself entirely to literature. The central theme of these essays is the relationship between writer and reader, the very nature of the act of telling, and the relationship,—as its title points out—between truth and lies. Many of the ideas and affirmations that we find in these essays are neither new or original; rather they have been formulated before by numerous writers, theoreticians, and literary critics; nor do the essays offer an exhaustive reference apparatus that attributes the ideas to their original authors; but they are very well written essays, which are read with great pleasure, and which surprise the reader by the sincerity with which the author speaks of his craft. To prove his hypothesis, he resorts to the classic books of world literature: The Arabian Nights, Don Quixote, chivalric novels, The Odyssey, the Chronicles of the Indies, the Gospels, Les liasons dengereuses, the works of Conan Doyle, The Vortex, War and Peace, the ideas of Italo Calvino, Kafka, and Borges; but he also includes In Cold Blood, Pulp Fiction, Walt Disney, and Star Trek. We witness as he moves with ease through different periods and narrative style to adduce examples, contrast styles, demarcate concepts, and in some cases demonstrate generalizations that might be debatable.
The central point of the four initial essays is that elusive relationship between truth and lie. Mario Vargas Llosa had already published a book on this subject entitled La verdad de las mentiras (1990) [The truth about lies]. We know that Sergio Ramírez has been a disciple of the Peruvian Nobel both because of the engineering of his novels and because of his fascination with power, to which we may now add his conception of literature and the relationship between reality and fiction. To demonstrate his point of view, Ramírez recurs to, among many other examples, Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s The True History of the Conquest of New Spain. Ramírez states: “Bernal pretends to be truthful, devoted in written exactitude to the truth, but this is, in any case, an impossible task. He can only tell what he saw; there are others who were also with him and saw things in a different way, contradictory.” Because to narrate something true it is not only necessary to have been there, but to understand that this reality may have different interpretations, that it may be narrated from different points of view, seen as different, and therefore there is not a single truth or a single story. There are true lies and there are false lies. According to Sergio Ramírez, “False lies are often the consequence of hurry and improvisation to be able to reach the market,” and he cites as an example the chivalric novels. “Thus, was created, until the end of the Middle Ages, a cliché, a well-known mold into which to empty the plot, which does not provide surprises for the trained reader because it contains implausible lies due to its deliberate exaggeration.” These ideas are very important when we read them in the context of the novels of Ramírez, for whom reality and the details of reality are very important. His characters do not drink any soda. They drink Kola Shaler. And they do not use any gel but rather Glostora. The detail, the context of commercial reality and historical precision, are very important in his work, which gives them credibility. Makes them true lies.
“La máquina del tiempo” [The time machine] is a magnificent essay that analyzes postmodernity in Latin America, using literature as a lens through which to observe reality. It emphasizes the ability of fiction to travel back in time, from H. G. Wells’ Time Traveller, to the computers of the late twentieth century, when he wrote the essay. Ramírez traces the history of Latin America by comparing first-world modernity and postmodernity with the premodernity of many regions of Nicaragua and Latin America. Among his projections for the 21st century he points out: “...before dreaming the chimera of postmodernity, we must first be modern in democracy, democracy in its cross section, not in its superfluous adornments. Not neoliberal neocaudillismo….” Literature, which serves to analyze the past and to foreshadow the future, also serves, fundamentally, to invent identity, the idea of a nation, the image of Pan-Americanism or Latin Americanism, according to each one's ideology. However, the essay ends on a pessimistic note, by considering the homogenizing effects of globalization, and the difficulty that all human beings will have preserving our specificity in the 21st century.
Sergio Ramírez has published many books of essays and journalistic articles in recent years, and space does not allow me in this article to discuss them all. With a discipline like that of Vargas Llosa, Ramírez publishes a novel and a book of essays every two years, thus maintaining an impressive rhythm of creation and great quality. In that the main interest of this magazine is literature, I will end these notes by quickly commenting on two books, La manzana de oro. Ensayos sobre literatura (2012) [The golden apple: essays on literature] and A la mesa con Rubén Darío (2016) [At the table with Rubén Darío], two books that, despite departing from literature, demonstrate the breadth of interests, erudition, and talents of Sergio Ramírez.
La manzana de oro contains twenty-three essays that revolve solely around literature, from “Señor de los tristes” [Lord of the sad], which, as is to be expected, deals with Don Quixote, to “Los verdaderos juicios se adquieren temprano” [True judgment is acquired early], which revolves around the first readings of a writer and the sensuality of reading. One of the most valuable essays in the book is that dealing with the relationship between José Martí and Rubén Darío, entitled “Hijo y padre, maestro y discípulo” [Son and father, teacher and disciple]. The theme is, of course, the only meeting between the two great writers on May 24, 1893, in New York. The author begins by speaking in a first-person plural that seems to represent all the people of Nicaragua: “We have been waiting for José Martí in Nicaragua since 1877.” However, the illusion of this collectivity vanishes as the author soon assumes his narrative point of view. This is a meeting of titans, Martí and Darío, the two founders of Latin America’s first literary movement, and Ramírez prepares the moment by managing the suspense with mastery. He narrates their two lives, highlighting the primary moments of their respective adventures, highlighting their points of contact, the mutual allusions to their works. Darío has included Martí among his raros [eccentrics], and has proclaimed his deep admiration for him many times. Martí has read Azul… and holds it in high esteem. In the end these two authors will not see each other again in life, but their works will continue to influence and inform Spanish-American literature for many years.
The last book I wish to comment on is totally different. A la mesa con Rubén Darío is a hybrid that includes narrations of Rubén Darío’s meals and banquets, his tastes and his traditions, the multiple references that appear in his work to haute cuisine and everyday cooking, his tastes and his distastes. The book also includes recipes of both his favorite exotic dishes that he had the opportunity to taste. This unique book in the work of Sergio Ramírez closely approaches cultural studies where cuisine has gained particular importance. Ramírez manages to entertain the reader with literary anecdotes, surprising comparisons, unusual sources and a sense of humor.
We have seen that the spectrum of topics and interests in the essayistic work of Sergio Ramírez goes from local Nicaraguan politics to the role of Latin America in the international stage. His literary essays cover many aspects of Nicaragua’s literary historiography, but are in constant dialogue with many traditions of universal literature, some of which depart from journalism and chronicle, rising to actual literary and didactic essay. The panorama of his essayistic work is completed with his numerous newspaper articles, reportage, and blogs, which have been collected in several volumes. When we consider this prolific essayistic production together with his novels and short stories we are left with a vast and complex work, a solid work by the most important writer in Central America and among the most outstanding in Latin America.
University of Cincinnati
Translated by George Henson
Nicasio Urbina received his Ph.D. from Georgetown University. He works on literary criticism of contemporary Spanish American literature, with emphasis in Central American literature and culture. He has particular interest in genre theory, semiotics and narratology. He has taught seminars on the Latin American novel, the short story, Central American literature, creative writing, as well as thematic courses such as humor, myth, and violence in Spanish American literature. He has published eight books of literary criticism, short stories, and poetry; and has edited eight books on different topics. Has published 91 articles of literary criticism, and 122 conferences and papers. In 2015 he received the Rieveschl Award for Creative and Scholarly Work.
George Henson is a literary translator and a 2021-2023 Tulsa Artist Fellow. His translations include Cervantes Prize laureate Sergio Pitol’s Trilogy of Memory and Mephisto’s Waltz, The Heart of the Artichoke by fellow Cervantes recipient Elena Poniatowska, and Luis Jorge Boone’s Cannibal Nights. His translations have appeared variously in The Paris Review, The Literary Review, BOMB, The Guardian, Asymptote, among others. In addition, he is a contributing editor for World Literature Today and the translation editor-at-large for its sister publication Latin American Literature Today.
The eighth issue of Latin American Literature pays homage to Nicaraguan writer and politician Sergio Ramírez, winner of the 2017 Cervantes Prize and an important voice in a country currently gripped by crisis. We also feature poetry from Octavio Armand, as well as special sections dedicated to four indigenous writers of Mexico and Guatemala, bilingual sci-fi from Worldcon 76, and the poetry of Marosa di Giorgio, Olga Orozco, and Elena Garro.