HOPE: A PROLOGUE
Ten years ago, when I was living in a small flat above an offlicence in SW1, I learned that the big house next door had been bought by the wife of the dictator of Nicaragua, Anastasio Somoza Debayle. The street was obviously going down in the world, what with the murder of the nanny Sandra Rivett by that nice Lord Lucan at number 44, and I moved out a few months later. I never met Hope Somoza, but her house became notorious in the street for a burglar alarm that went off with surprising frequency, and for the occasional parties that would cause the street to be jammed solid with Rolls-Royce, Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar limousines. Back in Managua, her husband ‘Tacho’ had taken a mistress, Dinorah, and Hope was no doubt trying to keep her spirits up.
Tacho and Dinorah fled Nicaragua on 17 July 1979, so that ‘Nicaragua libre’ was born exactly one month after my own son. (19 July is the formal independence day, because that was when the Sandinistas entered Managua, but the 17th is the real hat-in-air moment, the día de alegría, the day of joy.) I’ve always had a weakness for synchronicity, and I felt that the proximity of the birthdays forged a bond.
When the Reagan administration began its war against Nicaragua, I recognized a deeper affinity with that small country in a continent (Central America) upon which I had never set foot. I grew daily more interested in its affairs, because, after all, I was myself the child of a successful revolt against a great power, my consciousness the product of the triumph of the Indian revolution. It was perhaps also true that those of us who did not have our origins in the countries of the mighty West, or North, had something in common – not, certainly, anything as simplistic as a unified ‘third world’ outlook, but at least some knowledge of what weakness was like, some awareness of the view from underneath, and of how it felt to be there, on the bottom, looking up at the descending heel. I became a sponsor of the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign in London. I mention this to declare an interest; when I finally visited Nicaragua, in July 1986, I did not go as a wholly neutral observer. I was not a blank slate.
I went to Nicaragua as the guest of the Sandinista Association of Cultural Workers (ASTC), the umbrella organization that brought writers, artists, musicians, craftspeople, dancers and so on, together under the same roof. The occasion was the seventh anniversary of the ‘triumph’, as it’s known, of the Frente Sandinista. I went eagerly, but with a good deal of nervousness. I was familiar with the tendency of revolutions to go wrong, to devour their children, to become the thing they had been created to destroy. I knew about starting with idealism and romance and ending with betrayed expectations, broken hope. Would I find myself disliking the Sandinistas? One didn’t have to like people to believe in their right not to be squashed by the United States; but it helped, it certainly helped.
It was a critical time. On 27 June, the International Court of Justice in the Hague had ruled that US aid to la Contra, the counter-revolutionary army the CIA had invented, assembled, organized and armed, was in violation of international law. The US House of Representatives, meanwhile, went ahead and approved President Reagan’s request for $100 million-worth of new aid for the counter-revolution. In what looked like an act of retaliation, President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua had announced the closure of the opposition newspaper, La Prensa, and the expulsion of two turbulent priests, Bishop Vega and Monsignor Bismark Carballo. The storm was brewing.
I was in Nicaragua for three weeks in July. What follows, therefore, is a portrait of a moment, no more, in the life of that beautiful, volcanic country. I did not go to Nicaragua intending to write a book, or, indeed, to write at all; but my encounter with the place affected me so deeply that in the end I had no choice. So: a moment, but, I believe, a crucial and revealing one, because it was neither a beginning nor an end, but a middle, a time that felt close to the fulcrum of history, a time when all things, all the possible futures, were still (just) in the balance.
Nor, in spite of everything, did it seem, as I had feared it might, like a time without hope.
‘Cristoforo Colón set sail from Palos de Moguer in Spain, to find the lands of the Great Khan, where there were castles of gold, and the species were growing up in a wildly way; and, when walking on the ways, precious stones were frequently found. However, instead of that world, another, also rich, beautiful and plenty of fantasy, was discovered: America.’
I read this passage on a ‘tobacco map’ of Cuba at Havana airport, and to a traveller en route to Central America for the first time, it seemed like a propitious text. Later, however, as the plane wheeled over the green lagoon in the crater of the volcano of Apoyeque, and Managua came into view, I recalled another, darker text, from Neruda’s poem Centro América:
Land as slim as a whip,
hot as torture,
your step in Honduras, your blood
in Santo Domingo, at night,
your eyes in Nicaragua
touch me, call me, grip me,
and throughout American lands
I knock on doors to speak,
I tap on tongues that are tied,
I raise curtains, I plunge
my hands into blood:
of my land, O death-rattle
of the great established silence,
O, long-suffering peoples,
O, slender waist of tears.
To understand the living in Nicaragua, I found, it was necessary to begin with the dead. The country was full of ghosts. Sandino vive, a wall shouted at me the moment I arrived, and at once a large pinkish boulder replied, Cristo vive, and, what’s more, viene pronto. A few moments later I passed the empty plinth upon which, until seven years ago, there stood the equestrian statue of the monster; except that it wasn’t really him, but a second-hand statue from Italy that had been given a new face. The original face had been Mussolini’s. The statue toppled with the dictatorship, but the empty plinth was, in a way, a deception. Somoza vive: chill, dark words, not much heard in Nicaragua, but the beast was alive all right. Tacho was assassinated in 1980 by an Argentine Montonero unit who found him in Paraguay, but there was his shadow haunting the Honduran frontier, a phantom in a cowboy hat.
Managua sprawled around its own corpse. Eighty per cent of the city’s buildings had fallen down in the great earthquake of 1972, and most of what used to be the centre was now an emptiness. Under Somoza, it had been left as a pile of rubble, and it wasn’t until after his fall that the mess was cleared up and grass was planted where downtown Managua used to be.
The hollow centre gave the city a provisional, film-set unreality. There was still a serious shortage of houses, and Managuans were obliged to improvise with what was left. The Foreign Ministry occupied an abandoned shopping mall. The National Assembly itself sat in a converted bank. The Intercontinental Hotel, a sawn-off concrete pyramid, had unfortunately failed to collapse. It stood amidst the wraiths of old Managua like an omen: an ugly American, but a survivor, nevertheless. (It became impossible, I discovered, not to see such a city in symbolic terms.)
People, too, were in short supply. Nicaragua’s population was under three million, and the war continued to reduce it. In my first hours in the city streets, I saw a number of sights that were familiar to eyes trained in India and Pakistan: the capital’s few buses, many of them donated quite recently by Alfonsín’s new Argentina, were crammed to bursting-point with people, who hung off them in a very subcontinental way. And the roadside shanties put up by the campesinos (peasants) who had come to Managua with hope and not much else, echoed the bustees of Calcutta and Bombay. Later I realized that these echoes of multitudinous lands were as misleading as the tyrant’s empty plinth. Nicaragua, which was about the size of the state of Oklahoma (if you turned England and Wales upside down, you’d have a rough approximation of its proportions), was also the emptiest of the countries of Central America. There were six times as many people in the New York metropolitan area as there were in the whole of Nicaragua. The void of downtown Managua revealed more than a crowded bus.
Filling the void, populating the streets, were the ghosts, the martyr dead. The Argentinian novelist Ernesto Sábato described Buenos Aires as a city whose street-names served to entomb the memory of its heroes, and in Nicaragua, too, I often had the feeling that everyone who mattered had already died and been immortalized in the names of hospitals, schools, theatres, highways or even (in the case of the great poet Rubén Darío) an entire town. In classical Greece, heroes could aspire to the status of gods, or at least hope to be turned into constellations, but the dead of an impoverished twentieth-century country had to make do with this more prosaic, public-park or sports-stadium immortality.
Of the ten earliest leaders of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, nine had been killed before Somoza fell. Their faces, painted in the Sandinista colours of red and black, stared gigantically down on the Plaza de la Revolución. Carlos Fonseca (who had founded the Frente in 1956 and who fell in November, 1976, just two and a half years before the Sandinista victory); Silvio Mayorga; Germán Pomares: their names were like a litany. The survivor, Tomás Borge, now Minister of the Interior, was up there too, one living man among the immortals. Borge was badly tortured and, the story goes, ‘took his revenge’ on his torturer after the revolution, by forgiving him.
Copyright © 2011 by Salman Rushdie. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.