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A Central American Masterpiece: Sergio Ramírez’s “Divine Punishment”

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Scraping back the layers of political influence on the English translation of Sergio Ramírez’s Divine Punishment is a little like peeling an onion. Each layer is more revealing than the previous one, with your eyes tearing up as you begin to understand the full implications of what you have been reading. Of course, if you read the novel and then the author’s afterword and then the translator’s note in the order in which they appear in the book, you do this is the opposite direction: You add the layers back onto the onion. Still, no matter which way, you realize that you have encountered a masterpiece—or, as Carlos Fuentes has described Divine Punishment: “the great Central American Novel.” Its expansiveness in either direction is awesome and you can only bemoan the fact that it’s taken thirty years since the book’s original publication for it to be available for English readers.

In Nick Caistor’s note on his stately translation he informs us that he began the work in 1988, a year after the novel’s original publication in Spanish. A year later, after pressure from the United States, the Sandinistas lost the election they had agreed to hold. Sergio Ramírez was the Sandinistas vice-president. They were fighting the Washington-backed Contra rebels. Caistor’s publisher for the translation backed off, apparently fearing a backlash even though the novel is set much earlier in the 1930s. This is how Ramírez describes its political context: “Telling the story [based on a celebrated crime] meant describing Nicaraguan society in those days. January 1, 1933 saw the end of U.S. military intervention that had followed the war of liberation fought by General Sandino’s peasant army. The U.S. marines had left as commander-in-chief of the new National Guard, General Anastasio Somoza, while a civilian president, Juan Bautista Sacasa, had been elected for a period of four years.”

Poor Nicaragua. We’ve been trampling all over it for decades. Even its writers feel the brunt of our interventions.

That Divine Punishment was written while the author was caught in the midst of his still another assault on his country’s politics is astonishing. Ramírez observes, “from a position of power it is impossible to place oneself above events in order to study the characters, whatever their position, and their contradictions, strong points and weaknesses, as a novelist should always do.” So instead of writing about contemporary events, Ramírez chose an earlier time, one that disturbingly mirrors the time during which he was writing. History repeats itself, as we all know. Human beings have little ability to learn from the past, which takes us directly to Ramírez’s Divine Punishment.

The novel begins with a reference to three articles that Rosalío Usulutlán, a journalist and a minor character, has published in the evening’s edition of El Cronista. They involve the local divinepunishwater company, mosquitos, and dogs, seemingly random subjects that will have little to do with the story that follows. Except that they do, with major consequences on the plot, based on the most celebrated criminal trial in the country’s history. The jacket of the English translation describes this as “the alleged murders in 1933 of two high society women and his employer by a Casanova named Oliverio Castañeda.” All of his characters’ names have been altered from the original, though Ramirez himself will eventually take over as the narrator of the novel. The first article refers to the Metropolitan Water Company’s new contract with León, the setting for the story. The second describes the fear of malaria-bearing mosquitos because of an exceptionally wet winter. The third, the equal proliferation of stray dogs roaming the streets and the need to eliminate them.

Castañeda is already in the local prison, awaiting trial, at the beginning of the story, charged with the murder of his young wife; plus the murder of Matilde Contreras and her father, Don Carmen, in order to marry María del Pilar, Matilde’s sister, and take over her father’s businesses, which include the water company. All three murders were from strychnine, which in human beings replicates many of the symptoms of malaria, referred to locally as backwater fever. Since Castañeda was known to have killed some of the stray dogs using that poison, it is one of León’s younger doctors who concludes that the poison was also used to kill the three victims. Dr. Atanasio Salmerón, in fact, draws this conclusion after Castañeda’s wife dies, predicting subsequent deaths in León. It should also be noted that Castañeda is an outsider from Guatemala, and for a time after they arrived in León, he and his wife lived with Don Carmen’s family.

It is Castañeda who is the novel’s center of focus, at least at the beginning. He’s twenty-five years old, described, variously, as a sociopathic criminal, a seducer, and a smooth-talking con artist. Another character will describe him as “a scorpion lurking in a pile of clothes.” There are speculations that earlier in his life he poisoned other people, including his mother when he was fourteen. It is Dr. Salmerón who makes repeated accusations against him, but the doctor is constantly at war with his mentor, the much older man, Dr. Juan de Dios Darbishire, who trained the younger doctor. Darbishire was the physician for the Contreras family, and he repeatedly insists that all three victims died of backwater fever. There are various lab tests with bodily fluids, with the younger doctor interpreting their results as proof of strychnine and the older one as no proof at all. Moreover, once Castañeda is in prison, something akin to a class war erupts in León, with the elite backing the older doctor’s belief that the prisoner has been wrongly incarcerated and the younger doctor proclaiming that Castañeda is a serial killer, out to marry Pilar and take over Don Carmen’s businesses.

What I find utterly brilliant in Divine Punishment is the constant reversals in the plot and the method of its construction. For one example of the former, consider that for a time the older doctor believes that his pupil, Dr. Salmerón, is correct: that Castañeda is a murderer. Thus, after Matilda dies, he swabs her mouth in order to test for poison, but then the swab is inadvertently thrown out by his assistant. There are many incidents such as this one where a piece of potential information that would verify the poisonings (instead of a fever) are stolen or destroyed. But the even more impressive aspect of the entire novel is the multiple voices that narrate the plot because court documents, interviews, newspaper articles, letters, and other forms of communion are used to relate the story. There is even a place late in the narrative when Rosalío Usulutlán—remember him, he’s the journalist who published those three articles?—self publishes a pamphlet summarizing the entire story of the murders in León, by saying that he is narrating a parable, without using the actual names of the people involved. This is a necessary move. He has lost his job at the newspaper because he has been accused of libel.

The focal point of the entire novel is class, with the elite and their servants relating different accounts of events that have transpired, the doctor of the rich at odds with the doctor he has trained, whose background is lower and whose patients are the poor—plus the political machinations of the Samoasan military government manipulating events in León, also for its own benefit at a time shortly after the gringos have left the country, supposedly to fend for itself. The layers of conflicting forces are, as I said at the beginning, like the layers of an onion, slowly being peeled away. Best of all, the ending (Castañeda’s guilt or not) is left ambiguous.

If you can read only one novel that I have praised during the past two or three years, read Sergio Ramírez’s Divine Punishment. Its grandeur will knock you over.

Sergio Ramírez: Divine Punishment

Trans. by Nick Caistor, with Hebe Powell

McPherson, 512, $30

 

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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