Sergio Ramírez: “In Nicaragua now they are all circles of hell”

  • The Nicaraguan writer exiled in Madrid returns to the noir genre with the novel ‘Tongole no saber danza’ and offers a talk at the BCNegra festival next Monday

Sitting in the living room of the house with windows that is the home of his exile in Madrid, Sergio Ramírez, Cervantes Prize for Literature, former vice president of Nicaragua when it was torn from the hands of the dictator Somoza, he looks at the city sun and it is impossible to avoid, looking at him, one of the most beautiful titles of his literature. That title, ‘Don’t go leaving me alone’, presides over the story in which he summarizes a visit to his childhood in Masatepe, where he reencounters in fiction everything that happened there before he followed the course of adults.

That trip took him, for example, to his first exile in Costa Rica, when the Somocista dictatorship reduced him to an itinerant citizen. After that war was won, after which he was Sandinista vice president with Daniel Ortega, he tried politics, and in the end he was persecuted by another dictatorship, precisely the one presided over by whoever was his partner in the high magistracy of what was once the revolutionary pearl of America and now imprisons or persecutes its opponents.

Here he is, exile again, with his wife, Tulita, who listens from another room in this recently inhabited house.

You have that story, ‘Don’t go leaving me alone’. The boy who was you wonders if he has been left alone when he enters his house in Masatepe, where you were born. What does the man you already are look at from here?

I look at my recent past, that land from which I had to leave, and today I feel further away. I think that is something inherent to exile. And the distance gets into your body and weighs you down, weighs you down. Increasingly.

Since you wrote that story, how has the house changed?

Well, it’s a house my parents bought. My father was a merchant and my mother a teacher. With what they were saving, they were adding parts to the house. My room, for example. Thus, to the extent that the family was growing. Now the house was inherited by my sister and my nieces, who occupy it on weekends. But it is almost always closed. Well, now one of my nephews has opened a dentistry office there, in what used to be my parents’ bedroom and, of course, the house now looks like something else. The houses evolve in strange ways. Sometimes you go back to the town where you were a child and find another face of the place: the old divided houses, the wall painted in different colors to mark the division. It seems to me that this is a ruin of memory, really.

My father lived making jokes and my mother was more serious

When was the first time you left that house?

In 1959, when I went to study in León. It was a very radical change, from a village to a big city. I left and knew that I would not return. I was going to visit my parents, of course. But one thing is to make visits and another thing is to live there. I never really went back because later I went to Costa Rica, then I settled in Managua and never came back.

That particular story, what metaphor does it include?

The metaphor of life, of distance, of estrangement, of surprise at the things that one leaves behind. The meaning of the story is to enter the past, an excessive ambition for any human being, but not for a writer.

What did childhood mean to you?

I had a very domestic childhood. My parents had a relationship… if not perfect, yes quiet. My father was Catholic and my mother evangelical and there was a dispute over that religious difference between my grandparents when they were going to get married. At that time that was something unusual: a Catholic marrying a Protestant? What a barbarity. Well, well, my father and my mother got over him and then neither imposed his beliefs on his children. My father lived making jokes and my mother was more serious. And I moved in that world, becoming a part of one thing and another, humor and discipline.

I was 17 years old and one afternoon, during a demonstration, they killed four of my companions

Time passed and, as an adult, how did you face the civil duty of defending your country?

I think that if Masatepe was calm and my family a haven of peace, it was because we lived, in a way, in a bubble. My whole family was from the Liberals, against the Conservatives, the eternal national dispute. When I arrived in León, I encountered many disturbances. Because the students constantly protested against Somoza and I… I joined. I was 17 years old and one afternoon, during a demonstration, they killed four of my companions. The news shook my parents, they were afraid that they were going to kill me, of course, but I already had my independence.

Were you not afraid?

Yeah right. But only until I heard shots. I ran and managed to get into a small restaurant and came out when everything had already gone dark. I felt like a survivor, but a rabid survivor. How was it possible that they had killed my companions? I was very upset. There I felt that my life had changed. That tragic afternoon my ethical commitment was born.

How did the boy of peace become a teenager of war?

I became a teenager who faced politics. Even my literature was born in the face of politics. He published a magazine with some colleagues and there was only what we considered literature committed to reality. It was a combative magazine. Then I went to the Revolutionary Student Front, the base of the Sandinista Front.

Does that struggle have a metaphor for you today?

Yes. Firstly because, in my adolescence, joining the Sandinista Front meant being willing to give one’s life. And when we glimpsed a political change, everything went to more.

What does the word ‘war’ tell you today?

When the war between Honduras and El Salvador happened, I directed a university press in Costa Rica, and we published a book called ‘The Useless War’. I remember someone said to me: “Ah, but are there useful wars?” And that got me thinking. Years later I said: yes, at least the war in which I participated has made it possible to put an end to a terrible regime. But that didn’t last long for me. Because I realized that a war can end a tyranny, but it ends up creating the next tyranny. At least in the case of Nicaragua. And the facts I refer. That is also why I would like the new transition that my country needs to be democratic or, at least, without causing the terrible damage of the Revolution: thousands of dead young people.

In my first exile I was 30 and I came back to fight against Somoza. Today, in this second exile, I am 80 and I contemplate that I can die in exile

What mood is moving through your blood as you remember that?

It is changeable. In my first exile I was 30 and I came back to fight against Somoza. Today, in this second exile, I am 80 and I contemplate that I can die in exile. I said it the other day at the Hay Festival in Cartagena de Indias and many wrote to me asking if I had lost hope. Well, that kind of reflection has to do with the state of mind that exile imposes on you. It makes you too sad or you begin to turn reality into fiction: a firecracker bursts and you already think that a change is coming for the country. I am aware that you have to take care of these things. It is not necessary to leave because of despair nor because of utopian illusions.

Are there any recent wars that you have won?

I have many lost battles and now I am in the middle of the writing battle. And I don’t think I’ve won it yet. I feel like giving it, but I haven’t come out on top yet. Because one always has to think that he is about to write his best book. I’m on it. I’m still on that.

Your most recent book is a devastating chronicle of what happened in Nicaragua in 2018, ‘Tongolele does not know how to dance’ (Alfaguara). What happened when you were young also reverberates in this novel?

Yes. What I experienced has left an unforgettable mark. Facing death at the age of 17 is a very momentous thing. Because at that age one is not thinking about death. Because from then on one begins to live with those dead in tow. I have never forgotten those comrades killed that time. I have never forgotten, either, that I could have been the dead one.

What part of life is now hell?

Rubén Darío returned to Nicaragua to die. He arrived helpless in every way. Then they took out his brain that they fought over, and his brain went to the American marine barracks, because Nicaragua was an occupied country & mldr; I tell that in my novel ‘Margarita es linda la mar’. I make the reflection that Darío did not return to his native country or to the country of his childhood, but to hell. Well, Nicaragua today, for me, is hell. These days they are judging and condemning political prisoners without listening to them. Locked in cells without light, without medicine, under permanent interrogation. Now they are doing three-hour trials inside the prison itself and the sentence is already ready in advance… In short: they are in hell. Those who want to leave the country and don’t let them, are in hell. And the exiles too, in some way, we are in hell. They are all circles of hell.

Knowing that my daughters are doing well in Nicaragua is a joy. Being accompanied here by my wife is a joy

How is the hell of the exiles?

Full of anguish, of discomfort, of feeling that you sleep in a strange bed… You have to fight for the environment. I’m still very provincial and a big city baffles me. A city like Madrid has many secrets to discover.

In this time of unrest, have you glimpsed joy?

Yes, one makes room for joy. One has to be like a satellite dish to catch the joy. Now my two youngest grandchildren are graduating from high school and are leaving the country to study for a career. That is a joy. Knowing that my daughters are doing well in Nicaragua is a joy. Being accompanied here by my wife is a joy.

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Who would you send a postcard from this country to right now?

I would send a postcard to my daughters in Nicaragua. One with good views of Madrid. Or, look: maybe one with some reproduction of Goya’s executions.

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