The Country Under My Skin

Belli, The Country Under My Skin

Gioconda Belli ends her “memoir of love and war” with the electoral defeat of the Sandinista revolution and her subsequent move to the USA with her American husband, a journalist whom she’d met while he was covering the Nicaraguan conflict. As she points out, this transition represents the culmination of something like a personal “revolution” in the old-fashioned (and original) sense of a return to the former state of things: “Had my life come full circle? (358). Indeed, when she arrives in Los Angeles and moves into “a house that was exactly like the homes of all [her] teenage friends in Managua: one-story, 1960s-style, with straight lines, a yard in the back,” she muses that she “felt like [she] was back in the past after such a long, circuitous trip through so many other dimensions. [. . .] Funny, I thought, that my life would take such twists and turns. But I remained the same” (362).

What, however, does it mean to “remain the same” in this context? For no sooner does she note the remarkable similarities between the US West Coast and the tranquil suburbia of her own privileged childhood than she also starts to mark the differences between North and Central American cultures. When the Santa Monica earthquake hits in 1994, for instance, she observes that her neighbours “shared a legacy of civic trust and public safety that [she] completely lacked” (364). Whereas they “were confident that their houses were well built, that the firemen would always answer their call, that the police were there to help them,” by contrast she “was frightened by the possibility of anarchy and chaos” (365). Or, rather less flatteringly to the US, she notes the “tanned, muscular men and women” around her, devoted to “healthy diets” and personal self-discipline (366), and she waxes nostalgic about the energies that, in Nicaragua, she has spent in pursuit of a collective project, “the exaltation and joy that comes from joining others in the effort to change the world” (367). Seeing her fellow citizens “with bottles of Evian water tucked under their arms” she thinks back to the days when she “transported weapons, carried a machine gun on [her] shoulder” and asks herself “if [she is] the same person.” “I can’t help but wonder,” she writes, “if a stroke of fate granted me not one but two lives” (366).

A memoir tends to assume–better yet, it actively constructs–a unitary subject, the first-person “I” that stitches together a diverse range of experiences and unites them under the sign of the same grammatical subject. But this is a memoir about a self that, more than many others, frequently flirts with dissolution and division. Or rather, perhaps, with multiplication: not one, but two; not even two, but many. Indeed, at the very outset of the book Belli notes that it was her “destiny to be drawn to the warmth of the crowds” (ix). And it is this impulse that perhaps explains both aspects of what is from the start a dual autobiography: of love and war. For her “response to the multitude” leads her to seek to break out of the stifling cocoon of bourgeois feminine comfort in which she is raised, and (as she puts it) to be “attracted to the world of men, biological functions and domestic life notwithstanding” (ix). Her twin passions, then, are political activism and, well, passion itself. For this is an account of her involvement with the revolution by way of a series of romantic relationships with the powerful men who lead it. Yet these two impulses are as likely to tear her apart as they are to reinforce or strengthen each other.

To take only the most dramatic example: the initial triumph of the Revolution in July 1979 almost passes Belli by. For she is involved in a somewhat torrid affair with a senior Sandinista comandante, “Modesto” (Henry Ruíz), who forms part of the initial National Directorate, and she finds that her “obsession” for him “possessed [her] and robbed [her] of the elation and novelty of that period.” As she puts it: “I did not breathe in the crisp, fresh air of rebirth that was pervasive in those first few weeks. [. . .] Such maddening, all-encompassing love monopolized all my senses and robbed me of energy” (259). Yet soon and unsurprisingly enough, as part of a litany of accounts of the ways in which revolutionary men take women for granted, Modesto discards her. Ultimately, she doesn’t fit his image. So just as the “real revolution” then begins with the first literacy crusade, so Belli’s own personal revolution (now in the sense of change, rather than restoration) can only truly be launched once she realizes that her “love for him was like a disease that was slowly consuming [her, that] if [she] didn’t exorcise him from [her] body, [her] identity would slowly burn away into nothing” (288).

Ultimately, what’s interesting about this book is the way in which it remains torn, incomplete or (perhaps better) excessive. Belli tells us at almost the same time both that her goal is “reconciling [her] two lives” (x) and that she has “discovered the joy that comes from surrendering the ‘I’ and embracing the ‘we'” (xi). I rather doubt both these propositions, however serene (or sometimes more banally self-justifying) the net her recollections cast over her past adventures. There is in fact as much anxiety as joy over the dissolution or multiplication of the self. And there is much here that is unresolved, even unexplored or insufficiently analyzed. We don’t, in the end, get all that far “under [Belli’s] skin,” or rather what is presented as depth is too often sentimental and glib. But she knows this. Or perhaps it is the book itself that betrays her and stands as evidence that the revolution with all its threatening disarray continues, la lucha sigue.

See also seduction; Revolution: A Practical Guide.

Fire from the Mountain

If Zhou Enlai’s famous (if possibly apocryphal) comment about the impact of the French Revolution–it’s “too soon to say”–tells us that Revolutions can only be evaluated and understood over the long term, this is surely as true of their origins as of their legacies. To put this another way: it’s as hard to determine when a Revolution starts as it is to know when it has come to an end. At issue here is (again) the temporality of Revolution and its relation to history. One view is the revolutions are events, punctual interventions in history that transform or even overturn our sense of historical destiny. Hence they can be dated, often quite precisely: 1776 (the USA); October 1917 (Russia); January 1, 1959 (Cuba); July 17, 1979 (Nicaragua). These dates are historical caesurae. They mark the points at which the old order collapses and the new begins. As such, they slice up history: nothing afterwards is quite the same as what went on before.

Another view is that revolutions are best seen as processes. 1776, 1917, 1959 (etc.) mark only the beginnings of a series of changes that have their own histories and may advance or be betrayed, depending on the balance of forces and struggles that continue long after the initial taking of power. But surely these dates also mark the culmination of (perhaps) increasingly coordinated efforts to up-end the status quo and bring about new forms of society. Sometimes key events are cited as precursors. For colonial North America, for instance, the 1773 “Boston Tea Party” is celebrated as a key moment in the movement that led to independence. In a rather different way, for Russia the Revolution has been dated from Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station in April 1917. But in each case perhaps it would be better to look further back: for instance to the formation of the “Sons of Liberty” in 1765 for the Thirteen Colonies, or to the establishment of the Bolshevik party in 1903 for what would become the USSR. But the establishment of these groups was itself the outcome of prior discontent and protest. How far back do you go?

In El Salvador, for instance, we might say that the (ultimately, failed) revolution there began with the creation of the FMLN in October, 1980, or with the formation of its constituent parts as small, revolutionary groups in the 1960s and 1970s. Alternatively, it’s arguable that the movement led by the FMLN in the 1980s began in 1932 (with the failed Communist uprising in the West of the country) in 1832 (with Anastasio Aquino’s indigenous revolt against the postcolonial creole elite) or even in 1524 (with resistance to the Spanish conquest at the Battle of Acajuctla). And other Latin American countries have similar histories of resistance and rebellion, to which subsequent revolutionary groups often pay homage in the names they choose for their organizations: the Salvadoran Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, for instance, honours a hero of 1932; the Uruguayan Tupamaros gesture to the 1780 revolt against the Vice Royalty of Peru, led by Túpac Amaru II; and in Nicaragua, the Sandinista National Liberation Front commemorates Augusto Sandino and his resistance to the country’s occupation by US Marines in the 1920s and 1930s.

Cabezas, Fire from the Mountain

It is in this context, then, that we can understand the aim of Omar Cabezas’s Fire from the Mountain: it sets out, consciously or otherwise, to establish the Sandinistas’ historical legitimacy. For, especially from the point of view of outsiders, the Nicaraguan Revolution appeared to come from nowhere. The final campaign that brought down the dictator Somoza was astonishingly brief, a matter of months rather than years. Previously, the FSLN had been known only for what was in effect merely a relatively high-profile publicity stunt: taking a number of prominent hostages as a house party in December 1974, a feat that they successfully repeated, on a grander scale, at the Nicaraguan Congress in August 1978, less than a year before their eventual triumph. Otherwise, though founded in 1961, the Sandinistas were effectively unknown–not surprisingly, as for more than a decade their numbers never rose much above a few hundred, they represented hardly any military threat to the regime, and they were consistently on the verge of being wiped out by Somoza’s security forces.

Yet Fire from the Mountain is dedicated to this period when the FSLN was unheralded, marginal, and ineffective, rather than to their tumultuous final campaign and ultimate victory. It’s notable, for instance, that in the entire period of his guerrilla experience that the book covers, Cabezas never sees combat and not once does he fire his gun in anger. Indeed, it’s not clear that he fires his gun at all, except to kill a monkey to eat. The nearest he comes to direct action is when, encircled by the National Guard, he and a fellow Sandinista “backed off, firing two shots, and started running like hell” (166). Meanwhile, the book charts what could be described as a series of catastrophes and failures, including the death of one of the more prominent guerrillas in the aftermath the only armed action that is described (at a distance), the shambolic break-up of a training camp for which Cabezas is military director, and most significantly what is in effect the annihilation of the group’s entire network of collaborators and safe houses in the North of the country. So when at one point the revolutionaries’ entire Northern leadership shows up at a house in the middle of the night (175), it is because there is basically nobody else left, and they have nowhere else to go.

None of this matters, however, and not merely because the book was written and published (in 1982) well after the Sandinistas’ eventual triumph. The point is that the narrative ends not with the revolutionary victory itself, but with the moment at which Cabezas (feels that he) can establish a continuity with the struggle of Sandino himself, forty years earlier. This comes just after Cabezas writes at length of a feeling of historical disjuncture, that the FSLN exists somehow outside of history, when he notes that life for his hometown (León), his mother, and the rest of his family goes on regardless while he is up on the hills: “León and my house had continued on quite independently of whether I was there or not. [. . .] That confused me. I had lost my bearings in space and time” (214). He continues: “I cam from somewhere else, from living something else. Something snapped–my head was a whirl of space and time that I couldn’t get straightened out. What I did feel was my own absurdity. Because I couldn’t make sense of the two dimensions of time” (215). Revolutionary time and historical time seem at odds in this profound crisis, which is only resolved subsequently, when Cabezas meets an elderly peasant, Don Leandro, who had fought with Sandino himself some two generations previously.

At first it is Don Leandro’s sense of temporality that seems decidedly shaky. He sees Cabezas’s pistol and asks “what did you do with the other weapons” (217) only for it to emerge that he is talking about Sandino’s own weapons. “For him, that moment he had preserved and which had grown old was an instant that lasted forty years” (217). But it is precisely the longevity of this “instant” that enables a connection between the guerrillas of the 1970s and the original Sandinistas to whom their name gives homage. Cabezas tells us all of a sudden that he is now “touching Sandino [. . .] touching history” (218). The time of the revolution can now be aligned with historical time, as a filial continuity is established between old Don Leandro and Cabezas himself, a fatherless son: “It was as if it had never been interrupted, as if all this were a continuation of what [Leandro] had lived through with Sandino. [. . .] I started to feel that Don Leandro was the father, and I realized that in fact he was the father. [. . .] And never did I feel more a son of Sandinismo, more a son of Nicaragua than at that moment” (218, 221). The FSLN thus establishes an origin and a historical justification for a contemporary struggle that otherwise seems misaligned with the time of the people, and of the city. They usurp a national temporality, making themselves heirs to history: “It was history, the honor of the people, the historical rebellion of the people.” No longer absurd, “that, in essence, was the reality” (220).

The revolution belatedly establishes its origin, only through the struggle itself–only, in other words, after the fighting has already begun. But once that origin is established, then for Cabezas the battle is already won. There is no need to show the triumph of 1979. The point is to be able to assert that he “was walking on something concrete.” Cabezas continues: “I was rooted in the earth, attached to the soil, to history. I felt invincible” (221). With that, no more needs to be said, and the book comes to an end, because it has finally found its beginning.

sombrero

Watching this footage (which I’ve just come across) gives me goosebumps.

It comes from a pro-Sandinista solidarity concert held in Nicaragua in 1983, billed as a “concierto por la paz centroamericana.” The soundtrack was released as “April in Managua.” I used to own the cassette version, which I was given in Honduras sometime around 1988. I practically wore it out listening to it.

Wikipedia tells me that Alí Primera, the singer here, died a couple of years later, at the age of 42, which only adds further poignancy to this video.

seduction

Giaconda Belli

Gioconda Belli’s The Country Under My Skin documents both the euphoria and the disappointment of the Nicaraguan revolution. It’s also a meditation on the relations between power, affect, and knowledge. And it’s a seductive tale warning of the dangers of seduction.

Belli is in Costa Rica in the days leading up to Somoza’s downfall, frustrated about her distance from the real action. But thanks to her access to radio communications with rebel commanders on the front lines, she is able to follow the action if anything more closely than most of those on the ground: “It was mesmerizing to hear about the progress of the insurrection, to hear what was happening in real time” (234).

The final weeks and months of the Sandinista triumph went by astonishingly rapidly. Rather than leading, the Sandinistas were running to catch up with their impending triumph. Belli captures the “sensation of unreality” as victory finally, unexpectedly, raced up to meet them and the FSLN were thrust, blinking in the light, onto the world stage: “Sometimes it seemed as though they couldn’t be talking about my tiny country, abandoned by everyone and beholden to a bloody dictator for half a century, but about a major power, able to make policy decisions that would alter Latin America’s future” (236).

And then suddenly, almost anticlimactically, Somoza leaves office. And the Sandinistas, as much as anyone else, are left wondering what happens next: “Nobody spoke. Nobody moved. Everyone’s eyes glittered with anticipation” (239).

Then the celebration: “Overcome with joy, we fell into one another’s arms. ‘Somoza left!’ we repeated to each other, as we kissed, danced and hugged.” And Belli echoes Neruda’s famous “Heights of Macchu Picchu” in her invocation of the dead reborn in triumph: “Multitudes of our beloved dead came to life among us with their empty eyes, their deaf ears, the dust of their bones that could never celebrate with us” (239). It’s a mythic time of (re)creation: “The 18th, the 19th of July 1979. [. . .] Two days that felt as though a magical, age-old spell had been cast over us, taking us back to Genesis, to the very site of the creation of the world” (241).

Such is the world-making power of revolutionary violence.

Ernesto Cardenal and multitude

Ernesto Cardenal and multitude

But Belli, closely associated with the cúpula of the FSLN leadership, is soon entrusted with part of the transformation of that constituent power into constituted power: the construction of a nation, reconstruction of the state. Her task is to represent the revolution, to produce the “victory issue” of a new newspaper, to be called Patria Libre. This task can only be completed from the distance that representation requires, the newspaper then imported into the newly liberated country.

Flying into Managua on a plane loaded down with newsprint, Belli finds the airport almost deserted: the action is elsewhere. Only an old school friend has turned up to greet her, but Belli turns her away, judging her guardianship of the papers to be more important. Here, even at arrival, is the first disappointment, the first betrayal, of the revolution: over the “eerie desolation” of the airport terminal “Justine’s face would be always superimposed. I managed to shake off my uneasiness. There would be time later on to explain things to Justine, to my parents, I said to myself. They would wait for me, they always did. But history wouldn’t” (246).

Belli sets off, with her precious copies of Patria Libre, seeking to track down the history that the newspaper already claimed to represent. Her truck passes jubilant crowds: “their joy had the taste of sweet, red watermelon, its juice dripping down my chin” (247). But when at last they get to the city and reach the central plaza “there was no one left. That was when we realized that the crowds we’d seen on the road had been walking home after the celebration. All that was left in the great, deserted plaza were wrappers, trash” (248).

Henry Ruiz, aka Modesto

Henry Ruiz, aka Modesto

In place of this unpredictable, mobile multitude, the Sandinistas establish a militarized state as totem and fetish, positing its institutions and its leaders as the object of revolutionary desire–thus inverting the relationship constitutive of the triumph itself. Belli notes the demobilizing effect of this inversion, describing her lover Modesto and his “bodyguards, who only a month earlier had fearlessly confronted Somoza’s tanks, [and now] were docile and obedient in their leader’s presence” (266).

She observes the ways in which “military protocol had its grandiose, seductive side. [. . .] Modesto–comandante, member of the Sandinista National Directorate, maximum authority in Nicaragua both during and after the Revolution–would move calmly amid the soldiers hurriedly standing at attention” (266).

It’s not long before Belli also realizes that “the dazzling spell of power”–constituted power, we should clarify–also entails self-delusion among those who wield it: “these men had been seduced by the spell of their own self-image [. . .]. They felt eminently astute and capable, a cross between political bright boys and heroic, strapping knights-errant” (275).

The Sandinistas begin to believe their own myth of leadership, rather than learning from their experience of belatedness. The only indication of what has been lost in this transition is the lingering nostalgia that pervades Belli’s memoir, a “nostalgia for what we had been” (291) before the rigidity that set in with the state’s consolidation, and before the FSLN retrospectively branded everything in sight with their red and black logo.

See also The Country Under My Skin.