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Cuzcatlan: Where the Southern Sea Beats by Manlio Argueta ; translated by Clark Hansen (Vintage: $7.95, paperback; 257 pp.).

June 14, 1987|Raymund A. Paredes | Paredes is a professor of English at UCLA and works on the relationship between American and Latin American literature

In 1969, as he received El Premio Romulo Gallegos--arguably the most important literary award in Latin America--the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa proclaimed that "literature is fire," a form of "permanent rebellion" whose "mission is to agitate, disturb, alarm." This position, widely held in Latin America, enjoys far less acceptance in the United States where the labeling of a literary work as "political" is generally pejorative. Americans, particularly since the advent of the "New Criticism" in the 1920s, have gotten it in their heads that art and politics are incompatible.

This variance in notions about the nature and aims of literature helps to explain the ambiguous reception that the work of the exiled Salvadoran poet and novelist Manlio Argueta has received in this country. Argueta's best-known novel, "One Day of Life" (1980), was praised by some as courageous and moving but more frequently was dismissed as awkward and crudely propagandistic. Argueta's latest novel almost certainly will elicit the same range of responses.

Like "One Day of Life," "Cuzcatlan" (the aboriginal name for El Salvador) treats the political circumstances of Argueta's native land but this time with a broader historical focus. Argueta introduces "Cuzcatlan" with quotations from a Spanish conquistador and a contemporary military officer to dramatize El Salvador's long record of violence and tyranny, often at the hands of foreign interlopers and their lackeys. Argueta notes with particular vehemence the devastating consequences of the cultivation and processing of indigo, much admired by the Spaniards for its uses as a dye but which early proved to be a lethal carcinogen. Once having established the historical context of El Salvador's suffering, Argueta concentrates on more recent events.

"Cuzcatlan" traces the experiences of a typical Salvadoran peasant family from 1932 to 1981. The earlier year featured a conjunction of events conceivable only in Latin America. In January, 1932, bands of machete-wielding Indians surged into Salvadoran towns to protest poor wages and usurpation of their land. Remarkably, as they attacked land-owners and skirmished with soldiers, a chain of volcanoes erupted in the northwestern part of the country. Argueta recognizes the fictional posssiblities of this historical moment but lacks the imagination and craftsmanship to render it memorably.

As Argueta's handling of the events of 1932 suggests, the virtues of "Cuzcatlan" are not to be found in its formal and stylistic qualities. The action is not emplotted but strung together in a series of sketches narrated across several generations by members of the Martinez clan, each of whom represents a predictable type of character: the martyred patriarch; the timid non-participant, forced finally to take a stand against government brutality and repression; the amoral military henchman corrupted by "gringo" ideas, and the contemporary feminist revolutionary eager to demonstrate resourcefulness and courage equal to that of any man. Argueta's use of a flashback technique to position his narrators at various points during the historical span of the novel is sometimes heavy-handed. And nowhere is the prose of "Cuzcatlan" anything much more than workmanlike.

Nevertheless, "Cuzcatlan" is, as Vargas Llosa might put it, a "book of fire" whose powerful subject transcends Argueta's limitation and commands our notice. In presenting its indictment of Salvadoran leadership and foreign intervention, "Cuzcatlan" is shamelessly sensationalistic. The depiction of the indigo industry is a case in point as is Argueta's presentation of the government's response to the peasant rebellion of 1932. Thousands of Indians were executed and then dumped in shallow graves to be dug up by famished pigs. In another episode that suggests a governmental lunacy as profound as its barbarity, Argueta tells how soldiers burned the peasants' corn because they feared it was going to guerrillas. The corn crop was so thoroughly destroyed that the government eventually had to import corn from the United States to feed the people, all the while maintaining that Salvadorans should be grateful for this display of generosity.

All this might be more than the reader could take were it not for Argueta's carefully placed excursions into the dignified personal lives of the Martinez clan. Argueta writes warmly of family and romantic love and, like other Latin American writers, evokes the rich folkloric heritage--superstitions, legends, proverbs, and such--that bind people in a common culture. There are even moments of inspired humor in "Cuzcatlan," most notably in the accounts of Jacinto's two brushes with death, once when struck by lightning and another when bitten by a rabid dog. Miraculously, Jacinto survives each time. Argueta here makes his most appealing point: that the Salvadoran people will somehow endure and outlast their enemies.

As to the matter of Clark Hansen's translation, one can say that he has performed a difficult task competently. Much of "Cuzcatlan" is rendered in a Spanish vernacular that is all but impossible to translate without some compromise of meaning or effect. Still, Hansen aims to preserve the integrity of Argueta's powerful novel; like the Spanish version, the English "Cuzcatlan" de-emphasizes the role of the author and allows his fictional Salvadorans to speak plainly of their outrage and, more important, their will to live freely and without fear.

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