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The Ghosts of a Central American Girlhood : LUISA IN REALITYLAND by Claribel Alegria, translated from Spanish by Darwin J. Flakoll (Curbstone Press: $17.95; 152 pp.)

November 15, 1987|Carolyn Forche | Forche translated Alegria's book of poems, "Flowers From the Volcano" (University of Pittsburgh); her own books of poetry are "The Country Between Us" (Harper & Row) and "Gathering the Tribe" (Yale).

In 1977, I began translating the poetry of Claribel Alegria into English. As a neophyte, I expected to find such work difficult, but Alegria's eluded me for extra-linguistic reasons: It reflected the severity of life under military dictatorships in the Nicaragua of her birth (still ruled by Somoza) and the El Salvador of her girlhood and upbringing. In matters regarding torture, disappearance, imprisonment and the struggle for social justice, dictionaries and grammars were of little help. I found it difficult to distinguish the literal from the metaphorical: Were a prisoner's fingers actually cut off, or did the poet mean to suggest that the imprisoned musician no longer felt moved to play his guitar? The answer was yes, the musician's hands had, in fact, been mutilated.

So as to assure that my translations would do some justice to the poems, I traveled to Deya, Mallorca, where Claribel Alegria lived, after having spent more than 30 years in self-imposed exile. Her house was frequented then by writers of the "Boom," many of them her dearest friends, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Julio Cortazar. Its terrace faced the sacred mountain, Teix, and it was here that she held an informal salon for travelers and exiles; here that glasses were filled with Mallorquin wine as the sun dropped into the Teix and goat bells rang on its slopes, while in low voices the harshest stories were told, and in ringing tones, the magical tales of Claribel Alegria's childhood recounted. It was Cortazar who first urged her to write them down, but it was years before she did so--only now do we have "Luisa in Realityland," an autobiographical novel alternately written in verse and anecdotal prose vignettes.

"In Luisa's family there were many fabulous liars," one such passage of prose begins, "including herself of course." By way of such an admission do we enter Luisa's "Realityland" of myth-making uncles, prescient animals, ancestral chambers and the sexual secrets of Catholic childhood. In the prose vignettes, a family in mourning gives burial to a stranger's corpse at the very hour their own son is buried far away; a man who has never left his village so convincingly invents his own memories of Paris that he can reminisce with Parisians; a ghost's bedroom slippers are heard in a house for 60 years. We are in the realm of magic realism, or rather as Alejo Carpentier and Garcia Marquez have suggested, in the realm of ordinary Latin American life.

Like Claribel, Luisa spends part of her dream life painting "cabbages with eyes, noses or ears lurking in the leaves; plazas filled with empty chairs; black-frocked pastors preaching to starving dogs and two-legged cows." She fills more than seventy canvases and longs to find a gallery to exhibit her work in the dream world "for friends she kept meeting in that other dimension." Then she begins a canvas impossible to finish: red dots on a gray field, mysteriously red, dripping and running like blood, and as the actual world of politics and struggle intrude upon the world of her dreams, she turns away from painting and devotes herself to poetry.

The poems throughout this work are by turns incantatory and elegiac, as if the past were somehow haunted by the present. The poet harshly admonishes her younger self for attempting to create an oasis of art and motherhood in a world of violence and injustice. By turns she addresses a lover still alive and perhaps a love who preceded her into death, whose identity remains mysterious, but whose absence brings special poignancy to these remembrances, as if the life they evoke were larger than themselves, and transcended the narrowly personal to become the collective memory of Central Americans in this decade.

The prose vignettes recall for me the stories Claribel Alegria told on her terrace that balmy summer 10 years ago, including the most horrific: her Chilean friend's encounter with "the blue theater," where she was made to witness the death by slow dismemberment of a university schoolmate. The details are here, as vivid as those burned into my memory at the first telling. Now that such stories are committed to paper there is less risk that they will ever be viewed as apocryphal.

"Luisa in Realityland" closes with a long poem in parts, which is actually a repetition of earlier poems out of sequence, as if the work were an echo chamber and yet, by such repetition, further meaning accrues to the poems, so that they become a more complete utterance of one woman's struggle to preserve her past and redeem her present.

Before Claribel Alegria lived in Deya, her house there was inhabited by an elderly deaf-mute woman, whose cane Claribel kept in the house for the use of the woman's ghost. Many years later, when Claribel left to make her home in Managua, the house was rented, coincidentally, to seven deaf-mute dwarfs working for the circus. They were said to have been as happy in the house as Claribel was in Nicaragua. In the Deya of 10 years ago it was thought that one only needed to fill a certain kind of bottle with herbs and amulets to have luck the rest of one's life. Julio Cortazar was among the many who urged her to bottle "Luisa in Realityland," cork it, and throw it in the sea. Had Cortazar lived to read the results, he would have been pleased.

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