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The Sandinista Book Tour : Nicaraguan Vice President Finds Time to Pen--and Plug--a Novel

October 25, 1988|MARJORIE MILLER | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — For Sergio Ramirez, poet, author and vice president of Nicaragua's revolutionary government, the mixing of art and politics is first and foremost a question of logistics.

Every day, between an early-morning jog and arrival at his Managua office, the Sandinista leader spends 2 1/2 hours at his personal computer tapping out novels. On an official visit here last week to meet with outgoing President Miguel de la Madrid and President-elect Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Ramirez squeezed in time to plug the latest fruit of this early-morning labor, a 450-page novel titled "Divine Punishment."

"I divide my time between literature and politics," Ramirez said in an interview before introducing the Mexican edition of his book at the Rufino Tamayo Museum. "I think I have managed to work in the two areas without allowing either one to prejudice the other."

But if he had his druthers, Ramirez said, if war-torn Nicaragua were back on its feet, the Sandinista revolution stable and safe from attack, the vice president would leave his government post to dedicate himself full-time to literature and leading a workshop for young writers.

"If I had the opportunity," he said, "I would only be a writer."

His newest book is a fictionalized account of a high-society triple murder in the provincial city of Leon in 1933 and of Oliverio Castaneda, the handsome and charismatic lawyer convicted of the killings.

While some critics at home charge that Ramirez meant the story of murder and adultery to portray a pre-revolutionary elite as immoral, Ramirez says there was no political motive for writing the book.

"This is the story of an interesting individual, a character. If I weren't vice president of Nicaragua, no one would pay any attention to the political elements of this. . . . I would have written this book even if I had never been a leader of the revolution," he said.

Nicaragua's political opposition, including its most prominent poet, Pablo Antonio Cuadra, has long accused the Sandinistas of making the arts subservient to the revolution, of confusing literature with propaganda.

Ramirez disagrees. He says the Sandinistas have never dictated what subject authors should address or what form their work should take. There is no "revolutionary recipe," he said, pointing to his book, which borrows in style from traditional thrillers, soap operas and old-style newspaper serials.

Nonetheless, as in the rest of Latin America, authors and artists have great prestige in Nicaragua and have long served as a social conscience for the country. Nicaragua's most famous poet, Ruben Dario, wrote protests against U.S. imperialism early this century. Like Ramirez, many Sandinista authors are directly involved in politics: Poet Ernesto Cardenal is the Sandinistas' minister of Culture and President Daniel Ortega's wife, Rosario Murillo, is a recognized poet.

It also was a poet, Rigoberto Lopez, who in 1956 assassinated the dictator Gen. Anastasio Somoza Garcia, father of Gen. Anastasio Somoza Debayle, whom the Sandinistas ousted in 1979. That assassination took place in the same hall in Leon where Oliverio Castaneda's trial had been held before overflow crowds.

The Castaneda case was famous in Nicaragua in the 1930s and was nearly folklore by 1959 when Ramirez entered law school at the University of Leon, 25 years after his protagonist. In Leon, mothers commonly told the murder tale to their children, who often relived it in vivid nightmares. But Ramirez first learned the details of the Castaneda case in a criminal law class.

Charming Young Lawyer

The facts were the following: Castaneda, a native of Guatemala, moved to Leon, where he made a name for himself as a charming young lawyer and was said to have engaged in extramarital affairs with several local society women.

On Jan. 13, 1933, Castaneda's wife died suddenly of unknown causes. He moved in with the well-to-do Gurdian family. That October, one of the daughters, with whom he reputedly was having an affair, also died suddenly. A week later, her father died.

Castaneda, who was known to have bought strychnine from a pharmacist to kill wild dogs, was arrested and charged with murder in the three deaths. His lengthy trial captured the imagination and emotions of Nicaragua, which split over the question of his guilt. Women and the poor particularly were convinced of his innocence.

Already drawn to literature and studying law only at his father's insistence, Ramirez immediately saw the story's potential for a novel. Politics and a popular insurrection intervened, however, and nearly 30 years passed before Ramirez completed the work. He obtained the record of Castaneda's trial in 1980, a year after the Sandinista victory, and finally found time to take up the yarn in 1984, following his election as vice president. He finished in October, 1987, and "Divine Punishment" was published in Nicaragua and Spain last April.

Controversy Revived

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