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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : Staging a Revolution Populated With Empty Characters : THE INHABITED WOMAN by Gioconda Belli ; translated from the Spanish by Kathleen March; Curbstone Press $22.95, 420 pages


Nicaragua may be one of the only places on the planet where agitprop meets magical realism in a lyrical embrace.

After the 1979 Sandinista revolution, celebrated Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardinale assumed the post of Minister of Culture. Gioconda Belli, another writer actively involved in the revolution, was publishing poetry that was sensual, metaphysical and politically correct all at once.

She has now published a novel, translated from the Spanish by Kathleen March. "The Inhabited Woman," an account of a rich young woman's almost religious conversion to revolution, to making life better for the dispossessed of her tiny, unnamed Latin American country. But here the propaganda chokes the poetry out of the prose.

There are occasional flashes of poetry in "The Inhabited Woman," particularly in the sequences about the Indian lovers: "Where is Yarince? Has he taken shelter in another tree, or is he wandering the sky like a star, or has he become a hummingbird?" "How I hurt to my very roots . . . I don't know if it's raining or if it's me crying."

And Belli displays technical virtuosity in establishing two parallel plots that build with equal cinematic tension. Unfortunately, she doesn't have an ear for realistic dialogue, to capture a personality in its way with words. She is unable to populate her novel with characters that spring to life. We don't see them, can't hear them. "The Inhabited Woman" feels oddly under-inhabited, in fact, downright uninhabited.

Belli has a powerful story to tell. She has constructed a strong, dramatic framework in which to house two sets of lovers--Itza and Yarince, Lavinia and Felipe, young people separated by centuries, equally fired up with zeal to fight oppressors, taking parallel roads to heroic yet tragic deaths.

Itza and Yarince, Central American natives, come of age at the time of the invasions of the conquistadors. Itza runs off with Yarince without the blessing of marriage. She will not marry him, but remains his lover, a shocker for her time. She refuses to bear his children, fearing they would only meet horrifying fates as slaves. She becomes a woman warrior and with Yarince, one of the last resisting fighters; they are hunted down like animals by the Spanish.

The modern story, that of Lavinia and Felipe, takes place in an unnamed Central American country (read Nicaragua), in a small city called Faguas, on a lake, surrounded by lush vegetation and spooky volcanoes.

First we meet Itza, dead for centuries, whose spirit is shooting up through the roots, trunk, leaves and oranges of a tree in the garden of an elegant colonial house belonging to Lavinia, a well-bred, beautiful young lady with impeccable European degrees in architecture. The spirit watches Lavinia, becoming increasingly critical of her seeming lack of social compassion or willingness to commit to the cause of "the movement" (read Sandinistas).

Lavinia becomes "the inhabited woman," that is, the woman possessed by the spirit of Itza, after she drinks a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. Itza pulses along as part of Lavinia's blood, organs and arteries. Her physical presence in Lavinia's innards somehow allows her to become one with Lavinia's soul. She becomes Lavinia's conscience, determining that Lavinia's fate will mirror her own.

It's a cheap trick, though. Belli doesn't have to develop any genuine motivation in Lavinia. The dead Indian girl's spirit inside her plants words, feelings and ideas in her head. And one starts to wonder if all the other revolutionaries also drank glasses of orange juice and found they had commanding spirits inside them too. If they do, Belli isn't talking.

Why does this book feel so underpopulated? The Latin Americans I have met, for example, are completely thrown by the American worship of the individual, the Western loner. Their idea of a good time is moving in huge crowds. There, you date a crowd as well as an individual. Belli mentions Lavinia's rich, playful crowd, indifferent to the misery of those living in shanty towns and hovels surrounding Faguas. Yet we never feel their loud, lively presence. They are as ghostly as the spirit.

Characters remain pawns in a carefully arranged plot. Each serves a purpose and never transcends that. Lavinia's old friend Sara never rises above symbolizing all of the selfish young women who marry and only think of their gardens, teapots and having babies. Even her husband Adrian, who flirted with the movement in college, finally doesn't do more than stand in when necessary. Flor and Sebastian, Lavinia's new revolutionary acquaintances, could be any of the selfless, remote, idealized revolutionaries we've met in books and film. They lecture, they act, but they never materialize in human form.

Only Felipe, Lavinia's lover and a fellow architect who meets an absurd end, displays character. He misbehaves, broods; he's a sexist, he's not predictable. He keeps the human side of the story alive.

Belli has engineered an exciting conclusion to her story, but it feels exactly that: engineered because of the leaden, prosaic language and the weak characters. Perhaps in her next time out in fiction Belli's poetic muse will inhabit her while she writes prose.

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