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Book Review

In Tale of Poverty and Grief, Flutterings of Hope, Human Spirit

A PLACE CALLED MILAGRO DE LA PAZ by Manlio Argueta, Translated from the Spanish b Michael B. Miller; Curbstone Press $14.95 paper, 208 pages

May 19, 2000|NICK OWCHAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are some stories that, beyond whatever messages their authors may have intended, tell us reassuring things about the human condition. At dark or disappointing moments, we can turn to these to be reminded of the virtues in our nature, the greatness and invincibility of the imagination, and that compassion and love win out over evil. Manlio Argueta's "A Place Called Milagro de la Paz" teaches all of these lessons through the simple story of a mother and her daughters trying to live normal lives in the poverty of war-torn El Salvador in the 1980s.

In the barrio of Milagro de la Paz, the wild landscape is unfriendly, rough-edged and surreal: Fences are made of live, spiky pina plants or stacks of volcanic rocks to keep roaming coyotes at bay. Enormous buzzards pinch the corpses of murder victims between their beaks and carry them off to the Chaparrastique volcano; a wind comes down off the volcano with enough force to toss stray dogs into the air. Despite patrols of soldiers, there are los seres desconocidos ("unknown killers"), death squads, who prowl the streets at night and leave their victims' bodies in the streets as a warning to the living.

Against these terrors, the women of this story rely on the strength of their family. "I like it when you're asleep next to me," Latina tells her teen daughter, Magdalena. "It makes me feel better, I pray for you." They huddle in the same bed, safe behind soot-stained walls, talking and listening to the night prowlers as Crista, her youngest, snores peacefully. Maybe the night has caused it, but Latina is having premonitions that one of her daughters will leave her. It is Magdalena, she thinks, who's on the brink of womanhood. "I'm never going to leave," Magdalena whispers to reassure her. "Nothing can separate us."

But it is a promise that will be broken when she meets young "mahogany colored" Nicolas Moreira, the son of a neighboring landowner. At night, Latina listens as Magda describes the wild "fluttering of butterflies in her belly" that characterizes her love for Nicolas--and soon that fluttering becomes a child "navigating its way through her virgin blood."

Only childbirth and responsibilities aren't what cut the ties between Magdalena and her family. Lest we forget, "A Place Called Milagro de la Paz" is about the Third World, a world in which the political sphere unexpectedly impinges on the personal. Magdalena's death at the hands of los seres desconocidos plunges Latina and Crista into a grief lasting much longer than her novenario (nine-day wake). As the book's second half opens, six years later, Latina and Crista drink aguas azules ("blue waters"), a narcotic tea, every night to numb their minds about Magda and her murder.

But there's now a young boy living with them, Juan Batista, who can turn invisible and who, upon seeing Magdalena's ghost, loses his ability to speak. Is she his mother? We're left wondering until the end. Latina and Crista also find their family extended by the arrival of a 6-year-old girl who took a wrong turn on the way to her godmother's. Lluvia ("rain") resembles Magda at that age and stirs up memories for the women. When Lluvia's godmother is unable to take her in, Latina adopts her.

Even more wondrous than her arrival, though, are the butterflies in her hair. Latina gasps at the child, standing in the doorway: "Who put those mariposas in your hair?" The child's explanation is simple: "I never had any toys to play with, so I made friends with the butterflies."

Where do the poor find the strength to go on? How do they remember their loved ones without pain? What speaks so powerfully to us in Argueta's story is the way in which symbolic connections between past and present enable people to live with their memories. Whether it's Magdalena's "incarnation" as Lluvia or the belief that los seres desconocidos are an incarnation of the night-roaming monsters of local myth, the story suggests a view of life as possessing a symbolic continuity that unites past and present into one continual, rolling wave. "A Place Called Milagro de la Paz" assures us that, from the ashes of tragedy, the human spirit will rise like a legendary bird or, more appropriately, a butterfly.

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