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Passion, liberty, death: a song of Nicaragua

The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War, Gioconda Belli , Translated from the Spanish by Kristina Cordero, Alfred A. Knopf: 386 pp., $25

November 10, 2002|James LeMoyne | James LeMoyne, a former reporter for The New York Times, covered Nicaragua in the 1980s.

There are a few countries in the world that, through some seeming magic beyond our normal senses, are able to enchant us despite their utter misery and propensity to violence. For me -- and I suspect many others who have been there -- Nicaragua is such a place. Dirty, sweaty, seemingly cursed and wounded in many ways, this little land is at the same time physically stunning and inhabited by people with a strength of character, passion and humanity that washes over you like a wave, engulfs you and, for those unable to resist that seductive current, carries you away. I have spent some of the saddest times of my life in the mountains and steaming coasts of Nicaragua and some of the most beautiful.

Reading Gioconda Belli's affecting memoir, "The Country Under My Skin," brought all this back and more. In a way that is utterly Nicaraguan, she recounts a true tale of passion, poetry, insurrection, death and seeming liberation, followed by an ugly ending that is mediated by a personal coda that is both salving and humane. It is a hell of a story, recounting the fate of her country and her self, told with tenderness, honesty and humor.

Reading it also brought back just how mean and relentless the Cold War was. Nicaragua and the Sandinistas fell into the final chapter of that confrontation and were crushed by it. Nicaragua is struggling still to recover from the toll inflicted by decades of dictatorship, revolution and counterrevolution. But that is not the level at which Belli tells her story. This is a much more personal account of taking lovers and becoming an independent woman in a land of pure machismo -- after marrying as an innocent bourgeois virgin at 18 in the Nejapa Country Club. It is an account of having children and trying to be a mother while becoming a revolutionary and a poet, of forced exile, of mourning the loss of too many friends, of returning home only to find further struggle and disappointment. In this unexpected life, the final irony is that this Sandinista revolutionary poetess winds up living in Santa Monica married to an American. It feels like an odd but logical resolution to a life in which love ultimately proves deeper and stronger than politics.

Such frank humanity allows Belli to write tellingly of learning to fire a gun and hating it. There are many Mata Hari episodes as she secretly ferries senior Sandinista underground commanders around Managua in the '70s while Anastasio Somoza still ruled. Later she runs guns, carries secret documents and tens of thousands of dollars in cash and turns her exile home in Costa Rica into a Sandinista military training center and weapon depot while tending to her children in the back room. She rises in the Sandinista ranks and travels the world, meeting Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Panamanian leader Gen. Omar Torrijos, Hanoi military commander Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap and waging politics in Algeria, Libya and the former East Germany and Soviet Union, among other destinations. Torrijos tries to force her to bed and fails miserably. She is tailed and nearly intercepted by Somoza's secret police, in the final encounter only narrowly escaping while holding her pistol in her lap, prepared to die shooting if captured. She falls hard for the head of the Sandinista underground, who sleeps with a pistol, hand grenade and his shoes on. And she mourns him achingly here as she looks at his bullet-riddled body on the front pages after the National Guard caught and killed him.

Through it all she insists that she is first and foremost a woman and a mother. She is compelling in recounting her sexual education and the difference between love and passion. Her accounts of womanhood, of giving birth and of motherhood are penetrating and unflinchingly honest. "Without renouncing my femininity, I think I have also managed to live like a man," she says convincingly. Her story of nearly dying while giving birth to a premature son in a dirty public hospital ward and being told that her baby boy was dead, only to find later that he was alive, is a tear jerker. "Life never surrenders," she writes, quoting a Vietnamese poem, expressing part of the essence that makes Nicaragua and Nicaraguans so affecting and such survivors of suffering that would break most of us.

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