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A literary light shines anew in El Salvador

January 12, 2005|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

SAN SALVADOR — His name was Salvador Salazar Arrue, or Salarrue for short, and he's the greatest Central American writer you've probably never heard of. Even here in his homeland, just a few years ago, nobody much was talking about Salarrue. Nobody, that is, except people like Ricardo Aguilar.

"My relation to Salarrue and his family didn't stop, it doesn't stop, but I don't mind because he was a great man," says Aguilar, speaking of his late friend, artistic mentor and lifelong obsession.

It's a seasonably balmy December morning, and Aguilar, a painter and writer, is leading a group of visitors on a tour of Salarrue's former home, now a state-run museum in this far-flung capital's leafy Los Planes de Rendero neighborhood.

As Aguilar wends his way past display cases crammed with brittle letters and faded photographs, every musty artifact seems to tell a story, every shadowy room and earthquake-sculpted fissure in the old house prompts an anecdote -- about Salarrue's lifelong spiritual connection to El Salvador's indigenous people, or the groovy "psychedelic" paintings he made in the 1950s and '60s, or his claim of being the last man from Atlantis, or his emphatically nonideological brand of politics, which always made the country's Marxist intellectuals suspect he was up to something.

Pausing beside the author's old Remington manual typewriter, Aguilar dishes up some juicy reminiscences about one of Salarrue's "hundreds" of lovers. "Not that he was selling himself," Aguilar adds in his slightly idiosyncratic English, "but he was so handsome." And detail by detail, story by story, a mental portrait of Salarrue begins to form, like a Polaroid shaken in the light.

Salvadoran sphinx

When he passed away in 1975 at age 76, as secluded and penniless as a Trappist monk, Salarrue (pronounced SAL-rew-ay) was not just the most celebrated creative mind in Salvadoran history. Despite his fame he was still, somehow, an enigma, a sphinx without a riddle, an unclassifiable artist and a modest, gentle man who never tried to be anyone's guru but who nonetheless attracted a loyal coterie of acolytes convinced of his enduring greatness.

Salarrue's love of philosophical conundrums and invented worlds links him to the Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges. His mystical bent, and the hallucinatory quality of some of his prose and paintings, suggests a spiritual camaraderie with Aldous Huxley and establishes Salarrue as a forerunner of the Latin American magic realism school of writing.

But it was his immersion in the lives of campesinos and long-suffering indigenous people, his noncondescending affection for the gente humilde, that has made Salarrue the writer most beloved among ordinary Salvadorans and a source of national pride. "To speak of Salarrue is to speak of the story of El Salvador," says Edgardo Quijano, a private researcher and writer. "Salarrue is the key to the identity of our culture."

For the last two decades, much of Salarrue's legacy has been buried under the shifting sediments of time, literary tastes and the collective amnesia induced by El Salvador's brutal and disastrous civil war of the 1980s. But today, nearly 30 years after his death, this Central American renaissance man is slowly reclaiming his place in the Latin world's cultural consciousness.

On the centenary of his birth in 1999, the Salvadoran cultural ministry published a three-volume "Narrativa Completa" containing most of Salarrue's collected prose and some of his poetry. Last year, El Salvador's small but ambitious Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen (Museum of the Word and Image) opened "Salarrue: Vida y Obra," the most extensive exhibition of the artist's life and work ever mounted in his homeland. The show has been drawing enthusiastic crowds, and the museum has been designated the permanent home for the bulk of Salarrue's copious personal papers and manuscripts, including philosophical essays, plays, 250 drawings and some 1,500 letters.

Halfway across the hemisphere, Janet Gold, an associate professor of Latin American literature at the University of New Hampshire, is about to publish the first of two books touching on the decade that Salarrue spent living in New York City as a cultural attache from 1946 to 1957. The first will be a kind of lyrical biographical meditation on Salarrue's previously little-known love affair with Leonora Nichols, an artsy, statuesque New York socialite.

The book will include 16 previously unpublished love poems and several lyrical prose pieces that Salarrue wrote to Nichols, whom he nicknamed Blwny ("blue-ny"), because she always wore blue and, he said, her charms intoxicated him like wine. The second book will be a more traditional scholarly work about Salarrue's New York sojourn.

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