Central America

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Central America

Roy C. Boland Osegueda

Although Central America is a cultural mosaic, it shares a common literary tradition within the six Spanish-speaking republics of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. The Central American novel is thought to begin in Guatemala with La hija del adelantado (1866, The Governor's Daughter), by José Milla. He initiated a vogue for historical romances followed in Nicaragua by José Dolores Gámez, in Panama by Gil Colunje, and in Costa Rica by Manuel Argüello. Guatemalan Agustín Mencos Franco drew inspiration from Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas for Don Juan Núñez García (1898), a stirring account of an Indian rebellion against colonial rule in Chiapas, while Honduran Carlos F. Gutiérrez wrote a curious historical romance, Angelina (1898), which combines themes of mystery, madness, and honor with eroticism.

The principal European movements of the period (Romanticism, realism, and naturalism) came to Central America via Guatemala. Although the influence of the Catholic Church curbed freedom of expression, in Conflictos (1898, Conflicts), Ramón A. Salazar drew a realistic picture of social problems, and in a sequence of five novels published between 1899 and 1902, Enrique Martínez Sobral portrayed the ugly underbelly of life in a naturalistic style. On the other hand, Nicaraguan Rubén Darío introduced the exotic, poetic principles of modernismo (see MODERNISM) to prose in Emelina (1887), his only completed novel. The banner of modernismo was also taken up by a number of Guatemalans, most prominently by Enrique Gómez Carrillo, who focused on the decadence of love and art in a sequence of finely wrought novels.

While some novelists combined the aesthetic of modernismo with social and political themes—among them Guatemalans Máximo Soto-Hall and Rafael Arévalo Martínez—other modernistas chose to explore supernatural themes, as in El vampire (1910, The Vampire), a chilling gothic novel by Honduran Froylán Turcios modeled on Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). Disenchantment with venal politicians and corruption in the Catholic Church prompted other modernistas to explore alternative spiritual values. Thus, in El Cristo Negro (1926, The Black Christ), Salvadorean Salvador Salazar Arrué, alias Salarrué, narrates a theosophical fable in which the traditional concepts of good and evil are turned upside down. In an anticlerical novel, Alba de América (1920, Alba, or the American Dawn), Guatemalan César Breñas transforms the rape of the heroine by a priest into a metaphor for the perversion of hopes and aspirations in the New World.

The Evolution of the Central American Novel in the Twentieth Century

As the twentieth century progressed, the Central American novel came of age as writers experimented with four interrelated modes: costumbrismo (the folkloric portrayal of life and manners), criollismo (a focus on regional and national realities), indigenismo (the defence of Indian rights and culture), and antiimperialismo (resistance to U.S. hegemony). Costa Rica produced a quartet of novelists who penned persuasive depictions of local reality featuring typical language and customs allied to psychological insight and social criticism: Joaquín García Monge, Magón (pseud. of Manuel González Zeledón), Genaro Cardona, and Carmen Lyra. In El Salvador, José María Peralta gave the regional novel a satirical dimension in Doctor Gonorreitigorrea (1926), a side-splitting exposé of the national bourgeoisie's obsession with foreign goods and mores.

Central American novelists responded with profound engagement to a series of political upheavals inside and outside the region: the Mexican Revolution (1910—20); the U.S. intervention in Panama (1903); the occupation of Nicaragua by marines (1912—33); the mass slaughter of Indians in El Salvador (1932); and two periods of brutal dictatorship in Guatemala (1898—1944) followed by the overthrow of a short-lived democracy in 1954. In Sangre del trópico (1930, Blood in the Tropics), Nicaraguan Hernán Robleto depicts the Sandinista resistance to the marines as a heroic war of liberation. In Mamita Yunai (1941), Costa Rican Carlos Luis Fallas denounces the exploitation of workers in Pacific coast plantations by avaricious gringos, while in Puerto Limón (1950) his compatriot Joaquín Gutiérrez makes a similar denunciation of the barbaric conditions endured by peons on the Atlantic coast. One of the most virulent anti-imperialistic novels was Luna verde (1951, Green Moon), by Panamanian Joaquín Beleño, who devised a medley of “Spanglish” and Caribbean dialects to compose an elegy for his young republic, represented as a pathetic victim of U.S. capitalism.

A cluster of novels offered varying interpretations of the classic Latin American dichotomy of civilización y barbarie (civilization and barbarism). In Guatemala, Carlos Wyld Ospina holds up the protagonist of La gringa (1936) as the ideal of Western civilization in opposition to tropical barbarism, while in El tigre (1932, The Tiger), Flavio Herrera describes the tropics as the site of a Darwinian struggle between the moral values of civilization and the instincts of barbarism. Honduran Arturo Mejía (Nieto) provides a different perspective in El tunco (1933, The Hog), in which barbarism is viewed as a genetic expression of Central American thirst for liberty. An extreme engagement with the theme of barbarism is found in Pedro Arnáez (1924), by Costa Rican José María Cañas, who argues that Central Americans are by nature barbarians addicted to violence.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the historical and existential dimensions of the role of the Indian in Central America were major concerns (see RACE). In a sentimental saga, La india dormida (1936, The Sleeping Indian Girl), Panamanian Julio B. Sosa uses the relationship between a conquistador and an Indian woman to make the point that true love can overcome racial and cultural differences. In an entertaining historical novel also set in Panama, Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1934), Octavio Méndez Pereira highlights the indispensable part that Indian chiefs played in the discovery of the Pacific Ocean. History and legend fuse in Isnaya (1939), by Honduran Emilio Murillo, who turns Lempira, a celebrated cacique (Indian chieftain) who resisted the Conquistadors, into a forerunner of modern freedom-fighters. One of the most persuasive treatments of the problematic coexistence between the races is found in Entre la piedra y la cruz (1948, Between the Stone and the Cross), by Guatemalan Mario Monteforte Toledo, who probes the existential predicament of an Indian striving desperately to become a successful ladino (Hispanicized man) without betraying his Mayan heritage.

The Central American novel reached its apogee in Guatemala with Miguel Angel Asturias, who combined aesthetic quality with political commitment. His iconoclastic first novel, El señor presidente (1946, The President), is credited both with initiating the Latin American novel of dictatorship and anticipating magical realism. In a trilogy—Viento fuerte (1949, Strong Wind), El papa verde (1954, The Green Pope), and Los ojos enterrados (1960, The Eyes of the Interred)—Asturias took the anti-imperialist novel to a new level of sophistication. His crowning achievement was Hombres de maíz (1949, Men of Maize), an inspired re-creation of Mayan and Aztec history based on a variety of sources, ranging from sacred Amerindian texts, to the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels, to the anthropological theories of Claude Lévi-Strauss (see MARXIST, ANTHROPOLOGY).

Elsewhere in Central America some of Asturias's contemporaries also experimented with the genre. Panamanian Rogelio Sinán and two Costa Ricans, Yolanda Oreamuno and Carmen Naranjo, wrote existentialist novels characterized by polyphonic narratives, multiperspectivism, reader involvement, and psychoanalysis (see SURREALISM, PSYCHOANALYTIC).


In the second half of the twentieth century a nonfictional documentary genre known as testimonio (testimony) had a profound impact upon the evolution of the Central American novel. In some of the most famous testimonios, Salvadorean poet-revolutionary Roque Dalton, ex-Sandinista guerrilla Omar Cabezas, and Maya-Quiché activist Rigoberta Menchú bear witness to their personal involvement in larger collective struggles for liberation by employing such typical fictional stratagems as the imaginative re-creation of the past, selective memory, flashbacks and flashforwards, irony, humor, truculence, and melodrama. The spirit and techniques of testimonio gave rise to the testimonial novel, a narrative mode written from the point of view of the subaltern, usually a witness to, or a victim of, various forms of oppression (see NARRATIVE PERSPECTIVE).

An outstanding illustration of the testimonial novel is Cenizas de Izalco (1966, Ashes of Izalco), by Salvadorean-Nicaraguan Claribel Alegría, which utilizes multiple points of view and intertextuality to relate a series of interlocked personal lives to El Salvador's bloodstained history. Another Salvadorean, Manlio Argueta, has written a suite of novels, the most dramatic of which, Un día en la vida (1980, One Day in the Life), shuffles a sequence of alternating interior monologues and first-person testimonies to compress his country's history into one day in the life of a persecuted peasant woman. In Guatemala, two testimonial novels stand out: El tiempo principia en Xibalbá (1972, Time Begins in Xibalbá), by Luis de Lión, a polyphonic tale full of magic and mischief set in an Indian village; and Los compañeros (1976, Comrades), by Marco Antonio Flores, a satirical exposé bursting with scabrous puns of the superficial idealism of would-be revolutionaries.

In Nicaragua, the testimonial novel has been dominated by two writers of exceptional quality: Sergio Ramírez and Gioconda Belli. In such novels as Te dio miedo la sangre (1977, To Bury our Fathers), and Margarita, está linda la mar (1999, Margarita, How Beautiful the Sea), Ramírez combines a former Sandinista's political experience with narrative dexterity. A growing disillusionment with Sandinismo, which he had been conveying metaphorically in his novels, is expressed openly and movingly in Adiós muchachos: una memoria de la revolución Sandinista (1999, Farewell Friends: A Memoir of the Sandinista Revolution). In La mujer habitada (1988, The Inhabited Woman), Belli breathes fresh air into the testimonial novel by simplifying its structure and employing a ludic, erotically charged, female perspective to link Nicaragua's pre-Hispanic heritage to the Sandinista revolution. Honduran-Salvadorean Horacio Castellanos Moya gives the testimonial novel a dramatic twist in Insensatez (2004, Senselessness), a febrile monologue by an alcoholic writer whose psyche disintegrates as he edits the chilling tales by indigenous victims of genocidal persecution in a Central American country which, although unnamed, may be readily identified with Guatemala.

Recent Experiments and Trends

In response to the changing circumstances following the end of revolution and civil war in the 1990s, Central American novelists have been experimenting with diverse narrative modes. The most popular trend has been the “New HISTORICAL Novel,” which provides revisionist interpretations of national histories. Salvadorean Mario Bencastro pioneered this kind of novel with Disparo en La Catedral (1990, A Shot in the Cathedral), a dramatic collage re-creating the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero on 24 March 1980, an event that ushered in twelve years of civil war. In Asalto al paraíso (1992, Assault on Paradise), Costa Rican Tatiana Lobo blends fact, fiction, and magic to recount an alternative story/history of the clash of civilizations between Spaniards and Indians in the first decade of the eighteenth century, while in Madrugada: Rey del Albor (1993, King of Light), Honduran Julio Escoto willfully alters dates and facts to fabricate a parodic version of his country's history since the time of Columbus's “discovery.” An impressive recent example of the reinvention of history is Lobos al anochecer (2006, Wolves at Nightfall), by Panamanian Gloria Guardia, which uses a meticulous investigation of the assassination in 1955 of President José Antonio Remón to demonstrate how political issues of national identity, hemispheric relations, and financial corruption can impinge on individual lives.

Another significant trend has been the examination of the endemic civil violence that has gripped Central America in the last two decades, with soldiers and guerrillas replaced by street gangs and gangsters, and bullets and bombs by drugs and money laundering. The paradigmatic novel of violence is Managua, salsa city (2000), by Guatemalan-Nicaraguan Franz Galich, which employs vigorous street slang to depict the city as a battle to the death between God and Satan. Guatemalan Rodrigo Rey Rosa's Que me maten si... (1997, Let them kill me if...) and Piedras encantadas (2001, Enchanted Stones) are two finely crafted police thrillers exposing the extent to which violence has corroded the heart and soul of society (see DETECTIVE). A closely related theme—personal disillusion with the failure of the new social order—is also evident in the post-revolutionary Central American novel, as conveyed in El desencanto (2000, Disenchantment), by Salvadorean Jacinta Escudos. Escudos's A-B-Sudario (2003, A-B-Shroud) is also representative of a series of novels by women who use introspective techniques, such as interior monologues, stream of consciousness, diaries, and letters, to probe intimate aspects of female identity (see LIFE WRITING). In La loca de Gandoca (1993, The Madwoman of Gandoca), Costa Rican Anacristina Rossi provides an original take on the novel of female subjectivity by turning her heroine into the embodiment of her nation's threatened rainforests, thus pioneering the Central American “eco-novel.”

Novels dealing with the Afro-Hispanic experience have also been gaining currency. In Kimbo (1990), Costa Rican Quince Duncan uses the Caribbean port city of Puerto Limón as the setting for a reconstruction of the identity of a protagonist who can trace his roots back to his great-grandparents in Jamaica, while in Limón Blues (2002), Rossi combines a vibrant mix of Spanish, English, and ancestral African languages to question the myth of a monolithic white heritage in Costa Rica. The most passionate Afro-Hispanic novelistic voice is undoubtedly that of Panama's Cubena (pseud. of Carlos Guillermo Wilson). His saga, Los nietos de Felicidad Dolores (1991, The Grandchildren of Felicidad Dolores), blurs the boundaries between history and myth in order to express the pain of Mother Africa and her descendants in an alien world see MYTHOLOGY.

The Central American diaspora in the U.S. accounts for a new trend: novelists who write and publish in English. The outstanding representative is Francisco Goldman, a Guatemalan American whose first three novels, The Long Night of the White Chickens (1992), The Ordinary Seaman (1998), and The Divine Husband (2004), weave together with impressive skill such diverse elements as history, melodrama, murder, mystery, intrigue, reportage, social criticism, and political denunciation.

For most of its history, the Central American novel has existed in the margins of the Western canon. However, owing to their overall quality and diversity the novels produced by the six republics deserve a wider readership both within and outside the region. The inclusion of titles by Central American novelists in university courses in North America and Europe, as well as the publication of articles on Central American literature in specialized journals and reference books, augur well for the future.

SEE ALSO: Class, Feminist Theory, Ideology.


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