Two Nicaraguan writers have been published recently in the United States. Their books are part of a Nicaraguan literature that is far from the political debate about the country's revolution, and farther still from the pools of blood that widen as Washington's commitments to military solutions deepen.
Latin American life and culture is not much known in the United States, nor much respected. How often are its novelists, poets or journalists quoted by our politicians or journalists? Wisdom is when a line from Aristotle or Burke or Swift can be dropped into the text. A Neruda, Borges, Fuentes, Dario or Urtecho goes uncited.
The United States refuses to come to terms politically with the third world because -- through laziness and self-absorption, mostly -- we won't accept it culturally. What is there of value? we ask.
Some answers are given by the Nicaraguan writers Ernesto Cardenal and Omar Cabezas.
Cardenal is the better known. His new book of verse, "With Walker in Nicaragua and Other Early Poems 1949-1954," is a flower of Latin colors that gives off what Cardenal calls "the warm, sweet, green odor of Central America." Now 60 and currently serving as the minister of culture in the Nicaraguan government, Cardenal is a Catholic priest who has jarred the Romans in the Vatican with the idea that parts of Marxism are compatible with Christianity. This is a writer whom North Americans can claim as one of their own. Cardenal studied in New York at Columbia University from 1947 to 1949. Carl Van Doren and Lionel Trilling were among his professors. He absorbed the best in American poetry. In 1951 he translated Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg and others into Spanish for distribution in Nicaragua. In 1957, Cardenal entered the Cistercian monastry in Kentucky and came under the guidance of Thomas Merton.
In 1965 Cardenal paid $2,000 for some jungle land in the southern part of Lake Nicaragua and established a religious, artistic and agricultural commune called Solentiname. In 1977, troops from the Somoza regime, sent out to suppress the priest, destroyed the community.
Two years later, with Somoza overthrown, Cardenal joined the government. In the preface to his new book, he writes that "my job is to promote everything cultural in Nicaragua. I have a ministry of poetry, music, painting, crafts, theater, folklore and tradition . . . I think of my ministry this way: just as Christ put his apostles in charge of distributing the loaves and fishes, he has put me in charge of spreading culture. The people do not consume culture, they create it. That is what I did in Solentiname, only now I do it country-wide."
"Fire From the Mountain" is by Omar Cabezas, a 34-year-old writer who is an official in the government's ministry of the interior. He tells of joining the revolution at 22 and the physical and political journey he made as a guerrilla believing in the faith of defiance.
Cabezas' story of his four years as a revolutionary shows that behind the stereotypes are men and women of competence and courage who deserved support by the United States when the murderous Somoza was driven out. We could have offered leaders like Cabezas a partnership in development: Nicaragua to develop its economy and land and we an understanding of a rich culture.
Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican writer, writes in the foreword: "The Marines could not defeat Sandino in Nicaragua because they could not defeat the hills, the insects, the shadows, the loneliness, the trees, or the fires of Nicaragua. It is to this landscape that Omar Cabezas takes us. His first weapon is a language as fresh, funny, direct and irreverent as any produced by Latin American literature in its history."
Comparisons with Vietnam are made whenever U.S. military involvement in Nicaragua increases. The starkest similarity is that we never attempted to learn much about the culture and literature of the Vietnamese either.
Cardenal wrote in a 1979 poem about the Sandinista triumph, "This revolution is fighting the darkness." His own books, as well as those of Cabezas, are calls to see the light.