Book #6: armed conflict in Nicaragua
Note: I wrote the following blog in 2017, from Nicaragua. I held off publishing, as I didn’t want my family to find out through this site what had happened. That decision ended up with me putting this blog on hold for a while.
Since writing this, Nicaragua has experienced profound social unrest and a repressive backlash from the Ortega Government. Nothing I saw in 2017 made me predict the events that have since happened, but equally I wouldn’t say it felt surprising.
On my second night in Nicaragua, on a quiet street at around 8pm, I was robbed by two masked men with machetes. Walking with my partner back from the supermarket, with bags full of lentils and fruit, we crossed a quiet bridge over a gulley full of grass and garbage. They ran from behind, held the machetes to our faces, and shouted ‘tus bolsas, tus bolsas’ (your bags, your bags).
The music dropped away, as in Saving Private Ryan. It took me a good five seconds to realise they didn’t want the lentils. Instead they took our actual bags, full of non-edible things; phone, wallets… A minute later, they’d jumped off the bridge into the gulley, and away.
Immediately after, from an after-hours pharmacy across the road, two men came running out with baseball bats and jumped off the bridge too, like a Chaplin comedy. Their mother came tottering after them, shouting and wringing her hands. Then a man on a motorbike pulled up next to us, kicked his wife off the back, and quickly told me to get on – he’d drive me to the police station, which was down a dirt road, 20 minutes away in the pitch-black.
It was all a bit much.
I climbed on, trying not to overthink it.
As I was putting my helmet on, before we sped off, the old woman from the pharmacy apologised to my partner. She said, in Spanish: “please don’t think this of Nicaragua, those men – they are not Nicaragua.”
The odds were stacked a bit against her, as it being only my second night, I’d had just 40 hours to make other impressions, and the first 7 of those hours had been spent at the Nicaraguan-Honduras border, asking to be allowed into the country with an unclear entry stamp from my El Salvador-Honduras crossing. After being refused, a few more hours were spent trying to get the $12 back that I’d already paid one of the guards, in order to hitch a lift ~50miles back into Honduras to the nearest cash machine.
But, I refused to pre-judge the country. In fact, on the back of that motorbike, I thought: ‘no fear, old lady. This… this is what literature is for.’
I planned to read Nicaragua, and after I had experienced the great and beautiful literary works of this country, my opinions will be nuanced, my prejudices complicated, my heart opened.
That’s the theory anyway.
As it transpired, I read a few Nicaraguan authors whilst in the country, and a couple of books about it.
Of the latter, I first read The Jaguar Smile, Salman Rushdie’s memoir about his travels to Nicaragua during the early days of the left-wing Sandinista government in 1986. The book is beautifully written, as you’d expect of 1980’s-Rushdie (sorry 2010s-Rushdie), but paints a dangerously favourable portrait of a regime that would later be accused of totalitarianism and widespread censorship. Admittedly, with comparison to the terror produced by the previous right-wing regime, and against the backdrop of the US government’s dishonourable attempts to sponsor a foreign-led coup, some leeway for Rushdie might be permitted.
It’s not for me to make a judgment one way or another; but two things stand out. Firstly: as of 2017 when I visited – thirty-one years later – the leader of the Sandinista revolution, Daniel Ortega, is still in power (with a stretch of time spent in political opposition).
Secondly, a history of civil war and bloodshed, however beautifully written, did not produce the effect that I mentally promised that old lady on the back of a motorbike. The book won’t be promoted by the Nicaraguan Tourist Board, put it that way.
I followed Rushdie up with a second-hand copy of an old NYT true-story bestseller: Gringo Nightmare by Eric Volz. It’s a book I never intended to read, but after browsing the first chapter during breakfast one day, I ended up reading the whole thing before lunch. About the infamous case of Volz, wrongly (?) arrested for murder in Managua in 2005, years before Serial and Making a Murderer made this type of thing gold-dust. The book is a Kafka-esque tale of corruption and politically-inspired racism in the Nicaraguan legal system, written in an unpretentious style designed to be excerpted in the Sunday papers.
Enjoyable, but bleak. At this point it’s two-for-two against the old lady.
My mission to read a Nicaraguan author ended at Gioconda Belli, one of the country’s most well-known novelists, and herself an active participant in the Sandinista revolution. Rather than one of her novels, I elected to read her autobiography The Country Under My Skin, which also functions as a quasi-biography of Nicaragua during the late twentieth-century.
Belli’s book is a clear-eyed and well-written account of a volatile period for the country. Forced into exile for her work with the underground Sandinistas, Belli smuggled people and weapons during the civil war, and later became the international press liaison for the FSLN. Along the way she has a baby at 19, meets Fidel Castro, and has a host of other experiences that sound unconnected from her country’s history, but which are really anything but.
It’s a beautiful, fascinating book – and I highly recommend it. But what impression does it leave of Nicaragua? Well, you can probably guess.
It’s unfortunate. I managed to follow a violent start in the country with a handful of violent books. I must just be unlucky.
The country is obviously so much more: beautiful in nature and generous in people. I had a wonderful few weeks there, and after leaving the country I did read more: the great national poet Ruben Dario (who has countless roundabouts and streets named after him) and a translation of the post-Colombian oral drama El Güegüense by academic Rolando Ernesto Tellez.
If you want to leave Nicaragua with a cheerful impression, I
have two recommendations: don’t read books about politics, and avoid the lakeside
streets of Grenada after dark.
 Aka the FSLN, the Sandinista National Liberation Front, named after Augusto César Sandino. The fascinating history is here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandinista_National_Liberation_Front
 Side note: books in Nicaragua are eye-wateringly expensive. Probably the worst ratio of books-to-beer prices I’ve ever encountered. For a country with an ex-poet as its President, you’d think it would be a national policy priority…
This article is part of my journey reading books around the world. It is a wholly subjective account of the country and the book, written with only good intentions. A marginally less subjective list of reading recommendations from this country is sometimes published separately.