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LITERATURE Letters From Latin America

Reviews of fiction by Salvadorian writer Claudia Hernandez and poetry by Cuban Reina Maria Rodriguez and Uruguayan Amanda Berenguer

THE civil war in El Salvador, which ended nearly 30 years ago, was one of the most devastating and bloody conflicts in modern Latin American history.

It claimed the lives of at least 75,000 civilians and thousands of soldiers and insurgents during the 1980s and early 1990s in a country with a total population of five million.

Nearly a million people were forcefully displaced within the country or became refugees in Central America, Mexico, the United States and elsewhere as a result of the conflict.

Slash and Burn (An Other Stories, £11.99) by Salvadorean writer Claudia Hernandez, explores with brilliance and compassion the depth of desolation, violence and loss the civil conflict inflicted on a scarred society.

At its core is the story of various women in different generations, including a mother and ex-guerilla fighter who searches for her displaced first daughter, born during the war years and sold into international adoption in France.

With no names for characters or places, this is novel as testimony, and it is as powerful as it’s intricate. Indirect narration and colloquial speech describe the challenges and everyday trials a female ex-guerrilla fighter with four adolescent daughters must face to survive in postwar El Salvador.

Hernandez has created a book of epic proportions that goes beyond the country and its turbulent recent history, and it can be read as an exploration of the ravages of US-supported dictatorships, civil wars and state violence that have marred Latin America over the last five decades. A must-read.

The Winter Garden Photograph (Ugly Duckling Presse, £12) by Cuban poet Reina Maria Rodriguez was, from the moment of its publication, recognised as a powerful and important book in Latin America.

It deservedly won the prestigious Casa de las Americas international prize for poetry in 1998, the second time Rodriguez had taken the prize, cementing her reputation as an outstanding writer.

It is a collection full of wonderful images and poetical leaps as in twice is the minimum: “here half-light; outside, the morning./I look through the hole of the half-dark stocking/that forms an exact angle with my foot/up there. a world that interests me/appears through the scar; a desire that interests me/refusing prudence.”

The poet creates a luminous world of random fragments, memories and personal experiences that ultimately speaks of her native Cuba and the wider world she inhabits, “photographs” that describe with precision and intelligence a personal map of national identity and history in its exploration of the 20th century.

One of my favourite poems in the collection explores one of the well-known images of Ernesto “Che” Guevara after he was shot in 1960. In at least, that’s how he looked, backlit, she writes:

“it was the end of a century and there was no way out./the dome had fallen, the utopia,/an immense vault billowing from my head,/had fallen./the black Christ from the Church of Christ/—at least, that’s how he looked, backlit—/reflecting his soul at high noon./I could still photograph that distant Christ;/could have the casual resignation/to recover my faith./could look again, too, at the yellow leaves,/at the ghost of a tree in Havana’s Central Park,/its fountain dry./(and you who still require faith from me.)”

Uruguayan poet Amanda Berenguer (1921-2010), a key figure in her country’s so-called “generation of 1945,” had a prolific career that spanned over six decades.

Varied and profound, her work displays a deep fascination with cosmology, geometry, visual/concrete poetry and her lifelong passions for visual art and experimentation in language. Materia Prima (Ugly Duckling Press, £12) brings together for the first time in English a selection of her best poetry from some of her most important and critically acclaimed books.

I was fascinated not only by the range of poetry in her selected works, her ambitious incursions into visual poetry, her constant experimentations in the use of language, styles and syntax, but also by the way in which Berenguer explores again and again the multiplicities and relativities of the mind.

In one of her most famous poems, Las Nubes Magallanicas (The Magellanic Clouds), the poet describes through astronomy, physics and national folklore, the procession of galaxies, a nocturnal experience of light, space and time:

“we arrive home now in a different location/on the city’s map on the tip/closest to one of the planet’s lips/when we return to this muddy clear/suburban loop/mixed with the central yolk and the greedy/noise of a river low in silver/lashing the coastal rambla’s seawall/or rising over its sandy edge/squeezing an egg lain during flight/there it is with its cracked shell Montevideo spilled/by a bird akin to the bird of time.”

Materia Prima is a rewarding exploration of one of the most innovative and brilliant poets of 20th-century Uruguay.



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