Margarita, está linda la mar,In my review of the other 1998 Premio Alfaguara co-winning novel, Eliseo Alberto's Caracol Beach, I noted how the selection process differs from most Anglophone literary awards in that unpublished manuscripts are submitted under pseudonyms in an effort to deter bias toward established writers. Here, I want to discuss some prevailing trends in the winning novels for those who are unfamiliar with the winners and their stories. Spanish-language literature is not as clearly divided into realist and speculative supergenres, as are Anglophone (in particular, UK) books. In Alberto's story, a hint of the psychotic, of the quasi-fantastic co-exists comfortably with the "real." In Sergio Ramírez's Margarita, está linda la mar, we see another prominent literary trend, that of the political-social novel. While there is no shortage of Anglophone novels that deal with social concerns (often encapsulated in personal crises), there is a distinct paucity of tales that deal with individual/group relations with the government. In Central America in particular, there is a greater concern about the government and its (often deleterious) impact on human lives.
y el viento
lleva esencia sutil de azahar;
en el alma una alondra cantar
Margarita, te voy a contar
– Rubén Dario, "Margarita, está linda la mar"
Nicaragua is a prime example of this melding of the political and the social in its national literature. It is, after all, the birthplace of the great poet Rubén Darío, widely considered to be one of the most influential and important poets of the late 19th and early 20th century. Even today, Darío's poems on Latin American life and the frequent struggles to establish national identity and policy in the face of insidious American imperialism speak strongly to the hearts of many, particularly in his native land. Ramírez is no stranger to the hotbed of political discontent; he was a prominent member of the socialistic Sandinista movement that overthrew the US-backed dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in 1979.
Some might think that having a partisan writing about the events surrounding the 1956 assassination of the first Anastasio Somoza might lead to stilted prose and overheated rhetoric; the examples of well-written literary quasi-propaganda in English are very few and far between. This, however, is not the case with Ramírez's tale. It is a story of contrasts and conflicts that stretch over nearly a half-century of Nicaraguan history, from Darío's fateful visit in 1907 and his inscription of "Margarita, está linda la mar" on a little girl's fan to the events leading up to the 1956 assassination. Ramírez alternates between discussing Darío's time and the literary "present," with several parallels running between them, in particular, the Darío-obsessed group that meets to discuss the great poet...and to plot how to take out the brutal Somoza.
The reader quickly becomes accustomed to Ramírez's shifts between the past and "present," as each flows thematically into the other in a nearly seamless fashion. Utilizing chapter headings taken from Darío's most famous works, Ramírez skillfully constructs a tale that serves simultaneously as a panoramic view of 20th century Nicaragua and as a detailed look at the machinations of dictatorship. His characters are developed skillfully; little space is wasted on establishing their identities before their roles in this unfolding event take place. Even the titular Margarita makes an appearance here; her interest in the growing conspiracy serves to connect the Darían past with the Somoza "present."
Ramírez is careful to avoid cardboard depictions of the pro-Somoza and conspiracy supporters. Margarita, está linda la mar rarely feels like a political tract, instead being a much more complex view of Nicaragua's past than what might be expected from a former Sandinista leader. Yet there are a few problems with the text. At times, Ramírez becomes too caught up in the attempt to parallel the events of 1907 and 1956, with strained connections existing between the two times. Yet this is a minor flaw compared to the rich prose and the intricately-developed plot that encourages the reader to read just one more chapter, one more page, before closing the book for a break.
How does Margarita, está linda la mar compare to Alberto's Caracol Beach? Although my personal preference is toward the psychological madness depicted in Alberto's novel, Margarita, está linda la mar comes very near to that other novel's level of technical achievement. Ramírez's prose might be a bit subtler in places than Alberto's and while I preferred Alberto's setting, Ramírez's Nicaragua is a memorable setting filled with intriguing characters. It is easy to understand the difficult decision the jury had to make and certainly Margarita está linda la mar is worthy of being a Premio Alfaguara winner. Highly recommended and also available in English translation.