A one-time vice president of Nicaragua explores dark corners of his nation’s history in this blend of historical novel and noir procedural.
“It was to be a historical novel,” writes Ramírez of the making of his book, which was written and published in Spanish more than 30 years ago, “but also a realist novel, a mannerist novel, a police thriller, a courtroom drama.” Elements of all these run through his narrative, though perhaps with a touch too much emphasis on the courtroom drama part of the mix, which goes on too long without a suitably Perry Mason–esque moment of reckoning (“Please tell the court: Did you take bicarbonate of soda to the room with a glass of water and a spoon to dissolve the medicine”). The premise is transparent enough: in 1933, a young man, an “attractive male specimen,” is both wooing and apparently doing away with some of the most eligible bachelorettes in León, but it’s not really for his allegedly lethal rakishness that he’s in trouble. Hauled to the bench, he affords Ramírez—the winner of last year’s prestigious Carlos Fuentes Prize—an opportunity to satirize Nicaragua’s bourgeois society of the 1930s, which ended in the rise of the Somoza dictatorship. With a few liberties taken, and with a large and diverse cast of characters, Ramírez works with historical fact: there really was a “Casanova killer” of the day, and of course there really was a dictatorship that put an end to the niceties of law—and a dictator who had personal reasons for disliking the defendant, whose story did not end well. Ramírez’s tale, long and diffuse, may be of more historical than literary interest to many readers in exploring a society that was ripe for strongman rule, planting the seeds of the Sandinista revolution half a century later.
Still, though not as smoothly told as it might have been in the hands of a Vargas Llosa or García Márquez, a good yarn—and considering the lack of Central American literature available in English, it enriches a slender library.