El pais de las mujeres (review)
HAVANA TIMES — Nicaraguan poet and novelist Gioconda Belli’s fascinating and provocative El país de las mujeres has been out for more than two years in Spanish. It was published by Grupo editorial Norma, distributed widely, and judges unanimously awarded it the prestigious “La otra orilla” prize for best Latin American novel of 2010. The prize carries a stipend of $100,000 dollars. It is to be hoped that an English edition is available soon.
Belli entered her novel in the contest under the pseudonym Viviana Sansón, which is also the name of its protagonist. Viviana as in someone fully alive, and Sansón in allusion to the biblical Samson, symbolic of strength.
Other characters in El país de las mujeres bear equally symbolic names. There is Eva Salvatierra, who links Christianity’s “first woman” with the superhuman task of saving the earth. There is Juan de Arco (Joan of Arc), a heroine for the ages. The setting is Faguas, an invented Latin American country that references qualities of those with which we are familiar today but has achieved what has so far been impossible in any of them; that is, the promotion of full gender equality.
As the novel opens, Viviana has recently been elected president of Faguas and is speaking at a rally in celebration of the Day of Equality in All Areas. She worries her security detail by insisting on making all her public appearances and giving all her speeches not from some removed balcony or protected stage, but from a round platform in the very midst of her adoring constituents.
For her, the circle is an embrace. And the many symbols throughout this book—acts and actions as well as names—are backed up by innovative educational outreach, new law, and other breaks with a misogynist past.
Of course not everyone in Faguas approves of women in power. Viviana is shot by someone plotting the overthrow of her government. She is taken to a hospital where she lingers between life and death, in a territory populated by objects forgotten or pushed aside throughout her life. Through these objects as well as through interviews with people from different walks of life and documents from the era, Belli tells an apocryphal but haunting story.
The novel reads like a well-paced mystery. The prose is light but eloquent. I would venture to guess that most who pick the book up won’t put it down until they’ve finished the last page. Before we know it we are immersed in a world of even-handed justice fully possible in our time but broadly believed impossible—simply because no one has yet had the courage or vision to make it happen.
There have been women presidents in our contemporary world, including in several Latin American countries. Christina Fernández in Argentina, Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, and the recently reelected Michelle Bachelet in Chile come to mind. In Nicaragua itself, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro ousted Daniel Ortega in 1990. But Chamorro was a figurehead, and Fernández, Roussef and Bachelet, while progressive, can hardly be thought of as promoters of real gender equality.
In other Latin American nations, such as Uruguay and Bolivia, we have very interesting progressive administrations that have empowered women and other marginalized groups, but fall far short of the fantasy world Belli describes.
Although not a historical novel, El país de las mujeres has its origins in historical events. The FSLN (Sandinistas) overthrew their country’s Somoza dynasty in 1979 and ruled for a decade. The exciting project, built as all such projects are on immense sacrifice and no less immense hope, promised a great deal. It achieved some of what it promised, but as has been true elsewhere also failed to meet many of its goals.
Internal corruption combined with intense pressure from the United States resulted in what is known to history as the Contra War. The Sandinistas were voted out of power in 1990. Despite nomenclature, the government that exists in Nicaragua today bears little resemblance to those Sandinistas of the 1970s and early 1980s.
Gioconda Belli was a high level member of the FSLN. She has written movingly of her role and of those years in The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War. Toward the middle of the Sandinista decade she and a number of other Nicaraguan feminists—most of them also Sandinistas whose horizons had been broadened by their party’s stated goals but whose hopes for real equality had been dashed by the men alongside whom they struggled—began meeting to talk about what they were experiencing.
In 1986 some of these women formed the Party of the Erotic Left (Partido de la izquierda erotica, PIE) complete with a Platform specifying political changes that would bring equality not only to women but to all marginalized peoples.
The real PIE was made up of some of Nicaragua’s most brilliant and capable women in a variety of fields. They surfaced in the public eye largely in response to Daniel Ortega’s overwhelmingly macho 1989 presidential campaign, in which he described himself as “a fighting cock with knife unsheathed.”
PIE never intended to play its own political campaign out to the end. Rather, it hoped to put women’s and family problems on the agenda. Weeks before the election it threw its weight behind the Sandinistas. But not without having brought attention to a whole series of issues ignored by the traditional male politicians.
Members of the historical PIE were lawyers such as Milú Vargas, thinkers such as Sofía Montenegro, and poets such as Gioconda Belli. Even before going public with their own political party, they managed to influence events to some degree. Vargas, who led the effort to frame a new Constitution, succeeded in promoting gender equality as a constitutional value. In the 1987 Constitution at least ten articles make specific mention of women’s rights, compared to none in the 1974 Constitution.
PIE as a party did not last into the 1990s. Clearly, however, it was an experience that left an indelible mark on Nicaraguan political life. Now, a decade later, it reappears in fictional form in this provocative novel.
There are people who nourish their worldview by reading the international press and absorbing and analyzing a patchwork of ideas, forces, events, and the people who exemplify them. Others go to literature to understand their time and place. These latter especially, will appreciate El país de las mujeres, for the reality as well as the dreams it contemplates.