Central American Tales of Heart and Hope


AND WE SOLD THE RAIN: CONTEMPORARY FICTION FROM CENTRAL AMERICA edited by Rosario Santos, New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 215 pp., $18.95


edited by Barbara Paschke and David Volpendesta, San Francisco:

City Lights Books, 174 pp., $9.95 paperback

THE North American news media have consistently portrayed the region of Central America as a landscape torn by war and its twin fruits of poverty and hunger. One often wonders about the daily lives of its inhabitants, about the school days of children in Guatemala and Honduras, how meals are prepared, why baseball is the family game, even how one constructs a guitar. Especially, one thinks about the region's artists and the repercussions of war on their creativity.

Two collections of short stories, ``And We Sold the Rain'' and ``Clamor of Innocence,'' give for the first time an English-language account of the literary imagination of Central America. The stories focus on the real and passionate lives of Central Americans.

The title for ``And We Sold the Rain'' comes from a short story by one of Costa Rica's most outstanding writers, Carmen Naranjo. It accentuates a broader theme in both collections - cultural dependency and the inability of rulers to solve intractable economic problems.

Written in a matter-of-fact style, it portrays the everyday disturbances that take place in a small republic in Central America. Rather than the empty voice of statistics, gritty humor and steeled irony are employed to describe poverty. ``Hunger and poverty could no longer be concealed; the homeless, pockets empty, were squatting in the Parque Central ... gangs were threatening to invade the national theater.''

In ``Funeral for a Bird'' the distinguished Guatemalan writer Arturo Arias employs the voice of a child narrator to evoke the hellish landscape of a city surrounded by corpses in contrast to the struggle of a young child to give proper burial to a bird. The background of this poignant tale is the actual historical events in Guatemala after the coup that overthrew the government of Jacobo Arbenz.

The young Salvadoran guerrilla fighter and author Jacinta Escudos, in ``Look at Lislique, See How Pretty It Is,'' remembers, amid the horror of war, the beauty of a village before the arrival of the Guardias. This tragic story is balanced by the bittersweet one of Mario Payeras, ``Story of the Maestro Who Spent His Whole Life Composing a Piece for the Marimba.'' Beauty and a reverence for life resound.

``Clamor of Innocence'' appeared in 1988 and is a complementary collection to ``And We Sold the Rain.'' It presents readers with a very different perception of the region. The writers are chosen from differing historical epochs - ranging from Carmen Lyra of Costa Rica, who was born in 1888 and died in Mexico in 1949, to the Guatemalan Nobel Prize-winner, Miguel Angel Asturias.

This collection offers a much wider perspective on the literary tradition of Central America. Stories deal not only with the bereft landscape of war but also with the history of the region. In ``A Train Ride,'' by the Salvadoran poet Hugo Lindo, the beauty of the land is compared to the nostalgia of childhood. The lyrical yet eerie story ``Penelope on Her Silver Wedding Anniversary,'' by Rima Vallbona, a Costa Rican writer now living in the United States, focuses on a wedding anniversary that is more than a celebration; it is the beginning of freedom for a woman confined in a patriarchal marriage.

The younger writers, such as Delfina Collado of Costa Rica, as well as those who are more established, such as Rogelio Sin'an of Panama, reveal a preoccupation with the revitalization of a mythical time and the nostalgia of a bygone era when, in Collado's words, ``Work, love and hope grew in the translucence of the air, in the turquoise of the sky, in the fecundity of the soil.'' Yet the themes of political violence and anguish are interchangeable with everyday uncertainties. Perhaps most touching is the story that inaugurates this collection, ``The Fever Heroes,'' by Eduardo B"ahr. Written in the form of a letter to a father, the son on the front line speaks with horror of the irrational brutality of guerrilla war at the same time he tenderly asks to have the avocado tree watered.

Neither collection reflects political diatribe; the word ``contra'' is never mentioned, and not even the stories of Sergio Ram'irez, vice-president of Nicaragua, contain propagandistic political statements. The stories speak from the heart and speak of hope, despite so many Central American writers having been victims of political violence.

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