Gioconda Belli–poet, novelist, society belle reborn as Sandinista comrade–has written a memoir of the Nicaraguan struggle that reads like a romance–a romance with politics and revolution, certainly, but most fatefully with men. The title itself suggests the dual nature of this memoir, both political and painfully personal: Though reminiscent of Eduardo Galeano’s more heavy-handed Days and Nights of Love and War, Belli’s tale is nothing if not intimate, even excessively so. Her country’s epochal events form the colorful backdrop for her breathless and episodic recounting of her own journey of self-transformation. This is not for the squeamish: Sexual volcanoes will erupt, bodies will collide, sweat will drip from all pores, even at the exact moment the revolution triumphs in the streets. (How’s that for climax?) But this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with Belli, “the unfairly beautiful poet,” as Salman Rushdie wrote in his 1987 book The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey, who “had created a kind of public love-poetry that came closer, I thought, to expressing the passion of Nicaragua than anything I had yet heard.”
Of course, the Nicaraguan revolution, which finally toppled the Somoza regime in 1979 (more than forty years after the family’s bitter rule was established), was in many ways, and famously, a poetic revolution, or a revolution of poets. The Sandinistas had the youthful enthusiasm of poets; their poets wore the idealism of revolutionaries on their sleeves, as proudly as their black-and-red scarves and army fatigues. (Belli, in fact, once showed up at a convention in Cuba wearing the familiar outfit of fatigues and boots, but with an eye-catching halter top–just one more sign, perhaps, of the contending facets of her revolution.) And that is what forms the heart of this memoir: the difficult trajectory of her romantic idealism, so uplifting at times, so all-consuming and delusional at others–and so damaging, ultimately, to those close to her, including her children.
But first, one needs to see the Sandinista movement in Belli’s fresh eyes: Here was a thrilling hope for a new path in Nicaragua, so long under the shadow of the United States yet unwilling to follow the Eastern-bloc path of drab repression. As Belli writes, “We wanted a new kind of revolution that would be original and open, the product of a tropical, irreverent left-wing movement.” It was a seductive vision, made all the more enticing by the poetry of its creators and converts, from Ernesto Cardenal to Sergio Ramírez to Belli herself. Rushdie, ever impressed on his short visit, quotes Belli’s stirring poetry as his introduction to the enigma of Nicaragua. Those same lines serve as a perfect entry, too, into her memoir, and offer a clear picture of what is to come:
Rivers run through me
mountains bore into my body
and the geography of this country
begins forming in me
turning me into lakes, chasms, ravines,
earth for sowing love
opening like a furrow
filling me with a longing to live
to see it free, beautiful,
full of smiles.
I want to explode with love…
Indeed, Belli’s country is within her, but it was not always so, or at least it took her a while to notice it. Born in 1948, Belli grew up in a pampered, upper-crust home–a gilded-caged life that shielded her from the crushing poverty around her. A classmate of Somoza’s daughter and neighbor to Somoza party headquarters, Belli was trained in the fine arts of the Emily Post book of etiquette by her demure, retiring mother. She was sent off to Spain for high school and then a one-year course in advertising in Philadelphia before returning to work as an account executive with an agency in Managua. So far, all very tame and traditional, including her desire to “get married as quickly as possible,” and her “hurry to live my life, to get away from the commotion of my parents’ house.”
She soon meets her future husband–also retiring, but with a melancholic, even misanthropic, streak–who accompanies Belli to the swirl of Nicaraguan high-society activities that season. He is her date at the Debutantes Ball, where she is honored as belle of the Nejapa Country Club and where she shows flashes of early radicalism: She designs her own gown with a bold swath of red, instead of the customary pastels. By February 1967, she is 18, headed to the altar and still a virgin. She is ready to live her life, though still unaware of all the possibilities.