Atop the Volcano

Atop the Volcano

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, ce


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.

It’s while working at the ad agency that she meets “the Poet,” a gregarious colleague who holds the key to that other, hidden life of Nicaragua, the far-more-interesting world of artists and intellectuals in tune with the earth-shattering events occurring then around the world. Here’s Belli’s introduction, too, to what she calls “the soul” of Nicaragua–and once she discovers it, she’ll never be the same again. She has made contact with that dimension of society where real, meaningful existence is spent amid soiled mattresses, bottles of wine and cluttered canvases of art (unbeknownst, of course, to her brooding husband, ensconced at home in his easy chair). Here’s how she first describes the mind-blowing denizens of the Poet’s world:

They read voraciously and talked passionately about what was happening in the world–the Vietnam War, pop culture, the sexual revolution, the responsibilities of the intellectual elite, the 1968 rebellion. Their conversations were sprinkled with names like Sartre, Camus, Chomsky, Marx, and Giap, as well as topics like the literature of the “boom,” Van Gogh’s letters to Theo, Count Lautréamont’s Chants de Maldoror, Japanese haiku, and Carlos Martínez Rivas, the favorite master of Nicaraguan poetry. They also drank like fish, smoked pot, tripped on acid, fell in love, and recounted their various agonies and ecstasies to one another. They were real hippies, filled with energy and boundless curiosity.

It’s not long, clearly, before she takes the plunge, and, despite just having given birth to her first daughter, Belli is soon headlong into an affair with the Poet. Her double life has only begun–model wife and mother at home; hungry, restless bohemian whenever she can sneak the chance–and it is not long, too, before she is introduced to members of the underground Sandinista movement and finds her true calling. Yes, blame the Poet for the spark that ignited her new life, though her stifling unhappiness made it almost predictable. “What remained of my life as a young, upper-class wife was nothing but appearance,” she writes. “Volcanoes, cataclysms had begun inside of me.”

In the 1970s Belli’s life takes on a momentum that would be hard for anyone to keep up with, and the balancing act proves too much for her as well. There’s the ad job, her depressive husband and another daughter; at the same time, perilous encounters with Sandinista contacts, and a new love affair–conveniently, with one of her contacts, Marcos. She recalls driving around Managua with her new lover, searching out parks and hidden streets where they would park and ravish each other. (Tragically, Marcos will be killed a few years later by the Somoza police near one of those very tryst spots.) Belli writes, “Half naked, tentatively in that confined space, we made love. Maybe it was the danger, the eternal risk, the not knowing if this would be the last time, but it was beautiful with the intensity of a passion that was beyond words.”

But Belli is just one step ahead of getting caught–by her husband, by the Somoza forces. Tipped off at her job that the secret police are on her tail, she heads into exile, first to Mexico City, later Costa Rica. Her marriage has by now collapsed, and she’s free to rebuild her life from the ruins (a personal version, in a way, of the great earthquake of 1972 that leveled Managua). She finds her salvation, or at least consolation, in poetry. In the solitude of her nights in Mexico City, she writes a book of poems, Linea de fuego (Line of Fire), which will win the 1978 Casa de las Americas prize in Cuba. “My poems then were a mixture–often chaotic–of the erotic and the patriotic, two things that reflected the experiences of my everyday life,” she explains.

Her everyday life, however, is becoming ever more complicated. From Costa Rica, she is running dangerous smuggling missions of weapons across the border to the Sandinistas, as their struggle dramatically heats up. She is also remarried, to Sergio, a Brazilian radical who has drifted across the Americas to Costa Rica. Again, her home life doesn’t quite gel with her hectic duties, and their attempts to have a child are continually frustrated. “Tasks that couldn’t be postponed, rebel attacks that needed our support seemed always to coincide with my ovulation,” she complains. And yet, eventually she does become pregnant, though she continues her high-risk missions to the border, endangering the pregnancy far more than she realizes. Her son, heroically, will survive–even after the doctors tell her he has died in childbirth–and, for Belli, he will embody the indomitable spirit of those already lost in the struggle for a free Nicaragua.

Sergio, not surprisingly, won’t be so resilient. He’s soon supplanted in Belli’s affections by the most momentous of her great loves: the guerrilla leader Modesto, arriving fresh from the Nicaraguan jungles to lead the final assault on Somoza. You can just imagine the combustible energy when they meet: “Modesto looked at me–all of me, not just my eyes. His gaze, like a stream, flowed over me, over my denim overalls, over my thick mane, my shoulders, my neck. As if his eyes could touch me.” Their political work brings them closer together, until the inevitable happens–and Belli’s purplish prose gets even gooier: “While the afternoon slowly waned, we wandered the unexplored roads of the flesh, celebrating the ritual of a man and a woman fusing, daggers in a common sheath.”

The Sandinista victory in July 1979 is the watershed moment of Belli’s book, and comes just over the halfway mark. If up to now she’s only sketchily filled us in on the inner workings of the movement–the three-way split in party lines, for example, of 1976–her tale now takes on a much more visible political tone. First, there’s the overwhelming joy of triumph itself: Belli flies into Managua from her exile in Costa Rica with stacks of the hurriedly printed Sandinista newspaper that she and Sergio–still in the picture–threw together and now deliver from the back of a truck. “That slow truck ride into Managua reminded me of childbirth, of the joy after pain. I was witnessing the birth of my country,” she recalls. Even her father touchingly welcomes her home–as if she were the belle of the ball once again–with the simple, fatherly words, “You guys won, sweetheart. Congratulations.”

Belli describes the euphoric victory celebrations as if under a magical spell. Her mission fulfilled, Belli, like most of the new leaders, is barely past 30, and the hard part now begins. There’s a TV studio for her to salvage and run, news shows and special programming to implement. And, of course, there’s Modesto, now part of the nine-person Sandinista National Directorate, and growing more distant and burdened by the day. But the old attraction lingers, even more fraught now by victory, and one of their first acts together is to christen, so to speak, Somoza’s old chamber: “We argued and we grew angry with each other, but we ended up on the carpet, making love in chair legs underneath Somoza’s conference table.”

In this section of the book, perhaps more than ever, Belli begins to ponder the wider implications of her sex life, and, specifically, the role of women in the revolution. Up to now, she has been incredibly, even infuriatingly, obtuse when it comes to men, especially the predatory wiles of men in power. She’s nearly raped by Gen. Omar Torrijos of Panama, and she’s still not sure whether Fidel Castro meant to seduce her or not after one private, late-night session in Havana in 1978. As an international emissary of the Sandinistas, she tries to convince a skeptical delegation of Algerian women of the significance of women in the movement. And yet, soon after, in her new position as private secretary to Modesto, she begins to witness her own diminishing role, as well as that of many other female militants. (Here one is reminded of the lessons from Elaine Brown’s memoir of the Black Panther Party, A Taste of Power: A Black Woman’s Story.)

The central committee, too, has become riven with divisions, the ideological splits now exacerbated by a power struggle that must also contend with threats from the new Reagan Administration. Belli, like the revolution, hardly has a moment to catch her breath before calamities rain down: the regrouping of Somoza’s national guard and US-backed contras along the borders, CIA-backed minings in the port. Belli’s blame is spread between Reagan and the Ortega brothers, Daniel and Humberto, who have come to dominate the central committee and whom Belli accuses of “usurp[ing] the legacy of our brave liberation struggle.”

By the mid-1980s Belli has hit a crossroads again: The revolution has grown cold and ugly, her second marriage has failed, her affair with Modesto is finally finished. It’s time for her recovery, spiritual and emotional, which is what it seems the book has been leading up to all along. “I didn’t know how to be alone,” she agonizes. “I had exposed myself to bullets, death; I had smuggled weapons, given speeches, received awards, had children–so many things, but a life without men, without love, was alien to me.”

Belli’s solitude again bears fruit. This time she writes a novel, The Inhabited Woman, which draws from early experiences, when her future was full of promise. And just as she’s learning to make it on her own, she falls in love again. This time–the really shocking news–she falls for an American (though, to be fair, he’s a reporter with NPR). “Would I be a woman in love or a revolutionary,” she asks herself, a bit melodramatically. In the end, as the Sandinistas are voted out of power in the 1990 elections and the revolution flickers out, Belli decides to divide her life between Charlie and Nicaragua. She remarries, they adopt a daughter, she continues to write. She withers through Washington winters, then gazes out at the sea from their new home in Santa Monica. And she reaches, again, for the contours of that country within, which has witnessed earthquake, revolution and heartbreak. Perhaps overused by now, the country under her skin is an image she’ll carry through to the end: “After so many lost loves, errant searches, and mortal leaps in quest of greener, illusive landscapes, I had finally accepted the precipices that exist in each human topography. The real challenge was not in finding one’s match, but in settling the territory, the tender labor of two imperfect beings who accept one another and agree to work the land, lay bridges, and not escape at the earth’s first shuddering.”

Belli’s tale, though immersed in the history of her small part of Central America–that “slender waist of tears,” in Neruda’s words–is attuned, above all, to the far more fragile, intimate world of her own making. Perhaps too much at times. And yet, for a moment, like so many others in her country, she had been drawn out by the very real possibilities on the horizon. Near the end of her book, she sits by her mother’s grave and vows never to renounce the passions that gave her life meaning. “I yearn for that unbridled energy, the incredible, crazy, impossible dreams that took me out of myself in search of a common experience.” Though it may have failed her on occasion, the romance has never died.

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