Poet and journalist Claribel Alegría passed away on January 25. The following is a review by Chuck Wachtel of two her books, co-written with her husband and translator Darwin Flakoll.
Because the extraordinary stories in these two books are true, they were first told clandestinely and to a very small audience: Claribel Alegría, a Salvadoran poet who lives in Managua, and her husband, the writer and translator Darwin Flakoll, who died in the spring of 1995. The first, Tunnel to Canto Grande, gathers together the accounts of the members of Peru’s Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) who spent more than two years digging a tunnel into the Miguel Castro y Castro Penitentiary, a modern, high-security, “escape-proof” prison outside Lima known as Canto Grande (Big Rock), and freed 48 political prisoners. The second, Death of Sonzoza, relates the story of the assassination of the third and last member of the tyrannical Somoza dynasty, in 1980, as told by the survivors of the commando team who carried it out. Though their outcomes are now history, these stories occurred in secrecy, and if their first narrators were to tell them publicly, it would endanger their lives and freedom.
These first-person accounts braided together by Alegría and Flakoll are at once romances of liberation struggle and the testimonies of ordinary people. Within them are tales of love, jealousy, boredom, barbecues, arguments over “what one should wear,” backaches, sprained ankles and happy reunions; within them are people not entirely unlike the gentle civilians who air their conflicts in the public court of Oprah Winfrey. Yet they are also people willing to forgo the pleasures of civilian life and devote all their energy—at great risk—to achieve ends that are real, in their most immediate terms, and symbolic in what they tell the world.
Reading from within the context of our relentless, in-focused lives inside the cave of market/campaign culture, it was difficult at first not to endow these narratives with the distance from actuality we so freely lend to fiction or ancient history. For the most part, significant news accounts of recent history, once brought into the current environment of our public language, become, like advertising, the medium of persuasion: There seem to be no human facts at their centers. I found myself reading these books and thinking: These stories are compelling and believable, and, what’s more, the people who inhabit and narrate them are plausible, singular, dynamic beings… This must be fiction. What else could it be?
Although both narratives occur in the context of a half-century of struggle in Latin America, from Cuba to Chiapas, other contexts kept arising to complicate my sense of them. Reading Death of Somoza, a story of unapologetic tyrannicide, brought to mind two vastly dissimilar events in the recent history of this hemisphere: the capture of Adolf Eichmann by Israeli volunteers in Argentina in 1960; and the 1989 invasion of Panama, at a cost of countless civilian lives, ostensibly to bring a single criminal to justice. It is impossible to read Tunnel to Canto Grande and not compare it to The Great Escape, the 1962 John Sturges film based on an account by Paul Brickhill, an RAF pilot who’d been a prisoner in the German POW camp where the escape took place.