Author: Manlio Argueta
Translated: from Spanish by Bill Brow
Publication date: 1980
Why this book: The books of Manlio Argueta caught my eye while I was at the academic library to check out a copy of The Country Under my Skin, my book for Nicaragua. Thanks to the Library of Congress organizational scheme which groups literature by its country of origin, El Salvador was the next shelf over. That organizational scheme is much more helpful for my book-from-every-country project than the public library system of sorting all fiction alphabetically by author!
Summary: As the title indicates, One Day of Life follows Lupe, a poor woman in rural El Salvador, through a single day in her life, with some intervening chapters which give the background of other members of the family. The book is set just prior to the Salvadoran Civil War in which leftist guerillas fought against a military government supported by the United States. Although they are poor, Lupe and her family work to improve their own lives and those of their neighbors by forming a farming co-operative and protesting to ask for better rates on loans with which to buy seeds and fertilizer. Unfortunately, this activity is seen as subversive by the repressive government of El Salvador and the family is under threat. Lupe’s husband, Chepe, sleeps in the nearby hills, instead of at home, trying to avoid arrest. One son was killed by government agents. A son-in-law was subjected to torture, the detailed description of which is still haunting me. Even Lupe’s teenage granddaughter is on the run after having participated in protests.
This is one of those novels (like Woman at Point Zero, my Egypt book) that is as much a political statement as it is a novel. In fact, Argueta was in exile in Costa Rica when he wrote One Day of Life and the book was banned in El Salvador for its criticism of the Salvadorean government.
I think the book’s role as a political statement led to the characters having less complexity than they otherwise might have. In particular, Lupe and her family seem unrealistically flawless. I certainly understand why Argueta would portray them this way and I don’t necessarily want to criticize him for it. But I do have to admit that it takes a bit away from the book as a novel.
Despite her flawlessness, Lupe is a fantastic narrator, full of insights and opinions with an eye for the details of daily life. (For her thoughts about pigs, see my previous post Banking with Pigs). She has a unique, conversational voice, which I think is in part a success on the part of the translator. Apparently One Day of Life is written in distinctively Salvadorean Spanish, something that is inevitably lost in translation.
One of the things Lupe comments on is the effects of the arrival of liberation theology priests in their church. Liberation theology was a movement within the Catholic Church, particularly in Latin America, that emphasized social justice. The old priest told Lupe to accept suffering as God’s will:
“Well, the priest had so enthralled us that even our hearts were turning to stone. I didn’t even cry for my son when he died, because death had become so natural that we thanked God for taking him away.”
The new priests, on the other hand, said, “To get to heaven, first we must struggle to create paradise on earth,” and helped their parishioners to form co-operatives, allowing them to earn better prices.
There is even an appearance by one of the most famous figures of liberation theology, Archbishop Oscar Romero, as he supports a group of protesting students who occupy the cathedral. Romero was assassinated in 1980, the same year as the book was published.
Learning about liberation theology was one of the most interesting topics my Catholic high school religion classes. I guess my high school was relatively liberal, because they were very positive about liberation theology. Even though I didn’t share their religious beliefs, I always admired the sisters and brothers and priests who put themselves at risk to advocate for the poor and oppressed. It seems though, that liberation theology fell out of favor in the Catholic Church at large. Cardinal Ratzinger, who later became pope, condemned liberation theology for challenging church hierarchy and for being influenced by Marxism.
[Note: I’m experimenting with a new structure for writing reviews, please give opinions and suggestions.]