The Jaguar Smile – Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie is best known as a novelist, but he has written a few non-fiction books and this was his first. Originally published in 1987 and subtitled A Nicaraguan Journey even Rushdie in his new introduction to my edition written 10 years after first publication admits…

In the last ten years the world has changed so dramatically that The Jaguar Smile now reads like a period piece, a fairy tale of one of the hotter moments in the Cold War.

By the time I first read the book, almost a further 10 years on again in 2006, I was also in Nicaragua and the story was coming full circle although I didn’t know that when I arrived.

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But first a little history to set the book in its time and to provide background to the various characters. We need to go back to the US occupation of Nicaragua which lasted from 1909 to 1933 and which was opposed in a guerrilla war by a group led by Augusto Sandino. When the Americans left Sandino agreed a peace treaty with the new regime but on his way home from the signing banquet he was assassinated on the orders of the commander of the National Guard, Somoza who in 1937 took power himself and so began a 42 year brutal dictatorship led by his family. They siphoned off all the money they could from the country during their time in power especially the aid funds to rebuild the capital, Managua, following a devastating earthquake in 1972 this meant that when they were finally deposed in 1979 it was estimated the family wealth was in the region of $1 billion ($3.5 billion today) and all from a relatively poor small country of just three million people. They were overthrown by a rebel group who call themselves Sandinista’s in honour of the 1930’s rebel leader, whose profile now stands high above Managua.

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And this is where Rushdie comes in, he arrived in 1986 during yet another revolution, this time by a group called the Contra’s and financed by the Reagan administration in the USA in an attempt to overthrow the Sandinista government, even though the US Congress and the International Court of Justice in the Hague deemed such actions as illegal. The fighting was brutal with the Contra’s targeting the civilian population with kidnapping, rape and random murders being their main strategy to try to wear down the people rather than attacking the military forces of Nicaragua. That is not to say that the Sandinista’s were blameless and he makes a fair attempt to provide a balanced view of the situation. He had excellent access to almost all the government leaders and as a novelist he seems to have been able to talk to them (most of which were published novelists or poets themselves) as an equal and therefore get past the politics to be able to put issues regarding press freedom, food shortages, repression of the Catholic church and other items directly to even the president Daniel Ortega himself. There is a whole chapter detailing an interview with Ortega.

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The ruins of the cathedral in Managua

All of the leaders point out that they are at war and it is difficult to do things in such a context, and that the food shortages were mainly due to the US blockade and mining of the only deep water port in the country which was a fair point. They are however able to point to successes such as the reduction in child mortality, this would be halved by the time they lost power in 1990 and a significant increase in literacy (although this was not as big as they claimed), which was a priority for a government led in the main by writers. That the capital was still in ruins, and presumably still is, it certainly was when I was there twenty years after Rushdie, was not really a surprise either with the Somoza’s having emptied the country’s coffers when they fled into exile.

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Anti-CIA mural on a wall in Leon, presumably dating back to the 80’s when Rushdie was there as the CIA were heavily involved in the Contra revolution.

As well as having excellent access to the leadership Rushdie also manages to travel round the country to a certain extent, obviously the border areas, especially those with Honduras were too dangerous to enter, but he did manage to get over to the Caribbean coastal area of Bluefields which as usual was in the middle of storms throughout most of his time there and he memorably describes as

Bluefields was poor as mud (only dry places could be dirt poor)

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Bluefields

This is a really interesting section of the book. The Sandinista’s had completely messed up their control of this part of the country and were only then coming to recognise that the west (where they were) and the east were very different places, indeed there wasn’t even a road joining the two sides of the country and the east was (and still is) really really poor. There was slowly coming into place a new policy called “Autonomy” where the east would have more control over its own governance and the wildly mixed population could return to their own localities.

In Bluefields it was often difficult to remember I was still in Nicaragua. The west coast was, for the most part, homogeneous, but here, as well as Mestizos, there were Creoles, three different Amerindian tribes and even a small community of Garifonos, who shouldn’t have been there at all, according to the textbooks, but up in Belize. And that wasn’t the only difference. The majority of the inhabitants here were not Catholic, but belonged to the Moravian church. And a large proportion of them were English speaking to boot.

I had arrived in Bluefields via a small plane from The Corn Islands, a pair of islands about 70km (roughly 45 miles) off the coast from Bluefields where I was when the result of the elections that we had been following since arriving in Nicaragua were announced. These two islands are a tropical paradise and made the poverty in Bluefields even more striking.

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Procession of cars driving round and round Big Corn Island in celebration of the Sandinista win in the 2006 elections

In 1990 the Sandinista government lost the election and would be out of power for sixteen years. The government that replaced them was led by Violeta Chamorro, the widow of a journalist who had been assassinated by the Somozo regime and whose paper had been closed down by the Sandinista’s so there was no love lost between her and Ortega. Rushdie also has a chapter interviewing her in the book and although he ends up being less than impressed by her she would be the person credited as bringing an end to fighting in Nicaragua after decades of various struggles.

Salman Rushdie makes a creditable attempt to understand Nicaragua and present as balanced view as was possible at the time. If he went there now I’m sure he would write a very different book, the Sandinista’s are still led by Daniel Ortega and he is still president thirteen years after the election I witnessed but for how much longer? There is considerable unrest in Nicaragua again and this time the Sandinista government are the ones putting down a rebellious populace. It’s a pity, it is after all a beautiful country with friendly people and a fantastic place to be and I thoroughly enjoyed this book whilst I was there and it’s subsequent rereading for this blog. Yes it’s dated but it’s still definitely worth a read.

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Brightly coloured buildings in Grenada

All photographs are by myself from my trip in 2006 and are © David Jackson 2019

Under the Frog – Tibor Fischer

a béka segge alatt

translation from Hungarian
Under the frogs arse – which indicates that things are really bad

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November 1955

It was true that at the age of twenty-five he had never left the country, that he had never got more than three days march from his birthplace, no more than a day and a half of horse and carting or one long afternoon’s locomoting. On the other hand, Gyuri mused, how many people could say they had travelled the length and breadth of Hungary naked?

The opening paragraph of Under the Frog  raises a few questions. I first read the book whilst working in Hungary in 1995 just six years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and whilst Hungary then was a lot better than when I originally visited in 1987 when it was still very restricted, away from Budapest (which is where I was) it still felt very different. I have come to know and love the country over the decades both from working there and also visiting friends since that time but I haven’t picked this book up again in twenty four years. It will be interesting to see how my reactions to it have changed. Back then I didn’t know much Hungarian history and this was to be the first book that really awakened my interest in that subject. But what little I did know was that less than a year after that paragraph is set roughly two thousand five hundred Hungarians would have died in a failed revolution and many more than that had been imprisoned for their actions so just what is going on in that paragraph?

After the first chapter the book leaps back to 1944 and then progresses to the disasters of 1956. Tibor Fischer was born in England in 1959 to Hungarian parents that had managed to escape in 1956 and this, his first novel, takes his parents background as Hungarian basketball players as a means of informing his text. His mother was captain of the national team and his father was also a quality player, whilst Gyuri and his fellow misfits that we follow through the novel play for the Locomotive team in the Hungarian first division.

Like last week’s book, Lolly Willowes, the novel changes significantly about two thirds in although this time it is because there simply isn’t much funny that can be written about the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and Fischer wisely doesn’t try. Up until then however the book is full of often quite dark humour. As far as possible it also seems to be historically accurate, from the invasion of the country by the Russians in 1944 which pushed out the Germans, but did little to improve the conditions of the populace beyond that, to following the development of the communist state after the war. There are several mentions of the AVO secret police which a couple of the characters have unfortunate encounters with during the novel and the general malaise of life under the regime. The chapters headings are all dates as we trace the passage of time via significant events for either the country or more often the characters interaction with each other or the police state until we get back to November 1955 where if things are not actually going well at least they don’t appear to be getting any worse as long as you stay out of the clutches of the AVO.

The final, and longest, chapter is entitled 23rd October 1956 and it certainly starts then with the birth of the revolution but it continues until early November when the Russians totally crushed the nascent republic. Fischer is very good at inserting his characters into the significant moments of the revolution whilst keeping their being there entirely believable. Central Budapest is surprisingly small and easy to walk around so it is highly likely that people did follow Gyuri’s route around the city on the 23rd, being at both the Radio building and also around the fighting surrounding the Corvin cinema. As stated earlier the jokes largely stop here and indeed the tragic aftermath of the fighting is brought more into focus by the contrast with the considerably more jokey style (even when dealing with awful events) that characterises the first two thirds of the book.

I was in Budapest in October 2016 for the 60th anniversary of the revolution, the 23rd is now a national holiday and a few of my pictures can be seen at the end of this blog. Sadly it would be another thirty three years before the Russians went home as painted on the side of the car and the oppression would if anything be worse in the years immediately after 1956. It’s a very good book and it won’t be another twenty four years before I read it again. Under the Frog was, in 1993, the first debut novel ever to be nominated for the Booker Prize and made it to the shortlist of five before losing to Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle.

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