That day, Somoza’s Army charged against a student demonstration that was parading through the Nicaraguan city of León. It was the afternoon of July 23, 1959. The soldiers began to shoot and, amid the smoke from the tear gas, Sergio Ramírez managed to slip through the service door of a small restaurant. He went up to the second floor and when he subsided the noise he looked out onto the balcony. What he saw then never left his retina. The repression left four dead and more than 60 wounded. That massacre is more than a step in the memory of the writer, who turns 80 this Friday, August 5. It is an image of horror captured by adolescent eyes that still returns from time to time.
This is a conversation that dives into memories and the past, but also borders the present. The winner of the Cervantes Prize reviews his life and reflects on his two exiles: the one he suffered for confronting Somoza as a Sandinista leader and the one he suffers today, for more than a year, for opposing Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo. Ramírez connects with EL PAÍS by videoconference. He has been writing for six decades, a time, he says, marked by constant change, uncertainty and surprise. Perhaps the only thing planned in his career after leaving his hometown, Masatepe, was law studies. Until he decided to take another path.
Ask. He wrote that he sees himself as “a lawyer in the abstract.” What did he want to be at the age of 20?
Response. I really got used to the idea of my father, who told me as a child what I should do: I had to be a lawyer. I come from a fairly large family and my father’s was a family of poor musicians. He had not wanted to learn to play any instrument and had dedicated himself to commerce. For him it was a pride that I was the first professional to come out of that family. One day it occurred to me to tell him that a friend had gone to Chile to study journalism, because that subject was not taught in Nicaragua. Of course, journalism is good, but it is not a liberal profession… I believe that one throws oneself into the water of the river of life. At that age I found in law the closest thing to the humanities. It never occurred to anyone at that time that his job or his profession, his way of life, was going to be that of a writer. It was no profession. Less in a country like Nicaragua.
P. What was writing then for you?
R. For me it was a vital hobby. Telling stories was a necessity, but it was not an option in my future to be just a writer. Before graduating, I had gone to work with the rector, who was very decisive in my life. She was his secretary, under the title of Head of University Public Relations, his personal assistant. I was traveling with him to Managua and at a certain point, as happens with teachers, he told me ‘I have nothing more to teach you, you have to leave Nicaragua’. And he arranged for me to go live in Costa Rica to work at the Council of Central American Universities. That changed my life.
P. How did you tell your father?
R. He had a grocery store that occupied a very large room in the corner of the house. And he told me ‘I’m going to divide the grocery store, I’m going to reduce it so that you can put your law office in the other half.’ He kept seeing me as a lawyer practicing in a town of 4,000 or 5,000 inhabitants. So, in a way, the fact that I went to Costa Rica meant a step forward for him. It was a promotion in life.
P. And do you remember the moment when you told him that he wanted to dedicate himself to writing?
R. I published my first book of short stories when I was 20 years old, before I graduated, in ’63. I’ve never had a negative reaction from them. When I gave him the book, he took it in his hands and said ‘look, now you have to write a novel’. Because of course, he was always looking forward. It was a book of stories and in the categories that were in people’s heads, the novel was more important. But at that time my purpose was just to be a storyteller. I became a novelist much later, already living in Costa Rica, in the year 67.
P. With glow time, who wrote in Costa Rica, a novel about change.
R. For me it was the change of life of someone who goes from a small town to the metropolis, which in Nicaraguan terms was León. That happens a lot in literature, the trip… From the small town to the metropolis. I began to write that novel and along the way I came across readings that I had not done. I ran into Rulfo and in the end with One hundred years of solitude.
P. And how important is the idea of change to you?
R. Looking back, I have lived in constant change. From Masatepe to Leon. Then the transfer to Costa Rica. We married [con Gertrudis Guerrero Mayorga] On July 26 and that same day in the year 64 we took the plane and went to Costa Rica. We lived in Costa Rica a first season of 10 years. Then we went to Berlin and came back from Berlin. I wanted to return to Nicaragua and I couldn’t. We returned to Costa Rica and from Costa Rica I returned to Nicaragua in 1978 because of the adventure of the fight against Somoza. And well, after Nicaragua, now, to Madrid. My life has been marked by constant change. And for the surprise of the next step. With that uncertainty that the step I was going to take was not on the horizon, the only thing that was on the horizon was that I was going to study Law in León.
P. Two exiles. What are the differences?
R. My exile in Costa Rica really begins when, in 1977, the Somoza Prosecutor’s Office orders my imprisonment. That puts me in a situation similar to the one I find myself in now. The difference is that then that prison order is issued against the entire Group of 12, in which I participated, and we decided to return to Nicaragua to face Somoza’s prison order. Somoza didn’t want to let us in and in the end he was forced to let us in, but he never stopped us either. The political circumstances did not allow it. I went to Nicaragua on July 5, and we were received massively, until August 22, when the National Palace was taken. So I did go into hiding in Managua for several months and then I returned to Costa Rica. Today the prison order is the same. Today I count that exile from the prison order as I count it from the prison order now, with the difference that nothing has motivated me to return to Nicaragua to stand trial, knowing that if Somoza left me in the street, Ortega is not going to leave me in the street.
P. What did you think this week, when the Ortega regime besieged a rural church?
R. The aggression against the Church is rooted in the idea that the regime has its own power and must continue to consolidate that power at any cost, leaving behind any kind of political convenience. On the other hand, the persecution or resentment against the Church began before 2018, when the Episcopal Conference sent Ortega a letter, with a kind of list of demands, putting forward the reestablishment of democracy, free election and respect to human rights, alternation in power. Ortega receives that letter during a meeting with the Episcopal Conference at the Apostolic Nunciature in Managua, and that creates great fury in him and in his wife. And then, when the insurrection explodes in April 2018, she has to turn to the Church to be able to put together a national dialogue until Ortega begins to blame her for everything that is happening. To Monsignor Báez, to Monsignor Álvarez, who are the two great nemesis.
P. Can you imagine a way out of the crisis that Nicaragua is suffering?
R. No, I don’t see that output. I see someone who is digging, with a very wrong idea of power, a hallucinated idea of power. He’s digging down, making the hole he’s getting into bigger. When I was a child I remember the comic strips of a character who would start painting the floor with a brush until he stayed in a corner and couldn’t get out. That is the impression I have. All these repressive measures of intolerance, ranging from persecution against the Church, declaring unpleasant to the ambassador of the United States, who has not even been confirmed… It is a kind of absolute arrogance, of power that disregards all the elements of real politics. The Pope is never going to say anything no matter how much they put a priest in prison. He has three priests in prison, accused of common crimes, of sexual assault, which everyone knows are false. Or the United States: his measures will continue to be limited. The aggressiveness with Spain. Well, now they sent a new ambassador and Mrs. Murillo received her with cheers and drums. They think that everything is fixable, that everything can be fixed or do whatever they want in this hallucinated plan of absolute consolidation of power.
P. Do you have a recurring memory?
R. The afternoon of July 23, 1959, when Somoza’s Army fired on the student demonstration in which I was participating. There were four dead and more than 60 injured in a street in León. And of course, I am a survivor of that massacre. I have very exact vision. The platoon that closed the street began to launch tear gas canisters. I can see the red tear gas canisters explode in the street and smoke. I went through the service gate of a small restaurant. I went up to the second floor, went out onto the balcony when the shooting had stopped and saw the wounded and the dead lying in the street. That is a persistent and very concrete memory. It’s like a piece of film that was left there.
P. You come from a family of musicians and have written about food culture. Do you have a musical or culinary cupcake, speaking in terms Proustians?
R. My favorite piece of music is triple concert of Beethoven. EITHER the trout, Schubert, for example. When I write I play music, even chamber music. The symphony orchestra distracts me a lot. That in classical music. But I never forget that on those afternoons in Masatepe, which were deserted, lonely, silent afternoons, there was a neighbor who had a jukebox and played Two gardenias, that bolero that has stuck in my ear since childhood. When I listen Two gardenias, I remember those desolate afternoons and that jukebox playing.
R. Do you have a recipe or dish that evokes something special for you?
R. The most succulent dish in Nicaraguan cuisine, which I haven’t tried in a long time, is carne en vaho, a steamed meat that surely has African roots. It is a wrapping of banana leaves, where salty and sun-dried cecina is put together with green bananas, with everything and the peel, and pieces of yucca. All that is wrapped and steamed in a clay pot. When that wrapper is opened, the perfume is extraordinary.
P. What reading do you like to return to?
R. I always come back to The Quijote. When I had to leave Nicaragua, I had had a lectern made for the edition of The Quijote that on the occasion of the Cervantes Prize the University of Alcalá gave me, very large, very beautiful. I was thinking of putting this book on the lectern so I could open it anywhere and read a paragraph standing up. I am very familiar with The Quijote, so I can enter that huge house with so many doors and windows through any door or through the window. Although I cannot quote entire paragraphs from The Quijote, Yes, I can quote entire poems by Rubén Darío. Because I learned them more as a child.
P. He turns 80. What is she thinking about?
R. In what Quevedo in his sonnet I looked at the walls of my homeland, which is a very beautiful poem about the “staff most crooked and least strong.” I try not to lean on the staff. I have a knee problem, the orthopedist told me that he had to use a cane to walk. But I lose my cane, I forget it, I leave it in restaurants and on trains.
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