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The International Writers Magazine
:Continuing Roger Smiths essay on Nicaragua

Where's the Big Idea?
Roger Smith on Dr Buitrago and
Rubén Darío

Dr. Edgardo Buitrago’s home in León, a bustling university town of Spanish colonial buildings forty kilometers south of Chinandega, is elegant and bookish. In the central courtyard is a garden, lush with broad-leaf native plants, from among which squat statues peer out, grotesque troll-like figures from folklore.

Ruben Dario

Under the veranda is bookcase after bookcase, all stuffed, and through the door to his office more bookshelves can be seen, as well as portraits of writers and depictions of Indian lore. The white stucco of the walls scatters sunlight through the courtyard, softening the mid-day glare so the atmosphere is intimate and cool, the colors muted, the effect restful: dark wood furniture, brown tile floors, vibrant greenery. It is the nest of a scholar. In fact Dr. Buitrago is Nicaragua’s most illustrious literary scholar, an expert on the national poet, Rubén Darío, who was raised three blocks away.

The secretary seats me in one of four cane rocking chairs around a glass-top coffee table in one corner of the veranda. With me is Marla, my Spanish instructor from Escuela Leónese. Upon learning I am a writer and interested in Rubén Darío, the school arranged the interview as a surprise for me, a field trip of sorts. Marla is in her late twenties, a dark, pretty, tidy, reserved woman whose formative years passed during the Sandinista era. Darío is a passion of hers, so although she is along to help should my Spanish fail me, she really wants to hear the great scholar discourse and ask some questions of her own. She speaks almost no English.
The secretary leads Dr. Buitrago to us from his office, and I am in for a shock. He is eighty years old, without English, and blind, his eyes permanently rolled up and fixed to the left as if he is trying very hard to recall something. After a brief greeting, he asks if I speak Spanish. The reply disappoints him. He sighs. To break the silence I read him my first question (which Marla has helped me write): What is the unifying theme of Rubén Darío’s writing?

Dr. Buitrago sighs again and wonders aloud how he can possibly answer in words simple enough for me. At first he speaks slowly, deliberately, but that does not last long. He’s dealing with ideas that he has spent his whole intellectual life with. They animate him. Soon he is speaking in rapid, oratorical sentences, and the words are not simple. Marla takes notes. I point my tape recorder at him and strain to follow, because the answer is of utmost importance to Dr. Buitrago. That much is unmistakable. To him the question touches upon a precious new entity in the world, a novel form of culture that Darío labored to bring to life in Latin America, and Dr. Buitrago, a true disciple, is eager to nurture. When he gestures, he looks a little like Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments.

Rubén Darío has been called the first modernist Hispanic poet. Born in 1867 into the family of a military officer, he had established a literary reputation by age fifteen, an enfant terrible with a taste for grand ideas and lush poetry. His was a turbulent life in a turbulent era for Central American politics, and years of ambassadorships in Argentina and Spain, separated by long periods of self-exile in Paris, kept him away from his native land for many years. Nonetheless, his creative spirit remained there. He outgrew a youthful period during which he treated local themes with the vocabulary of classical literature—satyrs in the rain forest, lost loves à la Ovid—and matured his style and ideas with political poetry. It remained lyrical and spoke of the reawakening of a latent indigenous power:

Penachos verdes de palmeras. Lejos,
ruda de antigüedad, grave de mito,
la tribu en roca de volcanes viejos,
que, como todo, aguarda su instante de infinito.
from "Intermezzo Tropicale"
(Green plumes of the palm trees. Far off,
Rough with antiquity, solemn with myth,
Stands the stone tribe of old volcanoes
Which, like all else, await their instant of infinity.

—translated by Lysander Kemp)

The instant of infinity, if grandiosely phrased, was not just a trope to Darío. As Dr. Buitrago explains it, Darío believed that the waiting should be over, that the instant of infinity (read that as "destiny") was at hand. That is, like the towering volcano Mombotombo on Lake Managua’s north shore, Latin American culture could erupt to change the landscape at any moment. To state it baldly, the New World gave the Spanish language and Western culture, which Darío judged to be stagnant, a unique opportunity. Merged with the native traditions of the Americas (he included the English-speaking north; Walt Whitman was among his favorite poets), the rationalism of the West would enjoy a reviving tonic of intuitiveness, spiritualism, and natural vigor.

Ancient Nicaragua has its own folk, its own lore, and its own land, which provide the substance that the grammar of Western culture can blend in a fresh synthesis: something immediate, emotive, and life-guiding. As much as he railed in his writings against what he perceived as political evils and oppression (including the exploitative manipulations of President Theodore Roosevelt), he did not stray from this basic premise, that the New World was a chance to outgrow the mistakes of the Old World. By the time Darío died in León in 1916, he had profoundly influenced the next generation of literati, including Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda.
His grand ideas did not die with him—far from it—but there were obstacles that no one could bypass. First of all the Western portion of the proposed blending involved a white politico-economic elite, many of whom in fact prided themselves on their descent from the noble classes. They were more interested in power than synthesis. The indigenous portion included Indians of many tribes, mestizos, and poor ex-slaves, groups of diverse and sometimes mutually hostile heritages. Darío’s idealist sentiments accorded with some liberal economic and politic policies but effected no deep change; the big idea at their core, the synthesis, was seen largely as intellectual window-dressing—beautiful and moving and a nationalistic, but still window-dressing—which conservatives could admire as readily as liberals.

Dr. Buitrago does not say this in his answers to my questions; in fact, the claim would offend him. Yet he is no dismissible academic enthusiast. His thesis about Darío’s freshening influence on Spanish literature is incontestable, for instance, and Darío still has an iconic place in Nicaraguan culture.

Impressed by Dr. Buitrago’s vehemence, I hesitate to ask a central question, but Marla saves me from risking his wrath: She asks it. How do Darío’s ideas influence young people today? The answer is "superficially," and Dr. Buitrago admits it wearily. Everyone knows Darío’s name, many read his poems and stories, at least in school, some (like Marla) may even love them enough to memorize long passages, but few feel the hopeful spirit of a new synthesis that moved him to write.

That same evening the actual influences on contemporary life show up in stark contrast to Darío’s vision. The American and Nicaraguan doctors get together for a party at a brand new discotheque, Delictus. It has an immense floor crowded with café tables, and its center is a sunken dance area. One end of the building is dominated by a wide stage that looms over the tables, but when we arrive it is empty. On the wall next to the stage hangs a large video screen showing trailers from The Matrix, music videos, and old television clips while music blares from the PA system. The music is a random mixture of Latin hiphop, salsa, rock, and pop tunes in Spanish or English, and none of it matches the video images. As we walk to our table, the screen shows the Beatles playing on stage for the Ed Sullivan Show in 1963, but it is "Take My Breath Away" from Top Gun that we hear.

We sit in a wide booth to one side of the main room, which gradually fills up. At one point in the evening, the music stops, and an announcement comes over the PA system. It names my wife and her fellow doctors and describes their work in Chinandega and León hospitals. Throughout the house, people clap in response, and as the applause dies away, a mariachi band climbed onto the stage, a special treat for the medical team. They are dressed in the black outfits of the Mexican vaquero tradition, with silver studs, fancy cowboy boots, and broad, ornate sombreros, but the songs they sing are traditional Nicaraguan, including the unofficial anthem, "Nicaragua, Nicaragüita," which tells of wild natural beauty of the land and its bloody history. It is an unusual departure for discothèque, but the patrons join in the spirit automatically. One bar into each song, and everyone in the audience is singing along: songs about the distinctive characters of cities in the area, about the civil war between the Sandinistas and Contras, about destitute women forced into prostitution, about aspirations and calamities. The dance floor fills, the evening really gets going. Yet when the mariachis leave and the PA system resumes its farrago of pop, nobody misses a beat.

Neither the great intellectual tradition of Europe nor the primal lore and locale of Nicaragua dominates. Instead, it is the global mass-culture, which here largely arrives by cargo boat or over the airwaves or via tourist operators from the United States, England, Mexico, and Japan. And global mass-culture does not offer a place-based ethos; it offers diversions.
© Roger Smith Feb 2005

Saving Chinandega
Dr Buitrago and Ruben Dario

More World Destinations here here


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