In 1987 I paid a visit to Pablo Antonio Cuadra at the offices of his newspaper, La Prensa, in Managua. It was not the absolutely lowest moment of Cuadra's life in politics--not as low as in 1937, when he was jailed by the first of the Somoza dictators, nor as low as in 1954, when he was returned to jail, nor as in 1956, when he was jailed for several months, nor as in 1978-1979, when his cousin was assassinated and the last of the Somozas dispatched mobs to attack the Prensa offices and even sent planes to bomb the building from the air. And yet, on the day when I called on him, life for Don Pablo Antonio could hardly have been described as good. The Sandinista National Liberation Front was in power, and once again La Prensa was trying to fend off an oppressive government. The Sandinistas ordered the paper closed. The Sandinistas, too, sent mobs to attack the offices. Bullets pocked the outside walls.
Cuadra was a co-director of the paper, and he had served in that position for more than thirty years, in conjunction with one or another of the Chamorro family, his cousins, who were the owners. Cuadra's role was senior sage, founder of the literary supplement, weekly columnist, head of the editorial page, sometimes editor-in-chief, and always chief prose stylist. Sometimes his role was simply to man the fort. The Sandinistas kept shutting the paper down, and Cuadra made a point, even so, of coming to the editorial offices on the North Highway and receiving visitors and telling them exactly what he thought, exactly as he would have done in print if the government had permitted. He received me on that basis--one more visiting journalist from New York.
He offered me a seat in a sparsely furnished office. Staring at the wall to my side, he expressed himself at length on the topic of the Sandinistas and their role in Nicaragua. He was not gentle. He had a long face in the shape of the capital letter I, with decisive-looking black eyeglasses forming the crossbeam at the top, and a sharp-trimmed white mustache forming the crossbeam below, and in the middle a nose as stiff and upright as a steel girder. Other people may bend, his nose seemed to say, but I do not.
The Sandinistas, he explained, were no Sandinistas at all. The real Sandino was a guerrilla general who led a nationalist rebellion against the United States Marines in the Nicaraguan mountains back in the 1920s and 1930s--which was only yesterday, from Cuadra's point of view. Very few Nicaraguan journalists and intellectuals had supported the real Sandino back in those times. But Cuadra, as a teenager and young man, was one of the few. He served his first spell in jail, in 1937, on a charge of putting up posters of Sandino, a subversive act. He must have been guilty, too, given that fifty years later he was still putting up posters of Sandino. A glassed and framed portrait of the guerrilla general stared down at him from the office wall even as he conducted his conversation with me, and that portrait expressed as subversive an attitude in 1987 as in 1937.
For who were the Sandinistas of the 1980s, from Cuadra's point of view? What did they know of the Nicaraguan past? They were impostors. They knew nothing. The Sandinistas claimed to be Christians. Cuadra described them as the enemies of Christianity. They claimed to be nationalists. He described them as the enemies of Nicaraguan culture. They claimed to be for freedom. He described them as the enemies of the dignity of the individual. They wanted to create a society of obedience. Not even the Somoza dictatorship had dreamed of such a thing.
But the Sandinistas were not going to succeed. This was because, in Cuadra's account, the Nicaraguan people were naturally rebellious--a people accustomed to shouting out their opinions on every street corner, instead of keeping their voices low, as people do in, say, Guatemala. The Sandinistas were succeeding all too well at certain other projects, though. They were destroying a four-hundred-year-old tradition of cattle-raising, which had always been the heart of Nicaraguan life. "Cattle-raising is history," Cuadra once wrote, quoting his own grandparents. And the Sandinistas were ruining Nicaraguan poetry.
I interjected a question: weren't the Sandinistas poets themselves, some of them, anyway? They were famous all over the world for having made "the revolution of the poets." Cuadra bristled at the question. The best of Nicaragua's poets, the new young people, the ones with talent, had fled into exile, he said, to Texas. I mentioned Sergio Ramirez, the novelist, who was vice president in the Sandinista government. Cuadra seethed. He blamed Ramirez for engineering the deception that had brought Nicaragua into the hands of the Sandinistas.
I mumbled a few remarks to indicate that the United States bore a responsibility for Nicaragua's sufferings. Cuadra was in no mood to discuss America's crimes. He sneered at Americans who tremble with guilt over the United States' history in Latin America. American guilt was a psychological complex that he could not comprehend--not that he favored lining up with the United States in the cold war. Mostly he despised Fidel Castro. He loathed the cultural uniformity of the Communist bloc.
He sat behind his desk as stiff as an army colonel. His words crackled. I still have the notes of my discussion with him, but to capture his tone it would be better to quote a poem of his with the Orwellian title "1984," which was the year of its composition.
I live in a country heartbroken by the cultivators of rifles. Everything is thought with the testicles. Above, foreheads covered yesterday with laurels, and imaginations, now empty and the eyes fixed on the gunsight. Homotextuals consult Marx. What says the seer about this surplus-value of cadavers? [...] My country of Campesinos inhabited by soldiers. My country that used to boil with poems repeating slogans....
He did worry about what the Sandinistas might do to him. The revolutionary leaders had frankly explained that killing La Prensa--and, by unstated extension, its editors--would cost the Sandinistas less than allowing the paper to go on hurling its insults. Cuadra was undaunted. Perhaps he enjoyed a psychological advantage over the Sandinistas. Quite a few of the top Sandinistas, the literary and intellectual ones at least, had been proteges of his at La Prensa during the Somoza dictatorship. He published their writings. He supported their underground activities. He accepted the notion of making socialist reforms in Nicaraguan life--though socialism, in his concept, was a strictly democratic system. But once the Sandinistas had taken power and had demonstrated a commitment to a very different concept of socialism, Cuban-style, he could only look at them with the infuriated disdain of a professor who thinks that his students have betrayed his teaching. Yield before those ignorant and ungrateful dogmatists? Bend before their authoritarian whim? No.
The Sandinistas, for their part, treated Cuadra in a truly strange manner, or so it seemed to me. Some of the leaders did write poetry, and their writings were prominently on sale in the miserable few places where books could be bought in Nicaragua. Daniel Ortega's wife, Rosario Murillo, figured among Cuadra's proteges, and her own mediocre poetry was displayed for a while at what seemed like every one of those barren bookstores and kiosks. Cuadra's poetry, on the other hand, was almost impossible to find--though a good cheap edition, published in several volumes by still another of his cousins, was easily available across the border in Costa Rica.
The Sandinistas reviled him in public. And yet privately, and sometimes not so privately, they revered Cuadra. He was the enemy--and also the master of Nicaraguan verse, in a country where verse was king. He was the agent of imperialism--and a jewel of the national culture. The oppressor--and the one person whose good opinion every well-educated person seemed to crave. The whole situation was definitely a case for Dr. Freud. Even Tomas Borge, who ran the secret police, made a show of his ambivalence. Borge called Cuadra "the organic intellectual of the rich landowners," which was a Gramscian phrase that consigned Cuadra to the ash heap of history; and yet Borge's interior ministry published one of Cuadra's poems. Borge used to joke a little ominously that Cuadra's work might have to be removed from the poet's personal control and nationalized for the public good, as kept happening to any number of coffee plantations and cattle ranches.
The Sandinistas' ambivalence about Cuadra contributed to their undoing, I think. They dearly wanted to rid Nicaragua of La Prensa forever, but they could never quite muster the will to offend or to infuriate La Prensa's foreign supporters--though the Sandinistas thought nothing of offending or infuriating foreign opinion on other issues. Secretly they must have worried about the fate of their own national culture if La Prensa and especially its literary supplement were eliminated. It was one of the oddities of the Sandinista time in power that, in the Sandinista newspapers, the weekly cultural supplements published fawning articles about Hollywood stars and American folk singers and other creatures of mass culture in the United States; but Cuadra's supplement, during the periods when the censors allowed him to publish anything at all, stuck resolutely to Hispanicist and highbrow themes. A reader might almost have concluded that, in cultural terms, the Sandinistas were the pro-Americans and Cuadra the anti-American. Finally the Sandinistas threw up their hands and allowed the paper back into print. And it was La Prensa and its editors and its principal owner, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, who overthrew the Sandinistas in the election of 1990.
I think that, in modern times, there has never been a poet, a real poet, who has influenced events as forcefully as Pablo Antonio Cuadra did from his desk in Managua. To be sure, he exercised his influence partly as a newspaper editor and a political adviser, in a fairly conventional way, first in the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship and then, eleven years later, in the overthrow of the Sandinistas. Strictly as a journalist, he deserves to be regarded as one of the greatest defenders of freedom of the press anywhere in the Americas. But mostly he exercised his influence as a poet--somebody who taught his readers, not just in Nicaragua, how to think and how to speak, with what ideas, expressed in what tone and at what rhythm. It was Cuadra, more than anyone else, who sowed and nurtured the modern idea of "Nicaraguaness"--sowed that idea in the early 1930s and watched over it ever after, until the thing had sprouted into leafy knots and tangles that were scarcely to be believed. Rather like Nicaragua itself.
Cuadra was born in 1912 into an old conquistador family from Granada, a sweltering town of adobe walls and tile roofs and elegant porticoes--the kind of place where, for several hours a day, sunbeams smother the streets the way that snow blizzards do in colder climates, and reduce everything to silence. His father, Carlos Cuadra Pasos, was a government figure and a distinguished historian and memoirist, or at least he was regarded as such in his day, the early twentieth century. I have read a couple of Cuadra Pasos's books and have found them curious. His memoirs are dominated by a morbid fascination with funerals--the funerals of family members, of statesmen, and even of people he hardly knew. Cuadra Pasos seems to have spent half his life attending those events.
Some of the funerals were rather odd. At the service for his mother, his father's cadaver, buried many years before, was dug up and was revealed to be in perfect embalmed condition. He attended the funeral of a dog. In 1916, Cuadra Pasos visited the poet Ruben Dareo, the master of Symbolism, on his sickbed, and in due course attended Dareo's funeral, too. The funeral was strange because, when the great poet died, his brain was removed from his skull in order to discover, if at all possible, the secret of his genius; but in the confusion and the excitement of the autopsy, the brain was misplaced and disappeared. Cuadra Pasos found Dareo's funeral very moving.
Pablo Antonio was four years old when Dareo died, and he grew up in an atmosphere that must have been saturated unto nausea with the late poet's deeds and writings. Even today the cult of Dareo is vast and more than a little obsessive in Nicaragua--it is a kind of charming madness, a national idiosyncrasy; and the intensity of that cult in the first years after his death can only be imagined. By the time Pablo Antonio was sixteen, at an age when other boys join street gangs, he and his friends in Granada organized instead a literary movement, the Vanguard, which in English-language terminology was like calling themselves the Modernists. They held their meetings at siesta time in the bell tower of the church of La Merced, where Pablo Antonio's father had attended so many fascinating funerals.
They were quite a sophisticated and cosmopolitan group, which may be hard to picture in a provincial Central American town; but Granada was, in those years, a natural home for high culture. The Jesuits had been thrown out of Mexico by the Mexican Revolution and had set up a college in Granada, and Pablo Antonio and some of the other young writers in his group studied there, under professors who came from France and Italy. A couple of the young Granadino poets went abroad and came home bearing news of the latest in literature and art from France (Cocteau, Apollinaire, Claudel) and the United States (Whitman, Amy Lowell and "imagism," Pound). And by 1930 little Granada, in its sophistication, had blossomed into a center of the avant-garde.
The boys in the bell tower proclaimed themselves "The Nicaraguan AntiAcademy." They drew up a manifesto, which was written by Pablo Antonio, calling for a review, banquets, and a theater. They were mischievous. They announced an intention to conquer public attention "by means of artistic coups d'etat, intellectual scandal, aggressive criticism, literary battle, impudent exhibition of modern art, accusation against sterility, anemia, malaria, and other infirmities of academic literature." They rented a cafe for their proposed new Cafe of the Arts and drew up a menu starting with "Cocktail Cocteau," but the cafe owner, having noticed their decorations, threw them out. "Cubism," Cuadra recalled many years later, "had lost its first battle in Nicaragua." They took over a page of Granada's Sunday newspaper, El Correo, and made it their own, the "Vanguard Corner."
And all of that, the mischief and the energy and the ambition, pointed in a single direction, inevitable for any young Nicaraguan writer, which was away from the fanatical cult of Ruben Dareo--away from Dareo's abstractions, his mysticism, his preference for the formal and the imaginary over the real, his Castilian sonority of o's and a's, his loftiness. Cuadra's first important book, Nicaraguan Poems--the book that made his reputation--began with a declaration of intent:
It is necessary to return to the source of song: to find the poetry in everyday things, to sing for anyone at all with the ordinary tone that we use in love
That was precisely what Dareo had never wanted to do (except when, in his protean energy, he did). The new tone was natural, fresh, authentic, and conversational--a tone that was jeering and tender by turns.
Having identified his goal at a very young age, Cuadra set about researching the local reality--the Nicaraguan landscape that was likewise missing from Dareo's verse (except in a handful of poems), the scenes of farm life, rural customs, and Indian legends. Dareo had called in his several nationalist poems for a mestizo poetry, for a conjuring of Latin America's ancient Indian past, yet he made no great effort to conjure any such thing himself, apart from throwing around a few Indian names. But Cuadra applied himself diligently to the task. He was a poet-anthropologist. He sailed around Lake Nicaragua, studying the Indian ceramics and collecting legends and observing the local forms of speech.
There was an old Chorotega custom of composing love poems for birds, and Cuadra followed something of that custom in the very earliest of his books, Songs of Bird and Lady. And when, in 1933, he finally produced Nicaraguan Poems, he brought together each of those separate elements, the tender and conversational tone, the anthropological research, the local observations, to evoke what anyone could see at a glance was an entire world. It was a lyrical world of imagined village life in rural Nicaragua--a world of Catholic sorrow and yearnings, of Indian memories and pathos and tranquility, presented sometimes with an austere sharpness and sometimes with a slight catch in the throat, as if sung by a French tenor. Sometimes he was ecstatic.
He rode horseback at night--the daytime is much too hot--across the cattle trails, dreaming of Jesus. In his imaginings, the horsemen of Nicaragua went galloping toward the Light of God while dark-complexioned women purified their faces in the river. He composed hymns and psalms in a style not unlike Eliot's "Ash-Wednesday"--solemn, uplifted, Christian in a voice that was his own, not that of the Church. He wrote paeans to romantic death. In one of his poems, a horse bearing a dead cowboy, strapped into place by his comrades and sent to the burial site, canters through the night, like Washington Irving's headless horseman or Garcea Lorca's horsemen of the dead on the roads of Andalusia. He drew scenes of tropical horror:
The jaguar's cadaver dreams of its final rapine and in the little cold and blue sky that its pupil surveys insomniac vultures tie black circles over the bones of the cow of the moon
And, still not satisfied, he threw in one more note of strangeness and horror. It was a glimpse of the weirdest of anomalies of Nicaraguan life during the 1920s and 1930s, the oddest of tropical jungle horrors, namely, the presence of the U.S. Marines. One of the strongest of the Nicaraguan Poems was "Poem of the Foreign Moment in the Jungle," written for a narrator who might be the earliest man, together with a Greek chorus of Campesinos and guerrillas hiding in the leafage. Cuadra's poem conjured mountains, flint stones, mangroves, serpents, boa constrictors, swamps, the moon, and an obsidian black tiger with a phosphorescent eye. And also,
In the marrow of the wood 500 North Americans!
The Marines are attacked by clouds of mosquitoes, by the damp and the swamp. They flee--delirious, malarial, dying:
under the boiling silence of the mangroves their white bones delicately polished by the ants
It is odd to think that the same poet who impatiently shook his head in 1987 over my modest display of gringo regret for certain U.S. policies in Latin America would have written such a poem in the 1930s. But it may be that, just as the young Sandinista revolutionaries of the 1980s were of two minds about Cuadra as their elder, Cuadra himself in the 1930s was of two minds about his own elders, and especially about his father--whose first instinct was to look with sympathy on the Marine occupation, in the hope, which turned out to be vain, that foreign peacekeepers might do Nicaragua a bit of good.
Cuadra's poetry went through several stages--a phase of cattleman rusticity out of Hesiod, and a phase of Catholic contemplation:
Love is in the end a different love-- and we lose it! The world is finally a different world-- and we search for it!
But the most remarkable aspect of his poetry (and of his essays and his folktales, too, not to mention his woodcuts) came from his continuing researches into Nicaraguan anthropology and the Indian past: his studies in the Nicaraguan national character.
He never worked up these writings in a systematic fashion, at least not on a scale that could be compared to Octavio Paz's study of Mexico's national character, The Labyrinth of Solitude. Still, he did outline a few national traits. He pointed to the old Hispanic formalities of city architecture, with the streets radiating outward from the church and the plaza, and he noted how strictly the old-fashioned Nicaraguan towns followed those forms. He noted how austerely the Nicaraguans dress. And he deduced a quality that he denominated with the word sobriety, a trait that plainly distinguished Nicaragua from the colors and the tipsy exuberance of a culture like Mexico's.
He remarked upon the migrations of the Chorotega and Nahua Indians, who originally settled the land. He noted that a spirit of migration never afterward disappeared, as shown in the sacred processional rites of the Chorotegas, and, from the period after the Spaniards arrived, the processional rites of the Nicaraguan Church. And he deduced a quality that he denominated as transience. It was because of the transient quality of Nicaraguan life, Cuadra wrote, that Nicaraguans have sometimes been called "the Chinese of Central America" or even "the Jews of the isthmus."
He noted that transience is, by nature, a tragic quality--as is every one of the Nicaraguan traits, in his depiction. The procession, the voyage, the migration--these things, in Nicaragua, are pretty much fated to arrive at any destination but a happy one. The true national epic, in Cuadra's judgment, was Robinson Crusoe, a frightening tale. Defoe is said to have drawn his story from a Scottish sailor who cast up on a deserted isle in 1705, but Cuadra, citing an entry in the Encyclopedie Larousse to the contrary, insisted that Defoe's story came from a Nicaraguan sailor, a Miskito Indian, who cast up on a Caribbean island in 1680. "All Nicaraguans," Cuadra wrote, "if they consult their hearts, know it: Robinson Crusoe was a Nicaraguan. Robinsonism is our temptation and our danger."
He noted a reality of Nicaraguan geography. Nicaragua occupies the exact spot where, via the Reo San Juan and Lake Nicaragua, the Atlantic and the Pacific come closest to meeting. Nicaragua is where North America's geography bumps up against South America's, and where the vegetation of the north runs into the vegetation of the south. Nicaragua, because it is dominated by volcanoes and lakes, is the meeting place of fire and water. And these facts of geography and vegetation reflected, in his interpretation, a metaphysical quality. It was duality. This was the quality that the ancient Chorotegas evoked in their sculptures, the man-beasts, human bodies with animal heads. Then came the Spaniards, and duality became a social fact as well. Nicaragua was born of the meeting of two peoples, Indians and Spaniards. A mestizo country, which is to say, a double country.
Duality led to the most astonishing entry in Cuadra's catalogue of national characteristics--a characteristic that could be described only historically, beginning with Columbus. It was Columbus himself, as Cuadra pointed out, who discovered Nicaragua. The explorer was seeking the Doubtful Strait of legend, on the way to the Grand Khan. He was searching, that is, for global unity. But in stumbling on Nicaragua, he at last intuited that he had discovered instead a New World, not just a series of islands. It was Nicaragua, Cuadra believed, that gave the name "America" to the Western Hemisphere. Columbus, at least in Cuadra's account, asked the Indians what their land was called; they said "Amerric," and the name was adopted by Vespucci, the cartographer who baptized the New World.
The Spaniards chose Nicaragua as the center of their New World empire. From Nicaragua came Pizarro's army to suppress the Inca revolt of the Peruvians. In Nicaragua came, in 1550, the first attempt to create America's independence, in a revolt at Leon by the Contreras brothers and their "Army of Liberty." It was in Nicaragua, centuries later, that United States imperialism, "the stock-market Eagle," dug its claws most violently into Latin America. And it was in Nicaragua's Segovian mountains that Cesar Augusto Sandino--his very name evoked the universal grandeur of Rome--raised the banner of liberty for all of Hispano-America. It was Nicaragua, in the person of Ruben Dareo, who rescued the world of Castilian letters from the slumber of centuries.
For what was Nicaragua? It was not a petty nation like other nations. Nicaragua's destiny--a "fatal destiny, sometimes grandiose, sometimes as cruel and obsessive as a Greek tragedy"--was large. Nicaragua was the umbilicus mundi of the West. It was the eye in the American needle. It was the pointer on the hemispheric scale. It was the throat between the Americas. It was an imperium. For there are nations of the particular and nations of the universal. The Roman Empire was a universal nation, and likewise the United States and France, because of their cultures and their revolutions. And among the universal nations stands tiny Nicaragua. Universality--the last and most dangerous of Nicaragua's traits, the drunken end point of a sober nation doomed to ambivalent wanderings.
With those national traits in mind, Cuadra set out to write a Nicaraguan mythology of his own, an invented mythology, which reached back to Sandino and even further to the medieval Spanish novels of knight errantry, and still further back to the Aztec gods and the beginning of time. (The Nahuatl-speaking peoples of Nicaragua were distant cousins of the Mexican Aztecs.) He wrote about eyeless jaguars sinuous with murder. His images were night, moonrise, hawks, green tropical jungles, Indian footprints, vomiting volcanoes, freshwater sharks, blood on Lake Nicaragua, together with etymological hints from the Nahuatl, Mangue, and Chorotega languages, all of it tied together with surrealist illogic (though he did not consider himself a Surrealist).
Cuadra's poem of Nicaraguan history, "September: The Shark," offers a vivid example. I cite it because, at the conclusion of my interview with him, Cuadra went behind his desk to retrieve a back issue of one of his literary reviews, The Fish and the Serpent (which had also been suppressed), and he put it into my hands with the injunction to study this poem. "September: The Shark" begins with an italicized description of Nicaragua at the beginning of time:
The speakers of the Mangue language believed that the Night, still a maiden, stumbled while carrying the amphora of the moon. And she spilled those pallid, fresh waters where the child that I was peers from my eyes and reads without tiring the archaic hymn of the waves--in the Beginning was the verse--waves: stanzas for unknown languages, rhythms that molded the labyrinth of the ear like a seashell. A child returns to the womb. Returns an infant to air wept by fish: humid birds without song, and feathers hardened by the purest cruelty. Here death has laid from the beginning its unending silence. Here the sinister fin--in the blade of the moon rips the smooth surface of genesis
The feeling of a beginning, of the world in its earliest phase, of civilization just beginning to arise--that was perhaps his strangest and most idiosyncratic note, a note of wildness and of the unconscious.
By hitting that note, Cuadra returned to a very old idea in the history of modern poetry. It was the inspiration that had set Ruben Dareo ablaze as a young man--the inspiration that was originally Victor Hugo's, to compose a world history in verse and legend, beginning at the beginning. Hugo wrote a set of poems about a sailor named Canaris, who sails the Aegean during the Greco-Turkish wars of the 1820s; and Cuadra wrote a set of poems about a sailor named Cifar, who sails Lake Nicaragua in a primeval age:
Cifar, in his dream, heard the shouts and the ululating seashells in the fog at dawn. He watched the boat --immobile-- fixed between waves.
--If you hear in the dark middle of the night --in high waters-- shouts that ask about the port: turn the rudder and flee
Outlined in the foam, the hull, dark and gnawed, (--"Sailor!" they were shouting--) the broken rigging rocking and the sails black and rotten (--"Sailor!"--)
Standing up, Cifar embraced the mast
--If the moon illuminates their faces ashen and bearded If they ask you --"Sailor, where are we going?" If they implore you: --"Sailor, show us the port!" turn the rudder and flee!
They set sail a long time ago
They are navigating in the dream centuries ago
These are your own questions lost in time.
And when, precisely, was that primeval age, lost in time? It was an age when the dewy air was trembly with expectation, and a terrifying future seemed about to dawn, a Homeric age in a Central American Aegean:
Everything seems Greek. The old Lake and its hexameters. The unknown islands and your beautiful head --of marble-- mutilated by the night.
Neruda, too, adopted the Hugolian idea of writing a history of the world, except that he narrowed it down to Latin America. And Cuadra narrowed it down still further--narrowed it down, first, by writing his grand mythology mostly in fragmentary versions, and, second, by confining himself to a Nicaragua whose entire population even now comprises only some four million people. Instead of a Canto General, a Canto Particular, minutely focused.
And yet Cuadra's tiny focus hinted at something grandiose, even at something biblical--a suggestion, never openly stated, that he was composing a new sacred book, the mytho-Bible of his own tiny country. On this point, too, Cuadra returned to Dareo, whose very titles--Prosas Profanas, Cantos de Vida y Esperanza--gave off a scent of the sacred. And so, in the end, Pablo Antonio turned back to what he had originally rejected--to the man whose funeral his father had attended, to Nicaragua's greatest poet. The father, rejected; and the father, embraced.
In his biblical vein, Cuadra turned back also to the millenarianism that was sometimes Dareo's--to the wild tone of anticipation of a gigantic and mysterious new event. Only what was that impending event going to be, in its immensity? The return of Jesus, the redemption of mankind? The rise of civilization? The social revolution? Ruben Dareo, the sphinx, never spelled out what he had in mind. Poetry and the occult were, to Dareo, one and the same. But Cuadra was not a sphinx, and sometimes he spelled out his own thinking all too clearly.
Millenarianism- one more Nicaraguan trait, the most tragic of all.
Cuadra's poetics were a politics, too, at least in his early years. And the politics, like the poetics, began where Dareo left off.
Dareo's nationalist thundering bore the mark of Victor Hugo--the mark of the French Revolution and of nineteenth-century liberalism's faith in reason. And yet, after a while, Dareo came to look a little skeptically on the liberal faith, and wanted to uphold Hispanic tradition too, and even to bow respectfully to the Spanish Empire. Yet what could a Hispanic resurgence possibly mean if it was going to mix the liberalism of the nineteenth century with a few not necessarily liberal ideas? Dareo felt no need to answer that question. But Cuadra and the young men in the bell tower in Nicaragua's Granada in the 1920s and early 1930s came up with an answer of their own.
Dareo drew his inspirations from the French avant-garde of his time, and Cuadra and the Granadino poets, in thinking about a Hispanic resurgence, did the same. They studied Charles Maurras, the theorist of the French monarchist and anti-Semitic ultra-right. Action Francaise, Maurras's journal, was their guide, together with its sister Accion Espanola and a few thinkers of the ultra-right in Spain. And the Granadino poets proposed a novel doctrine of their own, which Cuadra expounded with gusto in a series of essays in Lectura magazine in Mexico, in Accion Espanola in Madrid, in Imperio magazine in Rome, and a few other journals of the 1930s.
Latin America's fatal error, in Cuadra's exposition, was to have exited the Spanish Empire. Instead of clinging to the durable structures of what he called "classical politics"--the politics of Catholic faith and hierarchical loyalty--the feeble new Latin American republics, having achieved their own independence, took up liberalism and democracy, and worshipped at those shrines for a hundred years. And what did the hundred years achieve? By the early twentieth century, the United States was pressing down upon Latin America--militarily, economically, even culturally. The Latin American republics were unable to resist. The situation was appalling.
For what was the United States? It was the product of Protestant irrationalism, of individualism, of materialism. It was, as Cuadra put it in one of his early essays, a society "whose racist nationality is based on the most complete extermination of the native Indian and on the most anti-Christian contempt for the Negro." Then, too, the Latin American republics were under threat from what he called the "Moscovite savagery" of the Communist International--a savagery that represented, philosophically speaking, still another offshoot of the old nineteenth-century liberalism.
Latin America could escape those terrible modern dangers only by following the path of antiquity. A return to the values, the ideas, and the faith of centuries ago: this was the only hope. The whole purpose of Cuadra's poetry was to evoke and to define those ancient traits. That was his reason for conducting anthropological researches into the Indians of Nicaragua, and that was his reason for writing a verse mythology of Nicaragua. He did not write in a spirit of nostalgia. He wrote in a crusader spirit of militant zeal. He was trying to chart a possible future.
And what, exactly, were the values of the past? Indigenism--the cult of the pre-Columbian Indians--was in his eyes a fake, and doubly so if its purpose was to help the surviving Indian populations in any practical way. Indigenism, as he judged it, was a manipulation either by Marxists or, more powerfully, by populists. Cuadra was apoplectic about the Mexican Revolution. He figured that, in trying to resurrect the Indian past, the Mexican revolutionaries had reverted to barbarism pure and simple. He hurled the word "cannibalism" at the Mexican Revolution and its governing party. It was the kind of insult that he must have heard at the Jesuit college in Granada. For indigenism, whether Marxist or populist, was the enemy of Catholicism. Indigenism was paganism, and there was its error. The true and vigorous roots that had once given strength and dignity to the Hispanic world were Catholic--roots that reached back to Roman times and even earlier, into the age of Homer.
The road that Latin America needed to follow led, therefore, to the cross and the sword, to the days of conquistador strength and faith, which meant the Spanish Empire in its era of greatness in the Americas, the empire that was Spanish and Indian both, a mestizo empire. It was possible to find that road, too. Benito Mussolini had already pointed the way in the march on Rome in 1922. The road consisted of combat and ferocity and the spirit of what Cuadra proudly called "fanaticism" in an essay frankly titled "In Defense of Fanaticism."
"We are fascists," Cuadra said quite plainly. He said it in a radio speech from Managua in 1938, on the sixteenth anniversary of the march on Rome. "We are fascists in order to go meet our future. We are fascists in order to struggle for our nationalities threatened by Marxist or capitalist imperialisms. Fascists in order to struggle for our nationalities in the supreme ideal of glorifying them and aggrandizing them and Christianizing them. Fascists in our will to organize our disorganized lands in their Truth and their Tradition, using even violence against those who oppose our resurgence with their uncomprehending stupidity. Fascists in our irrevocable decision to raise up once again, above the brotherhood and union of twenty republics, the Imperial power of Hispanicness."
This was not exactly Mussolini-style fascism, though Cuadra respected Mussolini and the Italians for having discovered the true road. It was definitely not Nazism. The Germans, in Cuadra's estimation, had drawn on fascist inspirations, which he thought was admirable, but they had watered down their fascist ideals with a kind of materialism and even a touch of Marxism, and with a pointless mythology of race. In Cuadra's view, the true fascism, the highest form of all, was the fascism of the Spanish Falange--the most Catholic of fascisms. It was the fascism of the conquistadors. That sort of fascism, the fanaticism of the sword and the cross, was a world force, he thought. It was destined to dictate what he called "Christian norms of international conduct to the universe, just as, until now, the Masonic, Jewish, and Soviet internationals have dictated."
"Christian norms" meant the triumph of Christian humanism, which could be achieved only by recognizing the divine in man, as Christianity does, and as materialist philosophies do not. "Christian norms" meant the victory of man over things. A new era of world history--a modern age that, from another point of view, would resurrect the Middle Ages. In Cuadra's idea, Spain and Spanish America, the mother and her children, were going to bring the new era into being--just as Dareo had suggested in his nationalist poems. For when Cuadra wanted to strike his deepest note, he quoted Dareo's picture of Spain and Spanish America reunited:
One continent and the other renovating the old ancestries, In spirit united, in spirit and yearning and language, They see the moment coming when new hymns will have to be sung. The Latin stock will see the great future dawn....
Cuadra and the Granadino poets waged two ideological campaigns in Nicaragua, and the first of those campaigns was on behalf of General Sandino. For who was going to lead the Latin stock to the future dawn? It was going to be the guerrilla hero in the Segovian mountains. Unfortunately, in 1934, with the Marines gone from Nicaragua, Sandino was lured into Managua for peace negotiations and was treacherously assassinated on orders of the chief of the National Guard, Anastasio Somoza Garcea. The Granadino poets felt badly about that; but then, recovering from their grief with remarkable speed, they recognized that Sandino's death did at least demonstrate that somewhere in Nicaragua a truly strong and decisive leader was definitely to be found. It was Somoza.
And so, in a spectacular bit of political flip-floppery, the poets veered from Sandino to Somoza, from the victim to his betrayer. And the poets launched their second campaign, which was to agitate for a new march on Rome, in a Nicaraguan version: a coup by Anastasio Somoza to overthrow Nicaragua's elected government. The poets helped to organize a movement called the Blue Shirts, and the Blue Shirts fought in the streets of Granada, Leon, and finally Managua. They vandalized an anti-Somoza newspaper called La Tribuna--which was quite an ironic thing for Cuadra to have done in his foolish youth.
In 1937, Somoza made his move, deposed the constitutional president, and took the government of Nicaragua into his own strong and decisive hands. The poets in the bell tower became poets in power. (The tradition of poets occupying high positions in Nicaraguan government, far from having begun with the Sandinistas, started with Dareo himself, who was Nicaragua's ambassador to Spain during a period of Liberal Party dictatorship at the start of the twentieth century.) Some of the Granadino poets served the Somoza dynasty for decades. Cuadra's friend Jose Coronel Urtecho, the intellectual leader of the group, insisted as late as 1976 that nothing was incompatible in admiring both General Sandino and General Somoza.
Yet Cuadra responded to the coup in 1937 rather differently. He noticed in a matter of months that Somoza was not, in fact, the virtuous hero of the sword and the cross called for by the fantasist doctrines of the fascist imagination. Somoza was a gangster. That was why Cuadra, in his outrage, ran around putting up posters of Sandino and got himself jailed. Two years after the coup, he went to Spain and, according to the French scholar Jean-Louis Felz (in his Sorbonne thesis L'Oeuvre de Pablo Antonio Cuadra), somehow arranged an interview with Generalissimo Franco himself and asked for arms to overthrow the gangster-dictator back home.
Franco was much too shrewd for that. And Cuadra, after a brief return to Nicaragua (where he and Coronel Urtecho were formally accused of Axis sympathies, a serious legal problem), fled to Mexico, where he had allies. In Mexico, though, he began to entertain second thoughts about his entire political project. I do not know precisely what caused his change of heart. In 1993 he published an autobiographical poem called "Memorias/La Tribu" in Vuelta, Octavio Paz's magazine in Mexico. (Cuadra was on the masthead--a distinct honor for a Central American poet.) The poem recalled how, in Mexico, he fell under the influence of Jose Vasconcelos, one of the greatest of the Latin American intellectuals, who also happened to be an admirer of Hitler. Vasconcelos rethought his own allegiances, though, and in his new frame of mind he asked his Nicaraguan friend, according to the poem, "How did you put your hopes in a Generalissimo?" And Cuadra gave up the fascist idea.
He still considered himself a Christian humanist, only now in a variety that was sincerely and genuinely democratic. Everything that he did after he went back to Nicaragua and took a job at La Prensa--every political position that he adopted, every risk that he accepted--reflected his new antidictatorial and democratic attitude. Perhaps in giving up on fascism he had merely returned to the politics of his father, which were Catholic, Conservative (in the Nicaraguan sense of the Conservative Party of Granada), and legal. Pablo Antonio never fully explained his democratic turn-around--not in any version that made its way into his better-known or well-remembered writings today, at least to my knowledge. On the contrary, his main temptation in later years was to acknowledge having made a few serious errors when he was young, and then to downplay the entire episode.
Sometimes he claimed merely to have fallen for a while under fascism's influence, which was not quite the same as having announced over the radio that "we are fascists." Sometimes he blamed his errors on Coronel, the pied piper, and made himself seem an innocent led astray. (Coronel did the same. He claimed not to have been present when the mania for fascism swept away the Granadino poets.) Everything that I have just quoted from Cuadra's fascist period comes from a book of his called Brevario Imperial, which was brought out by Accion Espanol in Madrid in 1940. But that book tended to disappear in later times, such that in bibliographies of his principal writings, Brevario Imperial is sometimes mentioned and sometimes not. (No mention of it appears in the bibliographies of two of the principal collections of Cuadra's verse in English translation, one by Grace Schulman and Ann McCarthy de Zavala and the other by Steven White, America's principal authority on Nicaraguan poetry--worthy volumes, I should add, from which I have learned a great deal.) The New York Public Library kept a rare copy of Brevario Imperial on its shelves until 1999, but then, as a matter of housecleaning, got rid of the volume and replaced it with a mere microfilm, which is how I came to read the book.
To be sure, anyone can sympathize with Cuadra's wish to keep these things out of the public eye. He was ashamed. He was angry at himself for having devoted so much of his time to politics, and in later years he said so, too--though he was reluctant to specify what he meant by "politics." Still, he might have done some good by discussing his fascism in detail, and explaining why he finally repudiated it. After all, his achievements as a writer of poetic and nationalist mythologies were enormous. The mestizo note in Nicaraguan nationalism, the mythic prestige of Sandino and of guerrilla warriors in the mountains, the grandiosity of Nicaragua's national aspirations (a grandiosity that I think is shared by no other country of equivalent size), the touch of millenarianism in the revolutionary nationalist idea--all of this was, in large degree, his own creation. All of it drew on his early political commitments, as anyone can see with a peek at Brevario Imperial. And the whole set of his ideas turned out to be immensely powerful, sufficiently to capture the imagination of the entire world in the 1970s and 1980s--not in the ultra-rightist version that had been his own, of course, but in an ultra-leftist Catholic and Marxist version that was fashioned by yet another of his relatives, the priest and poet Ernesto Cardenal, who served as the Sandinista minister of culture; and by a handful of other writers, the theorists of Sandinismo.
I wonder if a few serious reflections on Cuadra's part might not have shed some light on the political dangers of a poetic mythology such as his own. He might have been able to explain to his readers what kind of society he was dreaming of in those poems, and why his dream society might be less than desirable in real life. In one of the poems in Canto Temporal, he wrote, "I wanted an order like a gigantic column"--meaning an orderly society, everyone in his proper place, from the king to the workers, each person serene and beatific in a Hellenized Catholic world. A few democratic-minded comments about that idea might have helped his left-wing heirs in later generations recognize that they too were dreaming of gigantic columns, though the king in their version ended up being called the "National Directorate." He might have helped his readers recognize a few significant ways in which Nicaraguan leftism, when it finally came to power in the days of Ortega and Castro, oddly resembled Nicaraguan ultra-rightism, as yearned for by the Granadino poets in the days of Mussolini and Franco.
Then again, I can imagine that Cuadra's first impulse, once he had taken up democracy, was to rescue his own poetry from the taint of any politics at all. For what would have happened to the poetry if he had made a fuss over his early political views and how they had changed? He might have become famous and even admired for having rethought his politics, but a notoriety would have attached to his poetry as well, which would have been a pity from a literary point of view. The poems do have a life apart from the ideological doctrines that helped inspire them. He did not become a worse poet when he became a better political thinker. Nor was there any reason for Cuadra in later life to go rummaging through his earlier poems looking for scandalous or hateful passages to expunge. There was nothing in the poetry to be embarrassed about, so far as I know. The Cantos of Pablo Antonio Cuadra were not the Cantos of Ezra Pound.
Pablo Antonio Cuadra died on January 2 of this year, at the age of eighty-nine. It is a time for mourning, and for evaluation. He was, he is, a great poet--on a small scale, if such a distinction can be made. He never possessed the robust energy of Dareo. The fragmentary quality of some of his writings and the lapses into Catholic sentimentality are his principal limitations. But his solemnity, the hint of something wild and savage, the obsidian sharpness of his images, his instinct for violence: these elements and moods are extremely powerful. I suppose that his national theme, in its geographical smallness, may have restricted his popular appeal in other parts of the world. But his great goal of seeking out a mestizo sense of the past, the goal of defining a modern age that sits atop a forgotten Indian civilization, the goal of inventing a sense of place and identity out of shards from long ago and out of sheer will and his own religious soul--all of that was large, not small. Cuadra's attention to those concerns was perhaps comparable to Paz's, except that he enjoyed an advantage that Paz did not--the advantage, as it seems to my own non-Catholic sensibility, of a Catholic warmth, which rescues Cuadra from the aridities of Aztec calendars and gods that turned to stone ages ago.
Certainly Cuadra enjoys an advantage over the writers from the United States who, in their own day, by which I mean the nineteenth century, likewise wanted to invent a national mythology with a more than European origin. The American mythologists--Longfellow, Whittier, Cooper, Thoreau, Parkman, and a few others--were people of talent, sometimes of genius, and were serious about researching the Indian past. But Cuadra's advantage over those writers is obvious, I think, to anyone who glances at his writings and at their writings today. It is an overwhelming advantage, and it consists of a single, unmistakable quality: modernity.
Paul Berman is author of A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968.