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from the August 2009 issue

Sergio Ramírez’s “A Thousand Deaths Plus One”

Reviewed by Andrea Rosenberg

Sergio Ramírez's A Thousand Deaths Plus One, translated from Spanish by Leland H. Chambers, interweaves historical fact with outrageous fiction, painstaking truth with barefaced lies. In the novel, author and narrator become indistinguishable, memoir and invention collide, and the reader becomes wrapped in a complex net of interlocking anecdotes. A Thousand Deaths Plus One is what critics tend to call a "novel of ideas," but as with any great piece of writing, its rich conceptual structure does not mean that it lacks humor, compassion, or other less esoteric elements of human experience.

The novel is divided into two sections, each beginning with a chapter attributed to another major Latin American author. The first is ascribed to Rubén Darío, Nicaragua's beloved national poet and the father of Latin American Modernismo (which, perplexingly to the Anglophone reader, is the stylistic opposite of literary modernism in English, resembling instead the baroque prose of Ramírez's novel). The second credits Colombian novelist and journalist José María Vargas Vila, known for his aggressive critiques of imperialism and conservatism. The very first words of the novel thus thrust the reader into an elaborate literary game in which truth and fiction are indistinguishable.

Ramírez was vice president of Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega, and the framing narrative of A Thousand Deaths Plus One involves a diplomatic trip—in this case, a journey to Warsaw in 1987—on which the fictionalized author discovers an exhibition of work by an obscure Nicaraguan photographer, Juan Castellón, whose photos serve as a documentation of modern European history. Fascinated by the images, Ramírez delves into the life of Castellón, who seems to him "like a character who should be in a novel." Much of the book is formed around the photographer's narrative, which gives an account of his father's life as well as describing his own. This device ties Nicaragua irretrievably to Europe, slotting it into the broad sweep of Western history, where it is usually invisible. Thus, just as Ramírez echoes the Cervantine technique of confusing author and narrator, he has also written a national novel analogous to Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children.

The history of the Nicaraguan nation, as experienced by Castellón's father, is one of obscurity, and vulnerability to the whims of more powerful nations. As the hapless diplomat tries to persuade European aristocrats that his own narrow nation, rather than the more commonly proposed Panamanian option, is the better place to build the canal that will link two oceans, few of them can even find the country on their maps. The construction of the canal farther to the south dooms Nicaragua to universal oblivion, and the grandiose dream of transforming the nation from "a huge cattle ranch where flies were always buzzing around, if not bullets" into a nation of consequence on the world stage, fizzles out.

Yet A Thousand Deaths Plus One presents ways to remedy that obscurity. The novel is about how history is recorded—in official accounts, in old black-and-white photographs, in novels of ideas by former vice presidents—and about the labyrinthine links that tie major and minor narratives together, making them indistinguishable from each other. The confusion of fact and fiction, Ramírez suggests, is as endemic to history as it is to literature, and the story of an impassioned Nicaraguan spreading out maps before an imprisoned king is as consequential to the history of one nation as the building of the canal eventually was to another. Still, the documentation of history itself helps shape the content of historical narratives. As the narrator tells the photographer's grandson near the end of the novel, "If Castellón had not taken that picture, you would not exist for me."

As a parade of historical figures and anecdotes rushes past, the reader is left uncertain which elements of the novel are fictional and which based in fact. This sense of disorientation, one begins to think, would be appropriate in any encounter with either fact or fiction, as both are inevitably present in either. Even Castellón's photographs, it turns out—although we tend to accept the realism of documentary photography as being somehow the same as its reality—are not as straightforward as they appear. Throughout the novel, Ramírez also undermines exalted historical and cultural figures and established histories—presenting Darío as a raving drunk and Flaubert ravaged by syphilis, describing Nicaragua as an uncivilized backwater and Europe as a decadent imperialistic power— and thereby calls into question the grand myths upon which national identities are constructed. This weakens the myths and transforms the identities of the nations or historical figures themselves since, in being pulled down to a more human and realistic level, they are made sympathetic despite their faults and frailties.

This ambitious novel is unfortunately hampered somewhat by its translation. The exaggerated excess of Ramírez's prose is challenging to render elegantly in English, whose literary traditions are so much less forgiving of elaborate sentence structures and elevated language. Although Chambers does an adequate, even admirable, job for such a complex text, the translation nevertheless contains a steady supply of jarring syntaxes and odd word choices. Mil y una muertes, the Spanish original, is clearly a beast of a book from a translator's point of view, and it's a shame the translation was not more diligently edited.

Still, A Thousand Deaths Plus One is an intriguing and provocative novel and well worth a look. While it poses profound philosophical, cultural, political, and historical questions, its reliance on first-person narratives and human anecdotes keeps it from becoming abstruse. Ramírez has created an intricate work of literature that strains against the strictures of fact and fiction. And just as apparent fact can turn out to be fiction, fiction can reveal fundamental truths.

Andrea Rosenberg recently completed an MFA in literary translation from the University of Iowa, where she was coeditor of the journal eXchanges. She translates from Spanish and Portuguese.

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