Manlio Argueta 1936–
Argueta gained attention in the English-speaking world with Un día en la vida (1980; One Day of Life). This novel depicts the civil strife in present-day El Salvador, particularly the conflict between peasants and the special government force that polices them. Critical reaction to One Day of Life was mixed. Some considered it excessively moralistic and one-sided in its presentation of the brutalities inflicted upon peasants. However, others found the novel timely and claimed that is accurately and realistically depicts the social chaos and horrors of civil war. The government of El Salvador banned One Day of Life and forced Argueta to leave his native land. Argueta currently lives in exile in Costa Rica.
El valle de las hamacas, winner of the Certamen Cultural Centroamericano in 1968, reflects the political and social experience of the author, especially in the years 1959–60. Argueta depicts the all too familiar conflicts in his country and the inevitable identification of idealistic Salvadorean youth with problems in neighboring Honduras and Nicaragua. In his social fiction Argueta avoids direct ideological manifestoes and romantic symbolism without diminishing his concern or conviction. Using chains of associations, interior monologue, and a kind of mythological fusion of past and present history, he lightly touches on the theme of alienation which besets us all. Avoiding punctuation, Argueta uses various forms of address, especially the second person, in his recall and reverie, sometimes indicating them by italics. Done as a series of superimposed layers with flashbacks and interior temporal jumps, many of the events become fully evident only toward the end of the novel.
Essentially the story concerns a group of university students at San Salvador between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five who enjoy drinking, sex, music, and strong language, which the author transcribes in perhaps overabundant detail. Among these students are Raúl Morales, in love with Rosaura; Mauricio Robles, known as el Chatío, her brother; and Jorge. Imbued with a dislike of tyranny, they slip into Nicaragua to take part in guerrilla activities....
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Americans have long seemed content to read novels about themselves: about the absurdities of affluence, the anxiety of adultery, the pitfalls of "midlife crisis." But tastes are changing. Gabriel García Márquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" introduced readers to a strange new world of magical happenings and political extremity….
["One Day of Life"] recounts 12 hours in the life of a womán named Lupe. She is a 44-year-old matriarch who manages a small plot of farmland on the outskirts of Chalatenango, a bus ride away from the capital city of San Salvador. Much of the book consists of her meandering thoughts as she mulls over the color of the dawn, the freedom of birds in flight, the surprising militance of the local priests since they began saying mass in Spanish instead of Latin. Pious, self-reliant and stubborn, Lupe harbors growing doubts about the necessity of the poverty she endures.
Lupe's reveries are shattered by the appearance of National Guardsmen who are searching for her granddaughter, Adolfina. Through a series of interior monologues set in the minds of Adolfina, her mother, a friend and the "authorities," we learn that the youngster is an activist in a new peasant alliance. Though she is only 15, Adolfina has already participated in a demonstration at a bank, watched the Army retaliate with a blood bath and suffered through the unexplained "disappearance" of her father.
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Manlio Argueta's "One Day of Life" is … all too believable…. [Its style] is something I can only call primitive oral realism. Doña Lupe, a peasant grandmother already old at 45, narrates most of it…. Interspersed at random in a somewhat confusing narrative scheme are monologues by others, including Lupe's daughter, María Pía and Lupe's granddaughter, Adolfina. There are also two sections related by "The Authorities" and "They." All these monologues are addressed to "you," who is sometimes the reader and sometimes, in the case of Lupe's sections, her dead son, Justino, and her absent husband, José.
The events this testimonial novel depicts—the oppression, torture and murder of campesinos by the "Special Forces"—have a grim predictability. In the course of this one day, "you" learn that Justino was murdered and decapitated for helping to organize a demonstration; that María Pía has been crippled by a beating; and that her husband has been captured and tortured and has disappeared…. Priests are also tortured, and children die of dysentery, their heads caved in from dehydration. The agent of much of this brutality is Private Martínez, the son of Lupe's poor neighbors, who has become one of "them."
"One Day of Life," which was originally published in El Salvador in 1980 and was subsequently banned there, is both poignant and simplistic. Many of the 40,000 Salvadorans who have been killed recently...
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In a one-room building behind the archbishop's offices in San Salvador there are high-piled stacks of depositions recording what is known about the last hours in the lives of thousands of people lost to El Salvador over the last four years….
At its best, One Day of Life, a novel by exiled Salvadoran author Manlio Argueta, reads as if it were written from those files and drawn from those grisly images. As he tells the story of Guadalupe Fuentes and her family's quotidian ordeals in mountainous Chalatenango province the peasant voices are real with the woefulness and the sheer determination to survive that pervades the Salvadoran countryside. The matter-of-factness of horror is there….
When it works, this book does what virtually no other volume or newspaper story or television report in the United States has even begun to do. It renders the Salvadoran peasant visible…. In One Day of Life they are presented, at last, as something more than political ciphers.
The ambience of rural poverty—the pervasiveness of the violence, the intimate presence of a repressive system that feeds on the violence—is drawn in telling detail….
And yet there is a great deal about this book, alas, that is so obvious, so banal, so plainly bad as literature and so potentially misleading as politics and sociology, that one hesitates to praise it at all. It is a painfully awkward work...
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Edward J. Curtin, Jr.
All suffering is incarnate, doubly so that of the poor and persecuted. Empty bellies, painful early deaths, back-breaking labor, a rifle butt in the face: These are some of the milder tortures administered by the "authorities" to the citizens of El Salvador.
Such oppressive suffering is hard for Americans to visualize, much less believe in or care about, even though their own Government is deeply implicated in the daily carnage. It all seems abstract, unreal, Salvadorans somehow seeming not quite human.
This moving novel, banned by the Government of El Salvador, shatters that illusion. Written by the exiled Salvadoran, Manlio Argueta, One Day of Life palpably presents peasants as they struggle through one terrifying day. Murdered at the present rate of about 100 a week, these persecuted people here find a voice.
And a quietly powerful voice it is, one that reverberates in the reader. (pp. 14-15)
The voices of the poor tell a story of the growth of conscience …, the discovery of rights and the awareness of exploitation….
Despite the terrifying evil that pervades this book, there is a luminous spirit of hope and resistance that miraculously prevails. It is passed on from person to person despite death and torture and great suffering. "Maybe the spirit is the memory that gets into your head," Lupe muses. It is precisely this spirit, generous, loving, but...
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Argueta's 'authorities', like Kundera's, cannot joke or smile lest they be revealed as too absurd. One Day of Life is the story of Lupe, grandmother at 40, a peasant woman from Chalate in El Salvador….
The story is a sad one, delicately told, revealing not only Lupe's fate as she is caught in the cross-fire of civil war but also (and as remote from our understanding) the peasant life of birds and flowers and dust, the colours of a country woven in a blanket, infant mortality, hunger, water, a precious commodity offered as a symbolic, superstitious gift to friends and enemies alike.
The mirthless authorities have their say: boys equipped with fast philosophy and automatics who do well to overlook the fact that they rose from the ranks of the people they now subdue…. Well-fed and backed by 'the most civilized country in the world' (guess who?), they are brainwashed into believing that the people have been brainwashed too: 'Who is our special enemy? The people.' Lupe's story tells of the silent erosion of normal behaviour, the effects of intimidation and terror that mark, as in Northern Ireland now, a prolonged period of civil war, and of lessons learnt the hard way: Christian goodness must no longer be confused with resignation; stoicism in the face of horror (her son's severed head on a pole) is not only dignified but advisable—never show your fear. Rights are something that Lupe must learn to understand...
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In One Day of Life we are at last offered a glimpse of what that awful, savage [Salvadoran civil] war must be like from the point of view of the peasants who bear the brunt of it….
We also get an insight into the minds of these brutalised Civil Guard through the letters that one of them writes home. Reading the letters is depressing because they throw into sharp focus the fear and suspicion that the authorities harbour toward their own people. The man is himself a peasant but after months with his "foreign" instructors he regards his own people with icy contempt.
This is a marvellous novel on a tragic situation but the author is not well served by his translator who opts for a very Americanised dialogue.
Kevin Cully, "Hard Day's Night," in Tribune, Vol. 48, No. 19, May 11, 1984, p. 9.
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