Roque Dalton 1935-1975
Salvadoran poet, essayist, and novelist.
Poet and communist revolutionary, Dalton brought ideological militancy to his poetry, and a sense of poetic spontaneity to his revolutionary action. Contemptuous of poets who wrote of injustice and suffering while still enjoying the comforts of their class and the privileges of their fame, Dalton eschewed publication by capitalist publishing houses, and actively engaged in revolutionary organizing, guerrilla training, and clandestine violence. Dalton's poetry combines surrealist imagery and montage with a Marxist awareness of exploitation and suffering.
Dalton was born May 14, 1935, a few years after the massacre of thirty thousand Salvadorans in an effort to suppress an uprising against General Martinez, the country's dictator. Dalton's mother, a nurse, supported the family after his father, rumored to be a bank-robber and member of the outlaw Dalton brothers, abandoned the family. Dalton grew up schooled by the Jesuits, but his sense of the injustice and poverty of El Salvador turned him from Catholicism to Marxism. In 1956, a student at the University of San Salvador, he helped found the University Literary Circle. A year later, Dalton joined the Communist Party. He was arrested in 1959, in 1960, and in 1965 in El Salvador for being a communist and for organizing the Salvadoran students and peasants against the landowners. Twice he was sentenced to death, and each time he escaped execution. In 1960, on the morning he was scheduled to die, there was a coup against the government that had condemned him and he was freed. In 1965 he escaped his death sentence after an earthquake knocked down the wall of his prison cell. Dalton lived many years in exile in Cuba, where he took guerrilla training and worked as a journalist, and in Czechoslovakia, where he hung around the taverns and wrote poetry. In addition to poetry, he wrote a social biography of the founder of the Salvadoran Communist Party, an autobiographical novel, and tracts on revolutionary theory. After having plastic surgery in order to make him unrecognizable, Dalton fought in the guerrilla underground in El Salvador. His death was bizarre—what his enemies failed to accomplish, his ostensible comrades achieved. He was condemned by members of his guerrilla group for strategic and ideological differences, along with charges of working with the C.I.A., and spying for the Soviet Union and Cuba. Dalton was tortured and executed a few days short of his fortieth birthday.
Although ardent in his devotion to communism and the violent revolutionary struggle against capitalist exploitation, Dalton's poetry does not conform to the kind of dogmatic and dour socialist realism which produces propaganda rather than poetry, even in such works as the half jestingly named A Red Book for Lenin (1970). His poems are ironic, cynical, and full of longing and humor. They combine a social awareness of economic misery and exploitation, a loyalty to Marxist revolutionary vision, and a consciousness of individual desire and the living self. Moreover, they are informed by the shifting perspectives that are derived from an awareness of differing personalities, multiple points of view, and varying frames of reference. These characteristics are evident particularly in The Tavern and Other Places (1969), which he wrote while in exile in Prague, and for which he won the Casa de las Américas prize in 1969.
Dalton's poetry is intrinsically connected to the theory and practice of communist revolution, and at the same time, dedicated to the non-ideological expression of the liberty essential to poetry, which reflects the unimpeded gaze, the individual sensibility, and the personality of its author. Both non-Marxist and Marxist critics have found portions of Dalton's poetry praiseworthy, and portions objectionable. Seymour Menton, for example, gives special praise to poems “that reveal the poet's own difficulty with the communist world,” but Dale Jacobson takes Dalton to task because, “[t]oo rarely do the poems represent the emotional and dramatic turbulence of the working-class experience.” With the publication of his poems in The Small Hours of the Night (1996) critics have commented on Dalton's sense of humor, luminosity, and the way in which his poems are strengthened by his politics. Lawrence Ferlinghetti writes that Dalton's poetry “suffers from politics as does man himself,” while Chris Searle claims that Dalton was “an enigmatic poetic genius.”
La Ventana en el rostro [The Window in My Face] 1961
El mar [The Sea] 1962
El turno del ofendido [Turn of the Offended]) 1962
Los testimonios [Testimonies] 1964
Taberna y ostros lugares [The Tavern and Other Places] 1969
Las historias prohibidas del pulgarcito [The Forbidden Histories of the Little Thumb] 1974
Poemas clandestinos [Clandestine Poems] 1980
Poesia escogida 1983
Un libro rojo para Lenin [A Red Book for Lenin] 1986
Un libro levemente odioso 1988
Small Hours of the Night: Selected Poems of Roque Dalton 1996
For the Record: Selected Poems 1999
Miguel Marmol: Los sucesos de 1932 en El Salvador [Miguel Marmol] (biography) 1972
Pobrecita poeta que era yo [Poor Little Poet, I Was] (autobiography) 1976
Poesia y militancia en América Latina [Poetry and Militancy in Latin America] (essay) 1981
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SOURCE: “An Hour with Roque Dalton,” in Fiction International, Vol. 16, No. 2, Summer/Fall, 1986, pp.133-43.
[In the following interview, translated by Elsie B. Adams, Dalton discusses the relationship between ideology and literature, especially as it pertains to his work.]
Roque Dalton, winner of the 1969 Casa de las Américas prize for The Tavern and Other Places, was born in San Salvador, El Salvador, on May 14, 1935. He studied anthropology and law. A student leader and journalist, he participated actively in the politics of his country; he was a member of the Communist Party in El Salvador for 22 years. On numerous occasions he was imprisoned for his revolutionary activity; in 1961 he was exiled from El Salvador by the military government. He returned clandestinely various times, and in 1964 was again imprisoned, but this time managed to escape. During his last years, he lived in Czechoslovakia and Cuba. He published three books of poems: Window in My Face, 1961; Turn of the Offended, 1963; Testimonies, 1964.
In his last years, the Salvadoran poet became a member of the People's Revolutionary Army, in whose ranks he was fighting when he was assassinated in 1975. In 1980, Casa de las Américas, of Havana, published a full anthology of his work in verse, including numerous unedited poems and others which had been published clandestinely in El Salvador...
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SOURCE: “Class Poetry: Five Books from Curbstone Press,” in Fiction International, Vol. 16, No. 2, Summer/Fall, 1986, pp. 202-9.
[In the following review, Jacobson compares Dalton to Latin American poets Otto René Castillo and César Vallejo, and, although recognizing Dalton's power as a poet, reproaches him for being “intellectual,” and for what he sees as Dalton's tendency to criticize “bourgeois” institutions using “bourgeois” standards and means, rather than writing “from the perspective of the working class.”]
“This machine kills fascists,” folk-singer Woody Guthrie wrote on his guitar. Here was a cultural statement that was much more sophisticated than the Dadaistic displays of the 60s, the burning and smashing of instruments on stage, displays which were themselves more culturally advanced than the 20th century pessimism of bourgeois poetry Neruda characterized as dissolute. Imagine bourgeois poets burning their poems, or claiming that poetry is a machine that kills fascists. In fact, Dalton has a poem directed to the apolitical bourgeois poet, entitled “Latin America”:
The poet face to face with the moon inhales his thrilling little daisy takes his dose of foreign words soars off on misty brushstrokes scratches his little violin like a pederast.
Until he smashes his face against the harsh wall of a barracks.
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SOURCE: “Verse,” in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 3, Summer, 1989, p. 459.
[In the following review of Un libro levemente odioso, a posthumous collection of Dalton's poetry, Menton singles out for special praise Dalton's poems questioning orthodox communist ideology.]
Roque Dalton is unquestionably El Salvador's most internationally known writer, in part because of his revolutionary activities in Cuba and his execution by Salvadoran guerrillas in May 1975. However, his fame also rests solidly on his literary production: Las historias prohibidas del Pulgarcito (1974), an anecdotal, multigeneric history of his country, comparable to Guillermo Cabrera Infante's Vista del amanecer en el trópico and Eduardo Galeano's trilogy Memoria del fuego; the five-hundred-page posthumous biography of Miguel Mármol; and several volumes of poetry.
The work under review [Un libro levemente odioso] is a handsome collection of poems written between 1965 and 1971, illustrated by José Luis Posada, with an introduction by Elena Poniatowska. As the ironic title indicates, it is a book full of hate: hate for the dogmatic orthodoxy, both Catholic and communist; hate for all forms of U.S. and British imperialism; hate for pompous, unprincipled lawyers; and hate for self-serving poets. The most frequent leitmotivs are religion, sex, and intertextuality. Surrealistic...
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SOURCE: “Salvadoran Revolutionary Poetry,” in Literature and Politics in the Central American Revolutions, University of Texas Press, 1990, pp. 115-43.
[In the following excerpt, Beverley and Zimmerman discuss the relation of Dalton's poetry to the historical events and the revolutionary movements of Central America in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.]
The most compelling poet of the Committed Generation and the central figure in modern Salvadoran literature is clearly [Roque] Dalton. He writes as a Marxist-Leninist from within the ideological and organizational boundaries of the sectarian left in El Salvador. Though he shares with [Nicaraguan poet Ernesto] Cardenal a concern with producing a syncretic historical image of his country, his tone differs markedly from the religiously inflected high seriousness of exteriorism. Partly derived from Brecht, Nazim Hikmet, Castillo, and Nicanor Parra's cynical “antipoems,” partly from Geoffroy Rivas and Escobar, his poetry is both self-absorbed and self-mocking, secular, antiprophetic, aphoristic, didactic. In his short career he experimented with a wide range of forms besides poetry, including political essays, history, autobiographical novel, testimonio, and the collage-poem of Salvadoran history that is perhaps his most ambitious and original work, Las historias prohibidas del pulgarcito (1974).
Dalton belongs to an informal pantheon...
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SOURCE: “Roque Dalton,” in Spanish American Authors: The Twentieth Century, edited by Angel Flores, The H.W. Wilson Company, 1992, pp. 238-40.
[In the following essay, Arias offers a brief account of Dalton's formative influences and outlines the role of his ideology in the formation of his prose and poetry.]
The Salvadoran writer Roque Dalton is one of the greatest figures in Central American letters of this century. His genius is transcendent, both in and outside of our continent, and without doubt will continue to be so, provided that political passions give way to reason, translations multiply, and literary criticism plumbs his complex modernity.
Everything Dalton wrote is a meditation on his country. He is constantly asking himself what it is to be Salvadoran, where “guanacos” (what Salvadorans call themselves) are going, and what is going to become of them. He placed all his literary skills at the service of his people and gave us to understand the idiosyncracies of his country in monumental books, such as Las historias prohibidas del Pulgarcito (1974) and Miguel Marmol (1972).
The fight for the liberation of Central America, love, everyday things, childhood, personal conflicts and societal clashes, the transition from capitalism to socialism—those are all themes present in his work. In the same manner he adopted varied literary genres:...
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SOURCE: A review of Small Hours of the Night: Selected Poems of Roque Dalton, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 243, No. 30, July 22, 1996, p. 236.
[In the following review, the writer gives a thumbnail sketch of Dalton's work, praising his extravagance, wry sense of humor, and iconoclasm.]
Long overlooked in the U.S., Dalton was born in El Salvador in 1935. He joined the Communist Party and became a guerrilla in the El Salvadoran revolution, producing a massive body of poems before being murdered in 1975. The early poems, those from a young revolutionary, are full of extravagance: “I have this wild itch to laugh / or kill myself” and “I don't believe in angels / but the moon is now dead for me.” As Dalton's poetry matures, his imagination ranges, sometimes recklessly, running from line to line without regard for negative space or silence, but never without passion. “Man uses his old disasters like a mirror. / An hour or so after dusk / the man picks up the painful remnants of his day / and worried sick he puts them right next to his heart / he sweats like a TB patient fighting for his life / and sinks into his deep lonely rooms.” Many of the poems written in exile in Mexico and Cuba are manly, wine-drinking montages of life on the Communist edge. In the section Tavern and Other Places, he is at his best: creatively illuminating the soul of his home country; cataloguing with humility his...
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SOURCE: “The Death of a Clown,” in The Nation, Vol. 263, No. 9, September 30, 1996, pp. 32-33.
[In the following review, King emphasizes the qualities of revolutionary joy and wonder Dalton celebrated in his poetry.]
Roque Dalton [author of Small Hours of the Night,] once addressed a poem to a woman asking that she never speak his name when he was dead because he would rise from the ground at the sound of her voice, and he should have “earned silence” by then. I think we are safe in speaking his name, though, because nothing a North American could say now would sound good enough to summon him. Since he died in 1975, our government has secretly helped silence in blood the Salvadoran revolution for which he sacrificed his life, then salted the wounds by recognizing U.S. “heroes” for fighting a war they supposedly did not fight.
His country has no good news for him either. Poverty still devours El Salvador's children. Prisoners—Dalton spent much time in prison, like any good revolutionary—still suffer in silence, like this year's hunger strikers who sewed their mouths shut to protest the conditions of their confinement. They could use Dalton's eloquence, as could all the Salvadorans serving time in coffee-warehouse prisons. That sounds like the fancy of this dead poet, who decried “the bourgeois God Coffee” and berated his mother country for “stinking up the...
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SOURCE: A review of Small Hours of the Night: Selected Poems of Roque Dalton, in Race and Class, Vol. 39, No. 2, October-December, 1997, pp. 85-87.
[In the following review, Searle praises Dalton's “poetic genius.”]
I first met the poetry of Roque Dalton of El Salvador during the late 1970s, at the height of the national liberation struggle of that tiny nation's people. I remember, in particular, the poem that imagined communism as an aspirin as big as the sun. A stunning image, I thought, recalling Donne's compasses and Marvell's chariot—is this an authentic Latin American metaphysical poet?
He is, but as the collection of his poems, Small Hours of the Night, shows us, he is much more too. Revolutionary, lyrical love poet, patriot, humorist—and, as he called himself,
a hack in the smallest Communist Party in the world.
He came from dramatic family circumstances. His father was one of the members of the infamous ‘Dalton Gang’ of bank-robbers who, pursued from Kansas, settled in El Salvador and invested his loot in coffee plantations, thus buying himself into the nation's small but dominant rural elite. So, when Roque wrote of having a certain ‘way of being a communist’, which was, to say the least, from an unstereotypical...
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Harlow, Barbara. “Testemonio and Survival: Roque Dalton's Miguel Marmol.” Latin American Perspectives 18, No. 4 (Fall 1991): 9-21.
Examines Dalton's Miguel Marmol, and contends that it not only “challeng[es] the institutions of literature, but as political analysis challeng[es] the course of history.”
Pfeil, Fred. “Party Lines.” The Nation 245, No. 7 (September 12, 1987): 240-42.
Compares Dalton's Miguel Marmolwith American communist Junius Scales' Cause at Heart—a remembrance of his political journey.
Additional coverage of Dalton's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 176; Hispanic Literature Criticism Series, Vol. 1; and Hispanic Writers, Vol. 2.
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