The narrator, a celebrated Latin American cultural figure—he shares with Julio Cortázar the honor of having written the short story “Las babas del diablo” (“Blow-Up”)—recounts a journey that he has made to Central America. On arriving in Costa Rica, he is met by several friends who are important members of the Sandinista movement, some of whom escort him to the island of Solentiname, off the coast of Nicaragua. During his visit, one of the purposes of which is to demonstrate solidarity with the Sandinistas in their protracted armed struggle against the Somoza dictatorship, he notices some naïve paintings done by the humble inhabitants of Solentiname. Struck by their unashamed innocence and enthusiasm, he photographs the paintings as souvenirs. After several intermediate stops, he returns to his home in Paris, where his life resumes its normally hectic rhythm. One day, when he recalls having left the roll of film to be developed, he retrieves it and settles down for a comfortable and nostalgic viewing.
Approximately halfway through the roll of slides, however, just when the pleasantly ingenuous pictures should appear, the narrator is dismayed to witness projected scenes of unspeakable violence and cruelty: Soldiers murder peasant children in cold blood, cadavers are piled in tall mounds, women are tortured and raped. The arrival of his companion Claudine coincides with the end of the brutal spectacle. Too upset to speak, the narrator reloads the projector for her and retreats hastily to the bathroom, where (here his memory fails him) he may have vomited, cried, or simply sat in disbelief. After recomposing himself, he returns to Claudine’s side and learns that she has seen nothing but the charming paintings that the narrator photographed when at Solentiname. Not wanting to appear foolish before Claudine (or the reader), the narrator says nothing to explain his uncanny experience. This apyretic conclusion is highly appropriate because for those who share his revolutionary social concerns there remains nothing to say, and for those who do not, the whole matter is inexplicable and, perhaps, meaningless.