Manlio Argueta Allen Josephs - Essay

Allen Josephs

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 were campesinos like Mr. Argueta's characters. Yet the novel, while eliciting sympathy for these victims, seldom transcends the literal recording of misery. Readers seeking the particulars of that suffering will find this record rewarding, but those searching for a larger discussion of the dilemma facing El Salvador will have to look elsewhere. As brave and engaging as Lupe and her family are, they are incapable of describing the nature of the evil surrounding them. (pp. 15, 26)

Allen Josephs, "Sorcerers and Despots," in The New York Times Book Review, October 2, 1983, pp. 15, 26.∗