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 that teeters somewhere between art and polemic, truth and lies. It calls itself a novel, but its roots are in propaganda. In much of its intellectual dishonesty, unfortunately, Argueta's book is reminiscent once again of what is to be found at the unofficial Human Rights Commission: the tendency to turn your opponents into demons and your allies into angels, which is endemic to Salvadoran society and nowhere more evident than on the left.
You might expect that with so much real horror at hand the opposition would see no need to report more than the objective truth about what is going on. But reality, as damning as it might be, is somehow never quite adequate to the propagandist's purpose. No one killed is ever so much as a leftist sympathizer, much less a guerrilla. (p. 46)
Argueta is at this worst when he attempts to adopt the voice of a common soldier in El Salvador's Guardia Nacional, the agent of repression. He does catch accurately the way soldiers are taught to think of themselves as a separate class…. But Argueta cannot resist the kind of arch twist that seems designed to win cheap nods of approval from the left's true believers…. (pp. 46-7)
Moreover, while its American publishers … are selling One Day of Life with the line that it is "as timely a novel as there could ever be about the present turmoil in El Salvador," it is already very much a work of the past. It depicts a time four or five years ago when it was much easier to define the good, the bad, and the ugly in El Salvador without so much as mentioning where the guerrillas might fit into the spectrum. Chalatenango, the setting for the novel, was and is the stronghold of the most radical communist faction in the guerrilla front…. But there are no rebels to be seen in Argueta's book. There is only talk about the Christian Federation, known in El Salvador as FECCAS, and there are some revolutionary priests. (p. 47)
Argueta's interest presumably is in showing why a revolution is needed in El Salvador, not in suggesting the sometimes sordid and cynical mechanics employed to bring it about,...
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even if they are a vital part of the lives and deaths his characters would encounter in the scene he has set. I do not mean for a moment to lose sight of the evils committed in the past and still being committed by members of the government Washington backs in El Salvador. "Unfortunately the truth about atrocities is far worse than that they are lied about and made into propaganda," George Orwell wrote more than forty years ago. "The truth is that they happen." But to understand the true horror of those atrocities and, most importantly, to search for some way to bring them to an end, it is important to know propaganda when you see it—whether at the Human Rights Commission, or in a White House press release, or in this novel.
Caught between the repression of the U.S.-backed military and the cynical dogmas of the rebel armies, about all the Salvadoran people can depend on these days to set them free is, in fact, the truth. One Day of Life, for all its promise, and all the promises made for it, carries us only a very little way closer to finding out what that may be. (pp. 47-8)
Christopher Dickey, "A Salvadoran Writer," in The New Republic, Vol. 189, No. 21, November 21, 1983, pp. 46-8.