Artistry, Life and Revolution: The Best of What We Are

— Joseph E. Mulligan

The Best of What We Are—Reflections on the Nicaraguan Revolution by John Brentlinger (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995), $18.95 paperback.

JOHN BRENTLINGER'S UNIQUE book about the Nicaraguan experience combines three important qualities.

First, the author displays an artistic attention to detail, describing persons and scenes in a delightful style which brings the reader into the middle of daily life in Nicaragua.

Second, Brentlinger is steeped in the history and current politics of the country in which he has lived on six occasions over seven years, and his summaries and analysis are clear and accurate.

Third, as a philosopher he reflects on his own experience and that of Nicaraguans, asking probing questions and looking for insight into life itself.

His painter's attention to detail is evident on page one: “Poneloya is an old, dilapidated resort town on the Pacific. .. . Boarded up houses face the surf behind rows of coconut palms. A few fishermen beach their boats early in the morning, children walk back and forth to school, and local people pass on errands, but mostly the beach is empty.”

He is the only guest in the Lacayo hotel, which is “barnlike and smells of old, dusty wood; soft curves are worn into the wooden stairs by sandy feet. Over the second-floor rooms is a roof of beams and tiles that is home to hundreds of bats. A front porch opens onto a beach of dark volcanic sand.”

Such crisp descriptive prose occurs on almost every other page, offering a refreshing break from the narrative, political and historical analysis, and personal reflection.

The author is conscious of this style. In his chapter on his time in Condega, he writes about Haiku poems, which “describe a single image without metaphor or rhyme or comment by the poet. . . . I study (the poet) Basho's attentiveness, his search for meaning or relationship in ordinary things.”

Basho's writing has taken root in Brentlinger's own attitude: “his attention to the concrete detail, the particular thing, as an image of the whole; and more, as the mode of presence of the whole.” (129-130)

This can be summed up in the words of some painters on the island of Solentiname: the paintings “should be realistic,” Jos<130> said. “Primitivist painting shows the riches of nature, the trees, flowers and birds, the water and hills. It is concrete, said Rafael.” Elena added: “We paint what we love. We paint the beauty in the world” (342).

The author lived with families or in low-cost hostels around Nicaragua, sharing daily life with its drudgery and joy. Brentlinger's attention to and respect for detail is part of a fundamental attitude which expresses itself also in his respect for and empathy with each person.

Whether he is a mechanic, peasant or unemployed, or whether she devotes her time to being head of the family or to leading a community organization, the person Brentlinger is with gets his whole attention during long conversations and many visits.

The second important quality of this book, its historical depth, is not unique; what is unusual is to find it accompanied by the first and third qualities. Other authors have told Nicaraguan history and have analyzed the revolution with clarity; Brentlinger is among the best of them.

His capacity to focus on what is important, especially for North American readers, and to present it without wasting words shows his range of reading and discussion and his assimilation of a vast amount of material. History and current politics are woven into his personal journal and his Haiku scenes.

Particularly impressive is chapter two: “Sandino, Revolutionary Prophet.” In twenty-eight pages the reader gets a solid introduction to Augusto C<130>sar Sandino, who struggled against U.S. domination in the 1920s and 1930s and who was one of the main inspirations for the later Frente Sandinista struggle.

The chapter includes important flashbacks to previous history; for instance, in three paragraphs a fine summary of William Walker's nineteenth century adventure is provided. (76-77)

At the end of this chapter, the author discusses “the spirit of Sandino,” his impact on future generations of Nicaraguans, and his impact on us. “Our public heroes,” Brentlinger notes, “are typically rich men claiming to be `of the people;' we have learned with dismal regularity of their hypocrisy and egotism.” (95)

The author expresses regret over the profound skepticism and cynicism this engenders in those who see through the false pretentions. But in Nicaragua he found reason for some degree of political enthusiasm.

While the author is essentially favorable toward the Sandinista experiment in government, he also gives careful treatment to the Sandinistas' flaws which, combined with the U.S. “low-intensity warfare” against Nicaragua, resulted in the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in 1990.

Fire and Spirit

In Francisco, who had urged Brentlinger to get to know Sandino, “I think I see . . . a fire that was glowing warm inside him and can spring up burning, the fire that inspires human beings to change their lives and even to give their lives.”

The author moves easily into his work as philosopher, demonstrating by his personal reflection the third quality of his book. Fire is a metaphor for spirit, and “the generic idea of spirit is of a transcending force, one that breaks the old boundaries and strives for a higher existence.”

This philosopher rejects the traditional notion of spirit as opposed to the body and to matter, a notion which has pitted “spirituality” against social and political struggle. Spirit “seeks transcendence not of the material world . . . but of oppression and exploitation.

“Spirit is a life force that rejects the unjust status quo and offers the dignity of hope. It demands a new society . . .. By contrast, when we feel ourselves to be part of a corrupt system, we tend to disengage ourselves in defense of our moral complacency; we refuse to identify with the sufferings of those in whose midst we live.

“We refuse to acknowledge that much of what we have is taken from others. Our world is divided and defined by levels of wealth and privilege; seductive, powerful walls of objects, pleasures, symbols, and styles of life induce us by forgetfulness or fear to ignore our connections with others.

“Revolutionary spirit breaks down walls that separate us, that hide misery from us, that protect us by excluding those who are in need.” (95-97)

ATC 77, November-December 1998

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