Shipwreck of words

Edmundo Urrutia’s Naufragio de las palabras is a perfect point of departure for a journey into literature about Guatemala’s civil war


Naufragio de las palabras
Edmundo Urrutia
1998, Editorial Cultura y Magna Terra editores
179 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

IN AN EXCELLENT survey of literature that has emerged from Guatemala’s tortuously long civil war (1960-96), the sociologist Edgar Ruano Najarro* situates Edmundo Urrutia’s Naufragio de las Palabras (Shipwreck of Words) as among the most significant novels of a very particular genre, the “nueva novela guatemalteca” initiated by Marco Antonio Flores with his angry Los Compañeros (1976).

Ruano Najarro lists Urrutia’s pensive novel alongside other powerful works such as La Llama Sangrante (1995) by Miguel Ángel Vásquez and Mujeres en la alborada (1998) by Yolanda Colom among others as books that provide the first retrospective studies of Guatemala’s armed conflict and a platform from which future academic research can be conducted. Mariano Azuela’s Los de Abajo (1915), the first novel of the Mexican revolution, was the grandfather of this species of cultural snapshot, providing a point of entry for many subsequent novelists to explore the multiple dimensions of a revolutionary dustbowl whose winners and losers are all caught out in the storm together.

These writers explore the lives and motives of the guerrilla at times from an autobiographical perspective, at times as witnesses, and at times as interlocutors trying to explain and interpret the political trajectories of men and women caught up in the swirling vortex of Guatemalan history.

Human sensibilities and flaws

Naufragio de las palabras is a good work with which to begin this journey into an expansive – and indeed growing – genre because of the way it superimposes personal conflicts and motivations upon the political infighting and factionalism that characterised the Left and helped to fuel the war. It is this superimposition that makes this novel so interesting, for it allows us to contrast the very human sensibilities and flaws of the protagonists with the rigour and inflexibility of the political rhetoric and positions they are forced to either adopt or defend, sometimes uneasily.

Set in the 1960s, Naufragio de las palabras follows the fortunes of an urban guerrilla cell in Guatemala City whose members are precisely that cosmopolitan mixture of experience and youth, wisdom and immaturity, intelligence and stupidity that you would expect to find within a small group of young people thrown fatefully, but nonetheless unnaturally, together in a common revolutionary cause.

Urrutia’s method has two main strands, both of which are exploratory: he investigates with evident fascination the personalities of his characters, while delving deeply into Guatemala’s political inheritance and the profoundly distorted choices that this bequeathed those characters.

We are ushered through the novel by a network of tensions set up between the key contrasting protagonists, all of whom are shot through with those contradictions that make us very individual, as opposed to social, beings. The able Abel, a serious, self-disciplined fugitive who leads the urban resistance of the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes and is something of a veteran, remains imperturbable and convinced of Man’s ability to create Heaven on Earth yet dreams of a Christian burial. The sweet, courteous and easygoing Lucio, whose informed philosophical inquiries into human nature put him in increasingly sceptical positions with regard to the Marxist dogma that rolls so easily off his tongue. The reckless and boastful Rodrigo, who dreams of martyrdom yet is so immature and ill-disciplined that his own father confiscates the gun he has been allocated.

As we come to know these characters we are sustained by the political debates they are wittingly or unwittingly party to and that Urrutia conducts on our behalf, the acts of this plot providing many opportunities for him to chew over the contradictions of the revolutionary position and the brutality of its causal factors. The book offers scathing criticisms of the behaviour of the political class, the schizophrenic nature of doctrinaire language, the youthful impossibility of comprehending death, and the often very personal, individual motives that compel young people to wave aloft a utopian flag.

Urrutia traces, for example, how Lucio begins to question the entire perspective of his organisation towards armed action: “He did not share the triumphal optimism that abounded in this vision of things, that seemed to him to rest on far too easy an interpretation of people’s psychology, that still owed much to the presuppositions of the ‘guerrilla foco’ theory. For some time Lucio had been questioning this strategy that underestimated important objective and subjective factors…” (p. 72)

He also explores the romantic notion cherished by the youths of “taking heaven by storm”, and writes: “They felt the truth of socialism, then, for this reason: socialism was the truth. There was no science, as they so convincingly declared, nor objective knowledge. What there was, was pure feeling and an exalted emotion. Without knowing it, their supposed enlightenment was an expression of a romantic radical philosophy: feeling is truth, the only truth.” (p. 90)

The self-contained setting – of Guatemala City and the different scenes it can offer – and the extensive use of dialogue gives Naufragio de las palabras a theatrical flavour in the tradition of European playwrights who use their characters and scenery to impart ethical and political positions. In this way Urrutia’s characters are constructed to play specific roles: the realist, the idealist, the radical, the critical intellectual. This is an effective mechanism, and with it the author is able to reveal how these characters have become trapped, shipwrecked perhaps, in the dynamic of civil war. Yet Naufragio de las palabras is no polemic, and with his crisp and accessible narrative Urrutia – currently his country’s ambassador to the United Kingdom – has provided a sharp tool for helping us to understand one aspect of Guatemala’s feverish history.

*Revista D, Semanario de Prensa Libre, No. 21, 28 November 2004

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books