Monday 29 September 2014

One Day of Life (by Manlio Argueta) - A review (Banned Books Week)

One Day of Life

Location: El Salvador
Author: Manlio Argueta
Publisher/Year: Vintage Books/1983 (original in Spanish in 1980)
Genre: Drama

In USA, the week of 21st to 27th September, 2014, was 'celebrated' as Banned Books Week 2014. Of course, the list of books there is essentially limited to books currently banned within that country. Somewhat restrictive for a global reading challenge such as this one. So as part of this challenge I decided to read some banned books from around the world in September, irrespective of where or when they were banned. Most of these are still off limits in certain countries, and with these posts I join the multitude protesting against such censorship.

For the first of my banned books reading list, I picked up Manlio Argueta's One Day of Life, a book banned in El Salvador immediately after its release in 1980 as it described various human rights violations by the country's paramilitary intelligence organisation. The book itself has raised much praise over the years, but remains in the bad books (no pun intended) of pro-government entities in El Salvador.

The plot, as given by Wikipedia:
Guadalupe "Lupe" Guardado is a middle-aged Salvadoran woman who lives near Chalatenango, El Salvador. During the day she is required to do what she can to support her family, while her husband works for a wealthy landowner. Her husband José has become involved in rebellion against the economic conditions and became a leader in the Christian farmers organization. Fearing persecution for his opposition, José regularly stays "in the hills" after work and sees his family little. The Guardado's son Justino was killed by the "authorities" prior to the events in the novel, and their son-in-law Helio has "disappeared." Guadalupe's granddaughter Adolfina relays the protest at a cathedral, as well as a massacre of students on a bus. At the end of the novel, the authorities bring a beaten man to Guadalupe and Adolfina who had said the name "Adolfina" after being severely beaten. Adolfina does not recognize the man, but Guadalupe recognizes her husband José. On his previous advice, she denies knowing him, and he is taken away.

It is a powerful novel, capturing both the everyday aspects of family life and the wider context of political turmoil and persecution with a rare combination of simplicity and intricate detail. It lacks some of the flair of various other Latin American novels, but what it lacks in style it certainly makes up for in substance. This is a troubling tale, and one that should grip the reader with a harrowing tale of a family's troubles.

The political and historical settings of this novel are essential, and Argueta does a tremendous job of bringing these to life. Everything in the novel feels very genuine, mostly because the geographical and political settings were utterly real, and the reader does get transported into this other realm to some extent. Again, this is not the most skilled novel around, but it is effective. It does what it sets out to do, and tells a harrowing tale while setting up the environment perfectly.

It is a shame that a book like this was banned, and I hope that others among you read it if you can get your hands on a copy. 

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