From Small Hours of the Night

ROQUE DALTON: POET AND
REVOLUTIONARY


BY CLARIBEL ALEGRÍA

A scarce twenty years after his tragic, senseless death, the complex facts of Roque Dalton's life have been overlaid or in many cases clarified and defined by myth. Even among his closest friends it is nearly impossible to talk about Roque without falling into verbal chiaroscuro effects: superlative and anecdotal exaggerations. His prolific artistic production, cut off at the age of forty, remains a monumental artifact: testimony to his tortuous journey through the twentieth century, revealing his contradictory, dialectical, love-hate relationship with the country of his birth El Salvador both in and out of exile, and illustrating his profound conviction that the poet can and must, in his life as well as in his work, serve as the finely-honed scalpel of change, both in word and deed, when he lives in a profoundly unjust, stagnant society.

First, let's take the myth surrounding the undeniable fact of his birth in San Salvador in the year 1935. His father, one of the members of the outlaw Dalton brothers, after a career of robbing banks, disappeared from Kansas and settled in El Salvador with his ill-gotten fortune. He invested it in coffee plantations and grew even richer without ever being molested by the law. He left Roque his surname and a Jesuit education. Roque's mother was a registered nurse whose salary supported the family decorously, but Roque learned about class differences at an early age in fact, during his first day of kindergarten at Santa Teresita del Niño Jesús, and I quote:

… where I took
my first steps in society
smelling faintly of horse shit:
"Peasant!" Roberto called me
that first day of class
in the Infantile section,
and he gave me a hard shove …

His illegitimate birth and his status as outcast in a rich kid's school nurtured his resentment, and they were undoubtedly determining causes of the defiant posture Roque was to assume from adolescence on. He was the smartest in his class and was chosen as valedictorian on graduation day. He took advantage of the occasion to deliver a scorching anathema against the hypocrisy of his Jesuit instructors who slavishly supported the prejudices of the rich majority at the school and tolerated, if they didn't actively encourage, the students' wretched discrimination against their brothers in Christ who happened to have been born poor, or out of wedlock.

After a year at the University of Santiago, Chile, Roque returned to the University of San Salvador in 1956, where he helped found the University Literary Circle just before the Salvadoran military set fire to the building. The following year, Roque traveled to the Moscow Youth Festival and on his return joined the Communist Party. He was arrested in 1959 and again in October 1960, the charges against him on this latter occasion reading in part: "He has formed red cells among workers, students and peasants, inciting these last particularly to protest and to employ violence against the landowners …."

Once again myth intervenes. Roque was not tried or sentenced in any civil court, but-according to the legend he was sentenced to be executed by firing squad. The day before the sentence was to be carried out on 26 October 1960 the dictatorship of Colonel José María Lemus was overthrown by a coup d'état and Roque's life was saved. He spent the year 1961 in Mexican exile, writing much of his early poetry: The Window in My Face and The Injured Party's Turn. He dedicated the latter book to the Salvadoran police chief who had filed the charges against him: "To General Manuel Alemán Manzanares, who by securing severe punishment for me paid me the greatest compliment of my life, although to tell the truth it was a bit exaggerated."

Roque, reflecting on this phase of his life, later wrote: "My actual works were so insignificant that they weren't even mentioned in the police charges: General Manzanares acted to rectify a real vacuum in my life. I took a solemn oath that, from then on, I myself would undertake to provide the proofs against me to the judge. For this reason I chose my actual profession."

The ambiguity of the last sentence is revealing. Did Roque consider poetry to be a profession? Naturally! It was a consuming passion that he cultivated with professional intensity. But in the previous sentence he speaks about providing "the proofs against me to the judge," and clearly, given the context, he was not referring to the judge of a poetry contest. Obviously, when he wrote that dedication, Roque considered himself a professional revolutionary. And of course a poet.

Roque achieved a seamless union between those two callings. His personal ethics and aesthetics, forged in the incandescent reality of El Salvador, produced a human being whose conduct in his personal life and in his poetry was of a single piece. His gift for self-mockery saved him from ever falling into the sanctimonious pose that frequently accompanies revolutionary fervor. That he was perfectly aware of the gesture he had made of his life is evident in one of his last epigrammatic poems, "Poetic Art" (1974):

forgive me for helping you understand
that you're not made of words alone.

Roque was already a militant revolutionary when the Cuban revolution (January 1959) produced seismic aftershocks in the social conscience of all Latin Americans. It must have been an extraordinary experience for a twenty-four-year-old poet to see his revolutionary convictions vindicated, and even more so for Roque, who, because he not only voiced his convictions but acted in accord with them, had already been sentenced to death for the first time.

After putting an end to his Mexican exile in December 1961, Roque naturally gravitated to Havana, Cuba, where he received a warm welcome from the Cuban and Latin American exiled writers who gathered in the Casa de las Américas. Revolutionary Cuba offered young Latin American poets the unusual opportunity to publish their works, and Roque took full advantage of it. His first book, Mine with the Birds, was published in El Salvador in 1958, and his second, The Window in My Face appeared in Mexico in 1961. From then on, starting with The Injured Party's Turn and The Sea in 1962, almost all of his poetic work as well as much of his prose, was published in Cuba.

But Roque not only wrote poetry and literary essays during that first period in Cuba; he also received military training to prepare for his return to El Salvador. It should be remembered that this was during the tumultuous post-revolutionary period when not only Fidel Castro and Che Guevara but many other Central American and Caribbean revolutionaries were confident that the Cuban revolution was destined to trigger a series of emulative upheavals (with a little help from Fidel) throughout the area. Roque returned clandestinely to El Salvador in the summer of 1965 to continue his bittersweet love affair with his small homeland and to resume the political work that had been interrupted by his imprisonment and exile.

Clandestinity back in those days wasn't taken too seriously and a short two months after his arrival, destiny intervened to keep the Roque legend growing. One day Roque was bored and, with the poet Italo López Vallecillos, he went to Niña Concha's bar where the best conchas negras and the coldest beer in San Salvador was to be had. He was still licking the foam off his upper lip when two plainclothes police walked in and arrested him. He was held incommunicado, tortured, interrogated and threatened by the CIA, and once again sentenced to death.

Roque awaited execution in the prison of Cojutepeque when destiny, this time in the form of the earthquake of 1965, stepped in once more to add to his legendary dossier. The quake shattered the outer wall of his cell and Roque was able to dig his way out through the rubble of stones and mortar and escape with shaky legs and a few scratches. He slipped into the midst of a religious procession that had been passing in front of the prison when the earthquake hit another minor miracle and his fellow conspirators smuggled him out of El Salvador. He returned to Cuba and a few months later the Party sent him to Prague as correspondent for The International Review: Problems of Peace and Socialism.

Roque and I never coincided in time or space; nevertheless, we corresponded frequently over the years, and we had a number of friends in common. It was Roque who initiated the interchange during his epoch in Prague from 1965 to 1967. I was living in Paris at that time, and we both shared the same nostalgia for our distant and in Roque's case, forbidden homeland. The strange thing about his letters was that they only touched peripherally on politics and poetry. Instead, they were filled with comical accounts of daily life in Prague, and above all they dealt with Salvadoran cooking. For months we exchanged recipes for dishes that were almost impossible to prepare in Europe, and especially in Prague, for lack of the right ingredients. How could one duplicate the mysterious alchemy of gallo en chicha, for example, or recreate the subtle aroma of pupusas de loroco?

He passed through Paris once when I wasn't there and asked about me when he went to visit Julio Cortázar. Aurora, Julio's first wife, told me later:

"He has a strange, disquieting expression: I feel he's going to meet a tragic death."

"No way," I told her, "Roque has more lives than a cat."

Some years later we nearly crossed paths in Cuba. It was in 1968 and I had been invited by the Casa de las Américas to serve as a judge in its poetry contest. My plane was delayed for three days for lack of repair parts ("La Cubana llega cuando le da la gana") and mutual friends told me Roque had come to the airport three consecutive days with bunches of flowers to welcome me. When I finally got there he had been sent to a remote part of the island on a mysterious mission. During the next weeks he bombarded me with a series of little folded papers messages he had scribbled in free moments and had sent with friends who were returning to Havana. These were almost always delivered to me at lunch time in the dining room. I remember that one of them said: "We really blew it, Claribel. Here I am, the son of a gringo, and you're married to another."

Years later in Mexico, long after Roque's death, Eraclio Zepeda, one of his great drinking buddies, swore to me that Roque had assured him that I danced the rumba and the samba incomparably well and that I had taught him to dance the samba. This marvelously Daltonian fable inspired me to write a poem.

On the international scene the 1960's were a period of reflux for Latin American revolutionaries. From Prague, Roque contemplated the failure of guerrilla movements in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia and Peru and heard of the death of Che Guevara in Bolivia. The foquista theory that sprang from the success of the Cuban revolution was totally discredited by this chain of disasters, and Latin leftists composed self-criticisms and engaged in bitter, divisive debates about a new point of departure for the revolution in each country. During this period Roque never wavered in his conviction that the revolution in El Salvador could only come about through armed struggle. This view separated him from the Salvadoran Communist Party that maintained an official line of "legalism" and "accumulation of strength." Neither the "objective" nor the "subjective" conditions for a popular uprising existed in El Salvador at that time, and Roque decided to throw in his lot with a small group of Guatemalan revolutionaries that was later to become the nucleus of the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP). His mysterious absence when I visited Cuba in 1968 was due to a second period of military training.

His book, Tavern and Other Places, reflecting his long stay in Prague, won the Casa de las Américas poetry prize in 1969 and established Roque, at age thirty-four, as one of the best young poets in Latin America. The EGP guerrilla project did not mature until 1972, so Roque joined the personnel of Casa de las Américas and spent the next five years working there, at the Prensa Latina news agency and for Radio Habana, while continuing to publish other books of poetry and an occasional monograph.

By the early 1970's the revolutionary spirit started gaining momentum in El Salvador, and Roque sought admission to the clandestine ranks of the Fuerzas Populares de Liberación (FPL). Its leader, Comandante Marcial, turned him down, saying that his place in the revolutionary ranks was as a Marxist poet and writer rather than as a foot soldier.

Anyone familiar with Roque's impassioned militancy and with his long-standing conviction that a revolutionary poet could not remain on the sidelines but had to take an active part in the struggle, could have guessed that he would not follow that advice. And he didn't. Instead, he made contact with another guerrilla organization, the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP) which accepted his offer of enlistment.

Another prerequisite for his transition from intellectual and poet to clandestine warrior was submission to plastic surgery. His aquiline nose, flapping ears and long, thin face were too familiar to Salvadorans for him to pass unrecognized. After all, he had only survived two months of clandestinity in 1965 before being picked up. He emerged from the clinic with his ears tucked back, a thick mustache, spectacles with tortoise shell frames, another hairdo and a higher forehead: the perfect example of a serious young business executive.

Roque entered El Salvador in disguise and with false documentation at the end of 1973. He disappeared into the underworld of airtight clandestinity. During the next eighteen months he wrote Clandestine Poems.

As a person, Roque radiated an exuberant vitality that illuminated each of the manifold aspects of his life: his poetry, his pitiless sense of self-ridicule, his revolutionary will, his inextinguishable curiosity, his need to know and explain the complex, contradictory world in which he moved.

One of the consequences of this vitality was his prolific output: eighteen volumes of poetry and prose before his premature death at age forty. Another was his apparent impatience about revising and reworking his poems. Despite the fact that many of his epigrams are as polished and hard edged as a diamond, one has the impression that they were not mulled over and patiently honed, but that they simply came into his head, and he jotted them down, probably on the back of an envelope or perhaps on a bar napkin and stuffed them in his shirt pocket. Rereading his work, one cannot avoid the sensation (illuminated, no doubt, by ex-post-facto knowledge of what was to come) that he was a writer in a hurry; that he somehow knew his time was measured, his days counted, and that he had to take advantage of each moment, whatever the activity in which he was engaged.

One of the constants in his work is his continual advance in the dominion of form, his progress toward an ever more direct use of language and his tenacious dialogue with the Muse of Poetry, whom he consulted, scolded and flattered until finally, in "Tavern," he exploded:

Ah, poetry of today:
with you it is possible to say everything.

By the time he wrote Clandestine Poems he had gained the self-confidence of a triumphant lover who has wooed and won his twin muses: Poetry and Revolutionary Struggle.

Despite the great confidence with which he managed his poetic instrument and the revolutionary optimism with which he viewed the future, things were not going well within his own organization, the ERP. Roque insisted on the need to forge links with the incipient mass organizations that held promise of becoming a powerful political factor in the country. A military faction, on the other hand, with a short-range coup d'état strategy, accused him of treacherously trying to divide the organization. It was this group that condemned him to death, executing him on 10 May 1975, four days before his fortieth birthday.

Ironically enough, this monstrous act did precipitate the division of the ERP, The Resistencia Nacional (RN) split off to create still another politico-military organization. And not only that, Roque's policy of forging links between the clandestine politico-military organizations and the open mass organizations came to be the accepted line for all the principal revolutionary movements.

Roque's senseless death closed the circle of myth and legend that had surrounded him from the beginning. For Latin American revolutionaries, Roque was converted into a martyr figure, and his literary reputation grew as his posthumous work was published.

It was Roberto Armijo who telephoned me from Paris we were then living in Mallorca to give me the shocking news of Roque's death, stammering out confused versions of how it happened, since at first nobody knew the truth.

That same evening, as I was trying with all my might to comprehend the incomprehensible and to accept this irreparable loss, which in some measure we all felt, I told my husband that I felt like reading to him some of his poems in order to feel a bit closer to Roque. I took down The Injured Party's Turn from the shelf, opened it at random and the first verse my eyes focused on was this:

When you know that I have died, don't say my name …

As the tears sprang to my eyes and stopped my voice, I thought: Yes, Roque, you rascal, of course that's you: the immaterial materialist sending me from beyond the grave another of your little papers.

To read Ernesto Cardenal's "I Remember Roque Dalton"
click here

[Return to Cohen's Profile]