Mario Bencastro

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Odyssey to the North

Edward Waters Hood (*). World Literature Today, Autumn 2000, USA.

Odisea del Norte (Odyssey to the North) Mario Bencastro (Houston. Arte Público Press, 1999)

The Salvadoran author Mario Bencastro (b. 1949 in Ahuachapán, El Salvador) has said that he became a writer as a result of the civil strife that has devastated his country in recent decades. Civil war in El Salvador in the eighties resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and the displacement of one million Salvadoran —a fifth of the countries population. Bencastro’s first novel, Disparo en la catedral (1990), and his collection of short stories Árbol de la vida: Historias de la guerra civil (1997) chronicle the impact of this violence upon the Salvadoran people. He has chosen the Salvadoran Diaspora, in particular the recent massive immigration of his compatriots to the United States, as the theme of his latest novel, Odisea del norte. (Odyssey to the North, Susan Rascón’s [née Giersbach] fine English translation was issued by Arte Público Press in 1998, a year before publication of the original Spanish text.)

Odisea del norte is a complex novel which captures many dimensions of the political and social disasters that have motivated massive emigration from El Salvador to the United States. Its fragmented structure reflects the chaos face by Salvadorans caught between the Salvadoran army, right-wing death squads, and the left-wing guerrilla movement. The novel develops around events in the life of Calixto, an undocumented Salvadoran immigrant living in Washington, D.C. The ordeals of his odyssey through Guatemala, México, and the United States are presented in flashbacks that maintain suspense throughout the text. Other fragments include newspaper articles on Salvadoran immigration to the U.S. and the difficulties and dangers faced by Salvadorans and other Latin Americans in their journey north, the asylum hearings of a Salvadoran woman who is murdered after she is forced to return to her country, and events surrounding a 1992 riot in Washington after an incident involving the use of force by police against immigrants.

Bencastro is more interested in presenting the impact of the conflict upon ordinary people and their families than in expounding upon the ideological or political causes that motivated it. His characters express diverse perspectives on their experiences as political and economical refugees living in the United States. They represent a great many whose lives were destroyed or drastically altered for ever by forces completely beyond their control.

Odisea del norte is also concerned with issues of cross-cultural communication, cultural differences, and identity. Bencastro’s characters face numerous situations that appear to be anecdotal or comical, but which are the result of cultural differences that can and have been bridged through communication, tolerance, and goodwill. Having immigrated to the United States himself, the author has experienced and understands firsthand the importance of these issues for new immigrants. His novel succeeds in presenting the tragedy of El Salvador’s recent history through the aspirations and struggles of those who were forced to abandon their homeland and seek a new life in the United States. Sadly, as Bencastro’s compatriot Manlio Argueta has stated, the end of the civil war in El Salvador has not meant and end to the violence there.

(*) Edward Waters Hood teaches Latin American Literature at Northern Arizona University.