Mario Bencastro

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A Shot in the Cathedral

Barbara Mujica (*). Americas Magazine, July 1990. Washington, D.C. USA.

Disparo en la cathedral (A Shot in the Cathedral) Mario Bencastro (México DF: Diana, 1990)

The events surrounding the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in San Salvador on March 21, 1980 have been so well depicted in the media and on the screen that a reader might wonder what insight into the tragedy a new novel could provide. Disparo en la catedral (A Shot in the Cathedral) meets the challenge by recreating the months preceding the murder of Monsignor Romero not as seen from the top, as in the movie Romero, but as seen from the bottom. While Romero focuses on the Archbishop himself —his personality, his evolution from aloof intellectual to human rights activist— Disparo en la catedral portrays everyday life in San Salvador during a period beset by unemployment, hunger and violence. A finalist in the 1989 Novedades y Diana Fiction Competition, Disparo describes with chilling meticulousness the horror of arriving home to find your room ransacked and your loved-ones gone, or of coming across the pieces of the cadaver of a friend strewn across the road.

More than a political novel, Disparo en la catedral is a hymn to the human spirit. Bencastro’s characters get up in the morning, go to work, eat dinner, fall in love, raise children, chat and dance despite the constant peril. They go on living in spite of the terror that permeates the atmosphere and affects every aspect of their existence.

Throughout the novel rings the voice of Oscar Romero, whose radio homilies challenge the government’s murderous policies and give the people the strength to go on. Romero never appears as a character, but many of his speeches are reproduced in full. His enumerations of victims, his calls fro human rights, and his pleas for justice, peace, and freedom become a unifying force. Romero is a symbol of the people’s hopes. Instead of shattering his followers’ cohesiveness, his assassination helps to consolidate their forces and strengthen their commitment.

The novel revolves around Rogelio Villaverde, who, finding himself down-and-out and unemployed, takes a job at the Tribuna, a small newspaper in San Salvador. In the first few pages Bencastro depicts with painful realism Rogelio’s frustration as he begs for credit at a local grocery store, staves off his landlord’s threats of eviction, and desperately answers want ads. The tone switches to hopeful when the radio announces that there has been a coup d’état by progressive military elements, although some of the inhabitants of the boarding house where Rogelio lives remain cynical with regards to the new government promises to establish democracy. However, from Rogelio’s point of view, things are looking up. The new job will enable him not only to pay his bills, but to buy materials for painting, his favorite pastime. Furthermore, Rogelio has met a vibrant young woman, Lourdes, and the relationship is beginning to flourish.

Although Rogelio goes to work for the Tribuna solely for economic reasons, his association with the newspaper sucks him into the political maelstrom and forces him to take a stand. At first a man without clear convictions, Rogelio gradually finds that he cannot remain indifferent in the face of the murders of colleagues, threats to his own life, the disappearance of Lourdes, the bombing of the Tribuna’s office, and the psychological collapse of his friend and boss, Domínguez.

His anti-government sentiment comes to a head at the funeral of Monsignor Romero, when troops fire on the crowd gathered by the Cathedral. His initial solution is to try to flee El Salvador with Domínguez. However, at the bus terminal soldiers once again attack innocent bystanders. Rogelio becomes involved in the rescue efforts and, finally, makes a commitment to stay and fight for justice in his homeland.

Rogelio’s painting reflects his psychological and political maturation. It evolved from escapist fantasies to horrific depictions of the poverty, decay and destruction that surround him. Although Rogelio tries to cling to the notion that the artist is free to remain detached from politics, Lourdes makes him understand that more than anyone else, the artists has a responsibility to use his talent to implement social change.

Disparo en la catedral incorporates diverse styles and structures in order to create a sense of disjointedness and fragmentation, a reflection of the confused times the novel depicts. Bencastro changes voices throughout the book. He jumps from monologues by Rogelio or Lourdes to dramatic scenes in dialogue, interspersing newspaper headlines, radio announcements, and of course, Romero’s homilies. His dialogue captures beautifully the flavor and dynamism of the language of the common people. Although Disparo en la catedral incorporates many of the techniques implemented by the writers of the “boom,” Bencastro’s main objective is clearly not to experiment for the sake of art alone. He has a story to tell, and the reader feels the urgency of his message in every line.

With a few notable exceptions, Central America has produced little fiction of international acclaim. Perhaps now, more than ever, the peoples of Central America must rely on literary voices to communicate the harsh realities of that troubled region. In this sense, Disparo en la catedral fulfills a need.

(*) Barbara Mujica teaches Spanish Literature at Georgetown University. She has published short stories and novels, and directed the theater group El Retablo.