Mario Bencastro

Of Love, War and Language

Tree of Life: Stories of Civil War. Mario Bencastro. Editorial Clásicos Roxsil. First Edition 1993. El Salvador.

Jorge Hernández Martín, Americas, May/June 1994, USA.

Central American writers, as critic and poet Alberto Baeza Flores has noted, have always had to buck the odds. To the adverse social, cultural and economic conditions facing them must be added a political climate marked by long periods of tension, conflict and repression. All the more reason to welcome the publication, in the country that gave rise to them, of these stories about the bloody civil war that devastated El Salvador in the eighties.

During this long decade the world watched in consternation as the social fabric of this land of fourteen volcanoes, which the Pipil Amerindians called Cuzcatlán, unraveled into strands of the color of blood, lava and smoke. Bencastro does not, however, stress the pain of the nationwide ordeal, although it provides the narratives’ somber background. The author chooses to emphasize the tenacity and spirit of the people, while highlighting the myths unique of the region.

Bencastro regards literature as the repository of human values and harbors the hope that in the end literature will be what saves the species from total chaos.

The ten stories of the collection reflect the country’s social problems. The manner in which social issues are handled is what distinguishes the narratives, which range from the sober realism of The Photographer of Death to the surrealistic and intensely lyrical The Garden of Gucumatz. The latter piece, together with The Insatiable Ones and The River Goddess, make use of Mayan mythology to lend magical and indigenous effect to a social reality. The Spirit of Things affirms the strange and marvelous presence of Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero in the streets and minds of the Salvadoran people since his death, while The Tree of Life succeeds by fantastic means in depicting a people rooted in tradition and happy beyond life’s harsh reality.

The more realistic among the stories afford remarkable insights into the effects of the violence on the life of people who, as shown in the pathetic and moving Clown’s Story, find no use for laughter. But it is the stories that invoke indigenous beliefs that reveal to us the world view governing the author’s inventions. The Quiche Maya’s profound belief in the life-creating oppositions, expressed in the Popol Vuh, lives on in these tales. The sustained allusion to Gucumatz, who appears in one of his incarnations as the serpent Kukulkán in The Insatiable Ones is a key to an understanding of the narratives. This god, creator and chief of the Quiché people, exemplified for earlier generations of Central Americans the model of human behavior in matters political, religious, cultural, and judicial based on the concept of community action. Reflection, discussion of ideas in order to determine what step to take, and agreement with others are actions associated with human beings as well as the gods in the Popol Vuh. Respect for the power of Gucumatz would cause the united community to adhere to his moral precepts, and consequently social harmony would prevail in the pre-Columbian world.

The great book of the Quiché Maya records that another of Gucumatz incarnations is a pool of blood, whose loss represents death and sacrifice. This charged image carries the play of opposites found at the core of these Salvadoran stories: Death leads to the creation of a new life on the land made secret. By means of this mythical component, Bencastro succeeds in conjuring the growth of a better future out of devastating national history, and in envisioning the transformation of an embattled people into a strong nation respected for its courage and endurance in the face of adversity.

* Jorge Hernández Martín teaches Literature at Darmouth College, New Hampshire, EE.UU.