Mario Bencastro

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The Tree of Life: Stories of Civil War

Maria Rosa Campeny Q., Horizontes, September 1993, San Francisco, California, USA.

Salvadoran writer Mario Bencastro has gathered in the volume entitled The Tree of Life 10 short stories which he has subtitled Stories of Civil War.

To those of us who, from the United States, feel a true interest in the countries south of the Rio Grande and an intimate brotherhood toward those who live and die there, and who often have to be content with fragments of information full of deficiencies, partialisms and half-truths, the fact that a Salvadoran writer speaks to us plainly of "civil war," where there are no longer good guys or bad guys, communicates to us a message of equanimity, reconciliation, and hope.

Hope is perhaps the central theme of the beautiful stories contained in this book which has just been published in El Salvador. In the tale Clown's Story, which begins the volume, the narrator (the clown) sadly says goodbye to his circus, which in reality no longer exists, since neither the children nor anyone else now attends the shows to have fun and laugh with the clowns. The clown sings a well-known verse which in another time would have made the spectators laugh, but "people have forgotten how to laugh." The circus personnel are gone: "an acrobat joined the guerrillas....," "...a clown became a National Guardsman..." The circus, already non-existent, unfolds in the scene which takes place in the public plaza where an angry crowd is shouting revolutionary slogans. At the end of the story the clown walks away through the streets "stained with blood," with his talking parrot (the only thing he has left), in search of a child who may be able to laugh when he sees the clown's painted face and colorful costume. The dismantled circus is perhaps a metaphor for the suffering country, and the clown and his colorful parrot are actually the spirit of the people who, in spite of everything, will be reborn in the laughter of the children.

The civil war, the bloody fight between brothers, is not really the subject of any of the stories. We do not encounter either war scenes or revolutionary images. The violence of the conflict is seen through the individual visions of daily life which the author presents. Death roams among the souls of the characters who attempt to exist in an environment of irrational normality, such as occurs with those who comment about the case of The Deaths of Fortin Coronado, in the story which bears this title.

In The Photographer of Death, the author presents that macabre everyday life feeling in the activities of the Human Rights Commission, whose mission is to search in the cemeteries, among freshly-dug graves and crass gravediggers, for the remains of disappeared persons, to then show the photographs to their relatives. The photographer himself ends up disappearing also, but the Commission immediately sends another photographer who turns out to be an exact copy of the one who disappeared.

That rebirth, the refusal to capitulate in the face of implacable forces, the yearning to live, and hope, are all themes of this collection of stories, and it all takes shape in the somewhat sketchy figures of the children who appear in almost all of the narrations. In the story The Report, this is symbolized in the unborn being whose father does not recognize the girl he raped only a few weeks before. In The Spirit of Things, it is the blind boy who refuses to believe that Monsignor Romero has died, since he continues to see him walking down the street, surrounded by people, like when the prelate was alive.

In The River Goddess, the alligators who devour assassins and victims alike, turn into playful companions of both in the peace of the great beyond. The Tree of Life, leafy and luxuriant, grows and nourishes itself from the ground sowed with the dead.

In The Insatiable Ones, three levels of reality coexist: that of the man and his past, that of the woman and her lover, and that of the soap opera on television. The peddler who ties together all three actions appears to be the conscience of all of them. Magician and fortune-teller, he symbolizes the unbreakable spirit which never perishes.

In a few words, by way of epilogue, the author tells us that the writer's challenge "consists of finding a way to reflect reality, however crude it may be and, at the same time, to captivate the reader." Without a doubt, Mario Bencastro has accomplished his objective and has done it with a simple, precise, and elegant style. There is no doubt that this writer belongs to the illustrious line of Central American authors, masters of the short story. He reminds me of Jorge Kattan Zablah, also Salvadoran, creator of a microcosm which, though rural, is nonetheless universal. Both are creators of a new language, as Rubén Darío was. In Mario Bencastro we encounter a living world within an apocalyptic vision, in this case more rooted in the very indigenous nature of the Americas than in Judeo-Christian tradition.

The Spanish version of the above review also appeared in the following publications:

Diario Latino, San Salvador, El Salvador, August 1993.
Gaceta Iberoamericana, Washington, D.C., May 1994.
Alba de América, Westminster, California, November 1994.