Self-Portrait of a Revolutionary

The Patient Impatience: from boyhood to guerrilla: a personal narrative of Nicaragua's struggle for liberation

by Tomás Borge
Curbstone Press, 452 pp., $24.95

Thomas Borge
Thomas Borge; drawing by David Levine

When the Sandinista leader Tomás Borge was a boy in provincial Nicaragua, he formed, he tells us, an intimate bond with a brave and saintly Apache Indian named Winnetou. The Winnetou books, written by the German novelist Karl May, had millions of young readers around the world during the first half of this century. They are tales of an impossibly pure hero, an invincible fighter who is also gentle and kind and who, for his courage, honor, and chivalry, is beloved by all good folk and hated by villains. There is no moral ambiguity in the Winnetou novels; their characters have no complexity or mature emotion. All are either admiring friends of Winnetou’s or evil agents of darkness. They live in a simple, clearly defined world that appeals to children.

On the first page of his memoir, Borge acknowledges how deeply Winnetou influenced him. This noble savage, he writes, embodied loyalty, rectitude, and defense of the humble. “No one should attempt the impossible task of writing better western novels than Karl May,” he says. “His characters seem to be within arm’s reach in the next room. They reproduce the virtues we ourselves would like to possess, imitate what we are in our dreams; they shake our hands and depart with the implicit promise of returning.”

It was while reading the Winnetou novels that Borge became what he calls “a subversive, an enemy of the established order.” He perceived his rebellion against the ruling Somoza dynasty as comparable to Winnetou’s lifelong struggle for justice and decency. The dictator was “chief of the assassins, torturers and smugglers, intimate friend of the Yankees.” Borge and the other Sandinista rebels were “youthful students of revolutionary theory, mystics, radicals, cheerful and pure; dreamers who had renounced comforts, studies, university professions, family, everything for a higher form of fulfillment.”

Belief in the purity and nobility of the Sandinista cause kept the revolutionary fires burning in Nicaragua during the long years when the small band of guerrillas suffered defeat after defeat in their seemingly hopeless war against the Somoza family’s National Guard. They endured extreme privation and suffered the loss of all their original leaders except Borge. Their victory in July 1979 was so surprising that even many guerrilla commanders themselves could not believe, as they arrived in Managua following the dictator’s flight to exile, that they had taken power.

Tomás Borge has led a dramatic life at the center of an audacious revolutionary movement. He was born in Matagalpa in 1930, the only child of a pharmaceutical salesman and a woman who owned a small general store. She wanted her son to become a priest. But when he was still a young boy, the founder of the bloody ruling dynasty, Anastasio Somoza García, paid a visit to his school. Borge was one of several pupils who refused to shake Somoza’s hand, causing a local scandal. Later he…

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