Love in a Time of Revolution

The Country Under My Skin: A Memory of Love and War

by Gioconda Belli, translated from the Spanish by Kristina Cordero with the author
Knopf, 380 pp., $25.00

Giaconda Belli
Giaconda Belli; drawing by David Levine

In the days after Sandinista revolutionaries seized power in Nicaragua in July 1979, jubilant guerrillas flooded into the capital to embrace long-lost friends. On a plane from Costa Rica, where she had been working as a Sandinista propagandist and arms smuggler, the poet Gioconda Belli landed with copies of the country’s first revolutionary newspaper. While she was arriving in Managua, so was her lover, the legendary guerrilla commander known as Modesto, who had been fighting in the northern mountains. They met at a place neither had ever imagined seeing: the fortified bunker from which Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the dictator they and their comrades had just overthrown, had tyrannized the country for years.

Sandinista leaders converged on that bunker to prove to themselves that they had really won, and in some cases to rip from the walls whatever relics they could find of the hated dictatorship. Gioconda Belli and Modesto, however, had another way to release their passion. They made love under a table in Somoza’s conference room. This episode, a symbol of the delirious joy of those days, quickly passed into Nicaraguan legend.

Now, however, Belli tells us that not all was well between her and Modesto on that day. Her love for him was “raw, electrifying passion, blind madness.” But he had suddenly become one of the country’s supreme leaders, and was strangely distant. He told her he was a loner at heart, and that although they could remain a couple, they must live apart. She was furious, but soon forgave him and in a few minutes they were rolling among the chair legs.

Gioconda Belli has had a unique place in modern Nicaraguan history. She was the first woman in that country to write openly about the physical pleasures of sex and womanhood, scandalizing many Nicaraguans and delighting many others. She went on to rebel against other conventions, divorcing her melancholic husband, joining the Sandinista Front, becoming a highly visible official in the revolutionary government and finally quitting in frustration. At each phase of her life she took a new lover. For a time she epitomized the Sandinista Front in which the world wanted to believe: fresh, intelligent, decidedly anti-imperialist but still democratic in spirit. She now writes that during those days she was also tormented by guilt because late each night she came home to two young daughters who complained, “Mommy, you said that when we won the Revolution we would have more time to be together.”

Belli has written the first literary memoir by a Sandinista woman. It tells two stories. One is about a rich girl in a poor country who was carried away by political and physical passion. The other is an account of what went on behind the public façade of the Sandinista regime. They merge easily. Belli’s progress through her various love affairs mirrors Nicaragua’s history during the same period.

Last year, not…

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