A People in Arms
Kathleen E. Richards is a Toronto-based free-lance editor.
A People in Arms is a contemporary novel about the ongoing civil war in Nicaragua and a sequel to the author’s 1985 novel, Sandinista. The first novel, which won the Writers Guild of Alberta Novel Award, told the story of the October, 1977 Sandinista offensive. A People in Arms continues the story of the revolution as it is seen through the eyes of nearly two dozen characters living through the events immediately preceding July, 1979.
Author Marie Jakober places her characters in the midst of military coups, the marches of small guerilla groups in the Nicaraguan countryside, the strained family life of the wealthy. The novel is a fictional re-enactment of the ongoing revolution, and specifically of the last months of Anastasio Somoza’s rule before he fled the country for the United States, aided by that government.
The novel successfully conveys something of the chaotic conditions of life in a country disrupted by decades of civil strife. As a polished piece of fiction, however, it is more disjointed in its plotting than even the uncertain conditions of civil war can justify.
The many and varied characters include guerilla fighters of both sexes, various street people in Managua, compesinos (rural peasants), well-to-do government supporters, foreign journalists.
There are also two non-Nicaraguan female characters, Jadine Hall and Cynthia Avery. The former is a young American woman who has been living with her wealthy cousins in the exclusive Las Colinas district of the capital city. Apparently she is in the country to avoid her parents in New Jersey; she seems to hold them somehow responsible for her only brother’s suicide more than eighteen months earlier. The other character is an established American novelist and journalist who appears only briefly. She is spending a few weeks interviewing a select handful of people, mainly those in government circles, as research for her next novel, A Nicaraguan Nightmare. Avery’s gross ignorance may be intended to be a reflection on general North American knowledge and attitudes towards Nicaragua; if there is a particular message meant to be communicated through the odd character of Jadine, a curiously bland creation, that message is never made clear.
The book’s organization is also confusing. The first half concentrates on the subversive activities of Sandinsta fighter Pilar Zelaya, Jadine’s 20-year-old cousin who has given up her sheltered life to support the liberation movement. The love story of Pilar and fellow Sandinista Daniel Chillan, separated by the revolution, seems to be the main plot until the focus suddenly shifts to Jadine and her life within the Zelaya mission. Pilar’s eventual reunion with Daniel becomes only a minor event when the focus swings away so abruptly. It is difficult to say whether the author consciously wished to somehow maximize Jadine’s importance at the expense of Pilar’s own.
In a journalistic and documentary-like style, the novel paints a grim picture and does not attempt to analyze the events it describes any more than television images do. On the few occasions when the characters consider their own choices and motivations, the author seems unable to avoid cliches. Even allowing for the shared attitude of defensiveness in individuals living for so long under siege, the characters seem to exhibit a curious flatness and uniformity of personality.
The author’s visits to Nicaragua in 1982 and 1984 have resulted in an interesting attempt to create a convincing fictional portrait of a country in turmoil; however, A People in Arms does not offer the reader much beyond the news headlines.