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A literary light shines anew in El Salvador

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Times Staff Writer

His name was Salvador Salazar Arrue, or Salarrue for short, and he’s the greatest Central American writer you’ve probably never heard of. Even here in his homeland, just a few years ago, nobody much was talking about Salarrue. Nobody, that is, except people like Ricardo Aguilar.

“My relation to Salarrue and his family didn’t stop, it doesn’t stop, but I don’t mind because he was a great man,” says Aguilar, speaking of his late friend, artistic mentor and lifelong obsession.

It’s a seasonably balmy December morning, and Aguilar, a painter and writer, is leading a group of visitors on a tour of Salarrue’s former home, now a state-run museum in this far-flung capital’s leafy Los Planes de Rendero neighborhood.

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As Aguilar wends his way past display cases crammed with brittle letters and faded photographs, every musty artifact seems to tell a story, every shadowy room and earthquake-sculpted fissure in the old house prompts an anecdote -- about Salarrue’s lifelong spiritual connection to El Salvador’s indigenous people, or the groovy “psychedelic” paintings he made in the 1950s and ‘60s, or his claim of being the last man from Atlantis, or his emphatically nonideological brand of politics, which always made the country’s Marxist intellectuals suspect he was up to something.

Pausing beside the author’s old Remington manual typewriter, Aguilar dishes up some juicy reminiscences about one of Salarrue’s “hundreds” of lovers. “Not that he was selling himself,” Aguilar adds in his slightly idiosyncratic English, “but he was so handsome.” And detail by detail, story by story, a mental portrait of Salarrue begins to form, like a Polaroid shaken in the light.

Salvadoran sphinx

When he passed away in 1975 at age 76, as secluded and penniless as a Trappist monk, Salarrue (pronounced SAL-rew-ay) was not just the most celebrated creative mind in Salvadoran history. Despite his fame he was still, somehow, an enigma, a sphinx without a riddle, an unclassifiable artist and a modest, gentle man who never tried to be anyone’s guru but who nonetheless attracted a loyal coterie of acolytes convinced of his enduring greatness.

Salarrue’s love of philosophical conundrums and invented worlds links him to the Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges. His mystical bent, and the hallucinatory quality of some of his prose and paintings, suggests a spiritual camaraderie with Aldous Huxley and establishes Salarrue as a forerunner of the Latin American magic realism school of writing.

But it was his immersion in the lives of campesinos and long-suffering indigenous people, his noncondescending affection for the gente humilde, that has made Salarrue the writer most beloved among ordinary Salvadorans and a source of national pride. “To speak of Salarrue is to speak of the story of El Salvador,” says Edgardo Quijano, a private researcher and writer. “Salarrue is the key to the identity of our culture.”

For the last two decades, much of Salarrue’s legacy has been buried under the shifting sediments of time, literary tastes and the collective amnesia induced by El Salvador’s brutal and disastrous civil war of the 1980s. But today, nearly 30 years after his death, this Central American renaissance man is slowly reclaiming his place in the Latin world’s cultural consciousness.

On the centenary of his birth in 1999, the Salvadoran cultural ministry published a three-volume “Narrativa Completa” containing most of Salarrue’s collected prose and some of his poetry. Last year, El Salvador’s small but ambitious Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen (Museum of the Word and Image) opened “Salarrue: Vida y Obra,” the most extensive exhibition of the artist’s life and work ever mounted in his homeland. The show has been drawing enthusiastic crowds, and the museum has been designated the permanent home for the bulk of Salarrue’s copious personal papers and manuscripts, including philosophical essays, plays, 250 drawings and some 1,500 letters.

Halfway across the hemisphere, Janet Gold, an associate professor of Latin American literature at the University of New Hampshire, is about to publish the first of two books touching on the decade that Salarrue spent living in New York City as a cultural attache from 1946 to 1957. The first will be a kind of lyrical biographical meditation on Salarrue’s previously little-known love affair with Leonora Nichols, an artsy, statuesque New York socialite.

The book will include 16 previously unpublished love poems and several lyrical prose pieces that Salarrue wrote to Nichols, whom he nicknamed Blwny (“blue-ny”), because she always wore blue and, he said, her charms intoxicated him like wine. The second book will be a more traditional scholarly work about Salarrue’s New York sojourn.

“There’s been kind of a renaissance, a resurgence of interest in Salarrue,” says Gold, speaking by phone from her home in southern Maine. “I expect there’s a coterie of people who see him as some sort of spiritual guide that somehow is looking out for them from the grave, or that feel a connection with him even though he’s not here anymore.”

Even so, the Salarrue faithful have got their work cut out for them. During El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, Salarrue’s stock declined. Once considered required reading for students, his works are now viewed by some in the nation’s cultural establishment as quaint, effete relics from a bygone age.

In a country still racked by poverty and social inequality, resurrecting a dead writer’s reputation isn’t exactly pressing business. Even if that writer has been lauded by the likes of Mexican novelist Juan Rulfo, and that writer’s most famous work, “Cuentos de Barro” (Tales of Mud), published in 1933, is considered the template of the modern Central American short-story genre. (It’s also one of the first Latin American books to depict the lives and speech of rural peasants. “He converted the image of the indigenous from violent and rough to humble and peaceful,” says Georgina Hernandez Rivas, a curator at the Museo de la Imagen y la Palabra.)

If Salarrue’s writings have been neglected, his artworks perhaps have been even more so. Several of his distinctive portraits and large-scale Abstract Expressionist paintings, reminiscent of Robert Motherwell, hang in the capital’s modern art museum, including the sublimely weird masterpiece “La Monja Blanca” (The White Nun). But the majority are stashed away in private collections, out of public sight and mind. Even Salarrue’s modest grave in San Salvador’s national cemetery, dwarfed by the surrounding mausoleums of generals and presidents, is covered with weeds.

Enduring inspiration

Yet many here have never stopped tending his flame or drawing inspiration from his example. The story behind the recent Salarrue revival is as knotty and strange as Salarrue the man and the artist. Its origins stretch back to the mid-1960s, when Salarrue, already a legendary figure, met a group of young artists, including Aguilar, and offered to let them store their works in his garage. “We had the idea of a serious man who wouldn’t mix with these crazy people,” says Aguilar. “But he did.”

For Aguilar, the mid-1960s marked the start of a long friendship not only with Salarrue but also with his wife, Zelie, a painter in her own right, and the couple’s three daughters, Olga, Maria (“Maya”) and Aida, who shared some of their father’s artistic and mystical talents. “The Salarrues were very interesting people, very full of intuitions,” Aguilar says.

As a writer, Salarrue’s most important work was behind him, but it was enough to sustain his reputation. Besides “Cuentos de Barro,” his best-known works include two 1920s novels, “El Cristo Negro” (The Black Christ), about a monk who thinks that by becoming a sinner himself he will wipe away the sins of others, and “El Senor de la Burbuja” (The Man of the Bubble).

Blond and blue-eyed, the grandchild of Basque immigrants on his mother’s side, Salarrue was a striking, complex, contradictory figure. His sensibility had been steeped in the pastoral lifestyle and ancient folkways of the Indians who surrounded him while growing up in Sonsonate in western El Salvador. But he also was a true cosmopolitan, a theosophist and follower of esoteric eastern philosophies.

His literary output encompassed short stories, science fiction and children’s literature. His paintings, more than 3,000 of them altogether, blend pre-Columbian mysticism and motifs with the sensuality and surreal psychology of early European modernists like Henri Rousseau, Edvard Munch and Gustav Klimt, producing a colorful, vibrant style that might be called Mesoamerican Art Nouveau.

The fantastical landscapes that Salarrue conjured, both in paintings and in books like “O-Yarkandal” (1929), a collection of exotic tales, fostered a mythical alternative reality to his backward and conflicted homeland. “He had an attitude against the Salvadoran reality and against reality in general,” says David Escobar Galindo, a poet and friend of Salarrue and rector of the Universidad Dr. Jose Matias Delgado here.

Politically, Salarrue was hard to pin down to any specific doctrine, though his sympathies were clearly with the peasants and the indigenous. His novel “Catleya Luna” deals with events surrounding the government’s “anti-communist” purge of 1932, which resulted in the massacre of about 40,000 Indians and drove much of the country’s indigenous culture and the ancient Nahau language underground. Though for a while he was in the good graces of the dictatorial President Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, Salarrue didn’t hesitate to criticize his policies in newspaper essays.

Salarrue was much admired by his contemporaries. Claudia Lars, the celebrated Salvadoran poet, was among his closest lifelong friends. Alberto Masferrer, the other pillar of 20th century Salvadoran literature, praised “O-Yarkandal” as a Salvadoran version of the “1,001 Arabian Nights.”

Gold says there were two basic tracks to Salarrue as an artist. One side of him was the down-to-earth regionalist who wrote about and painted the people and the land he’d known since childhood. The other side was the “proto-psychedelic” Salarrue, who spoke seriously about “astro-traveling” and believed in the occult.

Aguilar maintained his friendship with Salarrue up until the writer’s death. Soon after, he says, he was forced by the growing civil war to flee El Salvador and spent the next dozen years living in exile. When he returned in 1992, he stopped by Salarrue’s old house.

What Aguilar found there would redirect his life. Sitting on the front porch was Salarrue’s daughter Maya, who had returned to El Salvador after spending many years as a nun in Panama. She was living in a small, separate dwelling next to her parents’ old house, which had been partially destroyed by a devastating 1986 earthquake.

After a couple of hours of conversation, Maya offered Aguilar the key to her father’s upstairs living quarters, which she hadn’t entered since the earthquake. He unlocked the door and began to climb the staircase to his old mentor’s lair. “There was a strong smell of humidity and [rotting] paper,” he recalls. “The roof was cracked this big, and water coming in. It was a crying situation, it was dramatic.” Poking through the mud and rubble, Aguilar uncovered a treasure trove of letters, unpublished manuscripts and poems, a mud-covered roll-top desk and many other artifacts.

An archive is born

After convincing Maya that the papers had to be removed and protected immediately, Aguilar began the slow, painstaking job of sorting and storing them in protective boxes in his own house. He also began helping Maya financially while he searched for an institution that could take proper care of the huge archive. Initially, the only offers came from U.S. universities, but Aguilar and Salarrue’s surviving family felt it was important for the papers to stay in El Salvador.

“I asked the government 100 times, ‘Give me a room to keep them in,’ ” Aguilar says. “I was very naive and I thought [someone] would come from the National Library or from the National Gallery and say, ‘Oh, you have Salarrue’s papers. We will help.’ Nobody came.”

At length, after Salarrue’s family had made him the archive’s official caretaker, Aguilar decided the best home would be the Museo de la Imagen y la Palabra, whose current Salarrue exhibition is made up entirely of papers and artworks salvaged from the old home. Five years ago, the Salvadoran government finally stepped in to purchase and restore Salarrue’s house and convert it into a museum. Meanwhile, Aguilar and Gold are trying to track down artworks that are in the hands of private collectors.

There remains much work to be done and not much money to do it. Quijano, the private researcher, complains that in contemporary El Salvador nearly all the emphasis in education is on science and technology. The public, he says, cares more about Michael Jackson’s plastic surgeries than rediscovering its own cultural history.

“We don’t need knowledge of petrol, we don’t need knowledge of politics,” Quijano says. “We need knowledge of art.”

Aguilar is more optimistic that his friend will get his due, maybe “not now, but someday,” he says. “We have such a debt to Salarrue. We owe him so much.”


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