When Nelson Lopéz was preparing the first bilingual translation of “Tales of Clay,” a landmark short-story collection by the legendary Salvadoran writer known as Salarrué, he turned for inspiration to some unlikely sources: Mark Twain and the Coen brothers.
First published in 1933, the three dozen stories in “Tales of Clay” evoke the harsh lives and slangy rural idiom of El Salvador’s indigenous peasants. Their author, Salvador Efraín Salazar Arrué, a.k.a. Salarrué (pronounced sal-ru-ay), was a cosmopolitan sophisticate, a painter and writer regarded as the founder of the Central American modern short story and still an enigmatic figure nearly 40 years after his death in 1975.
“To talk about Salarrué is to open a can of worms, because many people idealize him, like the god of Salvadoran literature,” Lopéz, 36, a visiting professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee, said during a recent visit to Cal State Northridge.
Salarrué's best-known work, “Tales of Clay” (“Cuentos de Barro” in Spanish) displays his empathy and affection for the daily lives, ancient myths and colorful speech of Salvador’s poor Indian farmers, who suffered greatly under the dictatorship of Maximiliano Hernández Martínez. As many as 40,000 of them may have been massacred during a 1932 uprising that is referenced, mostly obliquely, throughout “Tales of Clay.”
To capture Salarrué's magnum opus in contemporary Spanish, let alone English, was a formidable task. Few Salvadorans today can fathom indigenous peasant speech, which is peppered with archaic Spanish phrases, words from the native Nahua-Pipil language and obscure terms for birds, animals and plants.
Growing up in the country’s capital, San Salvador, Lopéz said, “We all made fun, all of my friends, of the way these people talked. People from the countryside, they are ashamed sometimes because the people from the cities speak a different kind of Spanish.”
To limber up for the job, Lopéz drew on Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Those masterworks of archaic American regional dialect helped Lopéz attune himself to Salarrué's vernacular peasant-speak, circa 1930. He also was inspired by the Coen brothers’ 2000 comedy “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” a mock Homeric epic set in the Depression-era South that utilizes a semi-invented Dixie patois.
Last month, Lopéz discussed the ups and downs of his project with a packed classroom at Cal State Northridge, the only U.S. college that offers a bachelor’s degree program in Central American studies.
Several of those at his lecture were U.S.-born children of Central American immigrants hungry to learn more about a region they know mainly from older kinfolks’ fractured memories.
Karina Zelaya, a Salvador native and CSUN professor who teaches an introductory class on Central American literature, said the work of writers like Salarrué, Arturo Ambrogi and Francisco Gavidia gives her students “a way to connect with their homeland.” Often, the students’ parents are reluctant to talk about a country many fled during El Salvador’s brutal civil war of 1980 to ’92.
“It’s not just the politics or understanding the historical context,” she said. “It’s also, at a cultural level, establishing that link between themselves and their parents’ generations.”
The frequent blending of naturalistic detail and surrealistic phenomena in “Tales of Clay” has been cited as a forerunner of such canonical Latin American literature as “Pedro Páramo,” the 1955 magic-realist short novel by the Mexican Juan Rulfo, as well as Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
The 2010 publication of Lopéz’s copiously annotated translation marked the first attempt to apply 21st century scholarly standards to a beloved piece of fiction that’s still taught in Salvadoran schools but is typically treated as a group of folkloric tales more suitable for elementary schoolchildren than literary scholars. Yet Salarrué's readers were able to discern sharp social commentary between the lines of stories like “The Honor,” in which a young girl is punished by her father after being raped, and “We’re Evil,” about desperate father-and-son migrants fleeing El Salvador for Honduras.
That duality also is present in some of Salarrué's artworks, which hide meaning in plain sight. One of his paintings appears to be a fanciful rendering of puffy clouds but also could be interpreted as a stack of white-clad peasants’ corpses.
Printed by Editorial Universidad Don Bosco in El Salvador, the book is becoming the standard version of “Tales of Clay” used at U.S. universities, said CSUN’s Zelaya. It also has helped U.S. college instructors address a long-standing problem. Because many second- and third-generation U.S. Latino students aren’t fluent in Spanish, Zelaya said, she and her colleagues often must teach from English-language versions of Central American texts. “I always feel like something in a way is missing.”
Lopéz’s work, however, allows students to read and compare the English- and Spanish-language versions side by side. “They get to think for themselves,” Zelaya said, “rather than me telling them, ‘There’s this work, and this writer is important because X, Y and Z.’”
But the bigger problem with Central American literature in the United States is simply finding it anywhere, in any language at all. “It’s sad, it’s a little embarrassing, that in a cosmopolitan area like Los Angeles, that has one of the biggest Central American communities, that we can’t really find those texts,” Zelaya said.