A pitcher tells a thousand words

Posted on February 26, 2014

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Dip the pitcher into the water enough and it finally breaks – Salvadorian proverb

Un Dia en la VidaHarry Mattison is one of those books I had so hopefully imagined reading as I  started on this journey.  As the title suggests (English title – One Day of Life) it offers a snapshot of a particular time and a particular place.[1]  But it’s a snapshot taken on a pin-hole camera. An intense focus on one spot in a larger unlovely political landscape.  For me, it more than merits its place as the 5th best Latin American novel of the 20th Century – a nomination that caused much controversy among critics who didn’t think a book by a little-known author from a small Central American country could compare to the likes of Alejo Carpentier or Ernesto Sabato.   But slight as the novel is, small as its subject may be, its representation of the marginalized is epic.

Argueta’s novel, which was banned in El Salvador, was written in exile and published in 1980 a year before civil war was declared.   Argueta has said that, working in exile without tension or fear, he was attempting to write a social chronicle of marginalized people.  He has succeeded. The novel is structured not only as the titular ‘day of life’ of Guadalupe a poor woman from Chalatenango, but also, through its interjected chapters which are written from the points of view of Guadalupe’s daughter and grand-daughter, Argueta is able to look at the wider Salvadorian political landscape. It is through Guadalupe’s relations’ eyes that we see a massacre on a bus, a demonstration outside the cathedral, the ‘disappearance’ of a husband for instance.   The violence is truly revolting and made more so by the commonplace way in which it is both meted out and described.

What I found most compelling about the novel though is Guadalupe’s internal dialogue as the hours of her day tick by chapter by chapter.  Argueta’s language resonates with the sounds of the country’s poor.  The language is both simple and rich, and never sounds less than authentic. Guadalupe’s growing political awareness in the years leading up to civil war, is cleverly revealed to the reader, mapped onto the hours that form the headings of the novel’s chapters.   At 5.10 a.m. for example, as the book opens, we hear Lupe’s thoughts about the Catholic Church of her childhood – remote, capricious, subjugating.  By 6.10 a.m. she questions why the Catholic priests are the ones advocating change, agitating for workers’ rights, getting shot on the steps of their churches (scenes many of us may remember from news bulletins). By 3.00 p.m. she is thinking about exploitation and the nature of the soul.

Ultimately, Guadalupe’s awakening acts as a synecdoche for El Salvador’s, and Argueta’s stated aim of writing the chronicle of marginalized people is expertly achieved.


[1] I would have translated the title as A Day of Life universalizing the experiences of the characters and making implicit the notion that the everyday suffering of marginalized peoples is just that – every day.

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