Pedro Blas Gonzalez
Reminiscent of Borges in its maze-like complexity of shadowy figures and surreal situations, A Thousand Deaths Plus One is as unpredictable a work as it is intricate in construction. Sergio Ramirez’s novel is essentially a work of intrigue. In 1987 the author found himself in Warsaw on a state visit. Ramirez was vice-president of Nicaragua from 1984-1990. This visit to Europe serves as the fuel that feeds the plot of the novel.
While in Poland’s capital, Ramirez, who doubles as the narrator, discovers the work of a compatriot photographer named Juan Castellon. Castellon, he is pleased to discover, had worked in Europe from 1880 to 1940. The author becomes curious as to the identity of this Nicaraguan photographer and the circumstances that brought him to Europe. The action of the novel begins with this otherwise inconspicuous revelation. The animated plot sequences and narration oscillate between Ramirez’s description of the world around him, his psychological desire to understand Castellon and Nicaraguan history, and Castellon’s own part in telling his side of the story.
A Thousand Deaths Plus One is a complex fictional yarn that does not easily telegraph its punches. Employing occasional Borges-like narrative techniques: “I believe I recall, but this could be a fabrication of my memory…” the author weaves a multi-layered story that after a while makes it next to impossible to separate truth from fiction. As it turns out, Castellon, who came to Poland in 1929 by way of Barcelona, was a friend of the Nicaraguan writer Ruben Dario. This friendship serves as a vehicle to introduce cultural and historical snippets of that Central American nation, or what the author refers to as “a country that does not exist.” As a form of storytelling, this entanglement works very well. Only pedants will concern themselves with the historical authenticity of the events and characters that Ramirez unveils or concocts, as the case may be.
The story traces both the author and Castellon’s exploits throughout Europe, and how these eventually are linked to their homeland. Without question, Ruben Dario, the poet and originator of the Spanish-American literary movement known as Modernismo, serves as the link between the author and his main character.
Also of considerable interest is Ramirez’s use of a prologue and epilogue in the novel. The former is by Ruben Dario, while the latter, which is much more interesting, is Castellon’s seemingly final clarification of the events of the novel. The use of an epilogue as a literary technique brings to mind the brilliance of Miguel de Unamuno in his majestic nivolas, novels in which he employed similar tropes. Perhaps appropriately, A Thousand Deaths Plus One ends with a dream sequence where Castellon tells us, “And my final recollection then is that of a dream. Last night I dreamt I had returned to Nicaragua in some future time, at the end of the century.” This closes the circle of A Thousand Deaths Plus One, as it were, by releasing Castellon into the pen of Ramirez, as author/narrator.