A Thousand Deaths Plus One

Written by Leland H. Chambers (trans.) Sergio Ramirez
Review by Lisa Ann Verge

Sergio Ramirez is a Nicaraguan writer whose list of artistic honors is long, thorough, and international. This novel is his fifth book to be translated into English.

On the face, the tale seems simple: Sergio Ramirez himself—a former vice-president of Nicaragua—becomes captivated by an elusive subject: A 19th-century Nicaraguan photographer whose shocking photos captivated the diplomat at a small exhibition in Warsaw. In alternating chapters, Mr. Ramirez strives to trace Castellon’s peripatetic life, while Castellon tells his own story, thoroughly aware, in the tradition of magic realism, that he is being ‘followed.’ In the process, the author explores the themes of beauty and truth, of destiny and failure, and the lost dreams of the young Nicaragua.

Unfortunately, a large portion of the tale is buried under impenetrable prose. (“The wind of gossip, that ventecello which the immortal Rossini sets ruffling in The Barber of Seville, takes great delight in nibbling away at the opalescent oblation from Carrara that our imperial Pylades dedicated to his secretary Orestes.”) Furthermore, Mr. Ramirez’s part of the book is full of obscure references that add little to the narrative. (“They took a chalet, El Torrero, on Calle 2 de Mayo, in El Terreno, at the time a brand new suburb situated between the ocean and the hill on top of which Bellver Castle rises up, where Jovellanos was also imprisoned after Godoy’s underlings decided that the monks of the Palacio del Rey Sancho had been treating him too well.”) Finally, the focus on small events—a drunken binge, for example—rather than more remarkable ones—a cluster of overlapping love triangles related in hurried exposition—saps the story of much-needed dramatic tension.

There is a tale to be told in A Thousand Deaths Plus One, and not an uninteresting one—it’s just buried under the weight of its own prose.