The Personal and the Political

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Review of 'The Country Under My Skin', Gioconda Belli, Bloomsbury £7.99

This is a wonderful autobiography, which I unreservedly recommend as a great work of art. Gioconda Belli was an upper class girl living in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, who enjoyed all the privileges of her class. But then, in her early twenties, after a youthful marriage and two children, she broke from her family's political outlook, deciding instead to join the fight for her country's freedom from the dictator Somoza, and so joined the underground Sandinista movement in the early 1970s.

This she did with heart and soul, volunteering for and undertaking whatever hazardous tasks were necessary to further the Sandinistas' revolutionary cause, and using her class origins only if needed as a respectable cover for illegal activities. This alternative political quest engendered radical new thinking on personal ethics and morality.

Gioconda sought freedom on this front too, throwing herself, as with her revolutionary politics, heart and soul into extracting the limits of fulfilment from her personal and sexual life. Her husband did not join her politically and proved far too passive and unemotional a companion for her tolerance, but it still took a big psychological wrench from her Catholic upbringing to leave him and follow her heart, which, however, she did thereafter with utmost passion.

A third strand of her heart and her love was her commitment to her children, numbering four in the end. The details of the birth of the third, the only boy, in a public hospital are quite amazing. She was told he was dead, then alive, then dead, then alive - imagine her feelings. He still lives with her today.

The fourth strand concerns her poetry - she won an international prize for this - and later literary works, which she pursues with the same passionate intensity.

All these strands of her life, and many others are found in this book, such as her forced emigration to Costa Rica to avoid arrest in Nicaragua, and the important political jobs she was given there and elsewhere. Also the course of the civil war against Somoza, his fall in 1979 and the resulting exultation, then the sabotage of the revolution by the US, is told with passion and emotion, the detailed political and intimately personal aspects intertwining seamlessly and making up a whole that any radical left winger or revolutionary reader cannot but creatively identify with. It is as though she is speaking and fighting the struggles, political and personal, that all of us fight.

It is extraordinary for the reader of someone else's autobiography to feel so personal an identification with the author's life and struggles. Her beautiful descriptive poetic language, even in translation, goes some way to helping this happen. I came across this book accidentally. I'm glad I did.