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  • Sandino’s Nation: Ernesto Cardenal and Sergio Ramírez, Writing Nicaragua, 1940–2012 by Stephen Henighan
  • Steven F. White
Stephen Henighan. Sandino’s Nation: Ernesto Cardenal and Sergio Ramírez, Writing Nicaragua, 1940–2012. McGill-Queen’s University Press. xv, 758. $39.95

Stephen Henighan’s Sandino’s Nation: Ernesto Cardenal and Sergio Ramirez, Writing Nicaragua, 1940–2012 was a finalist for the 2015 Canada Prize in the Humanities, the first time a book on Latin America has been distinguished in this way. It provides the English-speaking reader with profound insights into how two important Nicaraguan writers construct the identity of their country in cultural and socio-political terms. Henighan, a professor of Hispanic studies at the University of Guelph, covers more than seventy years in this admirable study, focusing, as he says, on the “nation’s crises and re-articulations of its identity … before, during and after the 1979–1990 revolution.” This decade was a historical moment that captured the world’s attention, and Ernesto Cardenal (b. 1925) and [End Page 529] Sergio Ramírez (b. 1942), as world-class writers and high-ranking political figures, were (and continue to be) active participants in this dynamic process. In Henighan’s words,

by combining readings of Nicaragua’s most important Conservative [Cardenal] and Liberal [Ramírez] writers during the period of their migration to a common participation in Sandinismo, with a narrative of Nicaraguan history during this period, the study [suggests] that one of the best ways to understand a nation’s deep historical evolution is through close readings of engaged literary texts.

Henighan demonstrates that the conversation about literature can be simultaneously sophisticated and open. In Sandino’s Nation, he distinguishes between the academic writing associated with cultural studies and his own approach, which asserts “the value of paying close attention to a literary text and how it works, both as an activity of inherent aesthetic and moral value, and as a revealing method of understanding the cultural and historical conditions that gave birth to the work.” Henighan reiterates these concerns in his conclusion: “My argument in favour of this approach is not a plea for a return to New Criticism, but rather an attempt to employ theory in a way that keeps the attention of readers and critics focused on the literary text and the history that produced it.”

Henighan clearly shows in Sandino’s Nation that he is well acquainted with the major contemporary theorists whose ideas can be fruitfully applied to the general study of Latin American literature. As he works in a responsible way to create his mosaic of ideas, Henighan is also very familiar with critics who specialize in the particular national literature that is the subject of his study, thereby taking into account existing critical perspectives (both regional and country-specific) as he creates his own innovative avenues of investigation.

In addition, because he realizes that Cardenal’s and Ramírez’s work is not an isolated phenomenon, Henighan includes very appropriate comparisons to work by other Hispanic-American authors such as Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, and Pablo Neruda. This creates a necessarily fuller understanding of Nicaraguan literature as part of an international whole, combined with Henighan’s goal to highlight the ways that Cardenal and Ramírez “write” a national cultural identity. Sandino’s Nation is also a pioneering study in that it comprehensively treats the work of two renowned and prolific authors, whose fascinating post-1990 writings (with their weaker diachronic dimension) have not received the critical attention they deserve.

This book is perfectly accessible to a more general English-speaking reader owing to the careful translations by the author (or from previously published translations) of citations from the primary sources by Cardenal [End Page 530] and Ramírez, both of whom have extensive bibliographies that Henighan wants to cover as thoroughly as possible. The original quotations from poetry and prose fiction that Henighan incorporates are thoughtfully chosen and are available on the page in a bilingual format. The book also has a first-rate index.

Henighan kept his faith in Nicaragua when practically everyone else abandoned their Nicaraguan research after the Sandinistas lost the...


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