The 1980s were a tumultuous time in Central America. Though late Cold War, the Reagan administration was still sticking its nose into the region to attempt to prevent communism from spreading—which is an underhanded way of saying keeping a handle on its own economic interests. Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, and numerous other countries, including Nicaragua, were caught up in the resulting mess of violence and social turbulence—memories that haunt to this day. Secret armies formed and disbanded, attacks taking cities and even the sleepiest villages by surprise, and revolutions a dime a dozen, about the only constant for the people was the uncertainty of life—aka war. Invited by the then government of Nicaragua to see the country and hear the political ideology under discussion, The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey is Salman Rushdie’s account of three weeks in the country in July 1986.
A very well-written piece of journalism, The Jaguar Smile holds more in common with Orwell and Steinbeck’s international accounts of war, than say, Bruce Chatwin or Paul Theroux’s travelogues. Rushdie forever keeping an eye to the interaction of politics, religion, society, theory, and practice, the relatively short book (170 pages) is packed with the ideologies at stake, lives of the people, political concepts attempting to be implemented and implemented intentionally or otherwise, and just enough background history to contextualize events. The writing style a mix of Rushdie’s prosaic leanings with a concise journalistic approach, the book is both informative and a pleasure to read.
Among the most interesting points of The Jaguar Smile are conversations with the most powerful people (men, actually) in what was a war-torn yet burgeoning socialist democracy. From the elected president Daniel Ortega (who interestingly is once again the president of Nicaragua as of the writing of this review) to the Minister of Agriculture, and from the wife of the nation’s leading counter-culture newspaper who was assassinated to the street people of Leon, Rushdie went to Nicaragua with a full agenda and transposes the encounters concisely. With fear of the Reagan-funded Contras always in the back of his mind, Rushdie visited the countryside around the capital, Managua, including an Independence Day celebration at a small city in the mountains. He was also taken to the east coast of the country where he encountered not only entirely different ethnic groups and languages not Spanish or English, but a whole new way of life—one not as impeded by the climate as he initially thought. Nicaragua a nation of poetry, apparently, there are also conversations with street poets and more formal purveyors of rhythmic word. Utilizing the output, Rushdie even scatters a handful of poems thoughout the text as point/counter-point to the discussion at hand.
Rushdie a socialist (at least at the time of the writing of this book), he was invited by Ortega and the others in the hopes of garnering support from the international community. While Rushdie never delineates his own political agenda in precise terms, its fair to say his is not strictly of the Marx-Engels tradition, rather more of a social democrat. It is thus that Rushdie does bring some subjectivity to the account. Though it is his book, and he has the freedom to say what he likes, there remains a certain lack of objectivity to the proceedings. Orwell, for example, was more descriptive and less opinionated in Homage to Catalonia—another complicated socio-political situation.
That being said, The Jaguar Smile could have been far, far worse; Rushdie never waves a red flag, indulges in jingoism, or allows through the door puffed up hyperbole regarding the glory of Ortega and his Sandinistas. Rather than a strict ideological approach, Rushdie filters his experiences through a personal lens. As critical of the Sandinistas as he is supportive, the reader must be prepared for a skewed presentation. But through Rushdie’s eyes, the account is more readable, and given his views are transparent, the agenda can readily be brought to balance.
In the end, The Jaguar Smile is a quick but highly informative overview of the social and political situation of Nicaragua as of the middle of 1986. The geography, language, ethnic groups, and general social concerns having changed little in the time since, the book also remains relevant to current times, making it both history and good background reading for anyone thinking of visiting the country. The text full of life, including Rushdie’s own insight as well as regional poetry, the narrative is anything but dry.