Reviews -- Divine Punishment

"Ramirez, former vice president of Nicaragua, published this noirish tale of murder and deceit while in office in 1988, and it appears in English for the first time in a wonderful translation by Caistor. The story, based on a real series of unsolved poisonings, takes the form of a legal case, replete with court reports, interviews, testimonies, depositions, and letters from the main players. This interesting and complex structure includes a barrage of character names, places, subplots, and substories—Ramirez effectively recreates an entire world of intrigue around the case. But the central story line revolves around the motives of the accused murderer, Oliverio Castaneda. Ramirez animates the small town world of 1930s Leon, Nicaragua, and its criminal justice system at a time that coincides with the country’s struggle to operate under a civil and judicial, rather than military, government. The fictionalized version of Castaneda’s crimes are driven partly by love and revenge and partly by his desire to control a large financial fortune. The novel also ratchets up the tension between the curiosity of a nosy media and the public’s nearly insatiable appetite for a scandalous trial. This is a big, beautiful novel—a compelling historical drama of competing narratives and colorful characters that is self-aware and tinged with black humor. The author’s afterword and translator’s note provide helpful context for American readers."

A one-time vice president of Nicaragua explores dark corners of his nation’s history in this blend of historical novel and noir procedural.
'It was to be a historical novel,' writes Ramírez of the making of his book, which was written and published in Spanish more than 30 years ago, “but also a realist novel, a mannerist novel, a police thriller, a courtroom drama.” Elements of all these run through his narrative, though perhaps with a touch too much emphasis on the courtroom drama part of the mix, which goes on too long without a suitably Perry Mason–esque moment of reckoning ('Please tell the court: Did you take bicarbonate of soda to the room with a glass of water and a spoon to dissolve the medicine'). The premise is transparent enough: in 1933, a young man, an 'attractive male specimen,' is both wooing and apparently doing away with some of the most eligible bachelorettes in León, but it’s not really for his allegedly lethal rakishness that he’s in trouble. Hauled to the bench, he affords Ramírez—the winner of last year’s prestigious Carlos Fuentes Prize—an opportunity to satirize Nicaragua’s bourgeois society of the 1930s, which ended in the rise of the Somoza dictatorship. With a few liberties taken, and with a large and diverse cast of characters, Ramírez works with historical fact: there really was a 'Casanova killer' of the day, and of course there really was a dictatorship that put an end to the niceties of law—and a dictator who had personal reasons for disliking the defendant, whose story did not end well. Ramírez’s tale, long and diffuse, may be of more historical than literary interest to many readers in exploring a society that was ripe for strongman rule, planting the seeds of the Sandinista revolution half a century later.
Still, though not as smoothly told as it might have been in the hands of a Vargas Llosa or García Márquez, a good yarn—and considering the lack of Central American literature available in English, it enriches a slender library."

LIBRARY JOURNAL, April 1, 2015
"Novelist, short story writer, and essayist Ramirez, who also served as vice president of Nicaragua during the Sandinista regime in the late 1980s, novelizes the famous early 1930s investigation and trial in Leon of Oliverio Castaneda. Castaneda allegedly killed his wife, his likely lover, and her father with strychnine, but his guilt was never proven because he was mysteriously shot under dictator Somoza's orders while trying to escape from jail. The episodic structure of this detective novel questions the nature of fiction. Ramirez includes several extra-literary devices, such as letters, legal dispositions, witness accounts, and newspaper articles and also engages in poetic license by embellishing events and changing names, all the while exposing the inequities of the Nicaraguan justice system under Somoza. In addition, the author establishes a parallel relationship between the ending of the movie Payment Deferred (translated here as Divine Punishment), which opens the novel, and that of this book. VERDICT A modern classic and probably Ramirez's best novel, this engaging yet prolix work forces the reader to keep track of the profusion of characters and events; crime buffs will feel cheated by the inconclusive ending."--Lawrence Olszewski, North Central State Coll., Mansfield, OH

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