May 2014        

Roque Dalton: Tragic communist poet

Roque Dalton (1935–1975) was perhaps the most tragic poet of Central America. In the 1950s he was the brightest of the “Committed Generation,” a group of militant left-wing writers who saw art as a revolutionary act.
      “Commitment” meant enlisting in the cause of socialist revolution. As any kind of dissent had been outlawed by military dictatorships in El Salvador since the 1930s, signing up for such commitment led to prison, exile, or death.
      Dalton is famous for weaving uncompromising left-wing politics into avant-garde free verse. With a conversational style that avoided the over-poetic, he borrowed from Salvadorian slang. His poems vibrate with the common Latin American experience: that of corrupt governments kept in power by small groups of wealthy families and the United States with the support of complacent middle classes and corrupt officials.
      Dalton joined the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (People’s Revolutionary Army), one of five clandestine groups that formed the FMLN guerrilla in the 1980s, now the political party in government. The ERP was regarded as the most extreme faction of El Salvador’s left-wing movement.
      After returning to El Salvador in 1975 following years of exile and prison he was murdered by his own comrades, who falsely accused him of being a CIA agent. His alleged killers, the ERP leaders, have never stood trial. They made a deal after the war with a right-wing government to introduce a series of neo-liberal policies.
      Twenty-five years after Dalton’s death the president of El Salvador acknowledged the importance of the poet’s contribution to the country’s literature. His family dismissed this official acknowledgement, however, as one of his accused killers is now a government minister.
      Though widely available in Latin America, Dalton’s poetry was unknown to many Salvadorians, as it was banned until 1992, when El Salvador’s civil war ended. The ideological reaction that followed deemed his work to be too controversial to be taught in schools. Thus, El Salvador’s most innovative writer was condemned to oblivion, unless readers were politically motivated to seek him out.

Sobre dolores de cabeza

Es bello ser comunista,
aunque cause muchos dolores de cabeza.

Y es que el dolor de cabeza de los comunistas
histórico, es decir
que no cede ante las tabletas analgésicas
ante la realización del Paraíso en la tierra.

Así es la cosa.

Bajo el capitalismo nos duele la cabeza
y nos arrancan la cabeza.
En la lucha por la Revolución a cabeza es una bomba de retardo.
En la construcción socialista
planificamos el dolor de cabeza
lo cual no lo hace escasear, sino todo lo contrario.

El comunismo será, entre otras cosas,
aspirina del tamaño del sol.

On headaches

It’s great being a communist
although it gives you many headaches.

Because communists’ headaches
are thought to be historical, that is:
they won’t go away with painkillers
with realising Paradise on Earth.

That’s how it goes.

Under capitalism our heads hurt
and our heads are ripped off.
In revolutionary struggle the head is a time bomb.
In the construction of socialism
we allow for the odd headache
which doesn’t weaken the cause—quite the contrary.

Communism will be, among other things,
a sun-sized aspirin.

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