March 2005

Amy Joffe

fiction

Bernardo and the Virgin by Silvio Sirias

Do you believe in miracles? I mean miracles of the religious variety. Never mind - it’s not a prerequisite for reading this book, Bernardo and the Virgin by Silvio Sirias, but if you have a tendency to believe, particularly if you happen to be Catholic, this story may send a holy shiver down your spine. I’m not Catholic. I’m not sure what a rosary sounds like and I think a Hail Mary is a last ditch effort on a football field. But Sirias’s recount of the incidents that took place twenty-five years ago in the small Nicaraguan town of Cuapa intrigued me. It is ultimately unimportant whether or not the Virgin Mary actually appeared to Bernardo Martinez as he claimed. This is essentially the story of a simple man with unshakeable beliefs who, in his steadfast, quiet way plays a role in some of the pivotal events of his country’s struggle. A modern day miracle, virgin notwithstanding.

The novel begins in 1980 just as the Somoza government has been overthrown and the Sandinistas have seized power. Bernardo, the caretaker of the church in his town, is puzzled one night when the lights inside are on though he is certain he has turned them off. He is awed when he encounters the statue of the Virgin Mary, illuminated. One month later, she appears to Bernardo with words of peace and hope, asking him to spread her message.

Sirias could not have created a more sympathetic character than Bernardo Martinez. Even if you don’t believe his story, you will have no doubt that he is sincere in telling it. The real momentum of the story, though, is provided by the political scenario. Having rid the country of its dictator, Nicaraguans are crushed to see that life has not improved, but is actually worse under the Sandinistas. The ensuing struggle to regain their identity and way of life is the richest part of the novel. We only see glimpses of the decade long counter-revolution, but the harsh reality of the war juxtaposed with the ethereal vision of the Virgin makes for an interesting contrast. And just when you think you’ve seen enough halos, praise God, you get a shootout.

Unfortunately, Sirias’ writing is hindered by his style which frequently mixes Spanish words and phrases with English. Sirias is an American born to Nicaraguan parents who left the country in the 1950’s and this is, no doubt, the kind of idiomatic English he heard growing up. While it provides an occasional melodious tone to the narrative, it ultimately encumbers his writing to the point where it sounds, well, cliché. It’s a little like the way I spoke in high school Spanish class. Yo tengo my notebook. Como esta on this bonita day. No wonder my Espanol teacher rolled her eyes -- this is big time annoying after a while. However, he turns out to be a great storyteller with a knack for creating characters. The story of Rocio and her mother stand out to me as the most moving piece in the book. I think he hits his highpoint in the chapter where he tells the tragic story of a beautiful, vibrant girl who makes a poor choice and the consequences which follow that decision. Told through the voice of her mother, it is haunting. The other chapter I particularly liked tells the story of German Sotelo, a Nicaraguan writer and his idol, the award winning Ecuadoran writer, Jaime Jaramillo Solis, who turns out to be an arrogant, pompous bastard. He writes the vignette with a sense of humor and a wink to the reader, never making it caustic.

In a provocative epilogue (relax, I‘m not ruining any surprises), Sirias introduces us to the alleged "author," a university professor (so is Sirias) with a mid-life crisis who leaves his family to go back to his Nicaraguan roots where he eventually stumbles into Bernardo’s story. At first I wondered if there was more than a grain of truth to this story within a story -- was the "author" the author? I don’t think so. From what I can tell from my research, Silvio Sirias is married and living in Panama where he teaches at the University of Florida in Panama. But it raised an interesting question -- the merging of truth and fiction and the author’s license to tell a "true" story his way. In 1999, Ronald Reagan’s biographer, Edmund Morris, started to write a book about the former president. After struggling to capture the essence of the man, he chose to tell the story in the form of narrative novel, some of which he admittedly made up. The book was controversial, to say the least, but the author defended his approach by explaining that he felt that he had gotten closer to the core of Reagan by deviating from the facts. In other words, he could only get to the truth through a little bit of fabrication. Though many people were outraged, I appreciated what he did. Look at it this way… did you learn more about life in the South from Gone With the Wind or your high school history class? A little imagination goes a long way. So does a leap of faith.

So is the story of Bernardo as told by Silvio Sirias the truth? I think the author answers that question in the best possible way at the beginning of the novel, before the opening chapter, when he quotes Albert Einstein:

There are only two ways to live your life. One is though nothing is a miracle.
The other is as if everything is.

You choose.

Bernardo and the Virgin by Silvio Sirias
Northwestern University
ISBN: 0810122405
320 Pages