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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


A Thousand Deaths Plus One

Sergio Ramírez

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Title: A Thousand Deaths Plus One
Author: Sergio Ramírez
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 295 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: A Thousand Deaths Plus One - US
Mil y una muertes - US
A Thousand Deaths Plus One - UK
A Thousand Deaths Plus One - Canada
A Thousand Deaths Plus One - India
Mil y una muertes - España
  • Spanish title: Mil y una muertes
  • Translated by Leland H. Chambers

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Our Assessment:

A- : neat literary and biographical puzzle

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       A Thousand Deaths Plus One pieces together the story of a photographer named Castellón. It is presented in two parts, 'Camera Oscura' and 'Camera Lucida', each of which opens with a piece attributed to another author: the first an account by Rubén Darío (who plays a central role in Ramírez's Margarita, How Beautiful the Sea), the second -- 'The Drunken Faun', about Darío -- by Colombian author José María Vargas Vila (1860-1933). The remaining chapters alternate between Ramírez's own account of how he comes across this mysterious photographer and searches for additional information about him, and another first person autobiographical account that one assumes is Castellón's own. There is some an overlap between the pieces attributed to Darío and Vargas Vila and Ramírez's journey of discovery, as well as Castellón's own reality; indeed, Castellón figures prominently in the Vargas Vila-piece. It all has the feel of an elaborate literary game of the sort that Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Marías are fond of playing.
       Darío's short sketch includes the observation:

For my part, I contemplate him as if this were a matter of a photograph before turning over the page in an album.
       Ramírez, of course, can only rely on photographs (and writing, with its similar turn-the-page quality) when trying to get a sense of these various historic figures, and this contrast between real-life and the image that is fixed in photographs (or writing) is a central part of the story.
       Ramírez appears simply as himself: at one point he writes about working on Margarita, How Beautiful the Sea, and many of these trips he takes to Europe are on business, in his official capacities. It is when he is in Warsaw in 1987 that he stumbles across an exhibition of 'Castellón the Photographer in Warsaw', in which the photographs are paired up, to show the same scenes not as before and after, but rather as: Before the Nazi Occupation and During the Nazi Occupation . It is the immediacy of being a witness to history that seems to appeal to Ramírez: Castellón does not merely document the consequences but is in the midst of them, and what is central is not just the final outcome but rather what happened. Later he is even more specific:
the artist is a pathologist who must preserve the dried-up pieces in the formol-filled flasks of his memory; any other way would be to take on the role of redeemer. They can be stripping the skin off your own mother, your own daughter, but your duty is to register the fact.
     Perhaps (Castellón would probably say now) after having taken the photograph of the naked body, being neutral consists in seeing one's own self as an object, even at the moment when, before penetrating her, the syphilitic digs around inside a prostitute's vagina with fingers that are moving there to learn something about the sensations of the touching, but as if they were not his own, the artist who may infect another body with his own but does not infect the page or negative.
       Castellón becomes a sort of obsession of Ramírez's over the years -- "He never stops fascinating me, like a character who should be in a novel", he admits to someone at one point -- and he slowly accumulates bits of information about him. It is a neatly interlinking set of coincidences that mesh together, from the fact that the photographer was also Nicaraguan to connexions that include Chopin, George Sand, Turgenev, and, of course, Rubén Darío, much of which Ramírez stumbles across on his various trips over the years.
       The historical accounts -- presumably Castellón's own, focussed especially on his father's efforts to obtain support for the building of the canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific through Nicaragua, rather than in Panama -- are a nice contrast that also link with the larger picture Ramírez is building up. One of the difficulties with convincing anyone to build the canal in Nicaragua is that so few seem even to believe in the country's existence -- or can find it on a globe.
       Castellón's photographs are documentary evidence of history, but his account (and Ramírez's) are, of course, far more uncertain; much of what Castellón reports is hearsay, for example -- as readers are nicely reminded when he completes a scene and notes: "What I wouldn't have given to be able to take that picture !" (Of course, he has taken that picture -- but only using words, which are inherently far less reliable .....) Castellón's account turns out not to be exactly what it seemed either ("But very faithful", Ramírez is assured ...). And even Castellón's photographs -- especially those final ones -- are open to some interpretation, especially as to his own role and place.
       A Thousand Deaths Plus One is an elaborate fiction that stakes itself firmly in the real. A fascinating set of stories and bits of history, it also neatly addresses the issue of capturing history and human fates, in photographs or in writing -- both documentary and fictional.
       Well worthwhile.

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A Thousand Deaths Plus One: Reviews: Sergio Ramírez: Other books by Sergio Ramírez under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Nicaraguan author Sergio Ramírez was born in 1942 and served as vice president of the country from 1985 to 1990.

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© 2008-2020 the complete review

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