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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Divine Punishment

Sergio Ramírez

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Divine Punishment

Title: Divine Punishment
Author: Sergio Ramírez
Genre: Novel
Written: 1988 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 512 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Divine Punishment - US
Castigo divino - US
Divine Punishment - UK
Divine Punishment - Canada
Châtiment divin - France
Strafe Gottes - Deutschland
Castigo divino - España
  • Spanish title: Castigo divino
  • Translated by Nick Caistor with Hebe Powell
  • With an Afterword by the author and a Note by the translator

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Our Assessment:

B+ : elaborate, illuminating fictionalized account

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
El País . 21/4/1988 Carlos Fuentes
Publishers Weekly . 23/3/2015 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ramírez extiende la técnica flaubertiana a una sociedad entera, verdadero microcosmos de la América Central, pues aunque situada en León, la acción reverbera en Costa Rica y Guatemala. De todos modos, estamos, más que en cualquier otra novela que yo haya leído, en Centroamérica, y estamos allí dentro de un abrazo tan húmedo y sofocante como el clima mismo y los atributos pueblerinos que lo acompañan" - Carlos Fuentes, El País

  • "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." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Divine Punishment is closely based on an actual criminal case and prosecution in 1930s León, Nicaragua's second city, when Oliverio Castañeda, then in his mid-thirties, was tried for murder. Months after the sudden death of his considerably younger wife, in February, 1933, two members of the Contreras family also died in quick succession: older daughter Matilde (on 2 October), and pater familias Don Carmen, a successful businessman (on 9 October). Castañeda had ingratiated himself with the Contreras family, but after Don Carmen's death suspicion fell on him having poisoned the man and his daughter -- and his own wife.
       Ramírez's novel is in many ways documentary in character -- but not straightforwardly so. Much of the narrative relies on what is presented as verbatim testimony from the trial and hearings, along with other documentary material -- though almost always woven into the narrative rather than left stand-alone. It does not unfold neatly chronologically, instead circling back over events, facts, and testimony again and again, Late into the novel, one chapter is even presented entirely in the form of a fictional account of events as written by local journalist Rosalío Usulutlán -- a succinct fictional take and résumé of the case that then, given its finger-pointing spin as to what happened, becomes part of the proceedings as well.
       While the first chapters set part of the stage -- focusing on the poisoning of some local dogs using strychnine, which is presumed to be the poison Castañeda also then used in his murders, and possibly explains how he got his hands on it -- and the situation he finds himself in is already addressed early on, including in an interview of the then-jailed Castañeda by Rosalío Usulutlán after his October 1933 arrest -- Ramírez presents the story in such a spiraling roundabout way that the third section of the four-part novel, well over two-hundred pages in, begins by re-stating the obvious and long-known:

     On Monday, 9 October 1933, on the sudden death of Don Carmen Contreras, one of the most celebrated cases in the judicial history of Nicaragua began. It is to the many complex events surrounding this trial that the book is devoted.
       Occasionally, Ramírez even explicitly reminds: "At this point we have to leaf back through a few pages of our calendar of events", but the entire novel is one of reconstruction -- the past repeatedly revisited, from different vantage points and in different lights.
       In presenting the facts, as they were known, and the unfolding events, Ramírez offers not a neatly built-up mystery, but rather a much more true-to-life legal procedural, with all the conflicting reports and recollections, and the uncertainty about so many of the details. There's little doubt that Castañeda is a killer, but both proof and understanding remain difficult to ascertain.
       Set in a Nicaragua just freeing itself from US occupation, the backdrop includes a young director of the National Guard, Anastasio Somoza (who would effectively take power a few years later, ruling Nicaragua for some two decades) -- a significant if shadowy presence in the case's final resolution --, and the Central American politics of the time do loom over the novel, as the foreigner Castañeda also faced trouble (and was suspected of murder ...) in his own homeland, Guatemala.
       A compatriot who knew Castañeda in his younger days describes him as: "an incorrigible fantasist", and repeatedly Castañeda tries to reframe the narrative being spun around him to his own advantage, trying to present himself, and his actions, in ways that may fit the facts but suggest an entirely different scenario leading to them. In interviews, testimony, and letters he, like many accused, argues he, and his actions, are being seen and interpreted in the wrong way; in particular, he tries to paint a different picture of himself -- difficult to do, in the case of this arrogant man who has always dressed in dark mourning clothes, since the death of his mother when he was a teen. Something of a charmer, the hold he appears to have over the various Contreras women -- mother and both daughters -- doesn't help his case, neither the gossip about their relationships nor, ultimately, the support the surviving Contreras women provide, at least for a while. His late admission that the Contreras he was most intimately involved with was María ("my common-law spouse, since I have had marital relations with her"), hardly comes as a surprise, but is part of his final effort to assume control of what is by then a trial-narrative. (Born in 1918 -- some seven years younger than her sister -- María was only fourteen when her relationship with Castañeda began, and still only fifteen when her father and sister died and Castañeda brought to trial.)
       As one newspaper article writes about the Contreras family -- though it applies to the story as a whole --:
This family, overwhelmed by a tragedy that seems to know no end, seem to be living through a drama straight from the pages of Aeschylus.
       As so often in Greek tragedy, there is also no neat, happy resolution; indeed, Castañeda's fate seems ultimately left up to the fates: it is not the almost incidental trial (just one part of the much larger trial of public (etc.) opinion Castañeda faces) which determines what becomes of Castañeda -- while the actual events surrounding the final resolution remain also cloaked in mystery.
       Late in the novel the author's presence is acknowledged, as he mentions collecting some information -- and even speaking with some of those involved -- decades after the fact. (A short Afterword describes the circumstances surrounding the writing of the novel a bit more closely.) Long-buried information comes to light -- the material that allows Ramírez to reconstruct the case, half a century later -- but some answers remain elusive.
       Divine Punishment is a chronicle of (apparent) murder and the prosecution of the man presumably responsible, but it's also a portrait of the society and structures of that time. Among the conflicts that form part of the narrative is the ongoing one between two of the local doctors, who take very different positions regarding the causes of death (and the proper assessment of the post mortem evidence) -- a charged relationship between mentor and student that shifts as the case progresses. Though arguably provincial, this León is not some simple backwater town; among the interesting dynamics are also those between the local establishment and the outsiders involved in the case (notably the judge and, of course, Castañeda).
       Even as so much documentation is presented in Divine Punishment, Ramírez's novel does not feel simply documentary; it is not a simple case-account or procedural. Yet Ramírez also scrupulously avoids taking advantage of his authorial position in guiding readers to specific conclusions: even as the unpleasant Castañeda's guilt can hardly be questioned, Divine Punishment remains in many ways a murky tale (appropriately sinking in particularly dark mire in its resolution, and Castañeda's fate).
       All in all, it's an unusual piece of fiction: part legal-criminal thriller, part period-piece, often with a subversive little humorous touch, Divine Punishment doesn't conform to many expectations, but proves, in going its own (distinctive, roundabout) way, successful in its own right.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 April 2015

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Divine Punishment: 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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