The PEN World Voices Festival As It Happened: “Divine Punishment”
When the award-winning thriller Castigo Divino was first published in 1988, its author Sergio Ramirez was three years into his term as vice president of Nicaragua. The manuscript for the English translation of the novel was completed soon afterward, saved on floppy disks, and sent to an editor; but both disks disappeared in transit, and plans for an English translation of the work stalled.
Twenty-seven years later, Castigo Divino has finally appeared in English translation as Divine Punishment. Ramirez, who has been out of office for twenty-five years, and his acclaimed translator Nick Caistor, met for a bilingual reading and conversation at the Americas Society on May 6.
“I think writers can be hidden everywhere,” Ramirez said in response to a question about the stimulus that led him to write.
As a child, Ramirez’s mother read him books from her collection of Spanish classics, and his father, who came from a family of musicians, encouraged his work as a writer. Ramirez recalled presenting his book of short stories to his father in 1982, and hearing him say, “Now that you have written a book of short stories, you must write a novel.”
Both sides of Ramirez’s family had been long-time supporters of the Somoza family dictatorship, a political dynasty that ruled Nicaragua from 1939 to 1979. But years later, as a law student in León, Ramirez found himself joining protests against the dictatorship.
He earned a law degree from the University of Nicaragua in the early 1970s and lived in Berlin as a resident artist through the German Academic Exchange Service from 1973 – 75. Four years later, following the Sandinista Revolution, Ramirez became Vice President, though he continued writing.
“I woke up everyday at four o’clock in the morning,” he recalled. “Then I wrote for a few hours and went to work.”
The plot of Divine Punishment centers on the most famous criminal trial in Nicaraguan history: the alleged murders of two high society women in 1933, with the charismatic social climber Oliviero Castañeda as the prime suspect. It’s a police thriller and courtroom drama in which Ramirez weaves magnificent threads of historical detail.
There were moments on the panel when Ramirez and Caistor spoke like old friends. They talked about meeting for the first time at the Managua Book Festival in 1986. In Britain, Caistor had partnered with a small publisher, “Readers International,” which published activist literature, and he had traveled to Managua to present books at the Festival.
“Is there anything you miss about politics?” Caistor asked in closing.
“Not a thing. Now I can wake up to write at eight in the morning, instead of at four.”
This piece was first published on Words Without Borders.