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Book review: <i>The Jaguar Smile</i> by Salman Rushdie

Twenty one years ago this year (2007), Salman Rushdie ventured into Nicaragua; a country in Central America known almost exclusively in the the first world due to the “fact” that “the communists” had “taken over” the country, and the CIA were funding the resistance movement. The people had not only spent countless years repressed by dictatorial rule by the Somoza family, but then had endured seven years of CIA funded attacks after they were liberated from that dictatorship. Rushdie was there as a visiting author, but was so taken by the place that he decided to write a book about it. It is the story of a remarkable war-torn nation, and the determination and positivity of its people.

The story

Salman Rushdie heads to Nicaragua in 1986 at the invitation of the Sandinista Association of Cultural Workers for the seventh anniversary of the triumph of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacionale (FSLN). He travelled around the countryside, meeting and greeting with personalities such as then-President Daniel Ortega (who has been re-elected this year), Sergio Ramirez, Luis Carrion, Ernesto Cardenal, and the unlikely president-to-be Violeta Chamorro.

During Rushdie’s adventures, he meets with all kinds of different people, talks about war, the hope of peace, and the Sandinistas, and gains an understanding and respect for the people of Nicaragua and their situation.

The style

The Jaguar Smile begins with an introduction; written ten years after the initial publication of the book in 1987. At the time of the original publication, Ortega was president, and under immense international pressure. At the time of the reprint,
Ortega was out, Chamorro was in, it was a different place entirely. The country was being rebuilt, the communist scare was mainly over. Rushdie suggested certain errors of reporting when he initially wrote it. And now, twenty years after publication, Ortega is president again. I wonder what Rushdie would have to say now.

One of the things I admire about Rushdie as an author is his honesty about his subjectivity. He tells you his prejudices straight up and doesn’t pretend to be impartial. So he straight away lets you know how he feels about the Sandinistas, what he is expecting, what he has heard, and how he feels about certain issues to do with their leadership (including the shutting down of the non-government paper, run by Violeta Chamorro). He lets the reader, and the people he is talking to, know that his reasons for feeling like he does about these issues relate to having lived during a tumultuous time in India’s history, and on the other hand is willing to listen to the Sandinista’s justifications for their actions and really consider their point of view.

Obviously, Rushdie writes the whole thing from a very personal angle. The Jaguar Smile is peppered with his thoughts and internal dialogues, and every chance he has to meet somebody new, from Commandant Daniel to the campesinos, is a chance to soliliquise about his feelings about the revolution. I would imagine that he felt this need while writing the book because at the time, the Sandinistas were regarded as a communist threat, and Rushdie had the outsider clout and emminence to try and change public opinion. Apparently he didn’t do so well in America at the time. But it is really interesting to read history as it is being made. There is a sense of immediacy in Rushdie’s work that lets the reader know he was there, taking a snapshot of this time in history. And even with all Rushdie’s admitted subjectivity, it’s a valuable piece of writing.

On the other hand, Rushdie’s constant inclusion of himself and his feelings in the writing means that The Jaguar Smile could well be renamed “How Salman Rushdie feels about revolution, communists, what it takes to impress him politically, and who he rubbed shoulders with in Nicaragua”. It’s very Rushdie-centric, and while this could potentially drum up support of the Nicaraguans within Rushdie’s fanbase, it’s a very second-hand experience. I liked it, but I’m not a Nicaraguan who lived through the time. I’m not sure how I would feel about it if I was; maybe that The Jaguar Smile was a little simplistic and outside the real experience. But that, I suppose, is part of Rushdie’s honesty. And it is a great snapshot of Nicaragua for an outsider looking in.

Who is this book for?

I found The Jaguar Smile very interesting because I am in Nicaragua right now. The places are familiar, the people are familiar, and the history has taken on a level of personality and closeness that I previously didn’t have. I’ve developed a new and profound respect for people who lived through the war, and what the people of this country have suffered at the hands of the United States (and I might add, are still suffering) but still manage to be such a positive people.

On the other hand, if I barely knew where Nicaragua was and was reading this book, I would probably only be keen if I was into reading books about the bad things the CIA have done and how one-eyed they are about communism. And let’s face it, who isn’t into reading about that stuff?

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I find Rushdie’s style to be fairly unique, and I do enjoy him as an author. The Jaguar Smile is quite different from Rushdie’s other work. If you liked this one, probably the most similar to it stylistically is Shame.

In short

Title: The Jaguar Smile
Author: Salman Rushdie
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 0312422784
Year published: 1987
Pages: 137
Genre(s): Non-fiction, Travel literature
Review Type: