The Jaguar Smile

Map of Nicaragua with Sandanista silhouette

This is a review of The Jaguar Smile by Salman Rushdie. I read it in 2023 because…

From time to time, I like revisiting ‘old’ books, because until I was involved in the book trade, I didn’t know how casually ‘back list’ books are treated, nor how easily they can drop off into the ‘not worth reprinting’ pile. I’m doing one of my ‘old book reviews’ this week as a mark of disapproval of the industry which is now perniciously ‘improving’ ‘old’ books. That’s our past they are messing with, even when it is dreadful stuff like Roald Dahl. When I was a kid, kids loved that stuff. Critically.

Some of us knew what was wrong with it when we read it, others learned along the way and, like the sexist-racist-classist nonsense Enid Blyton wrote, we read it knowing it was not ‘our world’, and did not operate under ‘our rules’. We read, and learned how the world is changing. Today’s kids will not be able to trust the books that should be our historical record, if publishers mess with them. Please do not tolerate the red-pen brigade.

Soc media post by Simon Hewitt

[Hasty addendum: well just to scupper a good blog lead-in, I’ve just heard that the edits on the Dahl books aren’t by ‘sensitivity readers’, they are part of the publisher’s response to a Netflix deal – oh well. Always follow the money, etc]

And because…

Between the publication of The Jaguar Smile and today, many more people have learned that you can’t trust the news you get on the telly and in the papers, especially what passes for international news, and many more people have learned that no story of other countries makes sense unless you’re also told just how much trouble the United States, and its little brother the UK, have caused to the peoples under discussion.

the Jaguar Smile by Salman Rushdie

On the back jacket of The Jaguar Smile, Edward Said writes that Rushdie’s ‘extraordinary book’ is a ‘masterpiece of sympathetic yet critical reporting’. He’s absolutely right, and the book is a joy to read in these times when all too many of us stamp the ‘good’ places and people with uncritical approval, and do nothing but heap sweeping abuse on the ‘bad’ ones. It is also lyrical and joyfully written, further enlivened with quotes and works from the poets and songsters who abounded in Nicaragua, including the line that persuaded me Salman Rushdie is my soul brother.

Whilst visiting a church, where he made the fascinating discovery that the revolution had turned the traditional attitude to God on its head, and were petitioning their God to have faith in them, rather than making desperate promises of their own faith, and when it came to the singing, he said this:

Like many people who absolutely can’t sing, I get sentimental about old tunes; the lump in the throat provides and excuse for the fractured noises emerging from the mouth. ‘Deep in my heart,’ I yelled, threatening the glass in the windows, ‘I do believe…’

I finished the book distressing my family with involuntary attempts to sing everything from the Internationale to Guantanamera. Let’s have this one…

(This film is for Cuba, but best conveys to me the feeling that went with the song at that party Rushdie went to at Bluefields, on Nicaragua’s Atlantic (Caribbean) coast.)

This probably isn’t the place to remind everyone that Jeremy Corbyn is another much-loved revolutionary who loves poetry and song but can neither hold a tune nor keep to a beat, so I’ll get back on topic and tell you that Jaguar Smile is a very rare animal – a piece of well-balanced, well-evidenced, political reportage combined with an evocative literary travelogue, founded on a limerick:

There was a young girl of Nic’ragua

Who smiled as she rode on a jaguar

They returned from the ride

With the young girl inside

And the smile on the face of the jaguar.

On the plane home, Rushdie sits next to a tearful woman who had been to her native Nicaragua to visit her mother. He’s still trying to work out how to apply the limerick – was the young girl the revolution, or the people pinning their hopes on the revolution? Was the jaguar the revolution, or the US-funded terrorist outfit (that they were US funded, and were terrorists, was perfectly clear, even then) the Contras?

Along the way, Rushdie had met all the people we heard about on the news – well, those who were still alive – and noted amongst other things how many of them were both politicians and poets. He discussed the formation of the constitution, and on the one hand noted how proud Ortega and his team were of the fact that they were presenting the draft constitution to democratic assemblies of the people across the country, and on the other, they were doing so whilst censoring and shutting down newspapers ‘during the state of emergency’ – something most politicians do in a state of war but which, for Rushdie, brought back alarming memories of the endless ‘state of emergency’ he experienced in India. He asked how a government of writers could become a government of censors.

He noted that the revolutionaries were sweetly confident that the revolution had put an end to sexism once and for all, even as they struggled to get a consensus on the subject of abortion, in full awareness that the issue wasn’t just a problem from a religious point of view, it was a problem emerging because there were politicians who could not or would not take the step of ending their power over women’s bodies.

He noted people who missed being rich and powerful, whose criticisms of the revolution were not based on reality but grief for lost privilege. He noted also that, overwhelmingly, the people were glad to be free of one bloody dictator, and glad of defenders in the eternal David-and-Goliath situation of trying to work out their own fate when the most powerful force in the world was funding their enemies, and threatening war. He noted a sense of beginning – that Nicaragua had not really existed as a country or a people, under the grip of Somoza, and that to surrender to the will of the US would be to plunge once more into non-existence, into being no more than ‘the US’s back yard’.

Well, years have gone by, and fates have fallen on many since then. The best laid plans of mice and men, etc, so you probably find the jaguar question easy to answer. What I found most telling, reading in 2023, was that the tearful woman told Rushdie the tragic tale of what occurred during her visit – a tragedy caused by the failing health service in Nicaragua – UK readers 30 years ago would have been startled indeed to know that in 2023 I would be re-reading it and saying yes, there are stories like that in the UK now, and they too are tragedies caused by the aggressive, predatory nature of US political and economic forces.

Please re-read The Jaguar Smile, or if you didn’t get around to it the first time, give yourself a treat and read it now – and as you read, think about how we got to where we are today, and what we might do about it, because when you listen to Keir Starmer and Wes Streeting setting themselves up as the opposition to the Tories, it’s easy to lose track of who the goodies and baddies are, or at least to feel a bit short of good guys.

One line above all sticks in my mind from this book – that when you’re a part of events that are to become history, you don’t know how they’re going to end, so you don’t judge in the same way the readers of the history books will one day do. You can though, see what’s most likely. I begin to feel that we too are being treated as no more than an extension of the US’s back yard. I wonder how that will end.


Dear Reader,

Times are hard, and so the articles on this site are freely available but if and when you are able to support my work by making a donation, I am very grateful.

Click here to donate




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: