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The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War [Paperback]

Gioconda Belli
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

4 Aug 2003
Lives don't get much more quixotic or passionately driven than that of the Nicaraguan revolutionary Gioconda Belli. She may have been educated by nuns and dazzled all as a well-heeled society girl, but Gioconda lifted her "guilt of privilege" by joining the Sandinistas in her twenties, to serve and then lead in their underground resistance. If part of her wanted to fulfil society's classic code of femininity and produce four children (which she did), there was also part which wanted the privileges of men - the freedom to carry out clandestine operations, to forge the Sandinista resistance effort even with toddler and infant in tow.'Conspiracy came easy to me,' confesses Belli. She hid political pamphlets from her first husband as she hid her love affairs with remarkable men. This book is a journey of the heart, through marriages and grand passions, as well as an insider's view of a revolutionary movement. From Nicaragua and its intrig ue to Cuba where she locked horns with Castro, to exile in Costa Rica where she organised an underground network, back to a triumphant if short-lived Sandinista government where she was in charge of State television, Gioconda Belli' s life is one of real-life intrigue - political and romantic - and hard-won wisdom. And as a novelist and poet, Belli has created her self-portrait with great skill and eloquence.

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The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War + The Jaguar Smile: Nicaraguan Journey + Lonely Planet Nicaragua (Travel Guide)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC; New edition edition (4 Aug 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 074755899X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0747558996
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 2.6 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 248,393 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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'A romantic story in every sense of the word' -- Guardian

'A wonderfully free and original talent' -- Harold Pinter

'So breathtakingly exciting and pleasurably readable that it often seems less like a memoir than an adventure novel' -- Independent

'The autobiography of a remarkable writer and revolutionary ... compelling' -- Times Literary Supplement

'The best autobiography I've read in years ... It's a book to relish, to read and re-read. Unforgettable' -- Salman Rushdie

About the Author

A celebrated poet and novelist, Gioconda Belli lives in California.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars compelling autobiography 24 Feb 2009
By redbigbill VINE VOICE
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Nicaraguan poet and novelist lays herself bare in this engrossing autobiography. Born into upper middle class society under the US blessed and supported dictatorship of the Somoza family, Gioconda Belli grew up devoloping an awareness of the social and economic inequalities that plauged her country and many others in that region. She recounts her first tentative steps in the underground resistance movement, that over the years led to her becoming one of the leaders of the 1979 revolution that toppled the brutal Somoza regime. She also tells us of her many passionate love affairs, many of which conducted whilst trying to avoid the tentacles of Somoza's secret police, capture meaning torture and probable death. This is the very personal story of a romantic and a revolutionary written with a command of language and emotion that shines through in this excellent translation. Her memoir is at times exciting, the reader can sometimes feel the fear, her accounts of life in the higher political circles after the revolution are both revealing and amusing, especially when describing the macho instincts of some of the revolutionary leaders of the region. The feelings of anti-climax as some of the revolutionary fervour was lost to political expediency are also written with great candour. Truely a very remarkable, but at the same time, very human and passonate woman.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars would make a brilliant movie 18 Feb 2008
By Joanne
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is an autobiography. Gioconda Belli was born in the 1950's into a wealthy family in Nicaragua, although not part of the ruling class benefitting under the 40+ year dictatorship of the Somoza family.

Even as a child she is struck by the gross inequality of the rich and poor. She rebels against the limited roles determined for her in life as a woman. In her early 20's she becomes involved in the illegal Sandinsta movement, risking her life to support the dream of a Nicaragua free from the dictatorship and corruption of Somoza as well as the ideology of equality and basic services for the poor.

It is really exciting as a personal account of her turbulent love life, risks to help the rebel movement, exile from her country, the murder, torture and death of friends in the struggle, trying to juggle motherhood and family responsibilities, whilst also a subjective commentary on political movements of the time and the individuals involved in them. She met Fidel Castro and the Panamanian leader. She personally knew all the Sandinistan leaders including Daniel Ortega who was to be the country's President twice. It is also fascinating to see how her standing and viewpoint was affected by the fact she is female.

Ultimately she falls in love and marries an American at a time when the American's were funding a war against Nicaragua. This presents all of it's own sets of problems.

It would make a brilliant movie - action, politics, romance, rebellion, family trauma and it is all true.

Having spent a year living in Nicaragua, this was a fantastic book to read as suddenly it threw a new light on some of the current day to day political interactions and players. It is a real page turner and you don't need to know anything about Nicaragua to enjoy it.

I gave 'The Death of Ben Linder' 5 stars, but 'The Country Under My Skin' is much better. If you are only likely to read one book about Nicaragua let it be this one.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A remarkable, multifaceted memoir 17 Aug 2012
By Pablo
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is an amazing autobiography which combines a range of genres, including an 'inside' history of the Sandinista Revolution, a remarkable travel memoir, and (real-life) love story (stories). A woman from the Nicaraguan aristocracy, Belli nonetheless feels a deep empathy with the oppressed and dispossessed in her country, together with a revulsion against the (starkly portrayed) brutality of the Somoza regime, and this leads her to join the Sandinistas. As she never plays a military role, accounts of the guerrilla war are second-hand and the true horror of war doesn't really come across, although she portrays well the fear and paranoia of clandestine collaboration. Belli herself senses that her social status gives her some degree of protection, but she nonetheless risks her life and eventually has to go into exile, where she continues to work with the Sandinistas until their victory in 1979.
For all her sympathy with the cause, Belli is nonetheless astutely critical of the frequent incompetence and lack of sound judgment of some of the Sandinista leaders. The same with their flaws: her analysis of the acquired narcissism of certain Sandinistas upon their acquisition of power, for example, is particularly subtle and acute. As a woman, she also recounts her experiences of the patriarchal sexual conquest mentality of many (male) left-wing figures. The (Panamanian) General Torrijos (particularly) but also Daniel Ortega and even Fidel Castro come in for some pretty scathing treatment in this respect. So far as the treatment of women by (supposedly) left-wing regimes is concerned, her experiences are clearly disappointing. Whether in the Soviet Union, Algeria, or Nicaragua itself, 'liberation' for the people clearly does not entail liberation for women.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting stuff 6 Aug 2010
The Country Under My Skin is a memoir of the Nicaraguan revolution. Belli grew up in a wealthy family but joined the Sandinistas, working secretly for the resistance until she had to flee the country and live in exile until the Sandinistas took power and she could return to Nicaragua. It's not just a political memoir, though; it is also the story of her marriages and love affairs.

She is clearly a remarkable woman -- an award-winning poet, incidentally, as well as everything else -- and it is fascinating to read an insiders view of a revolution. She became a prominent figure for the Sandinistas in a PR role, and so she met with people like Fidel Castro, and her portrayals of these powerful men are interesting as well. And it is well-written, which makes all the difference.

I think it's particularly good when it's actually in Nicaragua: her life as a disaffected young woman who got married too young to the wrong person, the story of her political awakening, the process by which you join a clandestine organisation, and all the secret meetings and codewords and being followed by the police. Then the period is exile is rather less interesting, before it picks up again with the actual revolution and the immediate aftermath.

I do have some slight reservations, though. These are mainly about her particular perspective. When I got to the end of the book, I realised that it was a book about a revolution and a war which didn't actually feature any fighting: she was in exile during the revolution itself and she was a bureaucrat in the capital during the war against the Contras.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.2 out of 5 stars  32 reviews
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well told story of Dona Quixote of Nicaragua 5 Jan 2004
By Stacey M Jones - Published on
I was reminded while reading COUNTRY by Belli of a passage early in Rebecca West's BLACK LAMB AND GREY FALCON in which she writes that men suffer from lunacy of being too much of the world, and women suffer from being too local, too involved in their own personal lives. Belli does not suffer either, but rather finds a balance in her narration between the concerns of her worldly life with the concerns of her personal life. She recounts in similar voice the dramas of her involvement with the Sandinistas and her rise in the eventual government the rebel group achieved and the complications of her personal life as her first marriage and then her second crumbled.

She writes about herself as a Doña Quixote, seeking to make the world a better place, and having her own adventures, and the titles of each chapter charmingly advance this thematic idea, having a similar style to Cervantes' work (which I am reading now). For example, chapter 22 is titled, "On the hectic preparations for the attacks and on how I was unexpectedly called to perform a dangerous mission." Belli gives a compelling account in these chapters of the egregious human rights violations of the Somoza dictatorship that the Sandinistas sought to overthrow. The reader is walked through her early life, the daily life of a privileged Nicaraguan who felt a moral imperative to make a change in the government of her country. She also recounts her feelings about the Reagan administration's support of the Contras who sought to overthrow the Sandinista government. The actions of the United States, according to Belli in COUNTRY, were illustrative of why the United States is not universally beloved. This empire had a personal and profound impact on the author, who now lives in the United States part of the time with her third husband.

Belli is an accomplished poet and writer, and it shows in her work. She draws the picture of her life clearly and vividly, not falling prey to the "telling not showing" disease many nonwriters have when they seek to illustrate their own lives.

Belli writes with heartbreak of how the Sandinistas lost the election soon after they effected the end of the Somoza regime, but it is touching and shows the lasting legacy of the Sandinista revolution: It gave Nicaraguans the right to vote for their own leaders.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Power of Passion 30 May 2003
By "darahalperin" - Published on
The Power of Passion in Gioconda Belli's
The Country Under My Skin
The passions of womanhood must be God's greatest gift to humanity. If every woman would stand up and cultivate this treasure, each in her own way and with her individual talents, they could generate the inherent wisdom, power and goodness of their passions into peace. It is improbable that it could be world peace, and yet, the somehow more profound and practical inner peace is what those women would treasure most. If there was any doubt that this was possible, it was completely dispelled after journeying through Gioconda Belli's remarkable memoir, The Country Under My Skin.

Hers is a tale of passion told through the guises of love, patriotism, motherhood, poetry and war. She introduces herself as the protected, educated daughter of respectable, bourgeois parents who would be more comfortable at a country club than at a secret meeting of subversive revolutionaries. But it is not long before she begins to reveal how she started as one and became the other. Each chapter tunnels further into what makes her tick, where those passions come from and how they develop from a wild, immature spark into the ardent beliefs and controlled fire of her immense passions. She may be intense, but nobody would accuse Belli of being wishy-washy.
She takes us on a journey of self-discovery, showing us the important people and events that shaped her. From such notable personalities as Fidel Castro, Daniel Ortega, and the flurry of other well known artists, writers, subversives, and politicians she introduces, to the intimate intricacies of her own family, Belli's characters help define her. In a haunting and poignant way, what she finds in herself reveals that which all women possess: the passions of womanhood. It is this passion that forces her to face the reality of life in Nicaragua and make a choice to accept the striking chasms between affluence and poverty, high ideals and censorship, freedom and tyranny. Once her choice has been made, there is no turning back: that would mean denying the possibilities of her dreams and those passions. Once she chooses the Sandanista cause, the framework for her tale has been laid.
It is through the eyes of the revolutionary that we meet the mother, the poet, the friend, the lover and the woman that is Gioconda Belli. This unique perspective affords the reader the insight to understand how she can be all of these things without being a contradiction to herself. A young mother who puts her family at risk under a totalitarian dictatorship by joining the forces for change, it may seem a strange choice to make. In her view, the responsibility she had to her children was to provide for them a better world to live in than the one she inherited. In other words, how could she accept her position in society and ignore what she knew to be right? I don't think she could have and I am glad she didn't.

This is the legacy of Belli: she leads by example. Not that every debutante should pick up an AK-47 and support armed resistance for a cause, but that each woman should find her passion and use that strength to power her dreams and actions for a better future. Her story is one of conflict: the external forces of war and the internal turmoil of choices amid the stark realities of life. This inner struggle exposes the most tender, vulnerable side of the warrior. In the stories of her three marriages, her four children, and the several lovers in between, there is a moving honesty in her voice that is unafraid of critique or of other people's values. She may question her motives and tenacity, but in her effort to resolve these forces, we see our own choices and cannot condemn hers.

It is this very honesty that allows us to accept her choices and not judge her actions. Through her rich language and haunting descriptions we come to feel her longings, understand her not just as a revolutionary and poet, but also in a more complete way, as a woman. This transformation does not follow any plot or storyline. It is how we discover ourselves in her words. In the most haunting passage of her tale, she leaves the cerebral world of thought and logic behind to describe how she felt after having chosen to terminate a pregnancy:
"I still remember the emptiness I felt on the flight home to Nicaragua, like a gutted house with only its façade left standing. For many years I cried over what could have been. I suffered for every woman who has ever found herself torn by life-or-death decisions, decisions that are our right, but that forever leave a bomb crater in our hearts, a disaster zone where the ghost of a child wanders, laughing the laughter that never was, forever gazing at us wistfully for the life we denied it."
These are the words of anguish. They are the personal, lonely torment of her choice. In the true spirit of art, she transcends her own words and is inspired to channel the
ineffability of emotion. The ability to infuse words with the feelings and passions that encompass her is her greatest gift, to herself and her readers.
The author of four novels and several collections of poetry, Gioconda Belli encapsulates the power and passions of womanhood. The Country Under My Skin, subtitled "a memoir of love and war" is far more than that. It is the portrait of a woman whose choices and determination exceed the expectations of her position, her gender, and herself. What she has accomplished in those reminiscences is nothing short of exceptional and has provided a guide for personal growth, intimate introspection, sublime description, and intense integrity that will serve as a role model for all women wishing to capture and empower themselves with the force of their own passions.
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Political Made Personal 19 Sep 2003
By A Customer - Published on
Belli's extraordinary memoir brings intimacy, emotional sensitivity, and depth to the story of Nicaragua's revolution. Whether she is giving birth in a squalid clinic, exiled from her country, learning to shoot, being dropped from a helicopter - in high heels - or negotiating with Fidel, we never forget she and the other revolutionaries are all people struggling to live, to love, to raise their children, care for their parents, and save their country all at once. Never before have I read a political memoir that told me what I wanted to know about revolution - not just the events and the speeches, the strategies and the fights, but how it felt, how one lived it, what kind of person Fidel was, Ortega, and the rest. Belli tells the tale with all its drama, but doesn't leave out the profoundly complex personal texture.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Awe Inspiring!! 26 Sep 2003
By A Customer - Published on
Gioconda Belli's most recent book may be the best memoir I have ever read. It is the beautiful and inspiring story of an amazing woman - a woman who dared to defy what convention expected of her -- in order to help topple a murderous dictator. It is also the gripping story of a historical decade in Central America and in the world, told from a distinctly female point of view. And last but not least, it is the awesome story of a life that has been anything but self-indulgent, one that speaks (in Ms. Belli's words) "of the joy that comes from surrendering the "I" and embracing the "we." This book reads like an epic poem: it is filled with love and war, passions and dreams, the personal and the political. This is a truly awe-inspiring memoir, and I highly recommend it.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Can be read on three levels 21 April 2007
By B. Case - Published on
"The Country Under My Skin" is a courageous autobiography--a deeply personal "Memoir of Love and War." The author, Gioconda Belli, is a famous Latin American poet and Sandinista revolutionary.

This memoir can be read on three levels.

For those who love revolutionary or social history, Belli's memoir gives a unique female insider's perspective on the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. Many past reviewers, apparently men, seem to approach this book with this historical dimension squarely in focus. Understandably, some are disappointed by the unusual female perspective. However, as a woman, I was overjoyed to find a dangerous real life story of revolution from a woman's point of view.

"I stole across the room to open the door of my daughters' room. I stood there for what must have been a long time, watching their peaceful faces as they slept in their orange-colored beds. Melissa with her pacifier and Maryam with her arms wide open. If only I could take them back into my womb to shelter them. I wanted a womb to hide in with them, the warm safety of the amniotic fluid. At least Nicaragua wasn't like Argentina, or Chile, where the dictatorships tortured and killed children along with their parents. I didn't fear for their lives--what I feared was the idea of them being left all alone. Did I have any right, as a mother, to take such risks?...But my fate was sealed. Inside of me there wasn't the slightest impulse to turn back. A threat like this, in fact, had the opposite effect: it fed the rage I felt for the dictatorship, for a system against which we, the citizens, had no form of defense...Then and there, I vowed to myself that I wouldn't allow fear to turn me into a passive observer of all the ills and injustices that surrounded me" (p. 77-78).

For those who love romance, Belli's book is overflowing with deep, heart-felt emotion--passion for country, passion for life, passion for children, passion for family, passion for community, passion for cause, and naturally, passion for the many powerful and famous revoluntionary men in her life. She reveals in heart-wrenching clarity how her lovers possessed her, and failed her, and how she idealized them, and failed them.

"So we kissed, gasping with so much want as we had been painfully holding up. But when he tried to go after my shirt, my skirt, I stopped his hands. I buried by head on his chest, hushing him, telling him it would be better if we tried to stay put. Let's not go any further, I said. You better talk to me, talk to me about what you've been doing. My heart was beating fast and hard, and a fire from hell was burning my cheeks" (p. 200).

For those who love to analyze the inner psychological workings of a human life, Belli's book is an intensely revealing coming of age saga--here, Belli's purpose is clearly not to glorify, but rather, through the act of writing, to discover and comes to terms with the woman she is today. For this reader, it became very clear that Belli is one of those glorious persons of rare artistic temperament who is "Touched with Fire" (see Kay Redfield Jamison's book by the same title). As I read this book, I ached for Belli's pain, and felt my heart soar with her joy and courage.

"To me, poetry was a gift. It was water flowing from a spring within me, that channeled onto the page, effortlessly. I also thought of it as energy produced by an unseen organ in my body--a sensory antenna, perhaps, that would capture aromas, feelings, sensations, and every so often would release a flash of illunimation. If I had paper, pen, and silence at hand when the first verse broke into my consciousness, that thunderbolt would ignite a poem" (p. 182).

"I wrote. I wrote poems of love and songs of desperation. I became so depressed that some days I couldn't get out of bed" (p. 290).

"I didn't know how to be alone. I had exposed myself to bullets, death; I had smuggled weapons, given speeches, received awards, had children--so many things, but a life without men, without love, was alien to me, I felt I had no existence unless a man's voice said my name and a man's love rendered my life worthwile. It was not a question of denying men a role in my life, but I was determined to stop being emotionally dependent on them. I forced myself to examine my vulnerabilities: I had filled a raw emotional void, tried to make up for affection I had lacked, by asserting myself and my femininity mostly though my sexuality and my powers of seduction, ignoring and underestimating my other gifts. I thought nothing of my tenacity, or my optimism...I also understood that I loved my children, but only as reflections, only in two dimensions, as if they were just simple, sweet creatures, and I could not see that below the surface they too had fears, complexities" (p. 290).

It was so easy to love this book. "The Country Under My Skin" is well-crafted, often poetic, and reads better than most novels. When I finished it, I felt a deep emotional bond with Belli. What a courageous and beautiful soul she is!
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