Paraíso portátil / Portable Paradise
by Mario Bencastro, English Translation by John Pluecker
Published: 31 Mar 2010
A stirring collection of stories bring to life the impact of war and the need to leave one’s country due to violence and poverty
The watchman feels very fortunate to have a job in El Salvador after the civil war, when so many people are unemployed. It’s boring but easy work, taking care of a new house that belongs to a Salvadoran couple living in Los Angeles. When he thinks about his previous jobs—day laborer, coffee harvester, highway construction worker—he’s even more grateful. All he has to do is water the plants and cut the grass, and of course, keep thieves from stealing all the furnishings. And once a month, he reassures the owners that their beautiful home in their beloved homeland remains in good condition until their next visit. Then one day, everything changes.
Acclaimed Salvadoran writer Mario Bencastro examines themes of war, dislocation, and longing in this bilingual collection of stories, poetry, and one novella. Many of his characters are forced to leave their homelands because of violence and poverty. But once in the Promised Land, separated from family and friends and in a country whose language and culture they don’t understand, many find themselves overwhelmed by feelings of loss and nostalgia.
In “Dragon Boy,” a group of children orphaned by El Salvador’s civil war band together to survive, even as they are exploited by predators. In “The Plan,” a successful Swiss millionaire returns to his native El Salvador—which he left as a defenseless orphan—and executes his ruthless plan to take revenge on those responsible for the brutal killings of his family. And in “From Australia with Love,” a Salvadoran émigré plans to marry a countryman she met on the Internet, until they realize that they have met before.
Readers will not soon forget Bencastro’s moving images fueled by the horrible realities of war and the painful need to leave behind all that is dear.
“By turns strange, moving, shocking, and illuminating, [the collection] offers an unflinching look at life for immigrants and their struggle to find better lives in America.” —ForeWord Reviews
“With the simplicity of a reporter and a touch of romantic idealism regarding the characters he describes, Bencastro portrays familiar and current topics such as the deadly struggles to cross the border, the despair of low pay, the nature of migrant and unwanted jobs, and the fatal destinies of desperate, impoverished, and abused Central American civil war survivors.” —Library Journal / Críticas
Port Saint Lucie FL
A native of El Salvador, Mario Bencastro is a novelist, playwright and painter. He took up the brush and canvas as the first outlet for his artistic expression. The medium garnered him remarkable success from an early age, with his works gracing the walls of major galleries in El Salvador, the United States, Latin America and Europe.
Despite his triumph as a painter, the social and political drama which was unfolding in his country compelled Bencastro to concentrate his artistic endeavors in literature. In 1979, he began the arduous task of writing his first novel, A Shot in the Cathedral, a project that would consume the next ten years of his life. Chosen as a finalist from among 204 manuscripts submitted for the Diana y Novedades International Literary Prize competition in Mexico in 1989, the novel was first published in Spanish by the renowned Editorial Diana. His second book, Árbol de la vida: historias de la guerra civil, was published in 1983 by El Salvador’s Editorial Clásicos Roxsil. The author’s second novel, The Flight of the Lark, was a finalist in Spain’s Felipe Trigo Literary Prize. Arte Público Press released A Shot in the Cathedral in 1996 and the Spanish-language version, Disparo en la catedral, in 1997. That same year Arte Público Press published the English and Spanish-language editions of The Tree of Life: Stories of Civil War.
In Odyssey to the North (Arte Público Press, 1998) Bencastro turns his attention north of the border as his characters seek a better life in the United States. Kirkus Reviews called it “a heartfelt story of political oppression and exile … credible and quite moving.” The Spanish-language version, Odisea del norte, was published in 1999.
While all of Bencastro’s work is appropriate for young adults, and his novels are used in high schools across the country, he has finally written a novel specifically for young people: Viaje a la tierra del abuelo (Arte Público Press, 2004), or A Promise to Keep (Arte Público Press, 2005). The novel focuses on a young Salvadoran boy raised in the United States who promises his grandfather he will return his body to his homeland for burial. The story that follows is part adventure and part coming-of-age, as Sergio’s struggle to keep his promise raises questions of identity, homeland and culture.
A prolific short story writer, Bencastro’s work has been published in numerous anthologies including: Where Angels Glide at Dawn: New Stories from Latin America (HarperCollins, 1990); Texto y vida: introducción a la literatura hispanoamericana (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), Turning Points (Nelson Canada, 1993) and Vistas: voces del mundo hispánico (Prentice Hall, 1995). A number of his short stories have been rewritten for the stage.
Bencastro currently resides in Florida; however, he maintains strong ties with his native land, spending a portion of each year there. El Salvador remains the author’s principle source of artistic inspiration.