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Poet of genius

Roque Dalton was the major literary figure and an important political architect of the revolutionary movement in El Salvador and a new film on his life pays due tribute to his creative inspiration, says JOHN GREEN

Roque Dalton's name is hardly known in Britain but in Latin America his reputation as a poet is up there with the best. He was killed in 1975, aged only 38, murdered by his erstwhile comrades in one of El Salvador's guerilla movements.

Today he has become that country's posthumous national poet. Life, death, love and politics are the themes of his passionate, at times sarcastic, and image-laden works.

Fusilemos La Noche! (Let's Shoot The Night!), the new film about Dalton's life by the Austrian film maker Tina Leisch, is a more than fitting homage.

The only archive footage that exists of Dalton is a few seconds of badly scratched film from a Cuban interview with him. So Leisch had to trace his footsteps meticulously to build up a rounded picture of the man.

She finds and interviews not only one of his sons and his wife but former girlfriends, fellow poets and writers and several former comrades from the then People's Revolutionary Army (ERP). There are short, perceptive contributions by Regis Debray and Eduardo Galeano too.

As a young man Dalton was captured by the military dictatorship's police on several occasions and once escaped a probable death sentence when an earthquake destroyed the prison in which he was incarcerated.

After training in Cuba, he returned to El Salvador and tried to join the main Salvadoran political-military organisation Popular Liberation Forces Farabundo Marti (FPL).

But its leader Salvador Carpio rejected his application, saying that Roque's role in the revolution was as a poet, not a foot-soldier.

Because of this, Dalton joined the ERP, the military wing of another left-wing faction.

In his short life he was a prolific writer of plays, short stories, a novel, journalism and many poems. Leisch solves the problem of dealing with poetry in film by persuading the people she talks to, from vendors and students on the street to former girlfriends and comrades, to read some of his work.

Even a policeman in uniform is persuaded to read one on imprisonment and torture.

She follows Dalton's footsteps from El Salvador to Prague, from Vienna to Havana, and in each place sets up a larger-than-life photo of Dalton to provoke reactions from her interviewees and to emphasise his continued presence among us. Short animation sequences underline Dalton's humour and passion for life, alongside his earnest politics.

In 1955 he and the Guatemalan poet Otto Rene Castillo founded Circulo Literario Universitario, a group of contemporary writers, which published some of Central America's most recognised literary figures. He also won a prestigious Casa de las Americas prize for his writing.

Dalton deserves to be wider known here in Europe and is, alongside his compatriot and fellow communist Pablo Neruda, the most deserving of the title poet of the revolution. Hopefully this film will help redress that lack.

Fusilemos La Noche! in many ways mirrors Dalton's iconoclastic poetical forms, his deep feeling for the language of the streets and his unique mix of tenderness, fun, philosophic curiosity and his outrageous larger-than-life personality.

Yet it is no hagiography and Leisch doesn't avoid Dalton's failings.

But we're made aware not only of his creative genius but also what a tragic loss his early death was, both for the revolution and for literature.


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