A heart attack blinded the life of the writer José León Sánchez this past week, a unique personality in the culture of Costa Rica, whose life went from being the “Monster of the Basilica” to the recognition of the Magón National Culture Award.
In the middle, he left a long trail of literary work whose flagship is The Island of Lonely Men, a text that still impresses and embarrasses us today given the devastating account of what was the prison in San Lucas.
The former director of the Colegio de Costa Rica, Álvaro Rojas, who has had close contact with Sánchez and his family, confirmed that the writer’s death occurred around 5 p.m. and that in recent days his heart condition had deteriorated.
Vindication came late
In his adolescence he was tried, convicted and stigmatized for a crime he did not commit and the vindication would come many years later, when in 1999 the Supreme Court of Justice determined that, in effect, he was innocent, he always was. Then, the other high point, in 2018 he was recognized with the Magón.
At 90 years old, José León Sánchez received, against all odds, the most important award in Costa Rican culture. Sánchez was an intense collaborator of multiple publications through opinion articles that he published over the years.
In one of the last ones, in 2020, he angrily addressed the issue of the selection of national awards and the treatment that the State gives to those who develop art and culture.
An extraordinary life
Rojas commented that Sánchez’s was “an extraordinary life to think about politics and power relations in 20th century Costa Rica, his case is representative of a tremendously conservative and violent society.”
The writer also pointed out that the famous crime of the Basilica “stigmatized him, but miraculously also made him one of the most important writers of Costa Rican literature” in his opinion, mainly due to three works: “Campanas para Callar”, “Al Viento”, “La Isla de los Hombres Solos”, which is a barbaric document and a sample of what the repressive penal system of San Lucas Island was like, written with an impressive sensitivity for someone who knew how to read and write and perfected it in prison at a place that was like hell”.
The third work he mentioned was Tenochtitlan, “the chronicle of the last battle of the Aztecs, when they lost Tenochtitlan to the Spanish.” He added that it is “the story told from the point of view of the defeated, which is the point of view from which José León saw things, in that sense he was an iconoclast, always swimming against the current of the official Costa Rican culture”. Rojas described José León as a person “with extraordinary sensitivity, he was afraid of the sea, listening to the sound of the waves.” He also described him as a great voracious reader, with a huge heart, with a lot of knowledge of many things acquired by his own free will, almost always studying alone and always generous and willing to help people like me, who were his friends and who`s departure hurts a lot.”