[And Other Stories; 2020]
Tr. from the Spanish by Julia Sanches
In 2018, roughly a year and a half after the signing of a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the guerrilla group FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), I attended a memory workshop led by female ex-combatants in the country’s capital of Bogotá. In the midst of the implementation of the peace deal, these workshops brought together former members of the country’s oldest and largest guerrilla group to share their memories, reconstruct their own history of the conflict and, importantly, provide psychosocial support to the women transitioning to civilian life. During the day I spent with the ex-guerrilleras — which consisted of a series of activities such as meditation, singing, the sharing of stories, and the creation of written documents and images — one of the former combatants emotively described how only after laying down arms did she discover the given names of her former comrades, despite having fought alongside them for many years during the conflict.
It is of course not surprising that during her time in the FARC, the ex-guerrillera did not know the given names of those fighting with her. An alias, or a nom de guerre, forms a key part of the adoption of a revolutionary identity, as well as being a means of protecting both the individual and the families of those who joined guerrilla groups. However, I kept thinking back to this ex-combatant’s comment, and the significance of names and naming in wartime, as I read Salvadoran writer Claudia Hernández’s remarkable first novel, Slash and Burn, recently published in English translation by And Other Stories. Originally published as Roza quema tumba by Colombian independent publisher Laguna Libros in 2017, I remember spotting the book as I browsed a bookshop in Bogotá on that same trip, my attention caught by the striking drawing on its front cover by celebrated Colombian-Ecuadorian graphic artist PowerPaola. In the artist’s characteristically naïve style, the cover depicts a series of green fields and mountains against a burnt orange sky, setting the tone for the intimate and testimonial-inspired story contained within. Slash and Burn tells the quiet story of a female ex-guerrillera, an almost everywoman, as she and her daughters, and a host of other interconnected and mainly female characters, try to forge a future in an unnamed Latin American country in the aftermath of war.
Echoing the Colombian ex-combatant at the memory workshop, one of Slash and Burn’s major themes is the fraught process of naming, renaming, or readopting a given name both during and after the end of the guerrilla struggle. The novel similarly notes how in a conflict “not knowing a person’s real name or where they were from was a safety measure”. Yet, significantly, the female protagonist is described as continuing to use her alias even after she has laid down arms. This is commended by another former combatant who herself “had to get used to her previous name when she came home because her family refused to call her by the one she’d adopted in battle”. Others, however, “kept their war aliases” as a means of either commemorating or erasing their participation in the war: “They’d assumed the surnames of compañeros fallen in battle, or other names which reminded them of neither of their pasts on the battlefields nor of their pasts before that”. However, despite the novel’s recognition of the significance of names and naming for its characters, Slash and Burn never reveals either its protagonist’s given name or her alias. Paralleling the need to protect her identity during wartime, she remains clandestine to the reader throughout the novel.
Moreover, this is a novel where not only the name of the central character is kept from us but names are almost entirely non-existent. The only proper noun in Slash and Burn appears in the striking first line — “She had never been to Paris” — and in the rest of the text, there is no reference to either the names of characters, places, or even the country or continent where the novel is set. We are obliquely told that this is a “tropical country” far away from Paris, “the capital of a very old country”. Only the peppering of Spanish words and references to a distinctly Latin American rural world in the English translation, such as “milpa”, “tamales” and “guama”, vaguely indicate the novel’s setting. The absence of proper nouns makes this a war novel unlike any I have ever read. For it does not really draw upon the particular historical events of the 1980-92 Salvadoran Civil War, which we could deduce provide its context. Unspecified “soldiers” and “guerrillas” are referred to instead of the names or acronyms of the major actors; neither the Salvadoran government or army, the US-trained death squads, or the insurgent group Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) are mentioned.
In one sense, this lends universality to the story contained within Slash and Burn, which could just as easily be situated in Colombia, Guatemala, or any other country that experienced the Cold War’s brutal confrontations between leftist insurgencies and state forces following the counterinsurgency national security doctrine. The beginning of the novel describes the arrival of conflict to a small rural community when the female protagonist is a child. War arrives not with bombastic fanfare but with quiet “rumors” and indications that her family and community are preparing for its outbreak: “Her dad was training her brothers for war . . . The catechists were preparing them to resist in the hills, be it to fight or to hide, which is what they did months later, when the army invaded the region”. At fourteen, the protagonist is forced to flee to the mountains for protection after she is threatened with sexual violence. A two week stay transforms into a life in the guerrilla from which she does not return until the end of the war. Slash and Burn’s namelessness, moreover, also points to the pervasion of fear, suspicion, and what cannot be openly articulated in a country at war. In reference to the Colombian conflict, Daniel Pécaut describes these conditions as “the law of silence” that is imposed upon people living through terror.
This law of silence, or fear to speak, is conveyed expertly by Hernández’s sparse prose, its arms-length third person indirect narration, which seems to hold the reader at a distance from events, not quite welcoming them in as a trusted confidante. In her Translator’s Afterword, Julia Sanches describes the difficulty of translating a narrative that is “deliberately clouded — in which obfuscated, inexact language is heavy with what is not said and silence”. This tone weighs heavily on the novel and Sanches’ deft translation admirably deals with the difficulties of a novel with multiple nameless characters. For example, the translation requires multiple descriptors to distinguish between the protagonist’s four daughters, ranging from the “firstborn daughter” to the “first daughter she raised”, “the second daughter under her roof” and the “littlest daughter”, amongst many other variations. This technique works brilliantly at making visible the connections between characters, highlighting the familial, relational, and political ties that bind any society, and the ripple effects of war’s consequences beyond its immediate protagonists. Yet, as a literary device it also creates an often confusing narrative where it can be difficult for the reader to make out which daughter is the subject at any one time, or whom the pronoun “she” is actually referring to.
This ambiguity though is obviously Hernández’s point. The persistent anonymity of the novel indicates how it refuses to completely fulfill the testimonial impetus or fully endorse the idea of healing through storytelling after conflict. This point is significant, because Slash and Burn was first published in Spanish not during the war in El Salvador, or even just after its end, but twenty-five years after the signing of the peace accords in 1992. Rather than simply commenting on what cannot be said during war, Slash and Burn is a commentary on the ongoing silences and continuation of violence even long after the signing of a peace agreement, which was supposed to consign violence to the past and usher in a new era of peace, democracy, and prosperity. For Slash and Burn is not really a war novel at all but a work of “post-conflict” fiction, in which the “post” of post-conflict must be constantly interrogated. Despite brief sections detailing flashbacks of how the characters experienced or participated in the conflict, the novel’s main focus is actually on the period after the end of the war, an era Ellen Moodie refers to in her work on El Salvador as “the postwar murk”, “when meanings of violent acts were in flux and knowledge of how the world worked was shifting”. As Moodie notes, the shift involved a reconfiguration of how violence was understood, shifting from being seen as explicitly political — deriving from socio-political conditions, war, or revolution — to being viewed as individual acts of criminality divorced from politics.
Slash and Burn, however, depicts the overflow of conflict, the ongoing structural violence faced by ex-combatants in a divided “post-conflict” society. While the daughters of the unnamed protagonist tell her that the “war is over . . . there’s nothing to fear”, the novel describes the lingering “fear and distrust” of ex-combatants, who are spied on by their neighbors, stigmatized alongside their children, and struggle economically despite the promises of “reincorporation” and reconciliation programs:
Some of the ex-combatants sell the plots they’ve been allocated and set off in search of a new life, someplace where no one will know them or keep tabs on them. The ones who stay would rather their children kept out of the village. They prefer going elsewhere for their shopping and health checkups.
One of the most powerful elements of Slash and Burn is this depiction of the daily difficulties and economic uncertainties ex-combatants and their families confront after the arrival of “peace”. This ongoing struggle is reflected in the title of the novel, which not only calls up the scorched earth counterinsurgency strategy used by the Salvadoran armed forces during the war but slash-and-burn agriculture in which vegetation is burned and cleared for farming. The novel therefore makes a comparison between the slash-and-burn farmer, trying to sow new life after destruction, and its unnamed female protagonist as we follow her attempts to earn a living, support her daughters as they attempt to gain an education, go to university, and secure housing, as well as become mothers of their own. In these struggles, the novel subtly documents the failed promises of postwar reconstruction and the country’s embrace of free market capitalism.
Hernández’s decision to focus predominantly on the female experience of conflict is of course hugely significant. Despite the large numbers of women who fought in Latin American guerrilla groups — women made up 40% of the FMLN in El Salvador — their stories of war, and their experiences post-war, are still relatively untold. Beyond pointing to the threat of sexual violence during wartime, Slash and Burn focuses in on a particular female experience that is painfully invisible — an experience of maternity and motherhood that in many cases was prohibited in left-wing insurgencies. Hernández’s protagonist, however, is the mother of four daughters, and really what unites this dispersed plot is kinship. The novel’s chapters do not just focus on the unnamed female ex-combatant but move through the different perspectives and voices of those connected to her to create a polyphonic story of the war that does not really privilege any one perspective. In particular, it draws out the stories of her daughters as they attempt to create their own paths and form their own relationships to their mother’s past. Indeed, the trauma at the heart of the novel is the protagonist’s separation from her firstborn daughter, who she conceives and gives birth to during her time in the insurgency. Slash and Burn thus provides a feminist critique of the absence of true gender equality in a professedly egalitarian organization as it details the angry reaction of the commander who is the father of her child:
This is what the baby girl was to him: a casualty. She was also the reason for him to get angry. He couldn’t believe she’d do that to him, not then. They were at war. He was a commander. They were supposed to set an example. It was strictly forbidden to have children on the front line. Hadn’t anyone told her?
Returning to the camp after giving birth, the protagonist is promised that her daughter would be “looked after by allies until the war ended”. What happens in reality is that the daughter is given away to “help fund the cause”, and with the complicity of the church, she is adopted by a family in Paris, the novel’s only pronoun. After the war ends, the protagonist visits France to try and reconnect with her firstborn child, with whom she can only communicate through a translator and who now goes by a different name than the one given to her at birth. Hernández resists the temptation of an easy narrative of reconciliation that would represent the healing of the post-conflict society by reuniting a mother and her child. Instead, the daughter is unable to forgive or reconcile herself to her mother’s past or her own origin story. Slash and Burn thus refuses to provide any neat resolutions to the complexities of people’s experience of war and violence. As another one of the daughters reflects when faced with a bureaucratic process designed to benefit ex-combatants and their families, “Her mother’s life story doesn’t fit in the assigned box on the university’s financial-aid application form”.
In representing the ongoing legacy of the conflict in El Salvador almost thirty years after its official end, Slash and Burn blurs the defined parameters of literary narratives of war, and the idea that violence has a clear beginning and endpoint, to create a searing vision of a “post-conflict” society and the quiet struggles of its ordinary members. In this way, its message echoes the work of celebrated writers on the legacy of the El Salvadoran war, such as Horacio Castellanos Moya, but it also speaks to other contexts, such as Colombia, by also attempting to write the story of conflict and post-conflict. Despite its distant narration and often despairing story, the end of Slash and Burn is not unhopeful. Overall, this is a story about survival and the novel’s last line, which describes when another of the protagonist’s daughters gives birth to her own child — “ she’d call her by the name her mother’s firstborn should have gone by” — indicates the persistence of bonds and relations of kinship that have not been broken by war.
Cherilyn Elston is a lecturer in Latin American Cultural Studies at the University of Reading, UK. She is the author of Women’s Writing in Colombia – An Alternative History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and the translator of Jorge Consiglio, Southerly (Charco Press, 2017). She is the managing editor of the online literary translation journal, Palabras Errantes: http://www.palabraserrantes.com/.