Claudia Hernandez, Slash and Burn (& Other Stories, 2020)
“You can’t understand,” is a common phrase among those who have experienced war. For those of us who haven’t, the realities of conflict are another planet.
Hernandez’s novel is both a realist study of life in the El Salvadorean civil war and an allegorical indictment of anarchy more generally. It shows us life after civilisation breaks down; nasty, brutish and short.
The characters have no names, and neither do the places. The only proper names in the book are those of Paris and France. Fittingly, these stand for non-places, where a woman’s child is taken to save her from the war, and subsequently lost.
The geography that the woman inhabits is present in objects, landscapes, people and most of all threats, but, like our protagonist herself (or at least one of our protagonists – the boundaries between individuals too are indistinct), our awareness is only focused on action and the threat of action.
Young girls are taught to shoot by fathers who run away with the guerrilla. The fathers are soon killed and the guerrilla steal and rape without consequence.
Or at least they say they are guerrilla. They could be bandits, or perhaps even the government.
A memorable scene involves one of these boys jumping on the woman’s roof. He has raped all the women in town and has come for the woman’s daughters.
We know she has a gun. Why doesn’t she shoot him?
But trouble only makes trouble, and in civil wars, trouble soon turns deadly, and death multiplies exponentially. So she lets him go on jumping, and she turns him away when he comes to the door. He threatens and he jumps some more. It goes on.
As the war quietens down, we, the readers, are as unsettled as the survivors to watch a new generation suddenly preparing for university and planning foreign trips. It feels strange; out of place within the narrative.
Hernandez, brilliantly, has made everyday life into something surprising, surprising like violence would be in any other novel.
We still, for certain, cannot understand what post-war life is like for the survivors, but Hernandez at least demonstrates to us how strange it makes our own lives look.
The world of safety, with its hopes, dreams and expectations, is like a strange mirage, only concrete. Our protagonist can reach out and touch it. She can send her daughters out into it.
But for her, whose consciousness is attuned to every nuance of movement, every sound and shrug, anything that might give away a murderous intention, the scent of dangers; the blasé innocence of the post-war generation is staggering, perhaps terrifying.
The translation, by Julia Sanches, is lush and as dense as a jungle. Thick, weighty paragraphs carry us along in a manner that doesn’t make for light reading, but carries a definite weight of authority and authenticity.
It has the feel of a major work and, although my knowledge of Latin American literature is slim, I suspect future years might just recognise it as one. Not just for Latin America, but for the whole wartorn world.
– Joe Darlington