By Robin Munby
“Maybe some of that night’s fear and fleeing had been passed on to the part of her that once gave her life” (274), the ex-guerrilla at the heart of Slash and Burn reflects, towards the end of the novel. She has returned to the place she fled to many years ago, when the army first attacked her village, and she is thinking of her first-born daughter, lost in the turmoil of El Salvador’s long Civil War. This war, which lasted from 1979 to 1992, was one of the longest and bloodiest conflicts in 20th-century Latin America. It disproportionately affected the country’s rural population, where the FMLN guerrilla movement was based and drew much of its support. Rural Salvadorans, like the characters of Slash and Burn, were subjected to a ruthless campaign of state-sponsored terror, either due to suspicion that they were aiding the insurgency or to ensure they were too afraid to do so. This harrying of the rural population forced whole villages to flee to the hills, leaving their homes and possessions behind them. This state of flight was known as the guinda, and it would leave its mark on the lives of many Salvadorans.
Amid the chaos of the guinda, families could easily be separated, some permanently, leading to a generation of children brought up in orphanages or by adoptive parents. As well as those lost in flight, the Salvadoran army is known to have kidnapped children from FMLN-supporting areas, who were handed over, together with those orphaned by the war, to organisations such as the Salvadoran Red Cross. Though the government side was responsible for the vast majority of these forced separations, guerrillas also reported being made to give up their own children. This, we learn, was the fate of the ex-guerrilla’s first-born daughter in Slash and Burn: the nuns at the orphanage where she was left for safekeeping sold her to a French couple with the permission of her own side, “to help fund the cause.” “Traveling to that other country isn’t her life’s dream or a flight of fancy,” we read, at the beginning of the novel’s second chapter, “She only insists on going, and on finding the means to do so, because she wants to see her daughter” (17).
As a reader, it is tempting, early on in Slash and Burn, to extrapolate plot: a mother’s quest to be reunited with her daughter, culture shock, the righting of a wrong. But that is not the book Hernández is writing. The first-born daughter – always referred to as the “first-born” in contrast to the “eldest of the daughters she raised” – remains an almost haunting presence throughout the book, but she is not its focus. Rather, it is the mother, and the daughters she raised, who are its true subjects. As we read on, plot itself almost melts away, destabilised by the “patchwork” narrative, as the novel’s translator Julia Sanches describes it. We build up a sense of the main characters, of their lives and struggles, not so much through plot as through a layering of experiences – triumphs, traumas, sacrifices. The narratorial perspective, which shifts seamlessly from one consciousness into another, seems to diffuse these experiences across the women of the novel.
This sense of diffusion is furthered by another of the book’s most notable features – its lack of names. I should admit that it took a while for me to notice, on first reading, that even El Salvador itself is not named in Slash and Burn. In a book so identifiably Salvadoran, this seemed almost inconceivable. In fact, even the novel’s characters remain nameless throughout. It has been suggested that the absence of names serves to highlight the universality of the novel, to emphasise that “the brutalities of war are the same the world over.” More than this, though, it draws the characters themselves together. Sanches, who has spoken about her profound engagement with the novel and its translation, both in the translator’s afterword and elsewhere, describes this effect as:
a piling-up, an accretion of purpose, ambition, and being-in-the-world. Of connection – between these girls/women and the people, the circumstances, the world around them, all branching like a constellation off their mother and her past. (303).
As readers, keeping track of whose perspective we share at any moment can be challenging, but by surrendering to this narratorial diffusion, we too are drawing the women of the novel together. The absence of place names does something similar. In a country scarred by the separation of families, by the guinda, by a war so tied to its geography, the absence of toponyms erases these painful distances, at least metaphorically.
The almost total absence of specific names, however, does not mean that naming itself is not important in Slash and Burn. The very opposite is true. In the context of a civil war like El Salvador’s, names wield enormous power. When soldiers raid the village, it is “the names and whereabouts of their husbands and sons,” suspected of fighting with the guerrillas, that they want. When three deserters come to kidnap and rape the main protagonist at the age of fourteen, she calls the one she recognises by name, hoping that the fear of being outed as a deserter will scare him off. Later, after a man who is terrorizing the village threatens her family, those responsible for bringing him to justice come to her: “It was an invitation to name a name.” In her translation, with its repetition of “name,” Sanches emphasizes the weight of this act, the act of naming, with its power over life and death.
How we choose to be named, and how others choose to name us, can also carry great emotional weight, and this plays an important role in what Hernández has described as the novel’s “grammar of emotions.” The central character worries how her mother will feel if she hears other ex-guerrillas in the community calling her daughter by her wartime alias: “They’ll speak to her of merit and of how proud her daughter must feel to use the [name] she was given in the mountains. She’ll say that she, and not the mountain, is her mother” (245). On the other hand, names are also a source of comfort: “During war, friendship meant sharing personal things, revealing your given names and sleeping side by side every so often” (282).
In fact, it is an act of naming that marks the end of the novel, but I won’t spoil that here. Rather, I would like to return to the one place that is named in the novel, in its very first line: “She’s never been to Paris” (9). As Alexandra Ortiz Wallner has pointed out, it was in Paris, almost forty years ago, that Elizabeth Burgos interviewed the Guatemalan indigenous activist and future Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú. Those interviews would become the book I, Rigoberta Menchú, one of the most important pieces of testimonial literature of the 20th century. In that book, Menchú states, “The important thing is that what has happened to me has happened to many other people too: My story is the story of all poor Guatemalans. My personal experience is the reality of a whole people” (1). Slash and Burn, too, is more than the just story of its characters, more than a novel. Claudia Hernández spent twenty-five years collecting the testimonies that make up this book, and its characters are the echoing voices of a multitude of Salvadoran women. As she told Sanches in a recent interview, “no part of Slash and Burn came from me”.
When the mother and ex-guerrilla returns to the gorge where she first hid from the army, in the scene I described at the start of this review, we read that, “Everything still carries the shaken silence of the fleeing.” Through the women in her novel, and the many women whose testimonies they represent, Hernández is pushing back against this “shaken silence.” But breaking a silence can be fraught with risk. Years after I, Rigoberta Menchú was published, Menchú was publicly accused of fabricating parts of her story by a US academic. She had lost her parents and two brothers in the civil war, given voice to a people suffering brutal oppression, but her testimony, her name, were now brought into question. As I read Slash and Burn, I couldn’t help but think about the novel’s namelessness from this perspective. Looked at in this light, the anonymity permeating the novel feels like an act of love, of solidarity, with the novel’s characters, yes, but also with the many women whose stories are woven into its fabric: “Slash and Burn is a book that bursts with respect for the anonymity and memory of the characters who populate it,” writes Sanches in her afterword. I couldn’t agree more.
Hernández, Claudia. Slash and Burn. Translated by Julia Sanches. And Other Stories, 2021.
Robin Munby is a freelance translator from Liverpool, UK, based in Madrid. After graduating in Modern Languages from the University of Sheffield, he worked in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, before returning to the UK to complete his Masters in Translation Studies at the University of Glasgow. His translations have appeared in the Glasgow Review of Books, Wasafiri Magazine, Asymptote and Apofenie, and he is an assessor for the PEN Translates grant scheme. He translates from Spanish, Russian and Portuguese.
Menchú, Rigoberta. I, Rigoberta Menchú, edited and introduced by Elizabeth Burgos-Debray; translated by Ann Wright. London: Verso, 1984.
Wallner, Alexandra Ortiz. ‘Guerra y escritura en Roza tumba quema (2017) de Claudia Hernández’, Revista Letra (22), 2019: pp. 110-128