📖 🇸🇻 #57: A moving novel from El Salvador
Claudia Hernández on keeping a family together
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Claudia Hernández’s Slash and Burn begins by introducing an unnamed mother who is saving money to go to Paris and find her eldest daughter who was taken away from her as a baby. It is this unnamed woman, a former guerrilla, and her four daughters who are at the centre of this book as they try to make a future for themselves in the aftermath of a Central American country’s civil war. Like in Anna Burns’s Milkman, Hernández chooses not to name her characters or the country in which Slash and Burn is set.
Instead, the book’s narrators are introduced through descriptions of their relationships and the spaces they inhabit: we have the “faraway daughter”; the “first daughter raised by her side”; the “daughter at university”; and “the littlest one”. It’s a decision that makes for an intense reading experience, but it’s also a nod to the complexity of knowing people’s names during war, when having any kind of personal information is a good enough reason for the army to torture you.
As a thirteen-year-old girl, Hernández’s main narrator followed her father into the hills and became a guerrilla. When the war ended, she learned that the baby she was forced to give up in order to continue fighting was sold to a couple in France. Years later she makes it to Paris, only to find a bourgeoise girl who is prone to bouts of depression and wants nothing to do with her.
She’s survived the war, pulled one brother from the army, torn the other from the hands of his torturers, and given birth to a girl against her superiors’ wishes. And she couldn’t get her daughter to come home with her?
The mother returns home to raise her other daughters, who are also struggling with life in the aftermath of the war. For example, the eldest—who was mostly raised by her grandmother—resents her mother’s neglect. And, when her daughter from Paris eventually does come “home”, it is only to visit other families who also lost children in the war.
Hernández explores the difficulties of post-war life through her main narrator as she tries to support her daughters as they go to university, find houses of their own, and become mothers. One of the most interesting things about the main narrator’s relationships with her daughters is her decision to withhold information about the horrors of the war. Though she is trying to protect her children, her silence winds up creating a distance between them.
Slash and Burn is a difficult read that commands the reader’s full attention. Written in long, sprawling paragraphs in close third person, it moves between characters and decades with almost no direct speech and very little imagery. I love that Hernández chose to tell this story from a female perspective, but I have to admit that at times I found the book’s form almost impenetrable and I often found myself feeling disorientated when the narrative passed between characters. If you’re tempted to give this book a go, make sure you give it lots of time.
Slash and Burn by Claudia Hernández, tr. Julia Sanches (And Other Stories, 2021 / Laguna Libros, 2017)
More books by Salvadoran authors:
One Day of Life by Manlio Argueta, tr. Bill Brow
Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya, tr. Katherine Silver
The Dream of My Return by Horacio Castellanos Moya, tr. Katherine Silver
Tyrant Memory by Horacio Castellanos Moya, tr. Katherine Silver
What have you read recently?
If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or you’d like to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I’m always happy to venture further afield for a good recommendation.
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