At first glance, what separates Paris from an unnamed village in Central America is far more than what connects them. And what connects a mother and her daughter is more than what separates them — at first glance. Look a little closer and you see the tendrils of connection spiraling out of Central American classroom, across the ocean to the capital of France and then back in time to the heart of a bloody civil war. And you will see the disconnection: a baby taken and raised so far away that her mother cannot work her tongue around the pronunciation of her name.
Claudia Hernández’s newest novel, Slash and Burn, tells a story of war and women. The novel is shaped around the life of an ex-combatant and her daughters. The war could be the 1980 to 1992 conflict in Hernández’s home country, El Salvador, but it could also be a reflection of any number of the struggles against dictatorial governments in Central and South America in the past few decades. The choice not to name places and people plays an important role in Slash and Burn. Paris is the only proper noun. It appears in the first sentence, on the first page, and then weaves its way throughout. Meanwhile, the narrators are known to the reader most often through their relationships: her mother, her daughter, her sister — they rarely appear without that possessive “her” or descriptors like the “daughter in that other country,” the “faraway daughter,” the “missing daughter,” the “distant daughter,” the “daughter they did not grow up with,” the “daughter she lost,” the “first daughter she raised,” the “daughter of the partner she was with the day the war ended,” the “daughter at university,” the “daughter of a man who was no longer with them.” In place of proper names, the women of Slash and Burn are defined by their relationships, their relationships to their mother, to one another, to time and place and the spaces they inhabit.
This method not only lends the novel the texture of a fable, but like so many other elements in Slash and Burn, it works on multiple levels at once. During the civil war, names were a liability. If you knew someone’s given name or the name of the place they were from or the name of the place where they currently were, the army could torture you and extract that information. It was better not to know. People took war names and referred to places in code. And then after the war, they took on new names. They “assumed the surnames of compañeros fallen in battle, or other names which reminded of neither their pasts on the battlefield nor their pasts before that.”
The textual result of the lack of proper nouns is a slippery polyvocality. The “she” who sits in the classroom on the first page is same age as the “she” who, seven pages later, walks to the local mill, but the latter “she” is the mother of the schoolroom “she.” Their experiences — separated by at least twenty years and the chasm of a civil war — are unified by the dreamy logic of childhood, girlhood to be specific. The joys and dangers of being a girl are both radically different for this mother and her daughters and also much the same. In one particularly evocative scene, the mother watches her daughter prepare for a new life at the university and marvels at the ways their paths overlap and deviate:
“The backpack — the same size as her mother’s at that age — was camo, but instead of brown, black, and olive green, it was pink, fuchsia and pearl white. Her mother thinks it’s a joke. With a backpack like that one, she’d have died within thirty seconds of being in the hills. Or maybe even earlier. She’d have been any easy target. For her daughter though, it’s a safety measure. They’d said that, to get by in the city, she should do her best to look like she was from there. Otherwise she’d be an easy target for thieves and rapists, who could sniff out fresh arrivals with ease and exploit the fact that they didn’t know their way around and had no one to turn to for help.”
What would kill one generation, will save another, but all in all, they are guarding themselves against the same things. Overlaps and schisms are what Hernández is best at illuminating. In deceptively simple prose that has the immediacy of oral storytelling and timelessness of myth, the mothers and daughters of Slash and Burn show us that for better or for worse, the past is never really gone, the good parts and the bad. The flower that the combatant tucked behind her ear while she hefted a machine gun and the explosions that leveled her childhood home live on and transmogrify within her daughters where ever they are, in Paris, France, at the university, or with their own families.
In her afterword, translator Julia Sanches says that when she met Claudia Hernández and thanked her for her writing, Hernández said, “It’s nothing. I don’t do anything. I just listen.” That act of acute listening is palpably present not only in the story that she tells but also in the very words that she chooses and it reminds me of something John Berger once wrote. Berger was speaking of poetry but I believe it applies just as well to Hernández’s prose. “It is the language itself which has to hear and acknowledge,” he wrote. “Poems, regardless of any outcome, cross the battlefields, tending the wounded, listening to the wild monologues of the triumphant or the fearful. They bring a kind of peace. Not by anesthesia or easy reassurance, but by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been. Yet the promise is not of a monument. (Who, still on a battlefield, wants monuments?) The promise is that language has acknowledged, has given shelter, to the experience which demanded, which cried out.”
Too often, I think, writers take experiences like war, rape, death, and loss and they attempt to build monuments. Hernández has given us recognition and shelter instead.
Slash and Burn
By Claudia Hernández
Translated by Julia Sanches
And Other Stories
Published January 5, 2021