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Claudia Hernández: Roza, tumba, quema (Slash and Burn)

The novel starts off before the vicious Salvadoran Civil War. Our heroine – no-one is named in this book – is a young girl. She experiences a lot of violence, from her mother and from others, so she is used to it. When she was thirteen, her father taught her how to put a gun together, take it apart, and shoot it. He had been training her brothers to fight, knowing a war would come.

When the war did come – suddenly – the women were on their own and they struggled to escape. Indeed, they are captured but manage to get away. Their house is burnt down and she and the others stay with her maternal grandmother. While there, three guerrillas turn up. She knows that that these three are deserters and their tactic is to pretend to take young women to safety and then rape them. She knows that they have to move because if the army captures them will be killed and likewise if the real guerrillas capture them. She manages to resist and is spared.

She joins her father in the hills but has to stay because she might be seen and followed if she goes back to the village. She is, however, a young woman and wants young women’s things – a bra, coloured underwear, skin creams and so on. She gets the bra but not much else. However, she does get pregnant. She had not been aware that she was pregnant but is still criticised for not getting an an abortion.

The baby is taken from her and she is told that she will get it back when the war is over. In the meantime she has had other children but the first baby has gone. She eventually tracks it down. The baby is now a teenager living with adoptive parents in France. The adoptive parents have also adopted two other babies, both boys, and also from El Salvador. She goes to France to see her daughter. The adoptive parents are friendly, particularly when they learn that she does not want to take her daughter back nor want money. The daughter, however, is difficult and suffers from depression. She now seems to have three mothers – her original mother, whom she had been told was killed in the war, her adoptive mother and now this new mother with whom she does not share a common language.

Her brothers are friendly and want to learn about their country of birth and meet their sister’s mother’s other children but the daughter is difficult even though her biological mother does not tell her the whole story.

We gradually move backwards and forwards, filling in the gaps of our heroine’s story. She managed to survived with the guerrillas, fighting even when she was pregnant. Marital fidelity was not a key factor and she had several partners and will eventually end up with five daughters, including the one in France. At the end of the war she is with a man but he has another girlfriend and plans on leavening her. Before he can leave, he is killed in an altercation with another man. Though he is the father of two of her daughters, his mother will never recognise them, despite our heroine’s best efforts.

She struggles very hard, in what is still very much a man’s world, to bring up her daughters, who do not really appreciate her efforts and sacrifices. Violence still abounds. Two examples: the first concerns a local man who has a habit of taking any woman he pleases, raping her and then, if she has not brought him a drink, punishing her further. His approach is to break into the house at night, often through the roof. One night they hear him and cluster together but he does not actually come in because he fears that our heroine, a former guerrilla, may be armed. His mother denies that he would do anything like this while his father is very ill and no-one wants to upset him, in case it makes him worse. Our heroine does eventually complain and the father pays for the damage to the roof and has words with the young man. The young man is later shot. Some years later, his son will continue the family tradition.

The other example concerns the three deserter guerillas who tried to abduct her, mentioned above. They were eventually killed by the guerillas. Their families blame our heroine and want revenge. They come to a farm where she is working but, fortunately, that day, she is not there. We learn that, if they had caused damage to the farm and the farmer had killed them, he would have had a bit of problem with the authorities, but the matter would soon be forgotten. However, if he had defended her against the people and killed any of them, he would have had not only considerable trouble with the authorities but also with their families. Not surprisingly, he does not want to get involved. She changes jobs. This and many other examples show that the lives of people, particularly women, are not highly valued in El Salvador.

Our heroine continues with her life as her daughters grow up. Two of them want to go to university. One gets married and has a child, which hinders her studies but the other tries hard. Her mother has to make huge sacrifices to help her, even though she gets financial aid. She struggles with the work, struggles with the system, is worried that her accent will betray her and feels she does got fit in. We follow her studies, which do no go well, in some detail. She ends up in Paris, though her half-sister has now gone to live in Latin America. The third daughter also wants to go to university but there is no money for her to do so,

Violence is the key to this book. Her father is killed, their house burned down and she is threatened with rape on several occasions. Her younger brother is abducted by the army and forced to serve with them. He only deserts much later at the insistence of his sister. If caught, he will be executed. Her other brother ends up in a psychiatric ward. Men seem to think that they have an absolute right to sexually assault any woman and also to steal from them. Hernández does not hold back on her graphic depiction of the horrors of the violence before, during and after the war.

No-one in this book is named. We see them referred to as, for example, sister, daughter, mother, father, etc. This can become somewhat confusing, even if, at times, these titles are qualified, e,g first-born sister. The purpose of this is, presumably, that all women could be subject to the same sort of treatment, regardless of their name. This violent behaviour is the norm in El Salvador, Hernández is telling us. In addition the only place named is Paris. Neither the country, presumably El Salvador, nor any places in it are named. San Salvador is simply called the capital.

Reading this book, you cannot help feeling moved by the sufferings of the people of El Salvador and the horrific treatment of the women there. Many of them leave and, in some cases, take their violence with them but, for those who stay, violence seems to be a way of life. This novel certainly make for grim reading but it is an important novel. Interestingly, it was published in Spanish in Colombia, another country that has suffered much violence.

Publishing history

First published in 2017 by Laguna Libros, Bogotá,
First English translation in 2020 by And Other Stories
Translated by Julia Sanches