Slash and Burn by Claudia Hernández (trans. Julia Sanches) — Silvia Rothlisberger

They were still compañeras-in-struggle. She likes the fact that she still uses her alias. She, on the other hand, had to get used to her previous name when she came home because her family refused to call her by the one she’d adopted in battle. […] Others kept their war aliases, taking advantage of the fact that their birth certificates had been burned during the invasions. They’d assumed the surnames of compañeros fallen in battle, or other names which reminded them neither of their pasts on the battlefield nor of their pasts before that. She knew many had started anew and were now very different from the people they’d been then.

Slash and Burn sheds light on the aftermath of civil war from the point of view of women: daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, grandmothers, ex-combatants struggling to get by in a post-war filled with scars, grief, trauma and where the cycle of poverty seems impossible to overcome.

At the centre of Slash and Burn is a woman who was swept into war as a girl/daughter, fighting in the mountains she becomes a woman/mother and because of the war she loses her father and her first daughter – who was forcibly separated from her and ‘given away to help fund the cause’. After winning the war she returns to civilian live where she faces the enduring consequences of being a woman ex-combatant. Life in the neighbourhood that was built for them after they come down from the mountains is marked by a constant struggle to raise her four daughters as a single mother in a community where patriarchal hierarchies thrive. Yet there is so much dignity and self-respect in her, that one can only admire her resilience and strength.

This is a book that demands the reader’s rigour and attention and in return Hernández gives an extremely perceptive depiction of what it is to be a woman living in those extraordinary circumstances.

What is so impressive about Hernandez’s prose is that even though all the characters are unnamed, and mostly all of them are women, readers can follow the different stories knowing which daughter or mother or sister they are reading about. This is a book that demands the reader’s rigour and attention and in return Hernández gives an extremely perceptive depiction of what it is to be a woman living in those extraordinary circumstances. In an interview between Hernández and the book’s translator Julia Sanches, Hernández explains that this novel is the result of twenty-five years of collecting testimonies from those who were part of the war and its aftermath.

By the time she returned, two months after giving birth and nursing her daughter, he was already with somebody else. […] Though she hadn’t been tried before a committee, as happened in cases of disobedience, she felt they’d punished her enough by separating her from her child. She’d begged them again and again to let her stay and raise her daughter in the village. She even offered to cut out her own tongue, if they were afraid she might say something. She pleaded with them to let her spend a little more time with her daughter, just one more year, just a few more months, a couple of days at least. They reminded her she had a mission to carry out and needed to obey orders.

Throughout the pages of Slash and Burn we read about the unreported everyday lives of ex-guerrilla members in a village where they were allotted one parcel per family after the war ended. The conditions they live in are hard: fruitless harvests, rumours, revenge, misogyny, abuse of power rife and the ex-combatant herself wonders if they actually won the war, if these conditions they live in are what they fought for. She wants a better life for her daughters, she does everything she can to help them secure education, a place to live, transportation, childcare but securing these basic rights is one endeavour, succeeding at keeping them is another.

In the final chapters the ex-combatant becomes aware of a need for closure, she has been so busy looking for her lost daughter, providing for her other four daughters, protecting the house they live in, that she hadn’t had time to attend her own scars, her trauma. She wasn’t even aware of any of them. Eventually she comes to terms with the fact that she had lost her daughter and that she had lost the war.

Slash and Burn is named after an agriculture method in which forests are burned and cleared for planting, the guerrillas fought in the mountains for all to be equal but just like in the agriculture method where the land takes years to regenerate, the ex-combatants find it hard to reintegrate, communities are ruptured and the position of disadvantage remains with them. More so for women, who were abused during the war and afterwards, trying to get by in a community that acts with contempt against them.

Most of the characters have at least two names: names given at birth, names given to them during the war, names given to children after adoption, some ex-combatants went for an entirely new name after the war. Not their alias, not their birth name. The name they choose to use in civilian live has political weight and even consequences. Using a civilian name could be seen as “betraying the cause”. The clandestinity that was key to survival during the war follows them during civilian life; Hernández honours this need for anonymity by leaving them all unnamed. In a similar note we never learn what country this is, there is an assumption that it is El Salvador, but this nameless country could be any country that has gone through a civil war and a peace agreement which speaks volumes of the universality of the experiences depicted in the novel.

Originally published in Spanish as Roza tumba quema, Slash and Burn is Salvadoran Claudia Hernández first novel, following five books of short stories most of them reflecting on the lasting impacts and legacy of the civil war in El Salvador.

In the afterword, translator Julia Sanches provides an enriching context of the complexities of translating this ‘nameless, placeless and timeless account of war and post-war’ and explains how Hernández set out to write the grammar of emotions rather than language in this compelling novel. The importance of Slash and Burn’s translation can’t be praised or celebrated enough for it depicts the intricacies of a conflict, its traumas and the everyday people swept by it.

Claudia Hernández is the highly acclaimed author of five short-story collections and two novels, the first of which was Slash and Burn, published in Spanish in 2017 and in English in 2020. She was the winner of the Anna Seghers Foundation award (2004), which acknowledges authors interested in making a more just and more humane society through their artistic production. The National Endowment for the Arts has supported the English translation of some of her books that explore the brutal impact of the El Salvadorian Civil War and she was named in Hay Festival’s Bogotá39 list of important Latin American authors.

Julia Sanches is a literary translator working from Portuguese, Spanish, French, and Catalan into English. Julia holds a BA in English Literature and Philosophy from the University of Edinburgh and an MA in Comparative Literature and Literary Translation from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, in Barcelona. @sanschaises

Silvia Rothlisberger is a writer and journalist based in London. She hosts a radio show on Resonance 104.4 called Literary South. She is a contributing editor at Minor Literature[s], with a focus on Latin American literature and culture. @silviarothlis