A noted poet and activist recounts an odd season at the dawn of the civil war in El Salvador.
At the opening, Forché (English/Georgetown Univ.; Blue Hour, 2003, etc.) admits she had only a little knowledge of the Central American nation of El Salvador until the end of the 1970s. “What I knew of El Salvador, I knew from my Spanish professor in college, himself a Salvadoran,” as well as from translating the work of the poet Claribel Alegría. At the beginning of the narrative, the author recounts how she opened her door one day to a man whom Alegría had mentioned without much specificity: Leonel Gómez, a mysterious figure who sometimes seemed to be all things to all people. Gómez convinced Forché that she needed to see what was happening for herself, and off she went to a nation on the brink. A bête noire soon came into view: Colonel Chacón, “who chops off fingers and has people disemboweled.” Gómez was a born mansplainer, throwing out a sequence of lessons that prompted Forché to protest that she was smart enough to follow along, to which he replied, “Lesson three has nothing to do with you.” The remark was ominous, to say the least. Gómez, her Virgil, guided Forché into tight corners, such as the cramped office of a commander who earnestly asked, “what can we do to improve the situation?” Alas, the time for talking drew short, and the bullets began to fly—some of them, it seems, deliberately aimed at her. As Forché writes in her elegiac opening, “I will learn that the human head weighs about two and a half kilos, and a child’s head, something less.” Episode by episode, dodging death squads, Forché builds a story filled with violence and intrigue worthy of Graham Greene around which a river of blood flows—doing so, unstanched, with the avid support of America’s leaders.
A valuable firsthand report of a time of terror.