2022 La guerra del gallo

In some ways there is nothing more real than armed conflict–it is after all a matter of life and death. But in other ways there is nothing more surreal, more phantasmatic. And if one literary response to warfare emphasizes its grim materiality (think, say, of Erich Maria Remarque’s All’s Quiet on the Western Front), another stresses the absurd: Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Likewise, it may seem odd to think that one of the best-loved TV shows of the twentieth century portrayed the Korean War with canned laughter, but that was exactly what M*A*S*H did. War: it makes us laugh as well as making us cry.

Juan Guinot, 2022 La guerra del gallo

While Juan Guinot’s debut novel 2022 La guerra del gallo isn’t perhaps as funny as he thinks or hopes it is, it certainly makes hay with the absurdity of war. And the second half especially has all the (il)logic of a rather bad dream. Indeed, I was more than half-expecting that that’s how the book would end: with the revelation that the titular “war of the cock” was nothing but the febrile fantasy of a protagonist whose grasp of reality is tenuous throughout.

It’s another commonplace to note that war drives us mad; that even if we were once lucid, the experience of battle is enough to make us lose our mind. Today, the medicalization of this effect goes by the name of PTSD; in other times, it was known as shell shock. The difference with Masi, Guinot’s (anti-)hero, is that he goes crazy not because he has seen war up close and person, but because he hasn’t. He is an adolescent at the time that the Falklands/Malvinas conflict breaks out, and though he eagerly signs up to fight as a patriotic Argentine, “to his dismay the [call-up] letter never arrived, the war ended sooner than anticipated, and the final result of the conflict was so disastrous that it left him shocked and he started to show all the signs of an ex-non-combatant; he saw Englishmen everywhere” (27). Traumatized by Argentina’s defeat, and above all that he could play no part in it, he therefore vows personal revenge against the colonial power of the English “pirates” whom he blames for all his ills.

Masi’s obsessive preparations for the future war of triumphant vengeance are at times no more than faintly ludicrous: he stalks the suburban rail services for spies, for instance, and when he finds one (identified by the fact that he’s wearing a “Kiss” t-shirt), he follows him, shouting at him to “go home” to the annoyance of the so-called spy and his fellow-passengers alike. But more often he is frankly deranged, and ultimately he (literally) gives his father a heart attack when, on receiving as a present a small styrofoam globe, he shouts out “I have the world in my hand. Now they won’t stop me. [. . .] English bastards, I’m make them shit fire” (52). Then, kneeling over his father’s corpse, Masi pledges “My victory will be yours” (53).

Unsurprisingly, the boy is carted off to a mental hospital. Equally unsurprisingly, he believes this to be a dastardly trick of Anglo-Saxon imperialism. In any case, decades pass and he is still far from cured when, in late 2021, he finally escapes his imprisonment and, with globe in hand and balaclava on head, he sets off on his new mission: to liberate the Rock of Gibraltar.

The world has changed by 2022 and here the object of Guinot’s satire shifts. For it turns out that everyone in this dystopian near future is effectively deranged and has lost the power to distinguish between reality and the imagination, the real and the symbolic. For the War of the Cock ends up being a dispute between France and Portugal in which two Dr Strangelove types, one on either side, decide to launch missiles against each other. This is the result of a deadly televised reality show in which boxers from the two nations brawl for the exclusive claim to their shared national symbol, now sponsored by a nefarious mega-corporation called BioCorp.

In the middle of the mayhem, and as the collective eyes of the world remain glued to their TV screens, Masi makes his way through Spain on a deserted train in the company of a stray dog with apparently supernatural powers. (There is much magic in the book; Guinot would have been better advised to leave it out.) And in the final dénouement he does indeed manage to expunge the stain of Argentine defeat forty years previously, by expelling the English from Gibraltar and raising the Argentine flag on top of the Rock. But the pity is that almost nobody notices. By 2022 if it doesn’t happen on television (and Masi’s antics don’t), then it might as well not have happened at all.

It would be hard to accuse Guinot’s book of subtlety or even of much sophistication. But then that’s perhaps partly the point. War is stupid, he’s telling us, and it makes fools of us all, whether we are doing the fighting or not. On the other hand, this novel is often so farcical that it makes one pine for at least a little of the bloody materiality that Guinot suggests we have forgotten in our militaristic obsessions. After all, the strange thing is that this is a war book in which there are barely any casualties: the French and Portuguese missiles collide midway in the heavens with little damage done, as the entire population of southern Spain is hunkered down in their bunkers to watch TV; at the end, the only victims are Gibraltar’s Barbary apes, who collectively leap to their deaths in the Mediterranean. If this were the only idiocy of war, then surely there wouldn’t be much to fear.


Patricia Ratto, Trasfondo

The Falklands/Malvinas war was a conflict fought as much, if not more, at sea as on land. A majority of the casualties on both sides came from attacks on shipping, especially if we include the British losses from landing craft at Bluff Cove. Five larger ships were also sunk, including HMS Sheffield and the Atlantic Conveyer. For the Argentines, almost half their dead came from one incident: the controversial sinking of the General Belgrano. But it was largely thanks to the loss of the Belgrano that there were no naval battles in the strict sense, that is, no ship-to-ship conflict. All the British ships were hit by shore-based aircraft; the Belgrano itself was torpedoed by a submarine. And in response to the cruiser’s destruction, the Argentine fleet was recalled to base for the duration of the conflict.

With one exception. From May 2 to May 17, 1982, the submarine ARA San Luis was the sole representative of the Argentine navy in active operation. It is this ship’s story that is the subject of Patricia Ratto’s Trasfondo.

The novel is essentially a ghost story. For a submarine is always in some sense a spectral presence: largely invisible, hard to locate, registered only by faint echoes, yet the source of intense anxiety and fear. A submarine is a fantasmatic object par excellence. Yet Trasfondo shows that from the perspective of the submarine and its crew, the ships on the surface and even the war as a whole were equally ghostly and unknowable. Down below–and the San Luis was almost permanently submerged–neither sea nor sky could be glimpsed; the enemy could be discerned only through careful attention to faint traces on the Sonar. The few times that the vessel surfaced, it found only gloom and fog. On the whole it was out of range of any communication or maintained radio silence. As Martín Kohan notes, its crew were at the center of the action, but in some ways were further removed from the war than anyone.

On board, time becomes elastic and the combination of boredom and tension plays strange tricks on the mind. The crew are soon lost in “a labyrinth of echoes and rumours, as they wait for what the sea may bring them” (72). Small details become both comfort and distraction: a jar of capers that rolls around the boat; the narrator’s boots that seem to have a life of their own. Some draw, some read, others play cards to pass the time. It’s better to be doing something, no matter how futile. Most of the men put on their lifejackets as the enemy approaches (the youngest crewmember never takes his off), but they know that this will do them little good in the event of disaster. For if they are hit, “There won’t be time for anything, no time to call out, no time to escape, no time to hear, no time to see, the blood will stain the water with a thunderous red that bit by bit will be diluted until it is just water again” (79). Often enough it seems as though this doomed mission is already at an end: “Perhaps we are all dead already, one coffin piled up on another, but we simply haven’t noticed yet. Can one really die and not know it?” (71).

At the core of the book is the question of the relationship between knowledge and death: the knowledge of death, but also the knowledge that death either enables or obscures. Ratto reports that she was inspired by Giorgio Agamben’s observation about the Nazi concentration camps, that the only “comprehensive witness, who has experience of it all [. . .] would be the one who dies in the camp and so, paradoxically, the one deprived of a voice with which to testify. Meanwhile, those who survive have the voice to tell of what happened, but their experience is partial, incomplete. What we have, then, is always a lacuna, a grey zone that is impenetrable, inaccessible, without a voice to narrate it.” In Trasfondo, Patricia tries to give voice to this dead zone at the heart of any tragedy, any war, only to find that it is less the place of clarity and understanding than a new depth of epistemic murk where even the border between life and death itself becomes unstable, uncertain.

Los pichiciegos II

Los pichiciegos

See also pichiciegos

Almost at the end of this Falklands/Malvinas conflict novel, the last survivor (though he doesn’t know it yet) of a doomed colony of Argentine deserters who call themselves “pichiciegos” hears the sound of engines at a distance. He sits down to wait for whatever vehicles might be making the noise as it gets closer, but all of a sudden everything goes silent. Without taking too much time to ponder the matter, he reflects that this is just one more mystery in a “war that would forever lack any explanation” (209). So when he, much later, tells the book’s shadowy narrator “You think you know, but you don’t. You don’t know” (127) and “You don’t understand a thing” (152), he’s not simply referring to the notion that you had to have been on the islands to understand his experience. There’s something about the war itself that defies all explanation.

What were they doing there in the first place? Fogwill plays up the inhospitality of the archipelago: all mud, driving rain and snow, barren hills, the odd sheep. Who would want to live in this godforsaken place? “You’d have to be English, or like the English, to get stuck in there and die of cold while all the while you had Argentina so huge and so beautiful and always sunny” (94). But not even the English, more focused and efficient as they are, seem to be able to make head or tail of things: not even they “understood what was going on” (96). The pichiciegos–the name comes from a small Argentine armadillo that burrows into the ground–show no love for the British, but nor do they buy the patriotic propaganda that urges them to continue fighting for Argentina, for a cause that makes no sense at all. Deserters, they have opted out of the war, dug themselves a shelter somewhere in no man’s land, and hope merely to make the best of things by scavenging scraps from the battlefield.

But beyond the basic mystery of what the war was all about (“two bald men fighting over a comb,” as Jorge Luis Borges famously put it), there are other strange occurrences on the islands. At one point a couple of the pichis report that they have seen a pair of nuns, “giving out papers among the sheep that were wandering all around them. [. . .] ‘I saw them. He saw them. [. . .] Two nuns. It was at least ten degrees below!’” (102, 103). Were these just visions produced by the men’s exhaustion and fantasies? Or are these apparitions no more (or no less) spectral than the deserters themselves, who many believed to be the “dead, living underground, which after all was half true” (109). The pichiciegos haunt a strange buffer zone: between the two sides at war, but also between life and death. No wonder then that they might be more attuned to other strange events and circumstances, without for all that understanding things any the better.

“And what about you?” asks the narrator of the sole survivor, in a scene that hints at analysis or therapy, “do you believe that I believe what you’re telling me?” “Just note it down,” he replies. “That’s why you’re here. Take notes, think hard, and come to your own conclusions” (105). And ultimately this is what the book requires of us, its readers: not so much to believe as to think, and to come to conclusions that can only ever be provisional at best. For if war teaches us anything–and even this may grant it too much pedagogical or moral import–it is to doubt the power of any explanations.

Link: Hugo Sánchez, who fought in the Falklands/Malvinas, gives a brief opinion on Los pichiciegos: “The most real thing I read about the Falklands/Malvinas is a book of fiction.”

El “cipitío” en el Salvador Sheraton

El cipitío en el Salvador Sheraton

This short book describes itself as a “literary chronicle/collage about the FMLN Offensive in San Salvador, from November 11-21, 1989.” Of course, the offensive didn’t just take place in the country’s capital: as the book itself notes, the guerrilla’s tactics involved multiple strikes throughout the country, preventing the armed forces from concentrating in any particular zone. There was “bloody combat in San Miguel, Usulatán, and Morazán in the East; La Paz, San Vicente, and Cuscatlán, in the Centre; Cabañas and Chalatenango, in the North” (25). Nor was this the first time that the guerrilla had been active in the city: the war had never been simply a rural rebellion, and the FMLN had never adopted the Maoist strategy of (say) Peru’s Sendero Luminoso, which involved encircling the cities from the countryside. And yet, in November 1989, the war came to San Salvador in new ways, for instance in that the guerrilla moved (more or less) in the open in working class suburbs such as Mejicanos and Soyapango, while for its part the state for the first time bombed these parts of its own capital city from the air.

Briefly, this long-running “low-intensity” war became resolutely high-intensity for everyone, not just for the peasants of far-flung departments such as Chalatenango or Morazán. San Salvador was briefly the scene of urban warfare reminiscent of Beirut or Sarajevo. Nobody was entirely safe, as was demonstrated by the two notable events that are this book’s focus: the extrajudicial killing of the country’s most prominent group of intellectuals, six Jesuit scholar-priests at the Universidad Centroamericana; and the guerrilla incursion into the capital city’s wealthiest neighbourhood, Escalón, when for a couple of days they occupied one of its foremost luxury hotels, the Salvador Sheraton. The hotel’s guests at the time included the Secretary-General of the Organization of American States plus a number of US Green Berets. Anticipating a possible hostage rescue operation, (then) President George H W Bush sent down an elite group of Delta Force operators. So November 1989 was the moment when El Salvador almost became Vietnam, with a direct engagement between the guerrilla and the US armed forces.

But El “cipitío” is not particularly interested in framing the Salvadoran revolution in terms of a Cold War proxy conflict. Rather, it envisages the guerrilla to be accompanied by “thousands of spirits [who] watch approvingly and guarded the periphery: they are Indians who had died in 1524, 1832, 1932… There were the defenders of Cuscatlán, the “Land of Treasures. There was Tayte Anastasio Aquino, the Indians Feliciano Ama and Chico Sánchez, and with them, in every one of the guerrilla… the “Negro” Farabundo Martí” (16). So the portrait the book paints is of a hybrid postcolonial revolt, with Aztec and Mayan elements as well as the specifically Salvadoran sprites the “cipitío” of the title and his companion the “ciguanaba,” a ferocious woman warrior. The cipitío transforms a guerrilla detachment into spirit beasts–a jaguar, a quetzal, a deer, and so on–to whisk them invisibly past the sentries and roadblocks and into the heart of the territory claimed by the Salvadoran bourgeoisie and international capital. And once their point is made, he (literally) spirits them away again, to fight another day. For this is a struggle that won’t come to an end in any eleven-day “final offensive,” or even with the peace accords three years later. This is a “long war” indeed (to borrow James Dunkerley’s phrase), and it continues to this day.

No me agarran viva

No me agarran viva

As (almost) always with testimonio, Claribel Alegría and D J Flakoll’s No me agarran viva is caught in the tension between the typical and the exceptional, or the two meanings of the exemplary: example of or example for. Thus the book’s prologue begins with the declaration that Eugenia (the FMLN combatant who is the text’s main focus) is an “exemplary model of self-abnegation, heroism, and revolutionary sacrifice” (7).

Is she an example, then, in the sense that she provides for us–or others–to aspire to and follow? Or is she exemplary in that hers is just one among many such stories? The prologue continues by stressing the second of these two readings, asserting that she is “a typical case, rather than an exception, of so many Salvadoran women who have dedicated their efforts, and even their lives, to the struggle for the liberation of their people” (7). And yet the book that follows consistently suggests the opposite, that in almost every way her capacities and her commitment exceeded that of those around her. As her immediate superior, Comandante Ricardo, puts it: “Eugenia was one of those who contributed most, through her experience, the sureness of her political ideology, her party militancy as much as in her sense of mission and organizational ability” (147/144; translation modified). Or in the words of her partner, Javier, who gives the “definitive summary of the life and death of his wife and comrade”: “Eugenia’s life was exceptional” (147/145).

The way that the book deals with this tension is ultimately by vacating Eugenia’s life of almost any individuality beyond the superlatives. Perhaps this is another sense in which she is a “model”: she so fully plays the role of the exemplary guerrilla that she is otherwise empty inside. She has almost no interior life. Everything is devoted to the cause. Even her marriage is described in terms of consummation to the struggle: “The wedding was their initiation into a clandestine way of life. [. . .] Some of the guests left the church in protest because their vows included the promise to keep helping the people” (65/79). Indeed, wherever love is mentioned it is as likely to be love of the people or love of the party as it is to be any kind of romantic attachment to Javier. Throughout, with the one exception of some very brief comments by her sister almost at the end of the book (concerning her enthusiastic but out-of-tune singing and her careless driving), she is overwhelmingly a person devoid of personality.

All of which gives an ironic double meaning to the book’s title: “They Won’t Take Me Alive.” This testimonio surely doesn’t capture much if anything of Ana María Castillo Rivas (her real name), her life and her singular vivacity, offering us instead no more than a beautiful corpse, a revolutionary icon under an assumed name. She escapes us, as much as she escapes the Salvadoran security forces, if at the high cost of sacrifice and glorified death.

See also: War.


Robert Capa

A collection of posts on war, in connection with a course on armed conflict in the Hispanic world: