The second half of Roa Bastos’s Hijo de hombre takes us to the War of the Chaco (1932-35), which Bolivia and Paraguay fought out in the inhospitable and almost uninhabited territory of the Gran Chaco. Ostensibly, this was a conflict over oil, which had been discovered in small quantities near the border. But in the war’s aftermath no significant reserves were found until in 2012 the Paraguayan government proudly announced the discovery of a huge oilfield, as belated consolation for the loss of 30,000 men some eighty years previously. At the time, however, the struggle was presented as a fight for national survival. The country had already been devastated by the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-70), in which the combined armies of Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, plus starvation and disease, had inflicted extraordinary casualties (perhaps 60% of the entire population, and a particularly high percentage of adult males) and led to Paraguay losing almost half its territory. Given this precedent, the war with Bolivia was perceived as an existential threat rather than a simple squabble over remote border outposts and forts. Accordingly, the country scrambled into fullscale national mobilization and total war.
Hence Roa Bastos shows the disparate characters to whom we have been introduced in the novel’s first half as they are swept up by the war machine, whatever their previous histories and relations to the Paraguayan state. Rebels and renegades alike, plucked from prisons where necessary, are transported to the front line halfway between Asunción and the Bolivian border. Here they join the siege of Boquerón, trying to wrest back an isolated outpost from the opposing side. Conditions are terrible, and the Paraguayans end up struggling against the land and the environment as much as they also have to defend themselves from Bolivian attempts to break the siege. Miguel Vega, who lends this fragmented novel much of its meager sense of continuity, finds himself the head of a detachment of troops cut off from the rest of the Paraguayan forces in a dusty canyon. Above all, what they need is water. In a series of diary entries Vega tells the tale of devastation and increasing delirium as around him his men die of hunger and thirst. Everything becomes “unreal,” but nonetheless he continues to write: “I hold on for the end, clinging to this final glimmer of reason, this scrap of pencil. Every time it feels heavier, as if I were writing with the carbonized skeleton of a tree” (271). We are at the absolute limit of bodily endurance and graphic representation alike, as Vega wrestles with an implement that has become less a means of expression than the physical incarnation of blasted nature.
In parallel to Vega’s account, we are given the story of the small convoy that sets out to rescue him. Led by his former rebel comrade-in-arms, Cristóbal Jara, from the start we know that this is effectively a suicide mission. Here, there is little that is metaphorical about Jara’s absorption into the war machine: driving a water tanker, he is described as “form[ing] part of the truck, a living, feeling element that radiated force and will to the metallic tendons and nerves of the battered vehicle” (294). Later, he has one injured and gangrenous arm tied with wire to the steering wheel, the other to the gearstick. Throughout, half-man, half-machine, he embraces his fate as though it were freedom itself:
Now there was no other option than to go on, go on forever, go on at any cost. [. . .] What other destiny could a man like Cristóbal Jara have, other than to propel his obsession like a slave through a narrow trail in the forest or across the infinite plains, overflowing with the savage stench of liberty. To be opening the way through the savage thicket of the facts on the ground, shedding his flesh in them, but transforming them too with the aspect of that will whose power grew precisely the more he became one with them. (322)
This is an extraordinary passage: a paean to immanence, to freedom through what is apparently self-sacrifice, to the transfiguration of the real through absolute acceptance.
In his commentary on Roa Bastos’s novel, Horacio Legras notes that “War is the historical event par excellence” (Literature and Subjection 167). Which in many ways it no doubt is, not least in the case of Paraguay, a country whose history can be narrated precisely in terms of a catalogue of armed conflicts both external and internal. But in the account given by Hijo de hombre, war becomes more even than the scenario for existential survival or demise; it becomes an ontological test, an expression of constituent power and conatus in their most basic expressions. No wonder that after the conflict some veterans should seem lost without it: the final chapter gives us the story of Crisanto Villalba, whose lament is that “our war, which was so lovely, is at an end” (354). It’s hard to know how to take such investment in bloody conflict that otherwise seems so senseless and self-defeating, waged over a barren wasteland in the name of the Fatherland. There are surely echoes (or presentiments) of a quasi-fascist triumph of the will. But Roa Bastos himself seems to present this ontological struggle in more positive terms:
They feel alive in the facts. They feel united in the passion of an instant that projects them out of themselves, binding them to some cause whether it be true or false, but at least it’s something… There is no other life as far as they are concerned. [. . .] Even the sense of loss felt by Cristanto Villalba is an all-consuming passion like life. [. . .] Their God is the force of their indestructible brotherhood. They crush it, they break it, they tear it into pieces, but it is forever rebuilt from the fragments, each time more alive and more powerful. (362)
Ultimately Miguel Vega, who mostly and indeed perhaps entirely narrates the novel, and who surely stands in for Roa Bastos (however much he would rather see himself as the oral storyteller, Macario Francia), is uncertain whether to marvel at or be horrified by the brute force and stubborn perseverance–but equally stubborn self-immolation–of the Paraguayan “sons of men.” As he puts it at the end of his manuscript:
There has to be some way out from this monstrous paradox of man crucified by man. Because otherwise we’d be forced to think that the human race is forever cursed, that this is Hell itself and that we can hope for no salvation.
There has to be some way out, because otherwise… (369)
In that uncertain repetition and final ellipsis is all the ambivalence of this troubled and troubling text.