A review of ‘November’ by Jorge Galán
El Salvador is the smallest country in mainland Latin America – only the size of Wales. But in the 1980s El Salvador and its neighbours, Honduras and Guatemala, had an unlooked-for strategic significance. After the success of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua in 1979, the United States was determined to stop what it saw as communism creeping through these countries, towards its southern border. Some $4 billion was spent in bolstering the efforts of El Salvador’s army to suppress the revolutionary forces of the FMLN who threatened to follow in Nicaragua’s footsteps.
These four Central American nations have a violent history. Most often it has been the result of political conflict, with intervention by the United States regularly feeding the violence. In El Salvador, the starting point of modern-day brutality is often pinpointed to a horrific massacre of peasant communities that took place in 1932. In a country which then had only two million inhabitants, some 30,000 mainly indigenous people were killed in ‘La Matanza,’ an attempt to suppress what was seen as a communist uprising. On this occasion the US was barely involved, but it saw La Matanza as a necessary response to the rise of the ‘Reds.’ After the Second World War, it was the drive against communism that was held to justify the US’s intervention first in Guatemala and later across the whole of Central America.
The name of one of the martyred leaders of the 1932 uprising, Farabundo Martí, was adopted by El Salvador’s guerrilla army of the 1980s, the FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional). An estimated 75,000 people would die over the 12 years of the unsuccessful revolutionary war. Most of these, inevitably, were poor people who joined the guerrilla forces, lived in communities caught up in the conflict, or who joined the Salvadoran army. A memorable novel from the period, One Day of Life by Manlio Argueta, written right at the start of the war, chronicles the troubled lives of ordinary people in El Salvador as the violence grew.
But as well as the thousands of deaths now remembered only by their families, El Salvador’s war had well-known religious martyrs. The most celebrated is, of course, Archbishop Oscar Romero, shot on 24 March 1980 while leading the mass in a hospital chapel in San Salvador. The day before, he had called on soldiers in the army to stop ‘killing your own brothers’. Rutilio Grande, a priest killed by the security forces in 1977 who had been Romero’s friend, was said to have inspired the Archbishop to stand firmly against oppression. Later in the same year that Romero died, four US Maryknoll nuns, working as missionaries in El Salvador, were raped and murdered by the security forces. As a result, the US briefly suspended aid to the Salvadoran government but it was quickly resumed.
November, the newly translated book by Jorge Galán, is a fictional interpretation of yet another set of religious murders: the army’s shooting of six Jesuit priests at San Salvador’s University of Central America, on 16 November 1989. Soldiers forced the men in their nightclothes into the garden of their residence and executed them, along with their housekeeper and her daughter. Their main target was Ignacio Ellacuría, one of the Spanish-born priests who was acting as an interlocutor between the right-wing government of President Alfredo Cristiani and the leftist guerrillas.
Jorge Galán was a teenager at the time of the murders, and recalls that when he heard the news he initially accepted the government’s explanation, that the priests had been killed by the FMLN during one of their attacks on the centre of San Salvador. His book was not written until much later, and first published in Spanish in 2015. Even then, more than two decades since the peace agreement which ended the war, Galán was subject to death threats and cannot live in El Salvador. His novel begins with the murders, telling the story in a quiet, simple style which nevertheless dramatically conveys the horror of the event. The book then moves away from the murders, to look at the earlier lives of the priests, especially that of Ellacuría, and why they earned the opprobrium of the Salvadoran authorities. Much of this part of the book is based on discussions with José Maria Tojeira, who suddenly became the most senior Jesuit in the country when the others were murdered.
Galán also chronicles the experience of the one witness of the murder, Lucia Cerna, who escaped to the United States with the aid of the Spanish embassy, only to be harshly interrogated and mistreated by the FBI and a Salvadoran military officer after her arrival in Miami. He also recreates the feelings of a man who, at the time, was a young soldier in the army, present in the action on the day although not one of those detailed to carry out the killing of the priests.
Cristiani, then the president, eventually conceded that it was the army, not the guerrillas, who had carried out the murders. Galán interviewed him for the book. His admittance of the authority’s guilt meant the government had to act, so as to avoid the withdrawal of US military aid, at the time worth £1 million per day. Tojeira, who is still in El Salvador, and has pursued justice against the authorities for three decades, describes those initially charged with the crime as scapegoats, as they were not the intellectual authors of the murders.
Why did Galán write a novel, not a history? After all, another novelist, Francisco Goldman, wrote what in many ways is a similar account of the death of a priest at the hands of a government, this time in Guatemala, in The Art of Political Murder. Goldman describes his book as ‘firsthand reporting’. Galán appears to prefer the novel form so that he can invent some of the peripheral characters and also imagine conversations that are unrecorded. Nevertheless, the book rings true, and its simple style seems to add to its authenticity. In an interview at the London Review of Books, Galán also said that he wrote it as a novel because he wanted to bring the story to a present-day readership, to help to tackle the silence about these events that still prevails in El Salvador.
Presumably those who would damn the book as inaccurate include those responsible for the death threats against the author, which forced him into exile. Perhaps they can still convince themselves that the government was not to blame, despite President Cristiani’s acceptance that it was. Or perhaps they believe, as the US government did in 1932 and continues to believe today, that such deaths are justified in the fight against ‘communism’. What was true of El Salvador in 1932, 1980 and 1989 is still true of Honduras, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Venezuela and other parts of Latin America today. The US continues to encourage violence and instability under the pretence of promoting ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom,’ albeit its methods are now slightly less obvious and more readily deniable.