Scene #4: the ashes of El Salvador

Scene #4: the ashes of El Salvador

In 1926, the Izalco volcano in El Salvador violently erupted, blowing ash across the country.  The lava that buried a whole town, killing 56 people.

Six years later, Izalco was once again the site of a violent eruption: this time one of the worst massacres in Latin American history: La Matanza, in which up to 40,000 Salvadorian peasants were systematically killed by the government army, in supposedly retaliation for anti-government protests.

For the second time in a decade, clouds hung over the highlands. The massacre was a state secret, and the people of the Salvadorian highland stopped wearing traditional peasant dress and practicing local customs, for fear of becoming a target.  The indigenous language was almost lost.

These two events are knitted together in Claribel Alegria novel Ashes of Izalco (1966) which plays with the timeline to make them concurrent.  It’s this book in my backpack as I walk up to Izalco, 85 years after the massacre, to gaze into the crater and see what I can see.  The context adds something to this project.  Reading a fun novel by an author who happens to have been born nearby is one thing.  Using literature as a way of paying testimony to a great crime, that defined the future of an entire culture, is another.

The fog on Izalco volcano.  The photo has not been edited.

Nowadays Izalco town is part of the Ruta de las Flores (Route of Flowers), a series of quiet, beautiful mountain villages full of sad murals and the smell of coffee.  Izalco volcano itself is nothing more than a mildly strenuous hike, to a sulphurous crater lake.  You do need a police escort to hike it, but that’s to protect you from gang-related attacks and robberies on the hillside, rather than flying bits of lava.

Izalco stars in El Salvador’s nascent tourism industry’s marketing, particularly for its supposedly beautiful views.

On the day I’m there, it’s like staring at a large piece of gauze.

The fog (real, not metaphoric) wraps us all day in an intimate, silencing blanket.  These fogs became a feature of my time in El Salvador.  I would be frequently disorientated by an intense mist dropping suddenly onto the streets in the middle of the day, turning previously familiar routes into a confusing maze.

Picking our way around black rocks and giant aloes, we hike in silence.  None of the policemen are keen to discuss Salvadorian literature with me.

When we get to the top, and peer over the edge of the crater, one of them breaks out a bit of English, just for the occasion. “Don’t fall in”, he says.

I get out my book, and start reading.

They will be dust,

but the dust will have feeling.

Ash, but the ash

will be in love.

[Francisco de Quevedo.  Epigraph to Ashes of Izalco]

Police escort, Izalco volcano

It’s country four, on this journey of mine.  Claribel Alegria is a bit of a grey-area pick, as she was actually born in Nicaragua, but raised in El Salvador.  Both countries claim her as their own.  The themes and setting of the novel, and recognising that national boundaries are cloudy things, I’m happy to read her on behalf of El Salvador this time.  It’s also, admittedly, my only option.

The novel is available on Kindle, and this proves to be a lifeline, after days of searching for alternatives. In Central America’s smallest country, finding books in English is essentially impossible.

Bookshops are littered throughout the bigger cities, and I visit several, but I really do mean “littered”.  Every shop I visit is tatty and clogged, selling as many second-hand magazines as they do new books.  Black car exhaust fumes have often settled into cement corners and the tops of books.

In Santa Ana the two bookshops I find are both in what my hotel called the “red light district”, but which is actually a long grim street full of prostitutes and euphemistically-named “bars” (including one just called, rather depressingly, “Paris Hilton”).

One of these book stores had a cardboard box with “Ingles” written on the side (containing some second-hand copies of National Geographic, a Jilly Cooper novel, and an old motorbike manual). The owner of this store was the more upbeat of the two, and after a conversation about the merits of Paulo Coelho, he turns me onto Ashes of Izalco.

“Can you point to any one event and say: here is; this is the pebble that lost its grip and started the avalanche?  Dates mean nothing in Santa Ana.  A single lightening and darkening of the small, hot stage is meaningless” [Ashes of Izalco]

Claribel Alegria’s novel (written with her husband Darwin Flakoll) is classic modernism, Salvadorian style, with an unsubtle political seam.  Written in 1966, it puts Frank – an alcoholic American in the model of Flaubert’s Frédéric Moreau – in 1930’s Santa Ana, and in love with the wife of the town doctor.  The second storyline is set years later, after the funeral of the doctor’s wife, as her daughter finds Frank’s letters and considers her own marriage to an American man she doesn’t love.

Behind this a growing sense of insecurity amongst the country’s middle classes as revolutionary and reactionary forces start bubbling over, erupting in the novel’s final violent scenes.  The pages run thick with blood and lava. Reading it in the shadow of Izalco’s clouds, the whole thing feels haunting.

After descending Izalco (and a few weeks later) I leave the country into neighbouring Honduras using a north-east mountain border, by a town called Perquin.  Perquin is most famous as the guerrilla headquarters of the FMLN, the revolutionary army in El Salvador’s 1980-92 civil war.  Several times when reading Ashes of Izalco, I had to double-check the dates to confirm that it was written before the civil war.  Some of the parallels seem like more than mere coincidences, and I even wondered if Flakoll’s 1989 English translation made some pointed amendments in light of emerging events.

Depressingly, it’s probably just a case of history repeating itself.

In Perquin, I visit the small revolution museum, which is mainly full of guns and pictures of martyred fighters.  All the guides here are ex-fighters, and mine has a nasty facial wound and a sad manner of speech.

Just before I leave, the fog briefly clears.  A few minutes later, it’s back again.

This article is part of my journey reading books around the world.  It is a wholly subjective account of the country and the book, written with only good intentions.  A marginally less subjective list of reading recommendations from this country is sometimes published separately.