The New Yorker, February 2016.
Before it dawned on him that he would have to flee his country—a realization aided by a series of death threats in November of last year—the Salvadoran writer Jorge Galán had some questions for Father Jon Sobrino, an elderly Jesuit priest.
Father Sobrino is from Spain, but he has spent decades writing and teaching at the University of Central America, in San Salvador. In the pre-dawn hours of November 16, 1989, six of his Jesuit peers at the UCA, along with a woman and a teen-ager, were murdered on campus by a U.S.-trained battalion of the Salvadoran Army. These are old facts. Galán was trying to understand, in a new way, why it happened. “They killed them for telling the truth,” the priest told the writer. “And that truth was uncomfortable.”
The six Jesuits had spoken out against the feudal concentration of wealth in the hands of small circles of Salvadorans, and the international economic system that favored this élite. The priests decried the militarization of public security, insisting that violence is not order. They shared these ideas about a just society in the midst of a civil war that spanned the nineteen-eighties, pitting a nominally democratic government against a nominally communist guerrilla insurgency. Tiny El Salvador became a domino that three successive American Presidents refused to let fall—a feat achieved with billions of dollars in military aid. Uncomfortable truths in such a context can provoke an “irrational reaction,” Father Sobrino said.
Galán, now forty-two, was a child during the war; he recreated the story of what happened after years of interviews, including the one with Father Sobrino. The result is “Noviembre,” his latest novel, a mostly factual account of the massacre of the six Jesuit priests. For Galán, the priests represented a vision of peace and justice that could have changed his country’s future. Now El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world. “We don’t even note the smell of blood in the air at the end of the afternoon,” Galán told me via e-mail from Granada, where he is seeking political asylum. “We’ve lost part of our humanity.”
Galán has written nine other books—a novel, two children’s books, and six volumes of poetry—but his earlier work did not speak so literally to the unresolved trauma of the war. Those books didn’t prepare him for what “Noviembre” would bring. “None has received so many emotional opinions—so much love, and so much hate.” The war may have ended, officially, twenty-four years ago, but emotions still run high beneath the surface of daily life. The phrase for this in Spanish is a flor de piel—literally, “like a flower of skin,” the body’s most sensitive parts exposed, a heart on a sleeve.
Galán is not sure where the death threats came from. But last November Galán decided that, like thousands of his countrymen, he would flee to a foreign land, where he now awaits word from the judge who will determine his fate. “What overwhelms you is the feeling of loss,” Galán said. “You’ve lost your country, your home, your friends, and, above all, your family. They all stay while you go, and you don’t know when you’ll return. You find yourself alone in the rest of the world.”
“Noviembre” tells the murders as a story, from their careful planning to their carrying out to the later denials of responsibility and the cynical intimidation of the sole witness to the event—by the F.B.I. as well as the Salvadoran government. Within this inexorable plot, Galán unearths human details, finding names for the ways that war forever changes a life.
On the morning of November 16, 1989, for instance, as Father José María Tojiera walked through the UCA to check on his friends, he was struck by the song of the wild parakeets roosting in the campus trees. He had been warned of a firefight the night before, but, he told Galán, such beauty “made him think that what he had been told wasn’t possible, not on a day like this. That all had to be a strange lie.” Father Tojiera arrived to find his friends’ bodies strewn across a garden. Today, the wild parakeets still sing every morning in the campus trees. Father Tojiera retired only recently from his position as the university’s rector, and still maintains an office there. The parakeets’ song remains a part of all his mornings.
In the book, Galán describes the arrival in El Salvador of Father Ignacio Ellacuría, one of the six murdered Jesuits, who came as a young recruit from Spain in 1950. (At the time of his death, Ellacuría was the rector of the UCA. He is believed to have been the Army’s primary target that night.) “Life revolved around the downtown, with the post office, the few hotels, the cafés, the biggest parks in whose pavilions . . . orchestras played pieces by Vivaldi or Strauss at the end of the afternoon,” Galán writes, describing the El Salvador that Ellacuría first came to know. “Everything happened with a slowness that has been lost forever.” Later, Father Sobrino describes to Galán the creep of the Cold War in the nineteen-sixties. “Salvadorans changed, they became fearful, distrusting, and they started speaking in low voices and always far from windows. There were ‘ears’ everywhere.” Then war arrived. “It is only much later,” Galán says, speaking of the Salvadorans who, like himself, were children at the time, “that you understand that you were never truly a child, but a survivor.”
Another section of the book imagines the life of a child, Juan, born in a community of subsistence farmers. As a teen-ager, Juan decides against the two local career options—raise corn or immigrate to the U.S.— and, seeking a noble alternative, he joins the Army. On November 16, 1989, he is sent to the Jesuits’ residence, where he carries out grim orders. Years later, he leaves El Salvador in an attempt to escape the noise in his head that has haunted him since that night, “like a rainstorm, like the ones that make the roofs of houses fly away.”
Just weeks ago, General José Guillermo García, the former Salvadoran minister of defense, was deported from West Palm Beach, Florida, after he was convicted of ordering the torture of thousands of Salvadoran citizens during the war. (García is one of two generals who retired to the U.S. after the peace accords were signed and were subsequently deported under the Torture Victim Protection Act.) At the Salvadoran airport, Garcia was greeted by a group huddled in the lobby: family members of supposed political dissidents who were disappeared by government forces. They held black-and-white images of their loved ones’ faces and demanded to know where they are. “Look for them yourselves!” the gray-haired general screamed back.
These deportations are anomalies. The Amnesty Law protects the majority of the intellectual and material authors of war-era crimes. Many are still powerful members of Salvadoran society. But, earlier this month, four of seventeen military officers implicated in ordering the murder of the Jesuits were arrested in San Salvador on the orders of a Spanish judge; Spain hopes to extradite the seventeen for trial there. Hours before the arrests, a U.S. court cleared the path to extradition of a Salvadoran former vice minister of security, also allegedly involved in planning the Jesuits’ murder, who retired to a suburb of Boston after the war. The first time the Spanish court sent Interpol after this group of military men was in May, 2011; then, the officers locked themselves into Army barracks in San Salvador until it was clear that their supreme court would disobey the order. This time could be different. “Until El Salvador confronts its horror and refuses to tolerate it anymore,” Galán said, “it will be a failed state.”
Of the six Jesuits killed in November, 1989, five were from Spain and one, Father Joaquín López y López, was Salvadoran. In a scene near the end of “Noviembre,” Galán imagines their conversation in the hours before the murder. The priests knew they were in danger; the Army had searched their residence several times, supposedly seeking weapons. But for the five from Spain, Galán imagines, it must have been difficult to believe that official bravado would go beyond intimidation. Father López, on the other hand, knew his government. He could recall a massacre ordered by the military dictatorship in 1932, when he was fourteen years old, and the smell of death and the columns of smoke rising from makeshift funeral pyres that smothered the western region of the country for days. “No one knew the number, twenty thousand, thirty thousand, a record of the slaughter wasn’t kept, but greater than the number of bodies was the fear,” Galán writes. “There had been recurrent, countless unpunished murders. Fr. Lopez knew, maybe more than his companions, that the possibility that this would happen again was real.”