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  • Interrogative Justice in Héctor Tobar's The Tattooed Soldier
  • Eric Vázquez (bio)

To imagine justice for the victims of acts of mass cruelty and collective terror entails significant risk. For the policymaker, imagining reparation may risk overturning the social order on which her positions depends. For the novelist, the act of imagining may quarantine legacies of atrocity into a handful of characters and discrete narrative acts. Authors of the Central American diaspora evade the representation of justice, preoccupied instead with representing counterinsurgent war's costs and survival in its aftermath. Héctor Tobar's The Tattooed Soldier features the most resolute, if not the grisliest, realization of justice in the literature of Central American diaspora: revenge against the former commander of a death squad. At the height of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Antonio Bernal shoots the former sergeant Guillermo Longoria and drags his bleeding body into an abandoned tunnel. In his thirst for vengeance, Antonio requires that Longoria both die and recognize in whose name he dies. Antonio asks the bleeding soldier: "Do you remember Elena and Carlos? San Cristobal?" (Tobar, The Tattooed Soldier 300). Weakened from blood loss, Longoria fails to answer; he recalls killing neither Antonio's wife nor his baby because his offenses were so numerous. "There were so many villages, so many people," he reflects. As Longoria succumbs to the tunnel's [End Page 129] darkness, he travels back to a pristine Guatemala: "at the foot of a green mountain, wild plants and shrubs all around them, forlorn palm trees and tall milkweed." In what may be a hallucination, a fantasy, or a magical-realist fracture in the novel's largely realist narrative mode, Longoria returns to his boyhood, walking toward his mother through luminous cornfields. "So strange and happy," the narrator suggests, "after all of these years, to be wearing his peasant clothes again" (301). In this moment Longoria analeptically returns to his mother, in an apparently Mayan afterlife, as the boy whose lingering during an errand found him conscripted in the Guatemalan military. This conclusion neatly secures redress for Antonio. At the same time it steals away Longoria, who is also a victim of circumstance, from the darkness of the tunnel—and of his crimes—and into a suspended and innocent past.

Critical attention to The Tattooed Soldier tends to interpret the novel and its capacity to address counterinsurgency's legacies through a politics of recognition. Much of this scholarship stresses the novel's pertinence to a demand for the representation of the Central American diaspora. Consequently, in adopting cultural recognition as a precept, these Latina/o literary critics often interpret the novel as an allegory for the diaspora's success or failure to achieve recognition and inclusion within the broader polity. For critic and novelist Arturo Arias, the novel and its characters express the null space of Central American cultural and social identity within US multiculturalism. He argues that the novel exemplifies how "Central American-Americans end up in denial of their own beingness," which "negates the possibility for an identity politics" and, by implication, any notion of a struggle for justice (Arias 183). Ana Patricia Rodríguez questions Arias's pessimism by revealing Tobar's references to Mayan cosmology. Thus translated into a mythological register, the story both becomes a cultural reenactment of past traumas and, in the process, restores to both Antonio and Longoria their common identity as Guatemalans. Crystine Miller rejects Rodríguez's redemptive reading of The Tattooed Soldier and suggests that Antonio's inability to recognize Longoria as a product of the same forces of US imperialism, racialization within Guatemala, and transnational migration that formed his life "problematizes the existence of a collective Latina/o community" (378–9). Antonio's misreading of his rival, Miller suggests, analogically stages the Latina/o community's failure to witness and, as a result, to include Central American trauma into the pan-ethnic community as a gesture of "redemption and healing" (370).1 In sum, existing scholarship on The Tattooed Soldier points to the paradoxes that arise from integrating [End Page 130] Central Americans' experiences of socialized terror and dislocation into the broader social and cultural fabric of the...


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