In 1957, a CIA backed coup d’état overthrew democratically elected president of Guatemala. Forty two years later, the Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification concluded that over 1.5 million Guatemalans had been displaced internally, and over 200,000 Guatemalans had fled to Mexico during the forty-year civil war that followed. Over 200,000 more Guatemalans, the vast majority of them indigenous Mayan peoples, were killed or “disappeared” by the State’s armed forces from 1978-1995. The Tattooed Soldier grapples with the fraught history of the USA’s military and economic entanglement in this conflict through the stories of three focal characters; two living in East LA just prior to the 1992 uprising, and one left dead at the hands of the “Jaguar Battalion” after voicing concern over water pollution in the refugee slums of Guatemala.
Antonio Bernal, the first focal character in Pulitzer Prize-winning Hector Tobar’s, The Tattooed Soldier (1998), is a political refugee of the Guatemalan Civil War driven to Los Angeles because his wife (Elena; another focal character) and son were massacred for writing a letter of protest to the departmental government about the harmful health effects caused by untreated sewage seeping into a local barrio’s drinking water. After being evicted from his LA apartment, Antonio wanders LA’s Crown Hill neighborhood and McArthur Park aimlessly until he spies one of his family’s killers playing chess. After stalking the ex-soldier, Guillermo Longoria (the third focal character), Antonio eventually confronts his nemesis in the chaotic midst of the 1992 LA Uprising. Yet the novel hardly presents itself as a “chilling revenge story” (as a blurb from People magazine attests on the cover of the Penguin edition of the book). The majority of the book deals with mapping layers of different forms of economic, social, and environmental injustice across the geographies of Guatemala and the United States. The historical roots of these injustices are mapped through time, as the reader is repeatedly turned from 1992 Los Angeles to Guatemala in the late 1970s and 1980s, as well as through space, with each of the three focal character’s movements within Guatemala and across the United States providing a primary means within the text of fleshing out each character’s emotional states and motivations.
I think The Tattooed Soldier is a modern masterpiece, and as someone who is interested in literary depictions of pollution and socio-environmental issues, I find this a masterpiece of environmental literature. While the spectacular violence of the Civil War and the LA Uprising serve as flash points in the text, it is the slow violence of poisoned water, urban environmental racism, and poverty in both Guatemala and the United States that structure and propel the plot forward. The book’s power, for me, is in its complex depiction of politics, pollution, and poverty’s effects on three character’s identity and motivations. The book helps shed light on the US military-backed atrocities committed in the Guatemalan Civil War and humanizes both the victims and perpetrators of this little-known genocide.
Despite the heavy topic matter, The Tattooed Soldier is often warm, wry, or outright humorous. Weighing in at just 305 pages, this short novel offers more bang for your buck than any other book I’ve read in a long time.
Rating: This book will stick with you as you soldier on through the summer. (trust me, I had worse puns up my sleeve)
Review Submitted by: Shane D. Hall
Rating: Highly Recommended.