Until the publication of this memoir, Carolyn Forché’s experiences in El Salvador have mostly stayed distilled in her poetry. Image Credit: Harry Mattison

What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance

By Carolyn Forché, Illustrated, Penguin Press, 390 pages,$28

“Who is Gomez? Nobody knows.” The person who issued this cryptic statement was none other than Gomez himself — Leonel Gomez Vides, a coffee farmer from El Salvador who showed up in Southern California on the doorstep of poet Carolyn Forché in 1977, with a bundle of papers under his arm and his two young daughters in tow. Within a few days he persuaded Forché to make her first trip to El Salvador, just as the country was on the verge of civil war.

In What You Have Heard Is True, Forché traces how this initial encounter with a stranger irrevocably changed the course of her art and her life. Forché was 27 at the time, a Midwesterner living in San Diego, with a budding reputation for her work. She had heard Gomez’s name before, when she travelled to Spain to translate the poems of his cousin Claribel Alegria, though nobody could say for sure whether Claribel’s cousin was working with the Salvadoran guerrillas or with the CIA.

Until the publication of this memoir, Forché’s experiences in El Salvador — seven “extended stays” between 1978 and 1980 — have mostly stayed distilled in her poetry. The Colonel, collected in The Country Between Us (1981), begins with an elegant dinner at a colonel’s home (rack of lamb, green mangoes) and ends with him emptying a grocery sack full of human ears onto the table — ghastly trophies from a dirty war.

'What You Have Heard Is True' book cover Image Credit: Supplied

Taking its title from the first line of that poem, Forché’s memoir starts off slowly, as she describes in minute detail how she made the fateful and seemingly inexplicable decision to follow a mysterious stranger’s directive to take such a perilous trip. But once Forché’s story gathers momentum, it’s hard to let the narrative go. What You Have Heard Is True is billed, per its subtitle, as “a memoir of witness and resistance.” That’s fair enough, but it does this riveting book a mild disservice; the memoir I read was more intricate and surprising than such an earnest descriptor lets on.

For a while, it isn’t at all clear how much Gomez can be trusted. When he first shows up, he draws Forché pictures of Spanish galleons, explains how the conquistadors brutalised the Indians, and uses a toothpick holder and a saltshaker to dramatise the infighting among Salvadoran officers after nearly 50 years of a military dictatorship. He offers grisly disquisitions on the death squads, on the disappeared, on body parts washing up on the beach. Forché tells him that he would be better off enlisting a journalist to document what is happening in his country. “I want a poet,” he insists. “Why do you think I came all this way?”

Once Forché arrives in El Salvador, Gomez drives her around in his white Toyota Hiace, constantly glancing in the rearview mirror, a handgun tucked into a copy of Time magazine between them. He takes her to the countryside to meet with peasant farmers, or campesinos, who don’t have enough to eat. He takes her to the US embassy, where the ambassador warns her against Gomez because “we don’t know who he is.” Gomez even takes her to El Salvador’s military headquarters, where he talks candidly to a lieutenant colonel about how all the disappearances are making the army look bad — before he asks whether he might use the lieutenant colonel’s shower.

The whole thing comes across as baffling — much as it does to Forché herself, at least at first. We gradually become acquainted with Gomez and his country through Forché’s eyes, as she starts off knowing almost nothing, then learns a little bit, and then a little bit more. Gomez is incensed by the abject poverty in most of his country, where campesinos live in huts made of mud and junkyard scraps. “If the Salvadoran campesinos fight,” he says, “they must win. If they do not win, they will suffer for another 200 years.”

But he’s also a landowner. He’s against corruption and in favour of reform, yet he claims “no doctrinal allegiances.” His copy of Machiavelli has been thumbed through so many times that it’s held together with a rubber band. When Forché remarks on the Che Guevara poster in his home, he says: ‘Yes, well, I have posters of Mussolini too, if the need arises.”

She realises that what Gomez calls his “symphony of illusion” — “He talks to this one. He talks to that one.” — turns out to be the only way for him to help reformist efforts against a murderous regime while trying, as much as he can, to protect himself.

“Terror is the given of the place,” Joan Didion wrote in her 1983 book Salvador. Forché describes being chased by death squads — not once, but twice. The killings become so indiscriminate that she grows familiar with the “rotting, sweet, sickening” smell of dead bodies left by the side of the road. An excerpt from the unpunctuated notes she took at the time — scribbled in pencil, “to keep the writing light and erasable” — captures how corpses were mutilated into instruments of intimidation: “When mere death no longer instills fear in the population the stakes must be raised the people must be made to see that not only will they die but die slowly and brutally.”

Behind most of the killings during El Salvador’s 12-year civil war were government forces, which were in turn bolstered by American money and American training. Forché alludes to the political context in the book, but the shape of her memoir hews closely to what she herself saw and heard — and how, out of the horror, she began to discern what she needed to do.

Forché returned to the United States to write what she called “a poetry of witness” (“born to an island of greed / and grace where you have this sense / of yourself as apart from others”), married a war photographer, had a child. “You have to be able to see the world as it is, to see how it is put together, and you have to be able to say what you see,” Gomez said, but he left it up to Forché to figure out the rest for herself. “I do not have your answers,” he told her. “I am just a man.”

–New York Times News Service