Interrogative Justice in Héctor Tobar’s The Tattooed Soldier

Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 2018


American Studies



Publication Title

Modern Fiction Studies


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 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.


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