Based on the Peruvian civil war, Blood of the Dawn is a delirious, harrowing onslaught of mixed allegiances and betrayals, punctuated with machete chops and the machine gun’s staccato call. Claudia Salazar Jiménez, argues for the freedom not only of Peru, but also for the freedom of its women and their pursuits, some of whom joined the Communist uprising and found themselves to be unwitting volunteers of their worsening privilege.
Jiménez lays the conflict bare with the perspectives of three women: Marcela, one of the Communist galvanizers of the Shining Path war party, delivers a close look at the faction’s campaign while Melanie, a journalist, follows in its bloody wake to expose the horrors it inflicts on countryside villages. Caught between the two is Modesta, one of the many campesino villagers along Marcela’s path.
While many authors would be tempted to explore a topic as gruesome and as difficult as this from the distance of a third-person perspective, Jiménez instead brings us as close as possible to these women, narrating through first and second person, so close that we, in a sense, become participants in the conflict. It is also fitting that the story is told in the immediacy of present tense, a reminder that—even though the Shining Path has since disbanded—Peruvian insurgencies and their effects on women and the country as a whole, are ongoing.
When Jiménez describes the villages that the Shining Path ravages, the scenes are haunting not because of the gore left over, but because of the casual desolation that lingers. Death is not shocking to the characters anymore; it is merely disgusting. This is clear when Melanie visits a smoke-shrouded settlement to get more photographs for her news story:
The smell of melted skin assaults us. Álvaro moves toward the woman. It was a shot to the head. The woman is young, twenty-something, my age or maybe younger. By her side is the body of a man. Nothing is left of his face. It’s a mass devoured by the dogs, maybe by the one that greeted us, though there are others howling in the distance.
However, for most of the book, Jiménez chooses not to describe setting in as much detail, which leaves the reader with a sense of groundlessness as they follow the characters through shifting perspectives. Perhaps this is what Jiménez hints at early on in the book, soon before the Shining Path begins its butchery, when Marcela’s daughter gets her feet stuck in a mixture of sand and compacted soil while playing and cries out, “Mami, there’s no ground here, carry me!” Jiménez makes the reader feel what the soldiers and civilians in the book feel, that there are few places to ground oneself amid the chaos of the raids and mass killings while the civil war draws them deeper inward.
But Jiménez doesn’t stop there. She furthers this disconnection from location through multiple passages of stream of consciousness. By its nature, this style of writing is unbound by the conventions of grammar—one could say ungrounded in it. The lack of periods and paragraph breaks leave no place for the reader to pause. They can only be swept forward in a blood-rush, as when Jiménez describes one of the Shining Path’s massacres:
how many were there it hardly matters twenty came thirty say those who got away counting is
useless crack machete blade a divided chest crack no more milk another one falls machete knife
dagger stone sling crack my daughter crack my brother crack my husband crack my mother crack
What these passages purposefully ignore in setting and structure instead focus on the thoughtless fluidity of a state of mind gorging solely on carnage, caring not where the next kill will be, but when.
With efficient language and unsettling violence, Blood of the Dawn critiques a social and political disease in the history of Peru, and as the civil war worsens over the course of the story, the fates of the three main characters prove to be as uncertain as the conflict’s final outcome.