[“fascinates” is another right word for both a misunderstanding and a misjudgment]
Decir que la literatura argentina que vuelve su mirada a los horrores de la dictadura “fascina a los novelistas” es una frivolidad y demuestra lo poco que algunos británicos que escriben sobre literatura rioplatense conocen de esos escritores, como el citado Ernesto Sábato. Se puede decir que a los lectores de Agatha Christie les fascinan las historias de crímenes y misterios artificiales, propio de la literatura policial clase B. Pero aplicar la misma regla, o la misma sensibilidad para calificar la literatura posdictadura en América latina es definitivamente una frivolidad y una grave imprecisión critica. Sería como decir que a un paciente que concurre al psicoanalista le fascina su pasado. No debemos reducir la literatura a una función psicológica pero tampoco excluir esta valiosa e inegable dimensión, entre tantas otras, como la espiritual, la politica, la erotica, y la estrictamente estetica en un sentido restringito del arte de juntar palabras, sonidos, ideas e imágenes. Los escritores, los artistas en general, como los lectores, cuando no son sólo instrumentos de diversión o de marketing literario, son pacientes, chamanes y exorcistas de esos monstruos. Que además usen un medio artístico con valores estéticos no disminuye su condición de “médiums” entre un pasado horrible y un presente que lucha por sanar y recuperar una existencia plena, entre otras formas, a través del arte. La estética es parte de esa necesidad de exploración y, si se me permite la especificidad, de exorcismo y curación.
Ernesto Sábato, who died in April at the age of 99, described his task as a “slow descent into hell”. Ever since “Never Again”, his 1984 report on the “dirty war”, generations of Argentine novelists have followed Sábato into the inferno.
The price of love
The junta’s policy of eliminating its enemies still fascinates Argentina’s novelists
Nov 26th 2011
Open Door. By Iosi Havilio. Translated by Beth Fowler. And Other Stories; 213 pages; £10. Buy from Amazon.co.uk
7 Ways to Kill a Cat. By Matías Néspolo. Translated by Frank Wynne. Harvill Secker; 246 pages; £10.99. Buy from Amazon.co.uk
IT SEEMS appropriate now that Argentina’s investigation into the fate of itsdesaparecidos—the 8,960 people officially known to have “disappeared” under the military dictatorship of 1976-83—was headed by a writer. Ernesto Sábato, who died in April at the age of 99, described his task as a “slow descent into hell”. Ever since “Never Again”, his 1984 report on the “dirty war”, generations of Argentine novelists have followed Sábato into the inferno.
For Argentine society, the chapter never closes. Continuing revelations about hundreds of adopted children who were abducted with their parents, or born in custody, have resulted in DNA tests and legal challenges by a campaigning group, “Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo”. Two of these fine recent novels revisit events during the junta. The others—both exceptional debuts—focus on a disturbing present, yet are haunted by unexplained disappearances.
Tomás Eloy Martínez (pictured above), a prominent journalist, novelist and academic who spent years in exile and died in 2010, is known for his explorations of the psychology of Peronism, among them “Santa Evita” (1995). In “Purgatory” (2008), his last novel, an Argentine cartographer in suburban New Jersey senses that her husband has returned to her, no older than when he disappeared 30 years earlier. After years of searching, she remains impervious to evidence of his death as it would confirm that her father, a cheerleading propagandist for the junta, connived in his killing. The novel alludes to the mixture of hypocrisy and collusion that characterised that period, and the banal sentimentality of its distractions—flying saucers, soap operas, fatherland and fútbol (the infamous 1978 World Cup hosted and won by Argentina). The heroine’s state of denial and her ghostly and erotic delusions mirror a country still struggling with reality.
Craven complicity is at the heart of Carlos Gamerro’s “An Open Secret”, a literary thriller first published in 2002 that has the makings of a classic. The perfect crime is “one committed in the sight of everyone—because then there are no witnesses, only accomplices.” A veteran of the war in the Falklands (or Malvinas as they are known in Argentina) returns in the 1990s to his hometown in the pampas to probe the disappearance in custody of a troublesome young journalist during the weekend of Diego Maradona’s football debut 20 years earlier. He finds a “conspiracy of chattiness” rather than of silence, over a murder the whole town was in on.
Mr Gamerro, who was born in 1962, departs from a previous generation’s reverence for eyewitness testimony and memorialising the dead. The tone is hard-boiled, its cynicism alleviated by rare lyrical flights, and the desaparecido emerges as a spoilt mama’s boy and unsavoury womaniser. The “involuntary martyr” is no hero. The perspective is that of a generation seeking the unadulterated truth about their parents and grandparents during the “dirty war”—and hence their own identity. Amid the torrential self- justification of the townsfolk, from barbers to bankers, the subject becomes language itself, which is used to excuse and obfuscate. The stark epigraph is from William Burroughs: “To speak is to lie/To live is to collaborate.”
The bereaved mother in “An Open Secret” appears mad, though the madness is all around her. In “Open Door” by Iosi Havilio, who was born only in 1974, Argentina resembles an asylum. A young veterinary assistant relates how her female lover went missing. She fears that she may have seen her commit suicide off a bridge in Buenos Aires’s old port. Between trips to the morgue to identify corpses, she visits a pampas village named Open Door, after the psychiatric hospital that was founded there in 1898 as an “agricultural work colony”. In the countryside she moves between two partners: an ageing gaucho—whose name is the same as his ailing horse, Jaime—and an amoral, druggie country girl with plaits.
As sexual encounters unfold in the woman’s alienated voice, the characters merge with the village “loonies”. Events, like interchangeable lovers, have equal weight, from a stable fire to the brewing of maté tea, in an ambiguous tale that verges on dark comedy. A suspected UFO turns out to be the spotlit film set for a commercial. In an asylum without walls, there is “nothing to limit the illusion of absolute liberty”; ultimate control is when people no longer feel they are being coerced. With skill and subtlety, the novel hints that a whole society might labour under an illusion of liberty, manipulated by forces outside the frame.
What those malign forces might be is more explicit in “7 Ways to Kill a Cat” by Matías Néspolo, another debut novelist of Mr Havilio’s generation. His shantytown tale from southern Buenos Aires, which recalls the “City of God” slum in the Rio favelas, is set during Argentina’s 2001 financial crash, with protesters defying tear gas, from teachers to lorry drivers. It opens in a barrio at the “wolf’s mouth”, where the asphalt and streetlights give out, with two peso-less youths butchering a cat for meat. As they become embroiled in a lethal turf war between drug lords, the narrator, Gringo, probes the mystery of his mother’s disappearance, and that of his cousin—a reformed gangster turned pavement hawker.
Gringo, torn between moral scruples and the need to “look after number one”, learns that there are only two ways to kill a cat: civilised or savage. A police crackdown on the marchers prompts him to retaliate in what he sees as a “seriously civilised fashion”. One of the characters in “An Open Secret” claims bitterly that in Argentina, “the winners make history and the losers write it.” To judge from these novels that scour the past and mourn the future, it seems nobody won.
Spurce: The Economist