Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Argentina: The Dirty War

Departing at Dawn

(Viene clareandoby Gloria Lisé

Posterity forgets or acclaims.
              Walter Benjamin

Even the dedication page of Gloria Lisé’s 2005 novel about Argentina’s “Dirty War” is revealing:

 The story that follows is entirely fiction.

In memory of Isauro Arancibia, his brother,
Antilo Santillán, and Trinidad Iramain, whom I was never
able to meet, because they were killed without ever
being charged or having the right to a defense.

It is a juxtaposition that speaks volumes about Argentina, its politics and history, about the relationship between fact and fiction, and about the challenge to novelists like Lisé to make the world real to us—again and again and again.

The 19th Century Argentinian author and exile, Domingo F. Sarmiento, best known for his protracted intellectual struggle against tyranny in Argentina, against dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas, believed that his greatest enemy was not De Rosas and his kind, but silence and complicity. It was his determination as a writer “to stir emotions, to persuade, to verbalize the collective hatred and instigate a rebellion based not on bullets but on ideas.”* Such it is clear—were I to add “to remember” and “to heal”—was Gloria Lisé’s aim in her smart and affecting novel Departing At Dawn, the story of a politically indifferent medical student named Berta Cristina del Pino who, following the state-sponsored murder of her lover, is drawn headlong into the maelstrom of “La Guerra Sucia” or “The Dirty War”.

In 1976, when this novel begins, the government of President Isabel Peron has just been toppled by the right-wing military junta of Lieutenant General Jorge Rafael Videla, a coup that ushered in “el Proceso” or “the Process of National Reorganization,” a seven-year reign of terror unmatched—even by Argentinian standards—in its brutality and repression.  Declassified documents cite an official estimate of 22,000 people killed or “disappeared” between 1975 and 1978.** Early in the novel Berta herself is forced to flee to the countryside, out of fear for her life, where she renews her acquaintance with her mother’s estranged family—with her frog-like aunt, Avelina, and her uncle, Tristán Nepomuceno, “el negro,” who spends his time collecting old nuts and bolts and serenading his favorite snails.

Departing At Dawn, what Luisa Valenzuela calls “a beautifully simple, poetic story of solidarity and love,” is in essence a story about a young woman’s search for identity and connection in a country traumatized by despotism and violence.  As translator Alice Weldon puts it in her helpful Afterword, “For Argentines Viene clareando creates connections between past and present, between public and private, and the way in which even the most apolitical citizen has been forced to confront the exigencies of political life.”

Gloria Lisé (March 22, 1961- ) is an Argentine writer, lawyer, professor, and an accomplished musician. She was fifteen years old in 1976 when a coup d'état overthrew the government of Isabel Martinez de Perón. She is the author of Con los Pies en el Escenario: Trayectoria del Grupo Arte Dramático y su Director Salo Lisé (2003), a book based on the life of her father, and Viene Clareando (2005), which was chosen by Argentina’s National Commission for the Protection of Public Libraries for distribution to the country’s public libraries. (The Feminist Press, Wikipedia)

Departing at Dawn is published in English by The Feminist Press, New York.  Be sure to check out their remarkable list.

*I am grateful to Ilan Stavans for his introduction to Sarmiento’s extraordinary Facundo or, Civilization and Barbarism (Penguin Classics).  Part history, sociology, political commentary, and fiction, it is  a book I highly recommend.

** Political Injustice: Authoritarianism and the Rule of Law in Brazil, Chile, and Argentina, Anthony W. Pereira, p. 134, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005

Peter Adam Nash

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