Rodolfo Walsh Operation Massacre, translated by Daniella Gitlin (Seven Stories Press, 2013 )
Patricio Pron My Fathers’ Ghost is Climbing in the Rain, translated by Mara Faye Lethem (Faber and Faber, 2013 )
by Rebecca DeWald
When I think of our visit to Córdoba, the first thing that comes to my mind is how incredibly bright the city was. The sun was blazing, reflecting off the light grey cobblestones and the terracotta walls of the Jesuit cathedral. The unbearable heat and blinding sunshine force us to hide in the cathedral, the only place to offer us shelter besides a pope-themed cafe.
Córdoba did not show us its most welcoming side when we first arrived. The bus driver dropping us off before the final stop sends a warning “Do you know where you are going? This is not the best area” as the bus doors close and we are obvious prey with all our luggage and Europeanness in the deserted streets during siesta. The colourful façade of hostel “Mundo Mestizo” welcomes us with locked iron gates which staff open for guests only, to be locked again right behind them. Córdoba is determined to remain inaccessible to me, in its habits, thoughts and its relation with its past. Although one of the reasons for coming to Córdoba was to visit the Archivo Provincial de la Memoria to understand Argentina’s past better. The Archivo is housed in a former concentration camp for political dissidents under the National Reorganization Process, a process better known as the “Dirty War.”
The Dirty War from 1976 to 1982 under a military junta led by different generals is only the most recent period of an era in Argentine history determined by military coups, dictatorships and the persecution of the political opposition. During the Dirty War, the targeted political opposition were supposedly Marxist-Leninist activists. However, if was often middle-class students and intellectuals as well as trade unionists without ties to the officially targeted extremist underground movements, who were affected by persecutions and torture. As the most recent violent military regime, it is the one most talked-about — certainly outside Argentina, in internationally acclaimed films, such as the two Oscar-winners La historia oficial (1985) and El secreto de sus ojos (2009). The arbitrary persecution of dissidents and the consequences for families and children of the disappeared, who often never found out what happened to their parents and, in some cases, that they have been adopted, is difficult to imagine. As disturbing and upsetting as these events are, they were not a novelty in Argentine history. Radicalism and persecutions determined the 20th century and reached many peaks before they culminated in the Dirty War.
It is the first time that Rodolfo Walsh’s 1957 Operation Massacre has been translated into English, by Daniella Gitlin. The importance of this translation was marked by its feature as BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week shortly after its publication by New York Seven Stories Preiss in August 2013. While Radio 4’s subtitle reads “A Latin American true crime classic set in Argentina,” the extensive book addenda (introductions and afterwords by translator Gitlin, critic Michael Greenberg and writer Ricardo Piglia, as well as numerous epilogues by Walsh himself) repeat that, despite its unquestionable relevance, its journalistic and political interest at the time of publication, Operation Massacre did not cause the buzz and uproar Walsh had hoped for and that the text deserved.
The context is the Revolución Libertadora, initiated by a military coup led by Eduardo Lonardi and supported by the Catholic Church in an attempt to overthrow the previous elected government of Juan Domingo Perón and infamous Evita. Perón’s government, while favouring social justice and a liberal economical approach, had also already imprisoned opponents and advanced censorship; the Revolución Libertadora, mostly under Pedro Aramburu, went further and targeted the leaders of the trade-unions formed under Perón, and furthermore everyone taken to be a Peronist. Walsh’s account begins when the Revolución Libertadora expects an uprising in June 1956, following which the military junta instates martial law and arrests a number of men from the outskirts of Buenos Aires. They are taken to a police station and driven off to a field in the night to be executed without trial. The men are innocent and, even more astonishingly, many escape the firing squat. It sounds like a “true crime classic”, a thriller. And it is historical, so we should all know about it, take sides and defend our position. But this is a problem. The English-speaking reader of Gitlin’s translation, who knows little or nothing about Argentine politics in the 20th century, is faced with opposing sides which are neither black nor white. Argentine politics work on different distinctions.
To give an example: Peronism is often described as a third position ideology, being neither capitalist nor communist, but rejecting and simultaneously showing features of both. The liberal economics remind us of capitalism, the support of workers and trade unions is a socialist feature; Perón’s later exile in Franco’s Spain and patriotism further show his fascist inclinations. In this political set-up, unlike in a crime novel, it becomes impossible to tell who the “goodies” and who the “baddies” are.
The journalist Walsh was about to embark on writing fiction when he stumbled across this story, when one of the survivor’s told him about the attempted execution of the innocent men in what became known as the León Suárez Massacre, for which some police officers subsequently faced trial (unsuccessfully for the prosecution). Walsh takes the reader along his investigative route, first presents all the dramatis personae, then recounts the events and finally the trial. His rage at the authorities in the battle for justice for these men is apparent in his prolepses from the massacre to the trial, and in the constant repetition of anger at injustice — repeated again by all other contributors to this present English volume. The story is shocking, particularly because there was no justice for these men, because they have fallen between the cracks of history and the insecure determination of “goodies” and “baddies,” where fact ends and fiction begins. The construction of the text shows Walsh’s journalistic streak, an opinionated piece building up tension, hinting at current events (of the late 1950s and 60s, when Operation Massacre was republished in a second and third edition), and his fictionalised inserts, such as the use of the public radio playing Stravinsky as a marker of time, later on used as evidence for the time military law was instated) Gitlin stresses Walsh’s use of a language “accessible to working-class readers: the language is direct, there are very few abstract concepts, and the book is full of suspense” and an example of testimonial writing.
Maybe this is my way in to the text: My interest in Latin American literature — identical to many other interested readers — began with the Magical Realism of the 1960s and 70s and its playful treatment of foundation myths, their fictional rendering and political relevance. Besides native mythology, the crónica  (chronicle) is at the source of this literary genre, mainly the chronicles by Spanish conquistadores, aiming at giving a factual account of the happenings in simple, direct language with a chronological order — a true story. Written by the colonizers, the Spanish chronicles might have given a true account, but certainly only true for one side of the coin. The indigenous “truth” (or mythology) follows a different logic. Taken up by Latin American writers from the middle of the 1960s onwards, the genre constituting an intermediate form of journalism and literature developed a post-modernist approach of uncertain truths, plural histories and the effacement of dichotomies, while retaining its link with politics. Gabriel García Márquez’s Crónica de una muerte anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold) from 1981 is a case in point, adapting the key data of a real murder, its setting in time and place, to a non-chronological account, with the surrounding events taking centre-stage over the murder of the title. Similar to Walsh, García Márquez’s novella is narrated in a part journalistic, part novelistic style, filling in the blanks for the reader. Much like the crónica as a literary genre, and even more so the often socially motivated testimonio , Walsh’s text questions both sides of the persecution and trial, including his own confession that he was not a Peronist (the grounds for the death sentence the innocent men were given), and “no longer a supporter of the revolution that, like so many others, I believed was going to liberate us.” And that is the other thing: although it is difficult for outsiders to distinguish the official political parties, branched out into multiple underground movements, it is vital for the witnesses and participants to take sides. Though which side to choose?
In 1957, a writer like Walsh could write a book like Operation Massacre and have it published and widely read, as controversial as it may have been. By 1977 [the height of the Dirty War], there was no freedom of the press in Argentina, and the rule of law had been practically abolished.
So the shocking account does not even describe the worst part of Argentine history. Yet, no one wanted to publish Walsh’s account, but a clandestine printer, shaking when he received the manuscript to be printed. Walsh did not want to choose sides but is certain that “under Peronism I would not have been able to publish a book like this or the news articles that preceded it, or to even attempt to investigate police killings that were also taking place at the time. That’s the little we have gained.” And it was under yet a different military regime, led by General Jorge Videla in the Dirty War, which disappeared Walsh.
In her translator’s introduction, which is all a keen reader of translations could ask for, Gitlin gives account for reproducing Walsh’s — at times confusing — shifts between tenses and registers and shows that her own relationship with the text was as much a chance encounter as Walsh’s introduction to the witnesses. In addition to this parallel, she gives a sense of the book’s prose returning to the familiar: Walsh’s, and now Gitlin’s, short and direct sentences were influenced by his reading of English-language crime writers, whom he also translated. Despite these similarities, the English account needs a lot of background information and explanation to achieve a shocking effect on the reader. There are many particular references to localities, towns, sportsmen, politicians, generals which make the text foreign beyond being Argentine, but also stresses that Operation Massacre is very clearly situated at a particular bygone point in time. About half the text is therefore made up of addenda, particularly the substantial “Appendices” including a glossary of names, multiple epilogues, an “obligatory appendix,” notes, and the first part of a film script based on the account, which all aim at giving access to the fortress text. As such, Operation Massacre wants to be studied rather than leafed through, making the relatively short 230-page paperback a comprehensive volume, giving account of a fragment of the convoluted Argentine relationship with military juntas, revolutions, politics and the media, rather than an overview. Just like Córdoba, I feel there is so much more behind the surface which is worth digging for, if you can only see past the blinding, confusing and hermetic façade.
The borders become even vaguer as this journalistic/novelistic style spills over into the translator’s introduction. Reading Gitlin’s introduction, my immediate reaction is that she sounds like Walsh: taking the same stance as the journalist, using the same examples, using almost identical syntax. This is a silly conclusion, of course, since Walsh’s English words are Gitlin’s, the translator’s, whose introduction is influenced by her translation. Greenberg, in his Foreword, and Piglia, in his Afterword, use the same examples as Gitlin and Walsh, however, adding to the notion that history repeats itself and cannot be contained in an account (be it factual or fictional or a crónica) but also that even repetition might not make history more accessible and comprehensible.
The narrator of Patricio Pron’s cryptically — and maybe a bit cumbersomely —titled My Fathers’ Ghost is Climbing in the Rain is born when Walsh’s life ends, in the late 1970s. He realises his responsibility as an heir to revolutionary parents in 2008:
I understood for the first time that all the children of young Argentines in the 1970s were going to have to solve our parents’ pasts, like detectives, and what we would find out was going to seem like a mystery novel we wished we’d never bought.
Combined with the guilt of being “the consolation prizes our parents gave themselves after failing to pull off the revolution” in 1975, the novel asks the essential question of how to penetrate the hermetic legacy of one’s revolutionary parents.
I heard Patricio Pron read from his debut novel at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last year, where he explained that his autobiographical story has to be told in fragments because the events themselves belong to public knowledge. The only thing shared in this collective memory are fragments. In Pron, I find an updated form of the crónica, no longer referring to the absolute truth of the Spanish colonizers but to the silenced absolute truth of Argentina’s most recent past. As such, he explained in Edinburgh, the novel became more and more fictionalised in the process of writing, in order to find a form that “wasn’t revolutionary but unconventional. To be loyal to the spirit of transgression.” As such, Pron’s novel, epilogue and blog posts overlap:
Anyway, that encounter, which really happened and which, therefore, was true, can be read here simply as an invention, as something fake, since, first of all, I was sufficiently confused at the time and so clearly worried that I could and did distrust my senses, which could incorrectly interpret a real event, and, second, because that encounter with the aging soccer player from a country that was part of my past, and almost everything that happened later, which I’m here to explain, was true but not necessarily believable. It has been said that in literature the beautiful is true but the true in literature is only the believable, and between the believable and the true there is a vast distance. […] for the first time since he had become a father and I a son, we would finally understand something; but this, being true, wasn’t the least bit believable.
While the events told in this book are mostly true, some are the result of the demands of fiction, whose rules are different from the rules of such genres as testimony or autobiography; for that reason I would like to mention here what the Spanish writer Antonio Muñoz Molina once said, as a reminder and a warning: “A drop of fiction taints everything as fictional.” When my father read the manuscript of this book, he thought it was important to make some observations that reflect his perspective on the narrated events and correct certain errors; the text that gathers these observations, and which is the first example of the type of reactions this book is intended to provoke, can be found at http://patriciopron.blogspot.com/p/el-espiritu-de-mis-padres-sigue.html under the title “The Record Straight.”
Mary Faye Lethem’s translation clearly adds another hyper-level to the text, which I am reading in her English version. Gitlin explains how she tried to get into Walsh’s head to understand his political standpoint, which I admire on personal grounds, given the Argentine political scene that I tried to describe above. There is no commentary by Lethem in My Fathers’ Ghost, highly surprising given Pron’s praise of her work. Asked about the translation at the EIBF, Pron was full of enthusiasm for working with his translators because “they offer an attentive but very different view about the book from other actors in the process of the book.” He praises Lethem’s translation, particularly the musicality and rhythm her text expresses. Not only is he proud of it, but he considers it an improvement at times:
For me, it was a great experience and I enjoy publicly reading my work in other languages, I sometimes think they sound better.
In most aspects, the offspring is very different from its parents, and My Fathers’ Ghost is the polar opposite of Operation Massacre: it is introverted, depicting characters emotionally rather than factually without giving insight into them, and it tells a personal story rather than giving a journalistic account of someone else’s story. The plot begins with an event — the young writer returns to Argentina from Germany because his father is dying — and then avoids mentioning events. The characters drift from discovery to discovery without making these happen — the blurb summarises all of these already. Pron’s mysterious inaccessibility stems from the glimpses given of the story in the fragmentary narrative, swaying from instances of plot, apothecary’s lists of unpronounceable drugs and inventories of the father’s library, to epigraphs by Perón on the relationship of children with their parents (“Parents are the bones children sharpen their teeth on”). The piecemeal structure creates a grill filtering superficial views from those who want to look deeper, though even they are not guaranteed insight.
The Archivo Provincial de la Memoria does not give us access to the national memory either — it is closed. We can only peek through the gate from the outside, look at the names of the disappeared political opponents of the military junta forming a finger print on the walls of the museum. We can only look at black-and-white photos of disappeared people posted onto columns outside the Capuchin Iglesia del Sagrado Corazón, welcoming tourists and stray dogs alike.
Like Pron, looking through photographs in order to make sense of the past, I discover a close-up in my photos of Córdoba.
Besides the black-and-white photos of the disappeared, which I focused my camera lens on, are three columns which have replaced the photographs with the words “JUSTICIA”, “VERDAD” and “MEMORIA: Justice, Truth, Memory. Walsh fought for justice for Carranza, Garibotti, Mr. Horacio, Giunta, Díaz, Gavino and Mario and for the acknowledgement of a truth not represented by the government; Pron’s personal truth might differ from a collective truth, or even from his father’s truth, as evident in his father’s extensive corrections on the blog, though that does not make either less believable.
What is this kind of memory which keeps Argentina going, despite the tendency of history to repeat itself? It is a collective memory present in every city alike, where the same street names, honouring the same former presidents and generals, repeat themselves, turning every city into the same tacit witness to a known, yet hidden past. It is a silent memory which won’t let everybody in. I am on the outside, peering through the gates of Córdoba. I feel somehow lost amidst these mixed impressions, blinding sunshine and dark history, churches adjacent to sites of atrocities, summer holidays and oppressive hidden memories.
But then, these crónicas are not about me.
- A recent example of the mixed use of crónica is the not-for-profit publication The Football Crónicas with football-themed writing from Latin America for the World Cup in Rio de Janeiro this year.
- Crónica and testimonio overlap to a certain extent in their use of both journalistic and literary devices and the involvement of the writer as both witness and author/chronicler. While the crónica is usually concerned with cultural events and everyday life, the testimonio often takes a political stance in its defence of the oppressed. See also the relevant entries in Daniel Balderston and Mike Gonzalez’s Encyclopedia of Latin American and Caribbean Literature: 1900-2003 (London: Routledge, 2004).