“What is the use of writing poetry during a period of unrestrained fascism?”
Over this past month I’ve been reading and re-reading an essay by the poet Marjorie Agosín titled “How to Speak with the Dead? A Poet’s Notebook” (Human Rights Quarterly 15 (1993)214-223).
In the essay Agosín raises complex questions on writing about victims and survivors of state terrorism. “Up to what point is it feasible to make poetry about the tortured body?” How do we ask someone what it means to be the mother of a disappeared or a political prisoner? “Why should I see them cry?”
Writer in a foreign land & the inability to represent pain
Though she was born in the U.S., Agosín was raised in Chile until her family returned to North America after Pinochet came to power.
While most authors by their nature are introspective, Agosín exhibits an unusual level of self-awareness about the limits of writing in representing and adequately portraying the suffering of those who experienced traumatic, violent social conflict.
She talks about Latin American writers, like herself (“We are and are not the disappeared”), who go into exile and “recover memory and nostalgia through the temporary and borrowed scenery of an imaginary landscape.” Distance may appear to offer objectivity but it also further distorts the writer’s own perspective. “They write as survivors.”
Fiction or Non-Fiction
One of the issues I’ve been struggling with is whether it’s better to read fiction or non-fiction about the disappeared and the last dictatorship. (Of course, a reader doesn’t have to choose and can read both, but a writer must choose.) Can fiction adequately represent the horrors? In what ways are fiction writers limited in their portrayal of these realities? Conversely, do writers of fiction have more latitude than writers of non-fiction when it comes to exploring these themes? Which fiction writers should take on this material? Should fictional accounts of these emotionally charged topics be limited to those who lived through the times, have some first-hand experiences? What are the dangers of appropriating the difficult lives of others for one’s own fictional world? Or is it merely the skill of the writer? Is the literary imagination of any writer open to convey, or at least, attempt to enter this dark world of loss and memory? Would those attempts seem false, contrived?
Would it not be better simply to read non-fiction accounts of these times? Are not the testimonials of survivors more moving than any fictional accounts?
Often, I thought that non-fiction provides a clearer insight, more true. Yet, non-fiction also has its flaws, the biases of its writers, even those purporting to be objective. (Just reading what is written in most foreign newspapers about Buenos Aires should be enough for most residents of this city to realize that non-fiction is not a depiction of the truth but simply one writer’s perspective.) We must read, examine, and absorb various accounts of any topic before reaching conclusions (and even then our thoughts may continue to shift and change). Perhaps it’s the process itself – reading, writing, reflecting – that is ultimately important, more so than our actual beliefs.
(And with that swirling vagueness perhaps I’ve just rambled, somersaulted, crashed into my own pseudointellectual pomposity).
Agosín points out that literature seems less real and is easier to read precisely because we realize that it is not real, fiction camouflages repression and torture. Agosín describes her own obsession with identifying and writing about the disappeared to the point where she felt like she lost objectivity. “Now I ask myself, with what right did I speak of them? Why did I appropriate their zones and the theme of pain? What model did I follow to speak about the dead?”
“The boldness and nudity of the poem”
That line is Agosín’s. Poetry, for her, is the only way that she can access these issues. She writes, “I believe that poetry, with its atemporal qualities, its symbolic language that identifies, yet at the same time negates, allows me to create a zone of ambivalence.”
Agosín goes on to describe what she considers her failed, “nightmarish”, attempt to write a book about René Eppelbaum, one of the founders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Agosín’s intentions were to write a political discourse, a history but she says, “My attempt at reproducing the pain of a woman whose three children had been disappeared by the State became an impossibility.” So, Agosín returned to poetry to write about a woman “who did not want to be history, but nevertheless was history.”
With unexpected candor Agosín states that her poem was received very negatively by Eppelbaum. Agosín says, “In making her human, I took away the Plaza and left her along with her dead.”
Many more questions
Agosín’s essays raises many more questions than it answers, much more than can be addressed in this post. In Buenos Aires the disappeared and the last dictatorship are never very far from the present. Occasionally, I hear a few people assert that the past should be left in the past and that it’s time to move forward, continue rebuilding the country. Regardless of one’s perspective, the questions always will remain, the past is part of the identity.
Towards the end of Agosín’s notebook examining how to speak with the dead is this paragraph:
“In my experience, I could only formulate questions without answers. Is there a coherent self that can write and speak of political repression? Or does the being that writes, due to the nature of the topic, remain a fragment, distanced from the course of history? Would it be possible for the literature of political violence to defy the political conscience of the society that allows violence? How to avoid the creation of myth around the individual without offending? What is the correct distance between the victims and she who writes about them? How does one speak of the fear? How to speak about being a testimonial writer without ever having been imprisoned.”
The North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) has published a really good article on its site about a very worthy initiative: Children of Disappeared Create Archive of Identity.
The Archive became a powerful tool to reconcile the grandchildren with their own history. Instead of accounts of tortures or reports on assassinations, the Archive collects personal stories, recounts life experiences, biographical accounts. In-depth interviews with friends and relatives of the ones who “disappeared” during the so-called “dirty war” and recordings of their stories allow the recovery of their memory while establishing a dialogue between past and present.
Monica Muñoz, one of the Archive coordinators, explains that there is a cultural heritage in the daily life of a family that parents pass instinctively to their children, a kind of chain. For the kids who were kidnapped, this chain was broken. The primary goal of the Archive is to help the youngsters when they are found to recover and reconstruct this chain and their own identity.
Take a few minutes to read the full article.
As I mentioned yesterday, 30 April marks the 30th year of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo. Until seeing Clarín this morning I didn’t realize that one of the Madres’ groups – Línea Fundadora – had its celebration on Sunday. (Political differences have fragmented the Madres). This afternoon at 3 will begin a long concert in the Plaza to celebrate the Madres led by Hebe de Bonafini.
I just noticed on the official Madres Web site a scrolling banner about today’s gathering that says “Un sueño: el Socialismo” and that Cuban cultural minister Abel Prieto will be one of today’s participants. …..I’m going to refrain from an editorial comment but make of that what you will.
Anyway, let’s go back to the early days of the Madres, thirty years ago, before the Madres fragmented into different organizations. I want to quote from the book Searching for Life: The Grandmothers of the Plaza De Mayo and the Disappeared Children of Argentina about an early gathering of the Madres in the Plaza. While this book deals mostly with the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (yet another group of Madres but one that doesn’t march in the Plaza), the book is excellent reading.
This is from an interview with Haydée Vallino de Lemos conducted by the book’s author Rita Arditti in 1993. (Haydée son as well as her daughter – who was 8 months pregnant – both disappeared):
I was a member of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. Yes, those that go around in the Plaza. At first when my children disappeared I just laid down in bed, looking at the ceiling, blank. That was all I could do. My weight went down to forty kilos. One day my husband brought the newspaper and said: “Look, people are getting together.” I jumped up saying, “Then it is not me alone, there are others.” I started to go to the Ministry of the Interior. There I met a woman who said to me: “Why don’t you come on Thursdays to the Plaza de Mayo? Take a little nail; that is how they will recognize you.” So I went, and I sat on a bench and my husband sat a little away from me. I had this little nail in my hand, and I saw that the others also had a little nail, and that is how I knew it was them.
At a demonstration, a woman began to tell me her story and, when she learned that I had a pregnant daughter disappeared, she took out a little notebook and put me on the list. She also had a disappeared pregnant daughter….
In the Plaza we secretly passed notes about where our meetings would be. We met in churches…we met in my house, in my sister’s house…My sister lived on the twelfth floor, and we did not want to take the elevator and make noise. We were quite a few, and the meeting was at an hour when the janitor was sleeping. So we went tiptoeing to the twelfth floor. And then, what a moment! When we got together, we discussed about whom to send letters, we collected signatures, we brainstormed. Each meeting was bigger than the one before. We were simply housewives. Most of us had never done anything outside the home. I did not even know how to take a bus alone. I was not used to going out without my husband. Even now I do not think I could do the things I did then.
Regarding the little nail, a footnote explains:
At one of the early gatherings, a Mother had picked up a rusty nail from the ground and put it on her lapel. “It is a symbol of suffering, like the nails of Christ,” she said. After that, other Mothers started to use nails to recognize each other.
Last week while walking down Av de Mayo I saw a couple of guys putting up these posters about tomorrow’s (30 April) celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo.
I’m fascinated by the posters that adorn this city. They’re so ephemeral but yet an essential part of the city’s character.
It should be an interesting afternoon in the Plaza.
Every time I wander along Av Chile I intend to take a photo of these three plaques in the sidewalk that commemorate three people abducted more than thirty years ago during the last dictatorship. The other morning I finally had my camera with me.
I didn’t know the stories of these three: two women and a man. The date of their disappearance is the same – July 27, 1976: Susana Elena Pedrini, Jose Daniel Bronzel, Cecilia Podolsky.
Thanks to the Internet even the disappeared are remembered so that their names exist not just as words on the sidewalk.
I thought that this would be a short, simple post but, by chance, just before pressing the publish button I thought to enter one of their names in Google, which returned several pages from different sites devoted to the disappeared. The Proyecto Desaparecidos site tells us (in Spanish) a little about their lives and death as well as providing a photo.
Do they look like a danger to the nation?
An architect and teacher at the University of Buenos Aires, Jose Daniel Bronzel and his wife Susana Elena Pedrini were both 28 and expecting a child when they were kidnapped along with her mother Cecilia, a 51 year-old housewife. Susana was 6 weeks pregnant.
Their lives came to a brutal end three weeks later on August 20, 1976 when they were executed with 27 others in an incident referred to as the Fatima massacre.
The bodies of the victims laid in an unmarked grave for more than 20 years until being discovered in June 1999. The bones of Jose Daniel and Susana were among the first to be positively identified by forensic specialists. The couple were buried in the British Cemetery in November 2000. From the research I find on the net, the remains of Cecilia Podolsky have not been identified.
… names shift from anonymous, random arrangement of letters to reflection of faces now absent from the world.
Thursday marked four months from the disappearance of Jorge Julio Lopez, an elderly witness who has been missing since testifying in the trial against a police official from the last dictatorship. Displayed sporadically throughout the city are posters and graffiti serving as reminders that he is still missing. Despite these efforts, there seems to be little progress in actually finding the man. A commonly accepted belief, after this much time, is that Julio Lopez is dead and his body will never be found though the government has strongly rejected any such statements by the media.
The 18th of each month brings a march down Av de Mayo from the Congreso demanding he re-appears alive.
Different causes, same faces
Thursday was another hot summer day in Buenos Aires. By late afternoon storm clouds gathered overhead. While the rain didn’t come in the downtown area, except for a few sprinkles, strong winds blew along the streets.
As with other marches down Av de Mayo, the participants are mostly the same despite the reason for the march. The front lines may change depending upon the cause but the majority of protesters are leftist political groups and piqueteros.
There are always the familiar faces. Go to just about any street march in Buenos Aires and you’ll see this old guy banging on the metal street posts with his little metallic stick. He makes quite a racket.
And as with other marches, the TV cameras, reporters, and photographers are gathered at the front of the march and waiting at Plaza de Mayo. Yet, other than the disruption in traffic – which can be very problematic for those driving or taking the bus through downtown around 6 pm – I get the sense that no one pays any attention to all these marches.
Again on Wednesday evening several human rights groups led a march down Avenida de Mayo from Congreso to Plaza de Mayo to protest the disappearance of Jorge Julio Lopez. More info (in Spanish) can be found at www.30anios.org.ar, one of the organizers of the march.
18 of October: a month after 77 year-old Jorge Julio Lopez disappeared, a key witness in the recent trial against former police official Miguel Etchecolatz, who was sentenced last month to life imprisonment for his involvement in the last dictatorship in Argentina.
At one point during the demonstration I turned away from the crowd and saw a person in a black hood spray painting the words “Donde esta Lopez?” on the walls of the Cabildo. If you look closely at the photo, you can see the layers of white paint that covers graffiti from past demonstrations. Four policmen stood just within the closed gate of the Cabildo, clearly knowing that it’s easier to re-paint the Cabildo than try and stop the vandalism.
A few minutes earlier, across the street, a couple of girls sprayed a stencil on the walls of the Palacio de Gobierno de la Ciudad. The city used to station a line of riot police in front of that building but, this year, the city seems to have pulled most of the police away from that area during the demonstrations.
This particular march was not quite the carnival that was the march of a couple of weeks ago that also focused on the disappearance of Lopez. I still need to do a write up on that one.
The crowd last night was quite different. I didn’t stay to see the entire protest line, which stretched quite far, but last night’s demonstrations didn’t have the mass of poor residents bused in from the provinces. Overall, last night’s crowd was more middle class and working class than a lot of the demonstrations. There also was an extremely large number of students.
Every few days I see a story on the news or a sign on the streets commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of somone who was disappeared, such as this poster: an homage to a mother who fought for life and liberty.
Angela Maria Aieta de Gullo was born in Fuscaldo, Italy on March 7, 1921. She lived in the barrio of Parque Chacabuco and Flores and was the mother of four sons. One of her sons, Juan Carlos Dante was imprisoned in 1975 for being a leader of the Peronist Youth. On the fifth of August in 1976 she was taken from her own home and witnesses reported seeing her at ESMA, the Navy School of Mechanics, a notorious torture center. In 1979 her youngest son Salvador Jorge also was disappeared. Juan Carlos Dante Gullo was freed in 1983 with the fall of the dictatorship and is still active in politics.
It is believed that she was carried onto one of the death flights in 1976 that dropped the disappeared into the Rio de la Plata.
Last night, Saturday evening, a mass and tribute to all the disappeared from the barrio took place in front of her home. A statement on the web site of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo lists the names of 32 people who disappeared from the same barrio.
Trial in Italy
There’s more to this poster than the simple remembrance of a dear mother by her family.
Italy is using the death of Angela Aieta and two other Italian citizens who resided and disappeared in Argentina as the basis of an investigation and trial of five officers from the Argentine Navy: Jorge Acosta, Alfredo Astiz, Hector Frebrés, Antonio Vanek, and Jorge Vildoza. Lawyers for navy admiral Emilio Massera, who was a member of the ruling military junta, are pleading that he is now mentally unfit to stand trial.
Most of the former navy officers live in Argentina. Vildoza is a fugitive whose location is unknown.
They are being tried in absentia in Italy. Testimony from more than forty witnesses against the navy officers is scheduled to begin in October.
Not everyone reads the paper or watches the news on TV. But everyone sees the posters on the street.
On Friday posters were pasted to the city’s walls proclaiming Justice against one of the most notorious torturers from the last dictatorship. The poster, sponsored by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Center for Legal and Social Studies, focuses on Julio Simón, known to his victims as Julián the Turk.
Simón was finally sentenced to 25 years in prison for his involvement in the kidnapping, torture, and forced disapperance in November 1978 of José Poblete, Gertrudis Hlaczik and their 8 month old daughter.
The long delay was caused by the Full Stop and Due Obedience Laws that provided impunity to those who participated in the military government that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. Efforts to repeal the laws were finally successful in 2005.
Simón is the first person to be sentenced now that Full Stop and Due Obedience are no longer in effect.
“Legacies of Torture”
I first learned about the horrendous person that is Julio Simón, Julian the Turk, a few years ago when reading A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture by Marguerite Feitlowitz. It’s an excellent book on the dark history of the last dictatorship and, along with Nunca Mas, should be required reading for anyone trying to understand contemporary Argentina.
Described as a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Julián the Turk is said to love opera. One of his victims tells that Julián would bring tapes of classical music to the detention center and they would listen to it together. The same victim recounts horrors committed by Julián the Turk and the large swastika that hung on the end of a watch chain worn by Julián the Turk.
After the dictatorship ended some victims encountered Julián the Turk walking on the streets and were warmly greeted by their former torturer. Reading some accounts of the Dirty War and its aftermath can leave you with a bizarre feeling in which you wonder whether the old man sitting next to you on the bus is so kind.
On May 1, 1995 a taped interview with Julián the Turk was shown on the Buenos Aires news program Telenoche on Canal 13. One of his victims also was presented on the same program and said the following about Julián the Turk. Warning: graphic description of torture:
There was Julián standing over a prisoner they had naked, laid out on his belly, with his legs hanging down over the end of the table. Julián was torturing this man with an electric cable which he had shorn of its insulation and changed to 220 volts. It seems this wasn’t enough for Julián for he then inserted a stick into the man’s anus and then tortured him some more with the cable. As the man’s body writhed and jolted, the stick tore apart his intestines, and he died.
There’s also an odd story about competing news stations. Perhaps someone who was living here at the time might know more about it. Julián the Turk had pre-recorded his interview with Canal 13 but was irritated that he wasn’t going to be paid for his appearance. The station advertised heavily in the newspaper to promote the exclusive interview.
So, he went to the state-run TV station then called ATC (now Canal 7), which reportedly paid him for the interview and ATC aired the interview prior to his appearance on Canal 13.
On Canal 13 Julián the Turk appeared in a dirty turtleneck sweater and with a beard. On the ATC interview he was clean shaven with hair slick by gel and combed back. On ATC he told the interviewer, “What I did I did for my Fatherland, my faith, and my religion. Of course I would do it again.” (Feitlowitz 212).
The things nations do to fight terrorism
Marguerite Feitlowitz, who was conducting research for A Lexicon of Terror, met with Julián the Turk two months after the TV interviews at a café near where he was living in the Constitución section of Buenos Aires.
Julián the Turk immediately told her, “I am not repentant….This was a war to save the Nation from the terrorist hordes. Look, torture is eternal. It has always existed and always will. It is an essential part of the human being.” (Feitlowitz 212)
Julián says the program on Channel 13 was “distorted. Not one innocent person passed through my hands.” He holds out his hands, which are large and muscular, with trunk-like fingers, and not entirely clean. What about the man with the stick in his bowels? He waves this away. The pregnant blind woman tortured and raped at his command? For some reason this gets to him, he denies ever having tortured “cripples.”
Justice – nothing more, nothing less
I know for a fact that there are a few educated porteños who believe that the actions of the government at that time were justified. Their arguments have the hauntingly, familiar tone that it was all about protecting the nation from terrorists. They say, “It was a war.”
It’s important to fight terrorism but it’s equally important for the state, for all countries, not to overstep human rights in that struggle. The path to justice and peace always seems decades away.