Anachronism and Autofiction
In the 1980s and 1990s, therefore, testimonies, and literary and cinematic fictions, mostly circulated in different spheres and followed distinct and sometimes even opposite rules. By contrast, the autofictions that emerged in the 2000s not only combine their respective (autobiographical and fictional) reading pacts (as we will see later in this section) but also redefine the very notions of both testimony and fiction.
Even in the texts that did blend testimony and fiction during the first decades of the post-dictatorship era, including the examples analyzed by Ana Longoni in Traiciones: La figura del traidor en los relatos acerca de los sobrevivientes de la represion (2007), the aim of the authors was not so much to bear witness to their own experiences during the dictatorship (even when they appeared masked as characters in their writings) but rather to focus on the lives of others regarded as more heroic or “interesting” actors. In addition, most of the time these novels were less playful and humorous than the works addressed in this book and they do not focus on the experiences of the so-called second generations but rather on the adult victims of the regime.
In her study, Longoni traces the figure of the traitor in three bestselling books—namely, Miguel Bonasso’s Recuerdo de la muerte (1984), Rolo Diez’s Los companeros (1987) and Liliana Heker’s Elfin de la historia (1996). All of these present themselves as novels and fictions employing literary strategies. At the same time, they all establish with their readers a non-fictional pact similar to the testimonial pact as illustrated by the paratextual elements of these books that point to historical and real subjects and events. Thus all of these texts call into question the distinction between what Umberto Eco, cited by Longoni, has called a “natural narrative” (which describes events that actually occurred) and an “artificial narrative” (supposedly represented by fiction, and that only pretends to tell the truth).25 For Eco, this distinction is often unsustainable. Sometimes the fictional signs in a novel are read as signs of truth (as happened in the famous case of Orson Wells narrating the invasion of Martians on the radio). Sometimes we take a fictional character so seriously that when they migrate to another text they acquire citizenship in the real world and act as a sign of truth. And sometimes we construct our lives as novels, blurring the boundaries between natural and artificial narratives.
The impossibility of making a clear cut between fact and fiction in these texts mirrors the autofictional pact established by the texts of my corpus. However, there is a crucial distinction between both corpuses. The novels analyzed in Traiciones introduce narrators who present themselves as the authorized voice to talk about the recent past by manipulating another testimonial voice. Thus the narrator can be confused with the author but never with the protagonists of these texts, something that often happens in the works that I study here. Instead the narrator functions in Longoni’s corpus as a mediator of the testimony, a sort of editor and authorized voice that organizes, selects and evaluates the testimony guiding the reading.26
Moreover, the works of my corpus have some similarities with those analyzed by Avelar and Gundermann. The creative media of the so-called second generations, for example, also highlight the impossibility of replacing the lost object through operations of substitution and metaphor. Gundermann argues that the figure of the “psychic crypt” is useful for understanding the aesthetic tendency of some post-dictatorial works to “incorporate documentary material as a sort of sacred, idealized and at the same time foreign corpse inside the very artwork.”27 Gundermann mentions, for example, the filming of photographs of the Argentine boxer, Gatica, in Favio’s 1993 fiction film Gatica, el mono. At the same time, most of the literature and film produced in the first two decades of the post-dictatorship period is, as explained above, mainly concerned with issues of representation in both realist and allegorical accounts.
Conversely, the interventions of analogue and digital photography, the incorporation of documentary material in collages and novels, the blend of fiction and autobiography, and the use of animation and genre citation in documentary films are all features of a contemporary form of cultural memory less interested in representing the dictatorial past in allegorical or realist literary and cinematographic fictions than in constructing formally indeterminate media through the use of montage, collage, animation, performance and autofiction. As pointed out by Luis Ignacio Garcia, allegory and montage are both productive concepts for thinking about the unrepresentable nature of horror: both assume that there is no image of horror—there are only broken pieces—but they are nonetheless modes of showing loss and the fragmented real.28 Allegory and montage are also, however, two different ways of facing the ruins of history. If both depart from the experience of dissolution, in allegory the subject faces the ruins melancholically, emphasizing the destructive nature of ruins, whereas in montage, the focus is on the possibility of constructing something else with those ruins. As stressed by Garcia, however, we must not forget that in the work of Walter Benjamin—who reflected on both tropes in 1928— there is no construction without destruction.29 That is why we should understand the notions of allegory and montage as being in dialogue rather than in opposition.
The use of photomontage is nothing new in Argentine visual arts, as demonstrated, for example, by Grete Stern’s 1940s and 1950s photographic montages and photocollages. However, its use in semiautobiographical creative images that refer to the experience of family absences and disappearances, such as those created by Lucila Quieto, Gabriela Bettini, Pedro Camilo del Cerro and Guadalupe Gaona, to name just a few, has little precedent in local productions. In both Albertina Carri’s Los rubios and Lola Arias’ biodrama Mi vida despues, analyzed in Chapters 3 and 8, respectively, montage is used in line with the Brechtian tradition of distancing in theatre to avoid the identification between viewers and actors and the resulting cathartic memory.
In particular, the montages of the post-dictatorship artists place special memorial value on “anachronism,” as understood by both Walter Benjamin and Georges Didi-Huberman. “Anachronism” is defined as the intrusion of a time into another time, the coexistence of diverse temporalities that breaks the linearity of history and invites us to read the past from the present, “against the grain,” as Benjamin put it in his Theses of the Philosophy of History.3 In this vein, Lucila Quieto’s montages of portraits of the disappeared and their children in Arqueologla de la ausencia offer literal images of Benjamin’s “secret agreement between past generations and the present ones.” 31 In her images, Quieto follows Benjamin’s invitation to recognize the past in the present, and “to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger” in order to prevent the past from disappearing irretrievably.32
Echoing Benjamin, Didi-Huberman argues that there is no such thing as the “exact past”: there are only memories of the past. He explains that we never make history from the euchronia—that is, looking only at the context of the emergence of objects—but rather from our memory, through an exercise that constantly constructs bridges between past, present and future.33 The images/memories of the past are thus a montage of heterogeneous times that form anachronisms, images that contain the past but also its interpretations accumulated over time. He thus suggests that “historical knowledge is a process operating in the opposite direction to the chronological order, a ‘setback in time’, or, in other words and strictly speaking, an anachronism.”34 In opposition to those historians who aim to construct a distant account of the past, contaminated as little as possible by the marks of the present and the subjectivity of those remembering, Didi-Huberman encourages us to embrace and flag up our temporal and spatial position of enunciation when we look at the past. The performative nature of the present means that it is not just a point from which to look at the past but that it also creates the past, intervening in it culturally, socially and politically. That is exactly the type of polytemporality that we find in Lucila Quieto’s images. Likewise, Bruzzone’s “multidirectional memory,”35 Alcoba’s and Giuffra’s combination of child-like voices/aesthetics with adult voices/perspectives, and Arias’ and Seman’s fantasy journeys to the past and the future are all also different forms of anachronisms.
In similar fashion to the development of photomontage, cinematic montage also recurs in the work of these artists. In previous documentaries dealing with the dictatorship, cinematic montage, a form of (audio) visual composition that turns sequences of images into meaningful narratives, was often used to create harmonious and uncomplicated versions of the past by putting together testimonies to produce a coherent version of history, as in the case of the film Cazadores de utopias. In films such as Los rubios, Papa Ivan (Roque 2000), M (Prividera 2007) and El tiempo y la sangre (Time and Blood) (Almiron 2004), however, montage is used to stress the gaps and fractures that emerge when documentary film and photography try to faithfully “document” the dictatorial past, demonstrating that there is something that cannot be shown.
These films, therefore, are “fictions” but of a particular type, in the sense set out by Jacques Ranciere, who argued that fiction, and specifically what he calls the “fictions of memory,” such as Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinema (1988-1998), use art “to construct a ‘system’ of represented actions, assembled forms, and internally coherent signs.” These works set their “roots in the gap that separates the construction of meaning, the referential real, and the ‘heterogeneity’ of ... documents.”36 Relying on the etymological connotation of the word “fiction,” meaning “to forge” or “shape” and not “to fake,” for Ranciere, fiction is not to do with truth but rather invention, not in the sense of the unreal but rather as the unveiling of the established relationships between signs and images, and between the sayable and the perceptible. Rather than a form of representation, fiction is a form of construction and composition made with the means of art, documents, concepts and ideas.
More specifically, Los rubios; Lucila Quieto’s images; Giuffra’s visual art; the novels by Ernesto Seman, Laura Alcoba and Felix Bruzzone; Victoria Grigera Dupuy’s stand-up show Montonensima; Mariana Eva Perez’s blog; and the stories of Mi vida despues, turn to elements of autofiction to produce an original and unprecedented way of combining autobiography and fiction in the memorialization of the dictatorial past (and of its effects in the present).
In recent years, “autofiction” has become a popular term in academia, mainly for researchers living and working in France and Spain.37 In 1977, Serge Doubrovsky coined the term to refer to his novel Fils (meaning both “offspring/children” and “threads” in French). On the back cover of his book he states:
Autobiography? No, that is a privilege reserved for the important people of this world, at the end of their lives, in a refined style. Fiction, of strictly real events and facts; autofiction, if you will, to have entrusted the language of an adventure to the adventure of language, outside of the wisdom and the syntax of the novel, traditional or new. Interactions, threads of words, alliterations, assonances, writing before or after literature, concrete, as we say, music.
Fils recalls a psychoanalytic session of a character called S. Doubrovsky that never took place in real life but is the invented framework of the telling of dreams, thoughts and memories of the author. Fiction for the author is a strategy and “a trick of the story; not being on his own merits one of the rights-dwellers of autobiography, the ordinary man that I am, must, to capture the reluctant reader, give his real life the most prestigious image of an imaginary existence. The humble and ordinary people who are not entitled to history are entitled to the novel.”38
Fils begins with Doubrovsky, the character, looking at himself in the mirror and recognizing his image as, precisely, an image, an appearance: “the EGO (visible in the mirror) is therefore opposed to the IT (ultimate and invisible reality).”39 The novel exposes the IT in the space of the analysis by offering a series of decentred and unconnected memories that will produce an image of the self different from the complete image of the mirror. Doubrovsky, the author, considers the experience of analysis not prior to but rather simultaneous to the experience of writing, where the true self emerges. In his words, “autofiction is the fiction that I have decided, as a writer, to give myself, incorporating in this particular writing the experience of analysis.”40
Doubrovsky believed that none of the categories of autobiography as theorized by Philippe Lejeune accurately described Fils. In Le Pacte Autobiographique (The Autobiographical Pact), published in 1975, Lejeune had argued that the most important feature of autobiographies was the existence of a pact with a reader that establishes a nominal identity between the author, narrator and protagonist of a work. This contract is based on the “principle of sincerity,” according to which the writer “promises” to tell the truth of their life to the reader. In a later work, Lejeune defined autobiography as “a retrospective prose narrative written by a real person concerning his own existence, where the focus is his individual life, in particular the store of his personality.”41 Lejeune recognizes the existence of autobiographical novels in which the character who tells his life story has a fictitious name, different from that of the author, but whose story the reader has reason to believe—by cross-checking with other texts and interviews—is that of the author. Yet, argues Lejeune, the text produced in this way is not strictly an autobiography: “The latter supposes first of all an identity claimed at the level of enunciation, and absolutely secondarily, a resemblance produced at the level of the utterance.”42 Lejeune also refers to autobiographies in the third person when the autobiographer imagines what would happen if someone else were telling their story.
In reference to narratives of childhood, Lejeune argues that “to construct the spoken world of the child, and eventually delegate the function of narration to him, we must abandon the code of autobiographic verisimilitude (of the ‘natural’) and enter the space of fiction.”43 For him, this procedure simply cuts the links between the text and memory since “it is no longer a question of remembering, but of making up a childlike voice.”44 In conclusion, Lejeune does not see the pact of fiction as being compatible with the autobiographical pact: “Is it possible for the hero of a novel to have the same name as the author? Nothing prevents this. It is perhaps an internal contradiction that could result in an interesting account. But in practice I cannot think of one example.”45
Autofictions like the ones studied in this book, however, prove that this “simultaneous”46 or “ambiguous”47 pact is in fact possible, and that authentic stories and characters with “real” names presented under the label “roman” exist. In autofictions, the reader believes in the identity of the author, narrator and character, guided by paratextual elements such as the signature of the author, their photograph and the back cover. At the same time they will read the book as a novel or a fictional work because that is how autofictions present themselves. Moreover, “rather than professing to tell the truth as sincerely as possible, autofiction acknowledges the fallibility of memory and the impossibility of truthfully recounting a life story.”48 Finally, unlike autobiographies, reserved for the great men and women of history, autofictions are the life stories of ordinary people. Thus in Le Livre Brise, his 1989 autofiction, Doubrovsky insists that autobiography is the narration of “a-great-man-in-the-twilight-of-his-life-and- in-an-elegant-style,” and he writes later that he “can’t fill those shoes ... DON’T HAVE THE RIGHT TO. Not a member of the club, I’m not allowed in. MY LIFE DOESN’T INTREST ANYONE.”49
These words illustrate two key characteristics of autofictions. First, in autofictions, everything is written in and from the present instead of from the twilight of a life looking, melancholically, at the past. Second, autofictions do not use an “elegant style” but they rather establish an experimental relationship with language, or what Doubrovsky has called “a consonantal writing,” a way of “playing with language in such a manner as to remain very close to the subconscious.”50
In its short life—only four decades of existence—this apparently new form has sparked heated debate, acquiring as many retractors as enthusiasts. It has been said, for example, that the term ignores the fact that most of its characteristics were theorized and conceptualized before the 1970s by many different literary schools. Arnaud Schmitt has argued that Gasparini’s notion of a “simultaneous pact” cannot be pulled off because “readers make choices” and cannot “adopt two positions at the same time.”51 Furthermore, many have accused autofictions of being “antiautobiographical” narratives with suspicious purposes. In this vein, Gerard Genette famously argued that autofictions are manipulative narratives that are designed “to prevent the writer from taking responsibility, either morally or legally for the impact of their texts.”52
For Doubrovsky, Elizabeth Jones and others, however, autofictions should not be conceptualized in opposition to autobiography but rather as one of its variations, a subgenre. Taking this position, Doubrovsky stresses the continuity between traditional forms of semiautobiographical writing rather than offering a replacement, as some have claimed. Autofiction would thus be a form of autobiographical narrative appropriate to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the psychoanalyzed selfhood and the selfhoods traumatized by the experiences of wars and dictatorships.
In contrast to Doubrovsky’s definition of autofiction as a subcategory of autobiography, others, like Vincent Colonna, who completed a thesis on autofiction under the supervision of Gennet, have argued that autofiction is better paired with the novel than with autobiography, using the term to refer to a series of procedures employed in the fictionalization of the I, and proposing subcategories such as “fantastic autofictions” and “specular autofictions.”53 Whereas Doubrovsky saw autofiction as the “fictionalization of a framework through which to represent a deeper ‘truth’ of selfhood,” Colonna claims that we should use the term to refer to “literary texts in which the writer imagines a different life for him or herself.”54 For Colonna it is thus not just the scene settings that are invented or fictionalized in autofictions but the whole self who is transformed through self-figuration. Similarly, in a 2004 monograph, Philippe Gasparini has written that autofictions are in fact a recent development of autobiographical novels and that some have used the term “novel” for autobiographies merely as a marketing strategy in an attempt to give more value to what is sometimes considered to be a minor genre. As argued by Elizabeth Jones, Gasparini’s most important contribution is his argument that the nominal identity between author, narrator and protagonist is not crucial for autofictions.
On the one hand, Colonna’s take on autofiction will be particularly useful when, in Chapter 7, I analyze Felix Bruzzone’s literature and his progressive abandonment of referential marks in his novels in favour of a more ambiguous (more fantastic and more implausible) type of autofiction. At the same time, Gasparini’s study is also relevant to the texts studied here—Seman’s novel, for example—in which not all of the names of characters coincide with those of the authors.
Above all, the texts of my corpus illustrate Regine Robin’s claim that the emergence of autofictions is closely linked to the difficulties posed to language by trauma. Robin argued that the testimonies of the survivors of the Holocaust borrowed procedures taken from literature to make themselves heard, transforming the codes of autobiography. Autofictions like Perec’s W ou le souvenir d’enfance (1975), which I refer to in Chapter 5, are “the only medium through which to communicate the true horror of the unimaginable atrocities of the Holocaust.”55 Robin agrees with Doubrovsky that unlike autobiographies, autofictions do not describe the notable events of a life but focus on the heart of a life or, in photographic terms, its “punctum.”56 This selective aspect of autofictions is particularly important to the work of mourning in relation to traumatic events centred on episodes of kidnappings during the dictatorship, to the deconstruction of the biographical illusion and to the elaboration of a different type of truth to that of more conventional forms of autobiographies and testimonies.