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Home arrow Philosophy arrow Playful Memories: The Autofictional Turn in Post-Dictatorship Argentina

Si Alice viviera sema Montonera

On 24 November 1976 in La Plata, a military squad led by Ramon Camps arrived at a house that was being used as a refuge for several Montonero militants and as the site for a printing press for the periodical Evita montonera. From the outside the house was set up to look like a rabbit farm. It belonged to a couple: Daniel, aka “Gulliver” (so named when he was twelve years old after his rugby coach noticed that he was small compared with his fellow players, just like Gulliver in the Land of the Giants), and Diana Teruggi, then pregnant with Clara Anahf. The house was often visited by the leader of their militant cell, Cesar, and by two other mili- tants—in La casa de los conejos named El Obrero and El Ingeniero—who were in charge of the press. After an unequal and violent confrontation between the militants and the military, the former were all killed. It is believed that Clara Anahf, born before the attack, survived the assault. Her whereabouts are still unknown.8

In 1975, Alcoba spent several months in this house with her mother, also a Montonero militant, while her father was in prison for political reasons. They both left the house before the attack: her mother left the country illegally and Laura followed her later, after spending two years with her grandparents. She has lived in France since she was ten years old. In 2003, Alcoba returned to the house, now converted into the Asociacion Clara Anahf, with her daughter, a visit that inspired her to write La casa de los conejos. The publication of her novel, which draws on the months that Alcoba spent hiding in the house, took place two years after the historical ruling on Miguel Osvaldo Etchecolatz, condemned to life imprisonment in 2006 for the killing of Diana Teruggi and the other victims of the massacre.

Alcoba wrote La casa de los conejos in French under the title Maneges (literally “carrousel,” though the word also refers to the circular movements of memories), before it was translated into Spanish by writer Leopoldo Brizuela.9 One of the first things that Gallimard (the French company that published the work) asked the author was that she defines its genre for both the press and the collection in which the book was going to be published (Collection Blanche).10 It proposed three possible genres under which it could be marketed: as a novel, as an essay or as the more generic term “narrative.” Wanting to keep the generic ambiguity of the book intact, Alcoba rejected the three categories and instead proposed adding a subtitle—petite historie argentine—, which was, unfortunately, removed from the Spanish translation. The autofictional nature of the book and its ambiguity is captured in that phrase because petit histoire allows the reader to place it both in the section of fiction (historie as “story”) and in the section of non-fiction (histoire as “history”). In addition, the term petit historie has echoes of the world of children and bedtime stories, pertinent to the structure of the novel.

Carlos Gamerro is right to affirm that Alcoba’s autofiction is structured like a children’s fable: a girl opens a forbidden door, disobeying the adults’ warnings and causes the beginning of a catastrophe.11 There are also several references in the story to children’s fables. The seven-year-old narrator dreams of having “the kind of house they always feature in children’s books”12 and refers several times to the “hatch in the celling,”13 which in Spanish is altillo secreto, the place where the family keeps material that nobody must know about. This secret room, and the particular choice of words Alcoba uses here, is a reminder of the hiding places that often appear in children’s books.

Furthermore, in the opening pages, before moving to the Rabbit House and using what Gamerro calls “a Montonera fable,” the narrator’s mother had warned her daughter of what would happen if she spoke up about their situation by telling her the story of a baby who involuntarily sent his parents to prison after he pointed out their hiding place to the military. The lesson had to be learnt and for that the narrator’s mother needed a narrative that made an impact on the girl, just as in children’s tales where the protagonists, usually little girls, are advised not to eat certain fruits or to enter into the woods at night. But, as also happens in these fables, temptation is often too much to resist. In the book the narrator knows that she cannot watch the journey that takes her to the hidden place because she might reveal that information if she is caught. Yet she disobeys this rule and looks, through the car window, at a beautiful doll in a toyshop that she longs for.14 Similarly, she knows that she cannot talk to their neighbour or reveal anything about her situation, and yet she cannot help but tell that strange woman living next door that she has no surname, making her suspicious and putting everyone in danger.

More than any other children’s fable, La casa de los conejos echoes Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Liliana Feierstein has traced the various uses that Argentine films, books, paintings and music released in the post-dictatorship period made of Carroll’s images, characters and parables to refer to the reality of the time. This includes, for example, the parallels that these cultural artefacts drew between the Argentine dictators and the cruelty of the Queen of Hearts, who decapitated those she did not like and who tried to leave no trace of her crimes.15 For Feierstein, La casa de los conejos and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are both stories of curious girls who disobey the rules and who are taken “underground” by rabbits. In La casa de los conejos, this is the case because the rabbits provide the cover story for the neighbours: raising rabbits in the house is the official activity that allows the militants to justify visits and noise while they deliver copies of Evita montonera. Moreover, Karen Saban has noted that in Alcoba’s book the girl also enters a large, black hole, “the hole of the past,” and runs quickly in the opposite direction of time. She adds that another similarity between the two books is the metareferential elements in the stories, since both are self-reflexive narrations that end up narrating the story of their own gestation.16

There are other parallel elements and references between Carroll’s classic text and Alcoba’s autofiction, including, for example, the narrator’s naughty “little tabby cat”17 (“pequeno gato atigrado” in the original), which keeps appearing and disappearing in front of the girl in similar fashion to Alice’s Cheshire Cat. And, as both Feierstein and Saban note, like Carroll’s Alice’s stories, La casa de los conejos is also about two parallel worlds: the ordinary world with streets full of people who “aren’t taking part [in the war], and who sometimes don’t seem to realize that it’s even happening,”18 and the underground world, where everything takes place in a different time and with a different logic to that ruling the outside world.

Like Alice and unlike most of the adult characters of the story, the narrator is able to go through one world to the other and come back again. She can go to school and pretend that she is just another little girl among her peers. At the same time, she is asked to perform militant activities, such as helping the group package Evita montonera or keep guard in the house. She moves from one reality to the other because her position is different from that of the other members of the house: “no one is searching for me. I just happen to be here, witnessing everything.”19

However, the narrator is not just a bystander but also a young militant herself or pequena combatiente, to use the title of another similar autofiction published in 2013 by Raquel Robles. Resembling what happens to Alice at the beginning of Carroll’s book, she goes through a process of transformation before entering the parallel underground world, although instead of a magic potion she takes a ritual bath. In fact, there is an episode, just before moving to the house, where she and her mother go to the house of a woman, a fellow militant, who baptizes her in her bathroom. “I step out of the water and put my clothes back on, feeling quite different already,”20 says the little girl in the final lines of that chapter. Later, when she visits her grandparents’ house, she is surprised that their dog, Tula, recognizes her, “as if I were still the same.”21 The episode of this ceremony might be an implicit reminder of the Christian foundations of some of the militant organizations. After this ceremony it is as if the narrator is reborn as a young guerrillera for her new life.

This new life opens her eyes and shows her a world normally concealed to children of her age. Mirroring Alice’s age (they are both seven years old) and maturity, she speaks and behaves like an adult.22 She knows from the beginning of the story that her father is in prison, that her family is being persecuted by the military and that they will have to live in a clandestine house. She has graphic images of torture, she knows who Firmenich, Isabel and Peron are, and she is familiar with the lyrics of the Peronist Youth anthem. She gets upset when she is told that she cannot go to school because it is too risky and gets obsessed with becoming an idiot, like the former president, “Isabelita.” In this vein, one of the most important contributions Alcoba’s book makes to the politics of memory of the post-dictatorship era is to provide a testimony of being a child during a period of political violence that is written from a child’s perspective but which avoids infantilizing that child.

In this respect, La casa de los conejos differs from other popular accounts of horror that are structured like children’s fables, such as Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful (1999) and John Boyne’s novel (later adapted for screen) The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006), both stories inhabited by boys who experience terrible events as childhood adventures and who remove themselves from the atrocities happening around them through games that aim to protect them from the outside world. By contrast, the child of La casa de los conejos plays games not to negate reality but to make sense of it, more in line with Rene Clement’s Jeux Interdits (Forbbiden Games) (1952), the classic French film in which a six-year- old girl tries to come to terms with having witnessed her parents’ deaths (killed in a Nazi air attack) by assembling a small animal cemetery with crosses stolen from the local graveyard.

Similarly, in La casa de los conejos, a key episode refers to how the girl gives meaning to (or literally names) what is happening around her by imagining a crossword with words that refer to the experiences of the inhabitants of the “house of rabbits” (Isabel, arte, muerte and asar). When she realizes that this last word is a spelling mistake, she corrects asar to azar. Chance is the reason why this girl is caught in this conflict, chance is why her parents are militants and not “normal” parents with regular jobs, and chance is also why she survived and other people from the house did not.

Yet the word asar (“to roast” in Spanish) could also be read in line with the experience of the girl in that house, especially when placed in dialogue with the word embute. This last word, which does not appear in the dictionary, is explained by the narrator in the only paragraph written in the present tense and with an adult voice.23 Embute, as a noun, was a piece of jargon specific to the revolutionary movements in Argentina and it referred to a hiding place where militants live when underground or where compromising material is kept, which is the meaning it has in the novel. However, the word, which nowadays is related to the term “sausage” (embutir is also the act of stuffing a sausage), might also have something to do with what, in figurative terms, is called una carnicena in Spanish (“a slaughter” or “a mass murder”). In sum, rather than mere distractions, the imaginative and fantasy games in La casa de los conejos are creative ways in which the little girl expresses and elaborates her fears, not to avoid a reality but rather to survive it.

Literature, and specifically Edgar Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter (1844), plays a similar role in aiding survival in the novel. Like many stories for children, La casa de los conejos also has a “Prince Charming,” El Ingeniero, whose charm is paradoxically to be nasty, ignoring the girl and being ill-tempered. El Ingeniero is the one who builds the embute. The narrator is quickly seduced by both his good looks and his intelligence, constantly looking for his approval. At one point, El Ingeniero explains to her how he built the complex mechanism of the press and the false wall, but deliberately leaving the cables visible, following the premise of the “excessively obvious.” He tells her that he got the idea from Poe’s famous story. Not only is the press hidden via exposure but the house functions on the same premise: it is noisy and full of people so as to avoid arousing suspicion among the neighbours. El Ingeniero is the one who is most preoccupied with shielding the house and the militants from a potential attack, reprimanding the girl whenever she makes one of her frequent mistakes. And yet despite the idealized image that the girl has of him, we discover at the end of the novel that he was probably the one who revealed the address of the house to the military, an act that dismantles his heroic fayade. The adult narrator voice not only finds it unjustifiable that he gave them away knowing that Diana’s baby was in the house; she also cannot forgive him for using Poe’s story as a weapon for his treason. For the author, Poe’s story was another ally during her childhood, a faithful friend betrayed in the same fashion as the inhabitants of the house.

The crucial role of Poe’s story in Alcoba’s book points to the confusion of frontiers between fact and fiction that she was keen to keep in her writing: “what if—she wonders reflecting on her own book—the bloodstained ending of the episode in the House of Rabbits was already prefigured in Poe’s story?”24 The issue of hiding something (the real identity of the author, the true facts behind a story) by paradoxically showing it is also one of the most important premises of autofictions.

Many years after the episode, while working on the novel, Alcoba “returned” to that dramatic time in her life and once again literature became an ally in her painful journey to the past. A literature graduate and translator, she has said in an interview that “my universe is literature and when I was writing [La casa de los conejos] I had Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain in my mind and not the books written during that time.”25 La casa de los conejos is, like The Magic Mountain (1924), a bildungsroman: echoing the way the First World War interrupts Hans Castorp’s education, in La casa de los conejos the girl’s schooling is disrupted by her clandestine life and she is forced to abandon her studies to be taught at home by Diana. In addition, the infernal atmosphere of the hospice where Canstorp spends his days, as if in a different temporality, is similar to the girl’s life in the house, where she often feels trapped.

But perhaps more obvious, and yet surprisingly omitted in critical readings of this book, are the connections between La casa de los conejos and Georges Perec’s seminal autofiction, W or The Memory of Childhood (1975), published a year before the Argentine coup. Perec was only five years old when his Polish father, a soldier in the French Army, died in 1940 from a gunshot wound and his Polish mother was deported to Auschwitz. Before perishing there around 1943, his mother managed to send Perec to Villard-de-Lands, a southern French region that did not belong to the Vichy regime at the time. The sister of his father and her husband adopted him and sent him to several boarding schools. They also took precautions to hide his identity so that he could be safe in public. He was then told that he had to forget his past, his origins and his parents if he wanted to stay alive.

As a consequence of this traumatic event in his life, Perec’s account of his childhood years is made up of two different forms and two types of text in the book. One of these texts is entirely imaginary, based on a tyrannical community called W and concerned only with sport that Perec made up in a drawing when he was twelve years old: “it’s an adventure story, an arbitrary but careful reconstruction of a childhood fantasy about a land in thrall to the Olympic ideal.”26 The other is an “autobiography: a fragmentary tale of a wartime childhood, a tale lacking in exploits and memories, made up of oddments, gaps, lapses, doubts, guesses and meagre anecdotes.”27 Perec alternates these two texts, one fictional and the other autobiographical, because they complement each other. He wants to tell the history of his childhood but he cannot remember it. “I have no childhood memories,”28 he repeats several times. His early years are marked by “the absence of landmarks: these memories are scraps of life snatched from the void.”29 To fill this void, he thus invents a memory of his own. But his recollection of the past is not absolutely blank and therefore this tale is not entirely fictional. He has what he calls “pseudo-memories,”30 meaning distant scenes, pieces of information about his parents, some photographs, the echo of a familiar word. “There are thus memories— fleeting, persistent, trivial, burdensome—but there is nothing that binds them together.”31 Moreover, some of these memories are “contaminated” with variations and details of his imagination that altered and distorted them, and others are directly “stolen” from adult witnesses of the events.

When Alcoba presented her novel at the University of Stirling a few years ago, she opened her talk by reading a fragment of W or The Memory of Childhood3 Perec’s book, which Alcoba probably read in the original French, provided her with the model of an account of the self that did not rely on the obscene exhibition of pain, allowing her to reconstruct the past while pointing simultaneously to the impossibility of accessing it exactly as it was.33 Both autofictions also draw on children’s fables and imaginary worlds and are stories of somehow marginal participants in their respective dramas: “I was a witness and not an actor. I am not the hero of my tale,”34 writes Perec at one point.

Curiously, Perec’s book, published two years after Pinochet’s coup in Chile, makes an explicit reference to the Latin American dictatorships. It finishes as follows: “I have forgotten what reasons I had at the age of twelve for choosing Tierra del Fuego as the site of W. Pinochet’s Fascists have provided my fantasy with a final echo: several of the islands in that area are today deportation camps.”35 With this remark Perec also makes clear that the relationship between fiction and reality in his book, as in Alcoba’s, goes beyond one in which literature merely reflects an outside world. Literature—fairy tales and fantasy included—serves in these texts as a tool not only for memory or survival but also for prophecy.

In the years following the return to democracy in 1983, the events of the Rabbit House were the focus of many testimonial and artistic texts and images.36 Two are particularly noteworthy. In 2004, photographer Helen Zout took photographs of the dolls that Clara Anahf’s grandmother, Marfa Isabel “Chicha” Mariani, purchased on her journeys around the world asking for help to find her granddaughter. Zout not only took pictures of the dolls but also photocopied them and coloured the images. The result is the series Dolls and Memories, comprising images of uncanny dolls that speak of both the loss of innocence and the power of hope. The other text

Hugo Aveta, Calle 30 Numero 1134, Espaciossustraibles, 1998

Fig. 5.1 Hugo Aveta, Calle 30 Numero 1134, Espaciossustraibles, 1998

I want to draw attention to here is Hugo Aveta’s evocative photograph of the facade of the white empty house, left in ruins by the military attack, set against a dark background (Fig. 5.1). The image looks like a documentary picture but is in fact a photograph of a miniature model of the house. As pointed out by Natalia Fortuny, Aveta often creates these types of images of “fictitious traces” of an apparent reality, an intermediate zone between documentary and fiction that ultimately results in a poetic narrative.37

To me this last image condenses the heterogeneous compositions of images and narratives, public and private memories that are at play in Alcoba’s book. In addition, the miniaturization of the house in Aveta’s picture, as if it were a doll’s house attacked by little toy soldier figures, also evokes Alcoba’s references to child’s play and imaginary fables in her reconstruction of the past. Unlike most of the examples of this genre, however, La casa de los conejos has no moral, mirroring once again Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which is said to be the first children’s book that did not attempt to furnish the child with cautionary tales. And yet there are lessons to be learned in Alcoba’s book, if not in terms of how to behave when living in hiding then at least in terms of how to write about it.

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