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

The Hamlet Generation and a Multidirectional Memory of Disappearance

The idea that the Argentine traumatic past returns in the present in different shapes and times is illustrated by the presence, in Bruzzone’s autofictions, of what in Los topos he called the postdesaparecidos or neode- saparecidos, namely those abducted and killed in democracy. Los topos, for example, unmistakably links the disappeared during the dictatorship with the persecutions suffered by transvestites at the hands of the police during the 1990s while working in the red-light districts of Buenos Aires. The temporal coordinates of the plot in Los topos are made evident by the mention of the “red-light district” then located on Godoy Cruz Street and the reference to the ESMA as an inaccessible building, prior to its conversion into a site of memory in 2004.25

Similarly, in Las chanchas there are references to another group of victims, namely the abducted girls forced to prostitute themselves, a criminal universe increasingly visible in Argentina following the case of “Marita” Veron in 2002, and the 2015 and 2016 Ni una menos marches protesting domestic violence and violence against women.26 However, as I show in this section, this parallelism between fictional characters and real people is less straightforward than the comparisons between different victims of past and present crimes that we find in Los topos. Indeed, Las chanchas suggests only once that the girls were victims of human trafficking, and the novel is quick to dismiss that hypothesis in favour of a more imaginary, ambiguous course of action, one that even provocatively implies that the girls are not victims at all.

The characters of both 76 and Los topos are in search of a past that keeps eluding them. In “Unimog,” a story included in 76, the narrator invests his money in buying a Unimog van used during the Malvinas/Falklands War to visit the place where his father disappeared, but the vehicle breaks down and he never arrives at his destination. In “El orden de todas las cosas” the narrator decides to visit a supermarket in Moreno where he believes the remains of his disappeared father are located, but construction work prevents him from completing his quest. Similarly, in Los topos, the narrator travels to Bariloche to find Maira, though he never does.

The weight of the past in the present is evident in the majority of the stories of 76, returning in the shape of dreams (“ Otras fotos de mama” and “Lo que cabe en un vaso de papel”), inherited objects (photographs, diaries and the Unimog van) and casual encounters with adult survivors of the dictatorship (“Otras fotos de mama”). The return of the past is also symbolized by the compensation that the state offered the relatives of the victims in the 1990s as a sort of “reparation” for their losses. In the stories the characters spend this money as frenetically as they smoke their cigarettes. Instead of using the funds for practical necessities, such as finishing the many incomplete properties that they own, the characters of 76 use them to buy useless things (e.g. the broken Unimog), to make risky investments, such as buying a barren field in an apparently luxury location, or to create cigarettes that do not get wet in the rain. The past, these images suggest, is not a solid and permanent block of time but rather ephemeral and difficult to capture. In addition, it not only emerges in the present but is also modified by it.

Thus, if in Bruzzone’s first two books the past returns in the form of ruins, an image that could lead to sentimentality and nostalgia, these ruins are also transformed by the way they are reappropriated in the present, avoiding any sort of sentimentality. On one occasion the protagonist of Los topos visits the family house in Moreno but instead of finding new clues about his family history he encounters a dead end. Nothing is left but ruins, and the family he hired to renovate the place has taken the house over and politely but firmly suggests that he leaves them alone.

Deciding to look for a new home, he eventually travels to Bariloche in search of Maira, where he works as a builder and falls in love with another builder. Once there, he too becomes a transvestite so that he can spy on his boss, El Aleman, a mysterious character who likes beating transvestites and whom he suspects of kidnapping Maira. The story takes an absurdly tragic turn when he becomes El Aleman’s partner, gets breast implants and stays with him in this bucolic southern location.

Though he has found his place in the world, however, the past has not completely left him behind, for it keeps returning in other unexpected ways. Maira, whom he finds in a place that has apparently nothing to do with his past, turns out to be more closely connected to his family history than he first thought. After seeing her accompanied by policemen at a march organized by HIJOS, he suspects Maira of being a police spy, before he discovers that she is a daughter of disappeared parents and kills members of the police who might have committed atrocities during the dictatorship. Equally, his trip south and new relationship with El Aleman does not save him from his past but immerses him in it in an even more complicated way, when he eventually finds out by chance that El Aleman is possibly a fugitive perpetrator from the dictatorship who used to kidnap and torture transvestites in Bariloche.

Confronted with the omnipresence of the past in the present, and especially with the freedom of those responsible for the crimes, Bruzzone’s characters in his first books feel the urge to do something rather than passively lament their suffering. This “something” usually takes the shape of revenge, a sort of individual and private form of justice that stands in for the absent institutional justice of the 1990s. In this climate of impunity, the narrator imagines a straightforward killing of military officers: “Sometimes I even thought of asking Lela for the car’s papers ... to sell it to buy a Falcon and kill military people with my friends.”27 Moreover, he wants to kill El Aleman, whom he thinks has kidnapped Maira, and, in so doing, aims to perform two acts of revenge in one: “To avenge Maira was a form of achieving justice for his father.”28 So obsessed is the character of Los topos with revenge that he even reads the escraches in those terms.29

Thus, in both 76 and Los topos there are clear references to the 1990s and an explicit intention to link the crimes of the dictatorships to those in democracy. In this vein, these autofictions could be read as examples of what Michael Rothberg has famously called “multidirectional memory.” In Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of

Decolonization, Rothberg wonders how to think about the relationship between different social groups’ histories of victimization. He writes that “many people assume that the public sphere in which collective memories are articulated is a scarce resource and that the interaction of different collective memories within that sphere takes the form of a zero-sum struggle for preeminance.”30 Against this model of competitive memory, he invites us to consider memory as multidirectional, “as subject to ongoing negotiation, cross-referencing, and borrowing; as productive and not privative,”31 a conceptual framework that aims at the emergence of new forms of solidarity, political identities and visions of justice. Rothberg argues that “the work of memory proceeds from the present when an individual is contingently ‘caught’ in the contradictions of his or her situation and propelled into a search for the past, thus becoming a subject of fidelity and an agent of memory.”32 The attempt to uncover “hidden pasts” in Los topos takes the form of a crossover between two types of narrative that, according to Rothberg, define the ethics of multigenerational memory—namely, the “police thriller built on mystery, detection and revelation with a plot of intergenerational historical transmission.”3 3 In hard-boiled memory stories, crimes hidden in plain sight, such as the crimes of the dictatorship in a period of impunity in Argentina, “inevitably raise questions of comparison, since the various stories of detection tend to reveal more than one individual or collective history in the voids they uncover.”34 As with the works analyzed by Rothberg, Los topos also escapes sentimentality by employing an ironic voice and black humor (both features of the hard- boiled genre).

Moreover, in his analysis of Michael Haneke’s film Hidden (2005), and particularly in the possibility suggested by the film that children of adult victims of atrocities can be perpetrators as well, Rothberg proposes that “the figure of Antigone ... bears a double lesson for contemporary memory wars”35—namely, that “in certain circumstances, when the state produces a dynamic of terror by refusing to recognize all of the dead, they ‘must assume a terrorizing position’, emerging as ‘outlaw’ agents of memory and postmemory.”36 Sophocles’ figure—herself an “outlaw agent of memory”—was indeed referred to by Argentine scholars (notably Ana Amado and Christian Gundermann) to describe how the relatives of the disappeared have sought to find a proper burial for the (absent) bodies of their victims when the terrorist state has refused to recognize the dead. In Los topos the presence of a character who takes revenge on his perpetrators (Maira) also seems to evoke Antigone’s myth.

It is worth noting here, however, that owing to the very nature of disappearance, most of the children in Argentina have not yet (and may never) recovered the bodies of their parents, which also distances them from the figure of Antigone (who, unlike them, is able to bury her brother). Instead, the figure of Hamlet seems more appropriate as a metaphor for the postdictatorship generations. A book of poems entitled Si Hamlet duda le daremos muerte (Aiub, Juan and Julian Axat 2010), written by children of the disappeared and published as part of Aiub and Axat’s collection, draws precisely on the image of Hamlet to epitomize the position held by the post-dictatorship Argentine generation in the cultural field: “To be or not to be Hamlet. That is the question ... To bear the weight and anguish of influences or to be free and to assume an aesthetic of our own.”37 Marcelo Exposito, director of the art video No reconciliados (nadie sabe lo que un cuerpo puede), has also called the members of the HIJOS group “the Hamlet generation,” meaning a generation that has had to respond to crimes committed against them but which, simultaneously, establishes a critical dialogue with their spectres. He reminds us in his video of the coincidence that Mdquina Hamlet, the emblematic play by El periferico de objetos, a rewriting of Heiner Muller’s 1979 play Die Hamletmaschine that alludes allegorically to the unburied bodies of the dictatorship and the struggles of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, was released in 1995, the same year that HIJOS was established. This coincidence reinforces the links between the generation of the “children” and Shakespeare’s figure. Carlos Gamerro has also referred to the links between Hamlet and the children of the disappeared (who “grow up in the shadow of phantom parents”) in an online text entitled “Hamlet and the Disappeared.”

In any case, the model of multidirectional memory is still useful in understanding how the memories of different acts of violence in Argentina are articulated in Bruzzone’s first books. Other children of disappeared parents and members of their generations have also been at the forefront of thinking about the relationship between the histories of violence of different social groups. The memory of the last dictatorship is articulated in their works with the memory of the Algerian massacre (Diario de una princesa montonera), the 2001 economic and political crisis in Argentina (Una vez Argentina, Andres Neuman 2014) and the Shoah (El comienzo de la primavera, Patricio Pron 2008), among others.

In Las chanchas, Bruzzone exercises an ethics of multigenerational memory by connecting, in the image of the two girls abducted and kept captive in a room of a humble house of the conurbano, the disappearances of the dictatorship and the trafficking of girls for prostitution. The possibility that the girls have been abducted by human traffickers is in fact Romina’s hypothesis when helping the mother of one of the girls search for her daughter.38 Lucia De Leone has also proposed that the white van that is supposedly persecuting the girls at the beginning of the story evokes not only the green Ford Falcon cars of the dictatorship but also other more contemporary crimes, including the traffic of organs and terrorist attacks.39 And yet Bruzzone does not want his novel to be read as a political pamphlet. Thus, before the allegories become too explicit in Las chanchas, he frustrates the expectations of the reader by taking the plot in completely unexpected directions:

When I see that I am getting closer to a common place in fiction I attempt to avoid it. When the marches and the protests appear in the novel one expects the girls to start crying but instead they are happy, they go to their own marches and that it is when ambiguity begins.40

Thus alongside a multidirectional memory, what we have in Las chan- chas is a novel that simultaneously and paradoxically resists giving up its fictional status, gesturing to crimes that took place outside the text but mostly to its own narrative and fictional universe.

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