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

The Copyright of Memory

Soy un bravo piloto de la nueva China (Seman 2011) embodies a shift in the representation of the perpetrator proposed by the children of disappeared parents in their autofictions. Other writers examined here, such as Bruzzone and Perez, have introduced the figure of the perpetrator in their work. In this novel, however, Seman not only includes a perpetrator as a character but also gives him a significant space in the story and a voice to narrate his own version of history.

This decision is animated by the suspicion that to better understand his family and national history, inherited documents (letters and photographs) and the memories of survivors are not enough. Autofiction offers Seman what testimony, autobiography or historical chronicles cannot— namely, the possibility not only to indirectly “speak” about being the son of a disappeared father but also to imagine an experience that is almost impossible to imagine: that of the torturer. If the criminals of the dictatorship refuse to say what they know or to talk about their actions in the trials against them, in Soy un bravo piloto de la nueva China, Seman conjures up what one of them might actually say if that wall of silence were broken, not to justify his actions or to forgive him but, as the writer himself puts it, to try to understand why he did what he did. In this sense this novel is also, like Bruzzone’s Los topos or Quieto’s montages, one that follows the formula “What if...?”

The plotline is divided between three parallel times. The section entitled “La Ciudad” is written in a realist style and draws on the return of Ruben Abdala, a geologist based in the United States, to Buenos Aires in 2002 to spend time with his terminally ill mother during the last days of her life. The section “El Campo” relates the period of captivity endured by “Camarada Luis Abdala,” a Maoist militant and Ruben’s father, in a clandestine torture and extermination centre during the dictatorship. These chapters focus on the relationship between Luis and his captor, Capitan. Finally, the chapters called “La Isla” form the more allegorical part of the novel and refer to an imaginary, dream-like time and place in which Ruben is magically transported to an island managed by Rudolf, a man with a monkey tail, and his evil wife, “The Rubber Lady.” The island is both infernal and paradisiacal in nature and its most distinctive feature is that, once there, Ruben can watch Capitan’s interrogation of his father, as if the past were a film or he were in a Gesell chamber.12

The trauma of the disappearance of Luis during Ruben’s childhood is the connector between the three parts because each of them offers a possible explanation and point of view on a liminal situation. The inaugural pages introduce, in effect, the traumatic event of the death of the father to make clear that everything told afterwards is cause or consequence of that radical episode in Ruben’s life.

In the first scene, Ruben opens the door of his apartment and finds his father hanged in the middle of the room. For many years, he confesses, he has fantasized about various possible suicides like that one. He imagined his father jumping from the window, drunk, sacrificed for an idealist cause and also hanged in the middle of the room: “The centre of the fantasy was a long and intimate conversation between us.”13 Reading these lines for the first time can be confusing and can give the impression that they are completely unrelated to the rest of the plot. Soon after this episode we find out that Luis did not kill himself but was murdered, and that this death occurred when Ruben was a child. Yet the episode of Luis’ suicide is fundamental in part because it is a warning that any attempt to transmit that experience will somehow be insufficient. Moreover, this scene suggests that the whole novel could be read as that “long and intimate conversation,” that secret encounter between generations (to put it in Walter Benjamin’s terms), that Ruben mentions. In this vein, Ricardo Piglia has read Soy un bravo piloto de la nueva China in the tradition of the letter to the father genre.14 The scene also establishes the autofictional pact of reading that will have to be applied to the whole story, a pact according to which the real, the imaginary, the fantastical, the dreamt and the plausible are interwoven. Indeed, Seman’s novel cannot be read as an autobiography, a text “ruled by a supreme law: to tell the truth (about oneself and about the other), a truth that is linked to reality, in opposition, of course, to fiction.”15 In the novel these three categories—truth, reality and fiction—are not opposed but complementary: it is the fictionalization of his family history that allows Seman to access a truth about his past that has little to do with the correspondence between what is related in the novel and what happened in his life.

And yet the reader may be tempted to read Soy un bravo piloto de la nueva China as if it were a testimony or an autobiography. The author himself encourages this reading when he describes the main character with attributes that also describe his (Seman’s) persona: both are academics living in the United States and both run as a hobby. Seman’s father is disappeared just like the father of Ruben, and his mother, Susana Bodner, died of cancer just like Ruben’s mother. To reinforce what Philippe Lejeune has called the autobiographical pact with the reader, the novel reproduces two “documents” that verify the blending of character and author. First, during one of the conversations between Capitan and Luis, the latter shows the prisoner a report written by the brother of a person who knew him from when he was doing militant work in a shantytown. At the end of the report the traitor says of Luis and Rosa that “they used noms de guerre, Elias Seman y Susana Bodner, they made everyone call them like that.”16 This is the first time that the novel gives the actual names of the author’s parents. The second time includes not only the names of Ernesto and his brother but also a black-and-white photograph of the Seman family, “the only existing picture of our entire family. The photo that had survived everything, including ourselves” (Fig. 8.1). On the back, handwritten in black pen, we read: “Elias Seman, Susana Bodner and their sons Paul and Ernesto. Villa General San Martin, Rosario, October 1969.”17

Ruben and his brother, Agustfn, found the photo in a box that their mother left them as a legacy to be opened after her death. In an act of clear disobedience to their mother’s wishes, the brothers decide to look at the contents of the letter while Rosa sleeps. Along with the photograph there are also a bunch of dollars, a letter from their grandfather, and Chinastro, the toy that Luis brought back from China (where he had gone for military training) and that names the novel: “I am a brave pilot of New China” is the inscription in Mandarin on the little plane reproduced on the cover of the book. In the box there is also a long letter that Luis wrote to Rosa in 1961, very similar to the letters that many militants left to their families to explain the reasons that led them to embrace armed struggle.18

In contrast to what might be expected, however, the inclusion of the real names of the family of the author, of this photograph and of the letter (which may well be a reproduction of an existing letter possessed by the author) is no proof of the autobiographical status of the novel. The informant declares, for example, that Elias Seman and Susana Bodner are not genuine names but noms de guerre, fictional nicknames adopted by the

Photograph reproduced in Ernesto Seman’s Soy un bravo piloto de la nueva China, 2011

Fig. 8.1 Photograph reproduced in Ernesto Seman’s Soy un bravo piloto de la nueva China, 2011

militants to hid their real identities, Luis Abadala and Rosa. Moreover, both the photograph and the letter do not produce an “effect of reality” but what Seman calls “an effect of fiction”: “those true facts inserted in the novel made the fictionalization of the story even stronger.”19 In addition, although the photograph of the author’s parents included in the novel is perhaps the most direct contact with the past, especially if we remember Barthes’ famous statement that the photo image is an umbilical cord between the past and present, a seemingly transparent window to history, photos are, strictly speaking, mediations and artifices. In his autobiography (an autofiction published in 1975, two years before Serge Doubrovsky published Fils), even Barthes recognizes the fictional nature of family photographs. Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes begins with an epigraph that warns us, “Everything that is written here should be considered as having been said by a character in a novel.”20 Barthes then reinforces this idea when he names a family portrait photo similar to the one reproduced in Seman’s book, “Family Novel.” This title seems, in turn, to support Seman’s statement that families are fictions:

Families are narrations of a series of stories. The most important thing in these stories is the fictions that keep families together, traumatically or happily together. Sometimes those fictions are even more important than what happened to those families in real life.21

As well as highlighting the role of fiction and myths in the constitution of families, autofiction offers Seman the opportunity to tell part of his painful story from a position other than the sometimes uncomfortable place of the victim. Instead the novel allows him to talk about the past and legitimize his word not so much (or not only) as someone directly affected by state terror but as a young writer and storyteller. It is thus not surprising that Soy un bravo piloto de la nueva China sets up implicit dialogues with renowned Argentine literature writers, specifically with Seman’s literary “godparents,” Sylvia Molloy and Ricardo Piglia. These dialogues place the novel not so much in the tradition of testimonial literature on state terror but rather within a tradition of literary fictions that have already established certain discursive operations for narrating the dictatorial period.

On the one hand, the relationship between memory, history and fiction in the novel creates a dialogue with Piglia’s conception of history as a network of voices, fictions and memories evoked by the woman-machine- storyteller in La ciudad ausente (1992) and by Piglia’s famous statement that “reality is a weft of fictions.”22 In addition, in Piglia’s canonical novel there is also, as in Seman’s novel, an island, which is an imaginary and utopian site for political refugees. Finally, the character of Capitan appears to echo Piglia’s famous statement on autobiography—namely, that in Argentina the genre was born to narrate civilization and to voice one’s own class (Sarmiento’s Facundo). Fiction, on the other hand, which Piglia saw epitomized by Echeverria’s El matadero, was born in an “attempt to represent the world of the enemy, the different, the other.” “This representation,” concludes Piglia, “requires and demands fiction.”23 By using fiction instead of testimony or the historical chronicle (he is, after all, a historian) to explore the world of the perpetrator, Seman echoes the lesson set out by Piglia, who spoke at the launch of his novel in Buenos Aires. Strictly speaking, however, Seman does not merely adapt Piglia’s formula but rewrites it through the lens of autofiction and its idea that fiction is not so much opposed but rather related to autobiography. In this vein, Seman also includes references to Facundo. As well as the country-city chapter division, towards the end of the novel Ruben compares his father to Sarmiento and the climax of their respective lives, when Sarmiento wrongly quotes Voltaire and Luis Abdela wrongly quotes Sartre.

Soy un bravo piloto de la nueva China also has several points in common with Desarticulaciones (2011), a collection of poems in prose and a sort of journal that was published the same year as Seman’s novel, in which Sylvia Molloy combines fiction and testimony to tell of the deterioration of ML, a friend and former partner of the author who suffered from Alzheimer’s. On top of the autofictional pacts that both books create with their readers, they are both stories about the recovery of a memory that is threatened with disappearance.

Desarticulaciones is written against the passing of time, with the hope that writing becomes a reservoir for the memory of ML, a memory that is gradually being extinguished: “I have to write these texts while she is alive, while there is no death or closure, so I can understand what that being/ not being of a person who is disintegrating in front of my eyes means.”24 Similarly, in Soy un bravo piloto de la nueva China, Ruben’s mother has little time left to live. Her stories become a fundamental piece of the puzzle of the past for Ruben and his brother. They know that when she departs her memory will disappear with her. Thus, writing also plays here a redemptive role. Both Ruben and the narrator of Desarticulaciones look after and “nurse” the memories of others and convert them into cultural memories. But this task is not easy. Molloy synthesizes the major problem of bearing witness to the memories of another subject: “How does the one who does not remember say I? What is the place of enunciation when memory has been undone?”25

Without naming it as such, the narrator of Desarticulaciones suggests that autofiction might be a possible answer to this question: “There are no witnesses of a part of my life, the part that her memory has taken with her. That loss could upset me, but instead it makes me free: there is no one to correct me if I decide to make things up.”26 One of the most attractive features of autofiction to narrate the painful past is precisely the ability to free the subject from judgement because nobody can judge as true or false a memory that is presented from the start as a partial invention.

A key topic in Seman’s novel is thus the issue of the ownership of memory and who, if anyone, possesses the truth about the past. In Soy un bravo piloto de la nueva China there is a specific episode that refers explicitly to this issue. Ruben is on the island watching a scene from his childhood on a computer. When the scene ends he unplugs the USB memory stick where those memories are stored and goes for a walk. Rudolf then shows up and demands that he returns the device: “I keep that scene. From the past, los trajes y las tragedians.”27 “But I made that scene,” says Ruben. “I couldn’t tell,” says Rudolf. “Did you know that there is ‘copyright’ [in English in the original] over what one remembers? I’m not talking about the contents of the memories, but about their meanings, the world inside those memories. Or did you think that anybody was free to use them?.”28

From Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Dick 1968) onwards, science fiction has explored answers to the question of the ownership of memories. Recent theories in memory studies—notably Landsberg’s notion of “prosthetic memories” (2004), analyzed in Chapter 6—have also turned to the imaginaries of science fiction to reflect on the cultural transmission of trauma and what happens when cultural memories are transported from those who lived the events to those who have not experienced them firsthand. In Desarticulaciones, ML does not remember anything and then the narrator thinks it might be better to tell her memories as if they belonged to someone else, a fresh narrative that “does not ask for identification nor for recognition.”29 Memories, these texts suggest, might have a copyright but at the same time they are commodities to be used, interchanged and borrowed, like a USB stick, a microchip or a book.

With this idea in mind, Seman imagines and writes what it is like for the perpetrators of the last dictatorship to live with the weight of what they have done. What do they think of torture? How can their families bear to live with them? What would they say to their victims if they were to talk to them after what they did? Capitan has a monstrous morality and the arrogance of those who believe to own the truth. “I am the truth,”30 he says at one point. In an open challenge to conceptions of torture such as the one offered by Pilar Calveiro, for whom torture dehumanizes not only the victim but also the torturer,31 Capitan claims that “torture makes us more human.”32 The novel presents the perpetrator indeed as part “human,” a family man, and part monster, capable of doing anything to another human being.

Unlike the representations of perpetrators in Martin Kohan’s or Luis Gusman’s fictions, and unlike Vieira, a low-ranking soldier in Soy un Bravo piloto de la nueva China who after overcoming a feeling of guilt asks to accompany the detainees on the “death flights,” Capitan is not just a mere bureaucrat or a simple cog in the machine of disappearance but a man convinced of his own actions. Nonetheless, the novel suggests (almost like wishful thinking) that even a monstrous man like Capitan cannot escape the consequences of his acts. It is impossible not to read the deafness of unknown origin that he suffers for three years as a kind of involuntary and symptomatic expression of guilt. His worst punishment, however, is not this illness but the one surprisingly imparted by his own son, and killer.

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