Autofiction as a Monstrosity

Post-dictatorship literature and film have attempted to highlight the “normality” of those who participated in the crimes, lending credence to Hannah Arendt’s famous thesis on the banality of evil. In M (2007), the voiceover of the director, Nicolas Prividera, reads some fragments of Arendt’s book at the same time as the camera films Prividera walking through the halls of a room where deformed creatures are exhibited as curiosities for the public, suggesting that monsters exist only in museums, not in real life. In Poder y desaparicion: Los campos de concentration en Argentina (2004), Pilar Calveiro argues in the same vein that “the existence of the concentration and extermination camps in Argentina was not a mere aberration produced by a bunch of sick or monstrous people; they were not excesses or individual acts but a repressive politics perfectly structured and regulated by the state.”56 Calveiro stresses that what happened in Argentina was the installation of a criminal public service mounted by bureaucrats that obeyed orders and never interrogated what they did in moral terms. This, of course, does not mean that they were not responsible for their acts. On the contrary,

by stressing the human condition of those responsible for the disappearances I am not absolving them. Instead I am excluding them from the realm of the monstrous, the supernatural, and including them in the human realm to be able to evaluate them and judge their behavior.57

This idea of human beings who are capable of committing monstrous crimes is also present in the depiction of the perpetrators in both Soy un bravo piloto de la nueva China and Mi vida despues. Both Capitan and Falco’s father echo in particular Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, ordinary family men at home with their children and wives but hiding monstrous secrets. In Seman’s novel there is also a monstrous creature, Rudolf, who might epitomize the other “monstrous” participant in the dictatorship, civil society, which watched impassively, as if living on an island, allowing a group of men to persecute, torture and kill others. In this respect the title of Prividera’s M evokes, among other things, Fritz Lang’s canonical 1931 film M, a story about how a multitude persecuting a criminal ends up revealing itself as the real monster of the title (“M” is allegedly the first letter of the word “monstrous” in both films).

The autofictions studied in this book are all inhabited by deformations of what conservative societies have defined as “normal”: the transvestite of Los topos (monstrous genders), the “ninos subversivos” in Giuffra’s and Alcoba’s work (monstrous children) and the deformed family portraits of Lucila Quieto’s Filiation (monstrous genealogies). Even the Playmobil toys in Los rubios could be seen as deformations of the human form. The monstrous acquires here transgressive and political connotations. These “monsters” are the contemporary form of what Foucault famously called in 1974 and 1975 the “abnormal” of the nineteenth century, meaning individuals—outlaws, the irremediable, the indomitable, homosexuals, madmen—considered dangerous for society, for the status quo, for the traditional (Christian, patriarchal) family and for the nation.58

Critics have also referred to autofiction as an androgynous, transgressive and even monstrous genre. They often cite Cesar Aira’s playful autofiction, El congreso de literatura (1997), to illustrate this facet of the genre. In Aira’s story a crazy scientist called Cesar Aira, hidden under the appearance of a shy and inoffensive writer, dreams of dominating the world. His malefic and Frankensteinian plan consists in cloning Mexican author Carlos Fuentes to create with his creatures a powerful army of superior men. Spanish theorist Manuel Alberca suggests that Aira’s novel allegorizes the proliferation of the figure of the author in contemporary literature, “a monster that threatens to become a clone and an empty literary figure ... a monstrosity.”59 El congreso de literatura, says Alberca, not only draws on clones in its plot but is also a sort of clone in form, the result of a literary-scientific experiment (“un experimento de reproduction literaria asistida”60) that combines the DNA and genes of different narrative genres, such as autobiography and the novel, mixes them together and creates a new type of hybrid and scandalous genre.

The idea that autofiction is a monstrous experiment is not new. Another title that Serge Doubrovsky had for his 1977 novel, Fils (offsprings/ strings), in which he coined the term “autofiction,” was The Monster. And the monster is a recurrent figure in Doubrovsky’s literature, “a tactical construct that allows him to switch constantly and often imperceptibly from thematic to formal concerns.”61 Later in his life, another one of Doubrovsky’s books, Le Livre Brise (The Broken Book) (1994), became a genuine monster with terrible consequences in real life. In this autofiction, the author writes about his relationship with his wife and her problems with alcoholism. Their pact stipulated that she would give each chapter her approval. Before the book was completed, however, she killed herself. Mourning her, Doubrovsky decided to finish it anyway, even though it was already a fractured and shattered book. Although suicide has many and often mysterious motivations, some claimed that the shame of seeing all her weaknesses and miseries exposed in the book played a crucial role in her depression. Doubrovsky himself referred to this traumatic episode in his life with an image that portrays autofictions as, precisely, scary objects, a key attribute of monsters:

I think that the book frightened a lot of people. Autobiography is supposed to deal with the past. I was using the present ... an absolutely current situation which revealed not just unsavory aspects of my own life but presented my wife’s problems in a way that may well have contributed to her death. So people were very disturbed by the book.62

Albeit with less extreme consequences than Doubrovsky’s Le Livre Brise, the works examined in this book have a similar power to change the lives of those whom they address and also to shock people, as a result of the way they tell traumatic stories using playful and humorous devices.

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