I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The following interviews with Griselda Gambaro and Angélica Gorodischer took place in Argentina in 1989. Several weeks before my arrival—October 9, to be exact—President Carlos Menem pardoned all military officers facing trial for human rights abuses during the military dictatorship in power from 1976 to 1983. This junta—which called itself The Process and came to be known as The Terror—engineered the Dirty War, in which some 15,000 civilians were kidnapped, raped, tortured and disappeared. Protest against Menem’s Pardon, which violates the Argentine constitution, has been anguished, bitter and unavailing. For Menem has proclaimed: “It is time for the military to regain its rightful prestige.”
In the space of several months, Argentine currency, the austral has fallen 600%. The yearly inflation rate is 4000%. The median income in Argentina today is $70 a month, much less than the rent on a modest one-room apartment. To increase its currency stores against massive capital flight, the government raided private CD accounts and has counseled citizens to buy only bare necessities. Just before sitting down to write this, I read that Menem is now proposing disemployment, as a means of crippling organized labor. If his plan goes through, workers will get jobs through the government; those who don’t will receive some government relief.
There have been food riots in the poor neighborhoods of Rosario (the home of Angélica Gorodischer), Buenos Aires and Córdoba. Many grocers, rather than be looted by their regular customers, opened their stockrooms. Menem insists these disturbances are due to leftist idealogues, and has intensified police and military presence in neighborhoods throughout the country.
Books are a luxury beyond most people’s reach. One day I found a long-sought copy of Gombrowicz’s Peregrinaciones en Argentina(“Travels in Argentina”), a handsome little book printed in Spain. When the bookseller, who’d been chatting me up, said the volume would cost tens of thousands of australes—about 31 dollars—I assumed he was joking. It was a paperback, after all, 130 pages. He was not joking. As a means of gutting the publishing industry The Process had levied an astronomical wide-ranging paper tax, which is still in force. Domestic publishers must struggle for raw materials while the duties in foreign books amount practically to a blockade.
—March 8, 1990
During the Dirty War, Gambaro received numerous death threats. She was forced into exile in 1977 when the novel she had just published, Ganarse la muerte, was banned. In exile in Barcelona, she wrote and published Dios no nos quiere contentos, which she considers her finest long fiction. Separated from her Argentine audience, Gambaro was painfully unable to write plays. Gambaro returned to Argentina in 1980, the earliest date it was safe to do so.
One of the most highly-respected writers currently working in Latin America, her essential concern is tyranny, and the relations between domestic and political violence. Her writing is prismatic, characterized by an array of distancing devices, including irony, black humor, and buffoonery. Her plays are widely performed in South America and Eastern, as well as Western, Europe. Her novels have been translated into French, Italian, Polish and Czech.
This conversation took place in November 1989 in La Boca, a predominantly Italian working-class district near the port of Buenos Aires. Gambaro was born nearby in 1932.
Griselda Gambaro The Pardon is atrocious, particularly since it’s designed to preclude trials.
Marguerite Feitlowitz Yesterday, at just this time, we were downtown with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo on their weekly march in front of the executive government building, the Pink House. I’d read so much about the Mothers, seen photos and film clips, yet I was overwhelmed upon actually seeing them. Many are old women now, in support hose and orthopedic shoes. Thirteen years they’ve marched, every Thursday at 3:30, wearing white kerchiefs embroidered with the names of their disappeared children and signs that promise, “We will not forget.” Watching the Mothers, I couldn’t help but wonder if memory, and acts of remembrance—including writing—could again become a crime.
GG Menem and his followers certainly would like to impose collective amnesia. But they can’t. We won’t let them.
MF Argentina seems to me a very elusive, contradictory country. People generally are good-humored and polite, yet one has the sense that behind all this courtesy there’s another, more repressive, reality. Armed guards in the Cathedral where military heroes are buried like saints, war medals displayed like holy relics. Sinister-looking men in expensive suits and dark glasses, crossing themselves as they walk by the portals.
GG This is a schizophrenic country, a country that lives two lives. The courteous and generous have their counterpart in the violent and the armed who move among the shadows—paramilitary police units that weren’t dissolved at the end of the Dirty War, secret services that still operate, all blatantly serving totalitarian interests. One never really knows what country one is living in, because the two co-exist. It’s what makes our history so painful, what makes the country so hurtful.
Argentina is seismic as well as schizophrenic. From night to day, things can change drastically owing to causes below the surface, behind the screen that’s offered up as reality.
MF It stands to reason that your major theme is violence—its roots, manifestations, and the ways in which it may be perceived, masked and denied.
GG I would add fear, suspicion, and the consequences of repression. But if I’d been born in another country, a nicer one, surely my vision would be different. If I’d been born in Switzerland, I’d have a different optic, though still critical, something like Dürrenmatt’s.
MF If you’d been born in Switzerland, maybe you wouldn’t feel like writing.
GG I’m not convinced. Okay, Switzerland is not a country that excites me. But why equate writing (which is to say, living) with masochism? Do we really need anguish, injustice, collective breakdown? Do we need poverty, de facto governments, or pardoned genocides? Perhaps a more balanced reality would better nurture writers. A human being comes into the world with enough of a load—incomprehension, affective difficulties, the certainty of death. Without adding the horrors that Argentina has lived through over and over.
MF It’s hard to imagine you in some bucolic Alpine setting. The body of your work has been a response to crisis, to institutionalized terror.
GG Yes, but in a sense art has nothing to do with politics, it occupies a different space, answers to different laws. I don’t have to—in fact I must not—think like a politician or an economist. The responsibility of the artist or intellectual is to refuse to enter into that perverse system of thought in which people become abstractions. My solution to the wheat surplus? Give it all to the hungry. Any other solution is hypocritical and immoral. Let it wreak havoc in the world market, so what.
Art’s connection to politics lies in its negation of the coarse and brutal pragmatism that is imposed as “reality.”
MF There seems to be uncertainty as to what constitutes reality in Argentina today. Menem certainly fits in with Peronist models of double-talk and contradictory alliances. The military is still a strong presence. The economy’s a disaster. If things get bad again, will you leave?
GG No. Exile carries a high price. For better or worse, this is my country. And a country is not an abstraction. It’s not the state or the government, but the land and the people who live there. In no foreign country—no matter how hospitable—would I have the dialogue I have with my compatriots. Our common history means that much can remain tacit; there’s no need for exposition or explanation, no need to ‘de-code’ images and signs.
I recognize that I am a representative here for certain people, not only because of my books and plays, but because of what I would call social and ethical commitments. As the poet Hans Enzensberger said of Diderot and Bakunin, attitudes are more trustworthy than programs, including writings. The behavior of a writer can be more illuminating than his books.
MF Yes, but some real bastards have written great books.
GG Of course. But for me, particularly regarding my contemporaries, attitude counts, behavior counts. It’s been hard for me to feel close to Borges, for example. Such an intelligent man, such a wonderful writer. But he showed off in public too much, and had some astoundingly puerile notions. His antiperonism was not born of an analysis of its contradictions; it was an upper-class reaction, a fear of those who are unrefined, illiterate, without artistic tendencies. Borges also supported [Chile’s] Pinochet as well as military dictatorships here. Only at the end of his life did he begin to wise up politically. But then he died, leaving only his books. For many of us, our reading of Borges is colored by the fact that we were his contemporaries, living through horrific times. I could never trust the high value he placed on a writer’s “innocence.” And his interviews, disquisitions and political pronouncements weren’t directed at us at all, but to North America and Europe.
MF For a long time in North America Borges was the Argentine writer par excellence.
GG Borges embodied a particular type of Argentine. Like Victoria Ocampo, he was educated in Europe, preferred French or English to his mother tongue and generally was more sympathetic toward Europe than Argentina. He couldn’t personally connect with hunger or thirst, with poverty and the miseries of a stunted life. During the years of the Dirty War, to read Borges meant to walk his road, and given what was happening all around us, I simply couldn’t. This was a time when writers buried manuscripts in their yards, burned books in their barbecues. You could be killed if they found a copy of Freud, let alone Marx, in your house. Or the “wrong” newspaper, the “wrong” name in your address book.
MF Haroldo Conti, Paco Urondo and Rodolfo Walsh, all well-known writers, were disappeared.
GG Yes. We (and not just writers) needed a great, illuminating representative voice, and Borges held back. I can’t help but think of Sciascia, Böll, or again Enzensberger. In times of crisis, the writer himself is part of the package.
MF In submitting my translations of your work over the last several years, I’ve found that it doesn’t conform to the expectations many in the US bring to writing from Latin America. Though your work derives from its Argentine setting and seems to embody the country’s psychic gestalt.
MF Your theatre and novels are not imbued with magic realism nor do they partake of any costumbrista tradition. Not infrequently, you plays are mistakenly referred to as “absurdist.”
GG Argentine writing is something of an anomaly in the context of Latin America. For one thing, our indigenous populations were largely decimated. For another, we are a nation of immigrants. Something like three out of four Argentines have Italian blood; there are many of Eastern European origin, not to mention strong Spanish, French, English and German strains. There were also important immigration waves from Turkey, Syria and Lebanon. Argentine Spanish is different from that spoken in Spain and elsewhere in Latin America. My parents came here from Genoa. Italian and French are my other languages and those literatures are a part of me.
Buenos Aires developed its own very particular argot, called lunfardo, strongly influenced by Italian and the culture of the port with its ‘mean streets’ and the brothels where tango was born. Roberto Arlt, one of our most brilliant writers, had an enormous influence on language here. His highly realistic novels of the city were charged not only with the current lunfardo, but with rhythms and nuances he picked up reading bad translations of Dostoyevski.
Non-Argentines are often taken aback by the acidity of our humor. And what Europeans have mistaken for Argentine “theatre of the absurd” has its roots in a strong and deep grotesque tradition. Eastern Europeans, I’ve found, relate very easily to my work.
MF A hallmark of your writing, particularly your theatre, is blatant artifice. Your main artistic strategies are black humor, buffoonery, irony, and the deep embedding of cultural codes. You also make “collages,” using the language of other writers together with your own.
GG I have no guilt whatsoever about using other writers’ language—Shakespeare, Sophocles, Ruben Dario, newspaper clippings, snippets from children’s games. It gives more facets to the surface of the work, multiplies the deeper resonances. The work isn’t limited to a single time frame or spatial plane.
MF It also enables you to encode political comment. For example, when in Information for Foreigners, I came upon the line “Violín, violon/es la mejor razon,” I mistakenly thought it was a nonsense poem. But the lines refer to the dictatorship of when violin music was routinely played during the decapitation of Rosas’s enemies.
GG Yes, it was yet another way of commenting on the situation in Argentina in 1971.
MF Information for Foreigners really was a prophetic work, foretelling the whole era of the desaparecidos, of government-sponsored terrorism not only against persons whose activities were deemed subversive but whose thoughts the government believed undermined “Western Christian civilization.”
GG I wrote the play in 1971–72, keeping it hidden in my house. When finally we had to leave in 1977, I smuggled the play out with me.
MF It circulated in “samizdat” among theatre people in Europe, but when companies offered productions, you refused.
GG It was impossible, my mother, sister and brothers were still in Argentina.
MF And Information still hasn’t been produced here.
GG No, and I don’t think it will be. Though it was published during Alfonsín’s term.
MF Information hinges on juxtaposition: children’s games with scenes of torture, a trumped-up arrest with Othello, the poetry of victims of the Dirty War with the Milgram experiment. You’ve described this play as “a guided tour through the places of repression and indignity.”
GG It is. And it’s the main reason for what you call “blatant artifice”—otherwise it would be too terrible to watch.
MF And you avoid the-torturer-as-most-fascinating-character-syndrome through ridicule, buffoonery.
GG Torturers don’t deserve to be in our midst, and so in the theatre they don’t merit our respectful gaze.
MF Information was unlike any translation I’ve ever done. An indispensable source was Nunca Más: The Report of the Argentine Commission on the Disappeared. I needed it not only for the information, but for its language. For there developed during the Dirty War an argot of dissimulation in which familiar, domestic expressions carried sinister, even deadly, implications.
GG A way of turning reality inside out.
MF To cite just one example: submarino came to mean plunging a prisoner’s head into a basin of water and shit. But originally submarino signified a treat for kids: a chocolate bar slowly melting in a cup of warm milk.
GG That’s still what it is.
MF And it’s on the menu of any Argentine cafe.
GG Of course.
MF But it’s shocking. I can’t imagine ordering one.
GG But it’s delicious. And it’s an Argentine tradition.
Translated from the Spanish by Marguerite Feitlowitz.
—Marguerite Feitlowitz’s fiction has appeared in BOMB. She is currently writing and translating in Argentina on a Fulbright fellowship.
Li Young Lee