Academic journal article TriQuarterly

Life Here Is Normal

Academic journal article TriQuarterly

Life Here Is Normal

Article excerpt

4, 1989. Also NUNCA MAS: The Report of the Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared, 1986.

28. See my "Night and Fog in Argentina," in Salmagundi, Spring/Summer 1992.

29. The Mishnah, tractate Sanhedrin, chapter 4.

30. I interviewed Klimovsky on July 23, 1992 at his home in the Belgrano district of Buenos Aires.

31. Falcoff's review appeared in the July 1981 issue of Commentary.

(from A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture)

I am going to read this afternoon from the book I came here to complete, A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture.

Argentina is supremely enigmatic, even--perhaps especially--to Argentines, who routinely describe it as "schizophrenic" and "surreal." Argentina has been consistently self-destructive--economically, politically, socially. Its history is marked by recurring cycles of bloody rule. The most recent was the "Dirty War," as the generals called it (1976-83), in which some 30,000 citizens were kidnapped, tortured and disappeared in a massive program of state terrorism.(1) In 1985, the ex-commanders were publicly tried and convicted of crimes against humanity.(2) But owing to a legal arrangement, only high officers of the junta were tried. Lower-ranking, hands-on torturers were never charged.(3) Survivors have met their tormentors on the street, in the subway, in the buildings where they live. It's a classic case of the double discourse that makes life in Argentina so endlessly fascinating, and so endlessly hard to bear. On December 29, 1990--against massive, anguished opposition--President Menem not only pardoned, but praised, the convicted ex-commanders, who live now on the fortunes they looted from the national treasury and extorted from the families of desaparecidos.

A Lexicon of Terror explores torture, and the myths and legacies of torture, by examining not just the great, but the subtle rents it leaves in the fabric of human lives and public institutions. How do survivors cope with having been tortured? With the present glorification of those who damaged their bodies and minds, wrecked their careers, and destroyed their families? Can priests recover a Church again headed by an archbishop who supported the "Dirty War"? How do historians, journalists, politicians and artists formulate their responses when the language itself has been tainted?

The "Dirty War" dictatorship was intensely verbal, and had a diabolical genius for appropriating language to which it had no moral right. Intense anti-Semitism did not deter it from echoing "Never Again!," the Warsaw Ghetto cry. Nunca Mas! the generals wrote in their Final Report, claiming eternal victory over subversion.(4)

The dynamics of terror were especially complicated and divisive in the Jewish community. I am a Jew, and this is one of the most vexing chapters in a book that is full of vexation. It's but a facet of the prism, albeit a crucial one, for certain themes--identity, memory, collective trauma, contamination of history--come into startling focus.

For this chapter, called "Life Here is Normal," I've had the privilege to work closely with a group of families in Argentina and I will soon be going to Israel. This excerpt focuses on but one family, the Mellibovskys.

Let us go back to July of 1990. Midwinter in Argentina. "Life here is surreal," people tell me over and over. And it is true. I am walking through downtown Buenos Aires--the very heart of Buenos Aires---on my way to an appointment. A small crowd--mostly women, quite well-dressed--has gathered before a construction site at the corner of Florida and Viamonte. The younger ones push close to the large sign, call out the designers whose creations will soon fill the renovated mall. Galerias Pacifico has been closed for several years. In the seventies, it was full of costly imports from Paris and Milan, London, New York, San Francisco. Shopping there epitomized leisure and luxury. …

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