Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Nation and Identity in Crisis and Beyond: Mempo Giardinelli's Santo Oficio De la Memoria

Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Nation and Identity in Crisis and Beyond: Mempo Giardinelli's Santo Oficio De la Memoria

Article excerpt

Argentine writer Mempo Giardinelli (1947-) is a major figure of the Spanish American Post-Boom, although he rejects the label in favor of Ltteratura de las Democracias Recuperadas. As the latter term suggests, Giardinelli highlights the experience of the 1970s-80s-repression, exile, and return-as an inescapable factor in the literary production of his generation. In common with many of his contemporaries, Giardinelli's work is also shaped by an awareness of everyday social and political realities. He admits, "Siempre vivi metido de lleno en la realidad contrastante y paradojal de la Argentina. No puedo, no sé vivir al margen de los compromisos que me impone la tierra donde nací, a la que amo irracionalmente y en la que adoro vivir protestando" (Roffé 273). In Santo oficio de la memoria (1991), this multifaceted context is combined with a detailed reading of Argentine history, culture, and literature to produce a complex work that stands apart from the (albeit deceptive) simplicity of GiardineUi's other narrative fiction. Santo oficio is undoubtedly the most ambitious work of Giardinelli's impressive and varied oeuvre-, it was awarded the prestigious Rómulo Gallegos prize in 1993 and, according to the author, is "mi mejor trabajo hasta ahora" (Roffé 261). Although Santo oficio reflects the author's determination to stretch the boundaries of fiction writing, the novel also contributes to the vibrant trend within contemporary Spanish American literature that consciously rewrites the past from unusual perspectives, in order better to understand the present.

Santo oficio surveys some one hundred years of Argentine history beginning in the 1880s. The work examines and tries to make sense of the past in the aftermath of the military dictatorship known as the Proceso (1976-82). In particular, it questions the basis for national life and identity in the era of restored democracy. Following in the footsteps of various other Latin American writers, Giardinelli interweaves the historical narrative of the nation with the story of one family: the Domeniconelles, Italian immigrants who arrived in Argentina in 1885. By the early 1980s, and the time of the book's implicit composition, four generations of the family are gathered on the quayside at Buenos Aires awaiting the arrival of Pedro, whose return from nine years of exile in Mexico has been facilitated by the recent restoration of democracy after the Proceso. Pedro's return provides the focal point for the narrative. It forces the family members to review their past and, with it, the vicissitudes of the nation's history. As the novel's title suggests, memory is paramount, and the narrative bears witness to the pain and confusion of ordinary Argentines facing their national past.

In reading Santo ofido, the reader is confronted with memories of a history marked by unresolved tragedies. Each of the characters struggles with memories that refuse to lie quiet, as well as with a past that threatens to strangle the present and cast a shadow over the future. It is evident that the novel addresses the politics of memory and forgetfulness in a newly-democratized Argentina forced to come to terms with the violence and repression of the recent past. For one critic, the novel thus connects with "a group of artists and writers who circumvented the military regime and who now fin its aftermath] refuse to let those years disappear into oblivion. Giardinelli, in contrast to the 'politics of amnesia,' resurrects the past and invites his readers to remember a painful history that they may well prefer to forget" (O'Connell 503). In order to elucidate the treatment of nation and identity in the novel, I shall explore three main aspects: the representative function of the Domeniconclle family; the shifting senses of Argentine national identity between the 1880s and 1980s; and the novel's stance toward the future. A propos this third aspect, it is instructive to take into account that, in discussing Santo oficio, Giardinelli himself highlights the bond between reading and writing his nation's past and imagining its future. …

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