Rewriting Fictions of Power: The Texts of Luisa Valenzuela and Marta Traba
Tomlinson, Emily, The Modern Language Review
The Argentinian writer Luisa Valenzuela's 1977 novel, Como en la guerra, opens brutally: raped by the barrel of a gun and then shot, its male protagonist AZ comes to the ignominious end of a quest for identity that is to structure the remainder of the work. Explicit enough in its depiction of torture to have attracted the attention of the censors, 'Pagina cero', as Valenzuela terms this 'flash-forward', signals a priori the socio-historical framework underlying a narrative more overtly concerned with psychological than political cogency. (1) Against the immediacy of pain and a questioner intent not upon answers but upon silence, AZ struggles vainly to 'reshape and recompose' (p. 5) a rapidly dispersing subjectivity that has by now become both individual and collective. In the final absence of his voice, all that is left to the reader is the memory of a physical violence whose mediated status must place even its apparently emphatic presence in doubt.
This passage stands in synecdochal relation to the novel as a whole, incorporating many of those themes to be elaborated elsewhere. 'Pagina cero' raises, too, the issues that this article takes as its broad object of study in relation to Como en la guerra, the Colombo-Argentine writer Marta Traba's very different Conversacion al Sur, and, finally, Valenzuela's later short story, 'Cambio de armas': the binary absence/ presence as a structuring device and psycho-political concept, together with its narrative corollary in the dual notions of pain and imagining, as expounded by Elaine Scarry in her book The Body in Pain. (2) In so doing, it seeks to explore the authors' projected reinscription of the marginalized or 'disappeared' subject, and hence the possibility of 'undoing' and rewriting those authoritarian fictions of power shown to depend, in turn, upon an 'undoing' which is that of the human body itself.
The subject of Scarry's The Body in Pain, as outlined in her introduction, is three-fold: it concerns first, the difficulty of expressing physical suffering; second, the political and conceptual ramifications of such incommunicability; third, the status of conscious expression or creativity as the inverse of a phenomenon of pain seen as essentially destructive of consciousness. Although her book uses medical and legal material, as well as aesthetic and political sources, to document its subject-matter, the bulk of the first section, dealing with torture, draws on the verbal testimonies of people who endured political imprisonment during the 1970s, and on the accounts of organizations and individuals who bore witness to their ordeals. The work of the exiled writer Luisa Valenzuela and the self-exiled Marta Traba strives frequently, if less explicitly, to explore precisely these themes, and it is in this same broad socio-historical context that their writing must be sited.
'Pagina cero', then, begins with an interrogation, which both precedes the felt experience of pain as filtered through AZ's consciousness and is (at first) stylistically demarcated from it. Yet a gradual conflation of the 'spoken' word with the materiality of that felt experience bears testimony to its central position within the very structure of torture itself. Physical pain, as Scarry notes, 'does not simply resist language but actively destroys it' (p. 4), and the questioning that accompanies the infliction of pain mimics this capacity. The torturer's purpose is not so much to extract a recalcitrant confession as tangibly to 'uncreate' or dismantle the voice of his prisoner, emphasizing the voice's overwhelming absence and, conversely, the body's overwhelming presence through their respective dismemberment. Such a process of linguistic shrinkage or regression is documented, too, in Conversacion al Sur's scene of enforced abortion:
Penso con terror lo fragil que era el pecho, el esternon, las costillas. Sin embargo, el tipo desvio la bota y la monto sobre la barriga. Fue apretando, salto. …