Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number
by Jacobo Timerman, translated by Toby Talbot
Knopf, 164 pp., $10.95
“No one had to impose my enemies on me. I selected them myself. I didn’t avoid them: I pointed them out, marked them, attacked them.” Jacobo Timerman is, by all accounts, a brave, irascible, and combative man. It is nevertheless not entirely true that he selected his enemies himself. As he learned in the prisons of Argentina, Jews don’t yet have that historic privilege. His eloquent book reminds us again of how awful it is to be “chosen”—by left-wing terrorists and right-wing policemen, by revolutionaries and generals. But it is true that Timerman embraced the battles that were imposed upon him, promptly and passionately, and then sought out others. He is a man whom we are likely to know best, whose political and moral stature we will most accurately estimate, if we consider the list of his enemies.
The Terrorists. In his essay “The Return of Eva Perón,” V.S. Naipaul quotes an Argentine trade unionist on torture. “Depende de quien sea torturado. It depends on who is tortured. An evildoer, that’s all right. But a man who’s trying to save his country—that’s something else. Torture isn’t only the electric prod, you know. Poverty is torture, frustration is torture.” That kind of talk is common enough—not only on what passes for the left—doublethink a dozen years before its time (Naipaul was writing in 1972). Terror is defended in the same way: “Violence, in the hands of the people, isn’t violence,” said Juan Perón. “It is justice.” Timerman is a man of the left who has steadily resisted this corruption of language and morality. He saw the terrorism of left-wing Peronistas and Trotskyites as embodying one kind of fascist ideology and the terrorism of paramilitary and parapolice groups as embodying another. And he said so again and again in his newspaper La Opinión, describing the murders and kidnapings, naming names.
The two fascisms”—I can’t think of a better description of the struggle for power in much of the third world. Two imitative ideologies, “devoid of German precision,’ but spiced with Latin American eroticism,” two expressions of contempt for democracy, two excuses for a politics of terror. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Irving Kristol has described Timerman as a spokesman for those who attack only the authoritarians of the right, not the totalitarians of the left. That’s not a line that can make much sense of the two fascisms, and it is surely to Timerman’s credit that he refused to draw it. One day, in the same mail, he received death threats from a rightist paramilitary group and a Trotskyite “army”—and published them both the next morning, wondering which organization would wind up with his corpse. “After all, it was a question of only one corpse….” The rightists were, of course, more likely to come to power and then to establish an alliance with the United States and the “free world.” No doubt …