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Argentina: Living With Cruelty

1.

In Argentina in March 1977, at the time of the military government’s “dirty war” against the guerrillas, I found myself taken off a long-distance bus by the police one day, and held for some hours as a suspected guerrilla.

This was in the far north of the country—an older, more tropical Argentina, deep in the continent, and still with the feel of the Spanish empire: wide valleys beside the Andes, miles and miles of sugar cane, an Indian population. While in Buenos Aires I was an obvious stranger, here in the north I could pass. (And sometimes more than pass. Once, in a small town in the Córdoba hills, during an earlier trip, a middle-aged Spanish-looking man had called out with great seriousness to me across a café: “You! You look like a pistolero.” A gangster.)

I was staying this time in the old colonial town of Salta. One morning I took a bus for the town of Jujuy, in the province to the north, on the border with Bolivia. Just outside Salta the bus stopped, perhaps at the provincial boundary. Indian policemen in dark-blue uniforms came in and asked for identity papers. Argentines are trained from childhood to carry their papers. I had none; I had left my passport in the hotel in Salta. So—with my gangster’s face momentarily of interest to the other passengers, who were mainly Indian—I was taken off the bus, which then went on again.

I went with the two policemen to the small white concrete shed or hut at the side of the road. This shed was plain outside and inside. A third policeman was there, standing behind a chesthigh counter; and I could see, on a table on his side of the counter, and close to his hand, the black-and-gray metal of a machine gun lying flat. There was nothing else on that table.

I was with serious people. They listened, but without much interest, to what I had to say. They talked among themselves; then they held consultations with someone else on the telephone or on a radio system. After a while I was taken—in what vehicle or by what ways I cannot remember: I made no notes about the events of this day—to a small low building standing by itself in a sunstruck patch of bush somewhere. This, though it didn’t look it, was a police post or subpost.

The men who had brought me there went away—rather like the morning bus to Jujuy. Salta began to feel far away. My idea of time changed; I learned to wait. I gave my details once again. The policeman who wrote them down then began to telephone. This wasn’t easy; the Argentine telephone service was very bad. Telephone lines, legitimate and illegitimate, hung over the streets and belle époque buildings of central Buenos Aires like gigantic cobwebs; the Indian policeman was trying to tap into the cobwebbed city, from a patch of bush a thousand miles away. He dialed and dialed, sometimes talking, sometimes not. His companion never took his eyes off me: smiling eyes, civil now, but biding their time.

I sat on a bench against a smooth plastered wall. I looked at the bush and the light outside. I smoked the pipe I had brought with me. After some time I wanted to use a lavatory. I was told there were no facilities in the little building. The policeman with the smiling eyes pointed to a spot in the bush some distance away: I was to go there. He said, “If you try to run away, I’ll shoot you.” With the smile, it sounded like a joke; but I knew that it wasn’t.

And then—unexpectedly—a call came through on the telephone: no one of my description was on any guerrilla list. I could go. The senior policeman said, with something like friendliness, “It was your pipe that saved you. Did you know that? That pipe made me feel that you really were a foreigner.”

It was an African pipe, a small black Tanganyika meerschaum I had bought in Uganda eleven years before: I had noticed that it had interested them. But all the time I had been trusting to my appearance, my broken Spanish, my Spanish accent. It was only now that I understood that to these Indian policemen of the far north Argentina would have been full of foreigners. So it was only at the moment of release, coming out of the slight shock, my disturbed sense of time, that I began to understand how serious my position had been. In the city of Tucumán, just a few days before, I had stood with a small group of townspeople watching policemen with machine guns below their raincoats getting into their unmarked cars. Like a kind of country-house shooting party; but in Tucumán the dirty war was especially dirty, and Tucumán was just to the south of Salta.

I was free, but I had no idea where I was. Some little feeling was with me that the policemen should take me back to where they had picked me up, but I didn’t put it to them. They showed me where the road was. I was walking in that direction when it occurred to me that I still had no “papers,” and could be picked up again. I went back to the little building and asked the senior policeman for a certificate of some sort. He understood at once; he was almost pleased to be asked. He sat down at his table, put a narrow sheet of headed paper in his heavy old typewriter and began to type, at a speed which surprised me, a constancia policial, a police “certification.” The language was formal: the bearer had been detained, but had “recovered his liberty,” because his detention was “not of interest,” por no interesar su detención. With this I went and waited on the road. A young Italian immigrant driving a white pickup truck gave me a lift back to Salta.

I gave up the idea of further travel in the north. The next day I started back for Buenos Aires; within a few days I had left the country. A short while later, over a period of two or three weeks, I wrote the article I had gone out to Argentina to write. But I was unhappy with the shape of what I had written; and then for three of four weeks more, trying to put it right, I found myself writing the same article again and again in more or less the same way. I became fogged, and laid the article aside.

Two years later, when I looked again at what I had written, I found it fair enough, and wondered at my confusion.1 It was as though, at the time, some writer’s instinct had wanted me to keep the emotion of that day to myself, and not to expose it even indirectly in an article. Later that year I began to write a long imaginative work set in a country in Central Africa. I transferred, when the time came, the emotion of Argentina, and even the isolated police building in the bush of Jujuy, to my Central African setting. When the book was finished, the unpleasantness at Jujuy dropped out of my consciousness; I forgot about it. Though it had marked the end of a five-year period of intermittent travel in Argentina, and though I wasn’t to go to Argentina again for fourteen years, the day in Jujuy formed no part of my Argentine memories.

But, just as sensation returns to a jaw when a local anesthetic wears off, so, more than ten years later, when the African book had worked itself out of my system and I could no longer be sure of details of a narrative I once knew by heart, so the day at Jujuy began to come back. And—without the shock of the day itself, and the disturbed sense of time, which kept me quite calm right through—I can be sickened at the thought of how close I was then to the dirtiness of the dirty war. Thousands of men and women, many of them not guerrillas, were disposed of at that time.2 Torture was routine: it was there in the smiling eyes of the junior policeman. Only my little African pipe raised a doubt in the mind of the senior policeman—and by the end of the year, when I was deep in my Central African book, I was to stop smoking, and lay aside that pipe and all the others.

And I never thought the Argentine guerrillas had a good enough cause. Some were people of the left; some were Peronists, campaigning for the return of the corrupt and old Perón; some wanted Peronism—a mixture of nationalism and socialism and anti-Americanism—without Perón. Some I thought had no cause at all; and some were simple gangsters. They were a mystery to me in 1972, when I first went to Argentina. They were educated, secure, middle-class people, perhaps the first full generation of secure and educated people after the great migrations from Europe earlier in the century, and after the Depression of the 1930s. Yet, barely arrived at privilege, they were—as it seemed to me—trying to pull their world down.

What had driven them to their cause? There would have been the element of mimicry, the wish not to be left out of the political current of the 1960s. “What the students say in America, they want to make concrete here”—I was told this in 1972 by a woman whose guerrilla nephew had been killed by the police: the young man had taken his revolution more seriously than the American students whose equal he wanted to be. Another, younger woman told me how a friend of hers had made his decision. They had gone to the cinema to see Sacco and Vanzetti; afterward her friend had said, “I feel ashamed at not being a guerrilla.”

There was also the old Argentine idea of revolution. This held much more than suggestions of upheaval and chaos. It was the idea that it was always possible to put an end to any particular political mess and make a fresh start. Sábat, the Buenos Aires cartoonist, put it like this: “Every time a president is deposed they raise the flag and sing the national anthem.” Robert Cox, the editor of the English-language Buenos Aires Herald, said, “When there is a coup everyone is exhilarated and walks the next morning with a spring in his step.

For a film maker of Italian origin this idea of revolution went back to the early nineteenth century and the bloody wars of independence. He didn’t think it was funny; he thought it contained “the mystical Spanish idea of blood.” I thought the words were too grand; but I felt after some time in the country that they went some way to explaining the Argentine obsession with torture.

  1. 1

    See “Argentine Terror: A Memoir,” The New York Review, October 11, 1979.

  2. 2

    See Nunca Más: The Report of the Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986). The book’s introduction, by Ronald Dworkin, was published in these pages, July 17, 1986.

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