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Friday, 06 November 2009

Guillermo Saccomanno: 77

Buenos Aires: Planeta, 2008. 280 págs. 9,68 €.

Sébastien Rutés
Translated into English by Anne Harrap

Before taking with me as holiday reading the marvellous Voyage by Sterling Hayden, I read 77, by the Argentine Guillermo Saccomanno. His book won the Hammett prize, at the annual Semana Negra Spanish-language crime writing festival in Gijón,  northern Spain; the very least I can say is that I feel the award was in no way wrongly attributed. Much has been written on the horrors of the Argentinean dictatorship, particularly in crime writing, but rarely with such evocative power, simultaneously fascinating and terrifying, except perhaps in the work of poets like Juan Gelman.  Saccomanno does not merely talk about the horror; he embodies it in terrifying allegorical scenes.


Even after four weeks, I was finding it impossible to forget the part where the silent narrator watches a neighbour's homosexual son perform an emotionally touching dance while the telephone rings with anonymous screams from a torture centre; or the one where a clairvoyant refuses to reveal to a mother what has happened to her disappeared son because of the impossibility of penetrating the cagoules; or indeed the one where a father, powerless to act and who has suffered a heart attack trying to commit suicide on hearing of his son's disappearance, mindlessly hurls his wheelchair against the wall; all the while his wife is in the sitting room with her lover.

Try as I might, it is impossible to convey the poetic and destructive force of Saccomanno's images!

What I can talk about, however, is the debate which I feel the novel sets up with By Night in Chile by the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. The two stories have much in common. The narrators are both literary figures, a teacher of literature in Saccomanno's case, a poet priest and literary critic in Bolaño's; two homosexuals trying to survive in a dictatorship and to preserve a way of life centred on literature and the supremacy of art as justification for neutrality and inaction. Attempting to stay on the margins of the dirty war, perched at the top of their literary ivory tower where political neutrality and the ideal of aesthetic beauty preserve them from the horror, results in diverging destinies.  Nevertheless, the two novels pose the same questions: Is there a way of literature, a third way, that of neither the soldier nor the revolutionary? Can art be neutral?  In times of civil war, does the ivory tower of literature exist?

Bolaño, as ever undeceived, is definite; this presumption of aesthetic neutrality leads to compromise with the killers, as illustrated in the final scene at the home of Maria Canales where the army tortures people in the basement during her poetry soirées. Saccomanno is much less categorical. Although the sympathies of the teacher Gomez obviously lie with the former group, his apartment sees encounters between guerrillas and soldiers, as it does between friends or lovers, and finally the love letters left there by a young lesbian revolutionary create an aesthetic space of inalienable purity in the midst of the horror, a literary mise en abyme where the teacher takes refuge and finally finds redemption. The same was not true of Urrutia, latterly employed as an impromptu teacher of Marxism to Pinochet's military junta, and constantly persecuted, even on his death-bed, by his conscience and the shadow of the author.

Saccomanno, for his part, arfully leaves the door open for Gomez and does not take a stand on the question of the ivory tower.

To be published in France  by 77  L'Atinoir,

Published  in Spanish in Diez Negritos, 23-08-2009.

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 01 June 2010 )
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