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Written by Doris Wieser   
Tuesday, 07 April 2009

Interview with Raúl Argemí

Barcelona, 29 August 2008

Translated from the Spanish by Jon Lindsay Miles

Raoul AagemiThe Argentinian writer Raúl Argemí (La Plata, 1946), who has lived in Spain since 2000, is the author of six novels, almost all of the crime genre, and which have received various literary prizes.  He is counted among the regular participants in the Gijón Crime Week, and this year was among the judges of the Hammett Prize.

His novels are intimately connected to the past and the present of Argentina.  Argemí was one of those who struggled in the guerrilla against the military dictatorship in the nineteen-seventies, and was a political prisoner from 1974 to 1984.

On his release from prison, he stayed briefly in Buenos Aires, and then moved to Patagonia to work on the Río Negro newspaper, also writing for Claves and Le Monde Diplomatique.
His novels are set against the background of the Argentina of recent decades, and raise questions about crime, violence and what it is that leads someone to the margins of society.  In spite of the potential interest his work might awaken in Argentina, only one novel (El gordo, el Francés y el Ratón Pérez [The Fat Man, the Frenchman and the Tooth Fairy]) has been published there.  The rest have been distributed by the Algaida publishing house in Spain alone (see Bibliography, below).  Some have now been translated into German, Dutch, Italian and French.
Last August I had the opportunity to talk to Raúl Argemí in the patio of his house, where the author works peacefully in the middle of the city of Barcelona, enjoying, at ease, his yerba maté infusions.

DORIS WIESER: You write crime novels.  What personal connection do you have with the crime genre?  Have you always liked it?

RAÚL ARGEMÍ: The genre I first came upon – because I began to read at the age of five, and never stopped – were action and adventure stories.  You can include in this Verne, Salgari, cowboy stories, Tarzan, of course – any story that contains action.  And at some point, when I was fourteen or fifteen, I came upon Chandler.  Before this I began with Agatha Christie – it's almost a duty, yes? – until you begin to be bored by reading her books.
Chandler offered something different.  At a certain moment during adolescence, one begins to develop – especially in countries of the Third World – a certain implicit social conscience.  One has the feeling that everything is going to pieces.  And, suddenly, Chandler explains things to you.  One begins to see that the police are always on the other side, and Chandler explains this to you.  I think I became hooked by the crime novel beginning with Chandler, and than with a very strong collection edited in Argentina by Borges and Bioy Casares, called El séptimo círculo [The Seventh Circle] – for the seventh circle of Dante's Inferno – which was a mix of English authors of mystery, and several of hard crime.  I suddenly began to discover European writers who revealed to me a world in which I was living: harsh stories, always a little on the margins, even marginal for those who enforce the law.  When those charged with upholding the rule of law don't do so, what you're left with is the way to the margin.

Was there already a tradition in Argentina of crime fiction, of stories of bandits, and that also inspired you?

There is a long history in Argentina of stories of bandits – it existed in the nineteenth century – of popular rascals such as Hormiga Negra, Mate Cocido or Juan Bautista Bairoletto, a series of rural bandits, generally all cast in the same mould, individuals who were not criminals, not delinquents, but who at a certain moment have a run-in with the police, or they ruin their lives by killing someone, somewhere along the way.  Martín Fierro has something of this.  The case of Juan Moreira – who really existed – has much to do with this.  And they become a gun-for-hire, or characters on the run and who are protected by ordinary people who see them as rebels.  People who can't bring themselves to throw off their own yoke see them as rebels, and protect them.

So these Argentinian stories and your love of European crime fiction and Chandler, meet in your novels?

Yes.  When I had a go at a first novel, I said, I'll write what I like: an action novel.  I took an outline – Ricardo Piglia says that almost all novels have an underlying crime structure – a mystery to be resolved, something to serve as a guide.  You can tell almost any story based on a structure that's coherent.  Anyway, I began to write from my personal experience: I went through the armed struggle, I was in prison for ten years, and violence wasn't foreign to me, nor the results of violence.  Then I found I had no desire to write about a protagonist who was a policeman, because I didn't like them, nor a private detective, as I liked them even less: in South America they are unbelievable.  So, in the first novel (Los muertos siempre pierden los zapatos [The Dead Always Lose their Shoes]) I tried something: I invoked a journalist – the closest thing to a policeman in the sense of their involvement in investigation – who sticks his nose into things he oughtn't to.  I wanted to write something that wouldn't allow me to lose myself in vagueness.  Then I discovered a design that came from the other end, from a choice of form.  The stories I tell at the heart of all my novels have something to do with implicit violence, the violence in everyday life.  And I believe the crime novel is the best vehicle for telling it.

What for you is a crime novel?  How would you define it?

I think it's a genre, a point of view, that can inhabit a crime novel or a novel that isn't of the crime genre.  I always cite Acaso no matan a los caballos [The Shoot Horses, Don't They?] by Horace McCoy, that has been made into a film called Danzad, danzad, malditos, with Jane Fonda.  No one has any doubts that it's a crime novel.  But it begins with a man who is going to be tried, and the judge says: “Do you have anything to say?”  “Yes, I'm going to tell you.  I went to a dance marathon because they were going to give me something to eat and a partner, a girl, who was also there, just by chance, like me.  We were dancing, animated by the radio, and we wore ourselves out dancing, we were there for several days, and then I fell in love with her.  She suffered terribly, her life was a mess, and she asked me to kill her and I killed her.  Don't they kill horses when they break a leg?”  And there's no investigation, the police don't investigate, there's no mystery.  In short: it's a story of death.  Well, I think the crime novel is in there.  The protagonist is the death more than the criminal case.
In any case, I don't only write crime novels.  My novel being published next year is called La última caravana [The Last Convoy].  It has a crime structure underneath that's very elementary, but thereafter it's a huge grotesque.  I've also done an adventure novel: Patagonia Chu Chu.  The publishers sell it as a crime novel because it suits them, but there's nothing of the crime novel in it, inasmuch as I understand the nature of the crime novel.

Today, crime novels are written in many countries of Latin America.  Is there an awareness of their shared social and political problems?  Because the problems are often similar...

Yes, they are similar, and you can include the United States, because the stance of the police forces in the United States is the same as that in Latin America: they are at war with the citizens.  You're guilty until you can prove otherwise.  So, if there's a doubt, they're going to break your leg before you protest, so that you don't protest, and then they take to you court.  When you're innocent, they say: “So you're innocent.  What luck!”  The attitude of the police isn't the same as exists in Europe, which is more humane, more respectful towards the other.  So in this sense I believe we do have certain things in common.
The Latin American case strikes me as strange, because it's a new phenomenon.  Until about twenty or thirty years ago, anyone who set out to write a crime novel wrote it as 'a homage to...', 'a parody of...', because it was almost embarrassing to write a crime novel.  Serious writers wrote other things.  But in recent years it's come about that this prejudice has disappeared.  So now you write from where you can, mestizando [creating a hybrid].  If you don't want to have the police as the protagonist because you know it won't work because it's not your world, and you can't write about the judges, the whole of the Chandlerian story rather goes to pot.  Philip Marlowe is a character who believes in justice, he believes that justice can exist, and he gets annoyed because the judges don't deliver it.  When you're in Latin America, you know they're not going to deliver it, that it's against nature that justice will be done, right?  [Laughs.]
So in Latin America a type of novel began to appear that I think in most cases reflects a strong influence of something that has existed there in great quantity.  There are few novelists in Latin America, and they are a recent breed.  If you look back thirty or forty years, the majority were writers of short stories.   I don't know of one Latin American writer who didn't begin with short stories.  It's a form that doesn't allow you to waste words, and you notice this in their novels, in the search for greater concision.  If you can say it with a sentence, you say it with a sentence, and not with a page.
At the same time I think it has to do with the fact that the majority of those who've come to the crime novel nowadays, in the last thirty years, aren't entertainers, but come from a different school.  They are serious readers of everything.  You don't look to the North American model now.  This way of meztizaje has lent a real power to the crime novel.

Your novels have very complex structures, which demand a lot of concentration from the reader.  Do you think it's for this reason that most of your readers don't consider them to be crime novels?

I think there is still a prejudice in Spain against what is considered as a secondary genre.  And many writers write it as a secondary genre.  If I start out with the belief that it's a secondary genre, I'm not going to bother to write it well, and so literature, as such, doesn't appear anywhere in it.  Leonardo Oyola, a young Argentinian, this year won the Dashiell Hammett Prize during the Gijón Crime Week.  He has two novels published in Spain: Chamamé, and Gólgota.  They are novels of a staggering harshness, but at the same time are very well written.  There is literature all over them.  You read them and you find a richness of language, a richness of images, with a good handling of structures, and they are not restricted to a flat tale, there are well-written characters.  I think he's the bee's knees among those I know writing at the moment.  I have the feeling he hasn't yet shown us all he's capable of.

Until now, you've favoured the criminals' perspective, that of the authors of the crimes (except in Los muertos siempre pierden los zapatos).  Why do you prefer this perspective, rather than that of the investigator, for example?  

When you ask yourself why someone does something, you always end up looking at what is behind their choice.  I'm not saying it can't be done with a protagonist who is a policeman, but when you discover your character is one who breaks the law – being himself a marginal or not, being an ordinary man who happens to put his foot in it, or who had a strange outburst – it leads you to the reaons that led him to this situation: what happened to him.  It's a far richer ground to work in.  This interested me because it has something to do with what you were suggesting: when an individual, for example, throws his wife off a balcony and cuts the throat of all his five children.  The neighbours appear on television, and then they give interviews: “Did you know him?” “Yes, I think I did.  He seemed a nice man to me, I don't understand what's going on.”  The question that precedes this is: Why did he do it?  What happened to him?  Because this individual is close to me – how far am I from having something like this happen to me?  Something so big that it changes your life for ever.  Afterwards, you'll never be the same person again.  You'll be another person, you don't even know who you are.  It's like jumping into another world, into an abyss, right?  So, in the protagonist who commits the crime, this frontier appears, that is nothing to do with us, that sets us apart from him.
At the same time, all literature, all novels are a playground for adults.  When you read, you get hooked, you can say it's a place to experiment with things you wouldn't dare to do, but neither do you know that you wouldn't do them...  So you immerse yourself in this story and it leaves you with the impression that the character is a son of a bitch.  You're creating a laboratory with your personal drives.  The crime novel contains this, it's very potent in the way it acts as a reagent for your impulses.  Therefore, the criminal is far more interesting that the person who resolves things, because the person who kills transgresses a powerful taboo.  One doesn't go back to kill again.  Now you're something different.  If you thought your life was going in a particular direction, now you realise what you've left behind you.

ImagePersonally, I very much like your novel Penúltimo nombre de guerra [Penultimate Nom de Guerre].  Each element, each detail serves a purpose, and the reader has to reconstruct the chronology of events because there are several perspectives and various temporal axes.  Tell us a little about how you wrote this novel.

After the publication of Los muertos siempre pierden los zapatos, I reconnected myself in Spain through Penúltimo nombre de guerra, which I'd begun in Argentina some years before.  I had about eighty per cent of it written, in fact, but I didn't have it quite clear why I was writing it, what it was I was dealing with.  And I was able to finish it here, by making a huge effort, because at heart it's a very unpleasant novel.
It took a lot out of me, writing that novel.  I was working on it for eight years, but not because I was working on it every day: because let's say, I had to digest it.  The simplest answer to Cacho's conflict is that the torturers are psychopaths.  No, the worst is that they are not psychopaths.  The worst thing of all is that, in the majority of cases, they behave like public servants.  From such-and-such a time to such-and-such a time, they torture, from such-and-such a time to such-and-such a time they go to watch television with their children, or they take them to watch a football match.  The whole thing is much more demented.  And then you ask yourself: is anyone of us far from being this type of public servant?  I decided to make a study of this, to see what would come into my head.

I also believe you said once that it contains references to real events: is this true?

Yes.  Before I went to prison, the common criminals had been rounded up, and they'd passed themselves off as political prisoners because they felt the price they'd pay would be less.  They screwed it up for themselves, it wasn't a good idea at all.  They ended up with ten years inside.  And one of them had a characteristic that caught my attention: he was a mythomaniac.  He spoke to a doctor three times, he was going to speak to someone else, and told them he was a doctor.  He even copied the gestures of the individuals.  These gestures give you a sense of security when you go to see a doctor, and then you feel much better.  He was like a chameleon, you know, he absorbed everything.  In truth, he only earned some false prestige in the small world of a prison, where all these lies end up being exposed.  And what caught my attention about this individual was that when someone showed him up for what he was, he experienced a deep spiritual suffering because there was a part of him that really believed in the lie.  He'd appropriated this individual, he was this individual.  So when you found him out, it was as if something in him was breaking.
Later, when I was working as a journalist in Patagonia, I knew of a case that had occurred in 1969 – all the archives of the case were held by the newspaper, so I was able to look at them.  In an out of the way place in Loncoluán (head of Huanaco [Spanish: Guanaco]) in the Neuquén zone, a village of Mapuches had received a visit from a pentecostal preacher, who spent a while with them there before he left.  They kept the religious flame alive among themselves for a time, and then all at once they went to pieces.  Well, they thought they were possessed.  One day a commercial traveller passed through, someone who was buying fabrics and other Mapuche objects, and he came upon the first dead body on the ground and he called the police.  When the police arrived there were already three bodies.  They'd killed themselves because they were possessed.  It was a dreadful case.  The defence called on the Buenos Aires anthropology faculty as a key witness, who demonstrated that this people, at the moment they lost their identity – they'd been educated – had adopted an additional identity, that which the passing preacher had brought with him, and entered into a dead end that had led them to this, but that they weren't responsible for what they'd done; and they were acquitted.  So it was here that I again came up against a case where personal identity is at stake.
And then I knew of a much smaller case: the town of Chipoleti, a town 50km from where I was living, was assailed.  One character passed himself off as a doctor.  He treated the people and marketed tablets for Parkinson's disease as if they had aphrodisiac properties.  At the same time, on the outskirts of the town, a Catholic chapel had been discovered, but where priests never went.  So one day this character put on the priest's cassock and opened the chapel, and held mass and heard confession, and collected the church tithe.  And these people were convinced.  I thought, well, this individual must have something that convinces the people he's a priest.  And then I thought there was a story here, a story of identity.  Penúltimo nombre de guerra is a mixing of these three individuals, of these three stories.

Siempre la misma música [Always the Same Music] also seems to me a fine novel.  Its structure is almost as ingenious as that of Penúltimo nombre de guerra.  Does this also have references to real events?

Siempre la misma música emerged when I was a prisoner, and we political prisoners generally had little contact with common criminals – but there was some contact.  At that time it caught my attention that these individuals were living in a political situation that was completely foreign to them, first because the guerrilla had come to occupy the streets, and that had made their thieving more difficult, and then because the military dictatorship ended up running all the illegal trade there was.  What was happening in the country mattered not a bit to these individuals, but it had repercussions for their own dealings.  So it struck me that there was a point of view here to relate.  So I tell a story that is in short Greek: a father (a presumed father) and son, the mother in the middle.  The stage on which they move is very important, the military dictatorship and all that.  It's not strictly speaking a story of those on the margins, but of people living marginal lives in these particular circumstances, where they see themselves obliged to participate in high politics in order to surivive – because they have no interest in the political.

Patagonia Chu Chu is the most entertaining and humorous of your novels, and its delinquents don't seem to be truly bad.  You could read it as a comic western and a parody of Argentina.  What was your objective in this change of tone?

I'd begun to write Patagonia Chu Chu before I came to Spain, and it could have gone along two distinct roads, one very unpleasant and the other very appealing.  And when I was finishing Penúltimo nombre de guerra, I began to feel the need to write Patagonia Chu Chu, but on the likeable road, because I'd had enough of unpleasant characters.  I wanted a novel where all the characters were likeable, or could be liked, where I'd enjoy myself, and the reader as well.

ImageWith Retrato de familia con muerta [Family Portrait with Dead Woman], you leave the political past of Argentina as a theme, and investigate present-day Argentinian society.  It also has a complex structure, with several levels, scenes that seems theatrical...

Retrato de familia con muerta starts out from a real event.  This happened in 2002, and seemed to me horrifying (1).  They kill a woman, they put six bullet wounds in her and then they wash her, they put on her make up, they do a thousand things to make it seem like an accident in the bath.  Well with five bullet wounds in the head it's a mad thing to do.  The case is now in court, I don't believe it will ever be resolved.  Fiction offers the possibility to tell the story from another angle, and to imagine a little of what happened.And I also use frameworks that are, all in all, cinematographic.  There is no reason to assume that a novel must be linear.  In the cinema they can submit you to different shots, the past, flashbacks, and so on.  We're all used to this in the cinema, but when you read a novel you say, “Umm, look, how experimental”.  There's nothing experimental about it.  You know it was done so long ago it's old hat.  I think that changes in time allow elements to appear in the moment in which they ought to, and so are more potent.  If then you go back into the past to understand the story properly, to explain what underlies the character's actions in this moment, then this is the moment to do it.  There is no reason to tell a story of 300 pages and remember – when you're on page 280 – that a particular thing happened to a character on page 15.

How do you fit together the pieces of the plot?  Do you already know the chronology of the events you want to relate before you write the novel?

No, never.  I can't work like that.  What I do know is where I begin and where I'm going to finish.  And it's after this I search for the path.  And the shape it's going to have is dictated by the story.  I believe you have to listen to the story.  The story may require you to tell it with an enchanting, magical pace, with a slower pace, it will ask for peaceful scenes, scenes with a lot of action.  And then you come to see, when you finish, what story it is you've written.  For example, Siempre la misma música, in all honesty, was originally a short story of some thirty pages.  A tale centred on the character of el Negro, who is told to take a car on a journey through Patagonia, and all the rest was fragments of the past.  It was never published as a story because I always had the feeling that it was a novel.  When I set to work on the novel, I realised I had to do something strange, something unusual.  Because a first person narrative engages the reader deeply, but it's always as if you're looking through a peephole.  And in third person, it loses the power of the confession.  So I said, we going to do a chapter tied to the third person.  And then, while I was writing, I began to feel there was a story behind el Polaco which is the story he's going to tell el Negro: he's going to tell how his father arrived with a friend from Poland, and how he betrayed his adoptive uncle – the friend of his father – ending up with his wife; and he said to el Negro: “Don't you do this because you're going to screw yourself up like I screwed myself up”.
So the story took me to the Argentina of 1906, when they were building the underground railway in Buenos Aires.  If I'd made a plan before beginning, this story wouldn't have emerged.  I think that perhaps a story says to you: the reader needs to know what the childhood of this chap was like – I always have a reader very present in my mind, it's a dialogue.  Because if you don't know what he did in his childhood, you can't understand what is happening with this character in the present.
At the same time, this involves something very pleasing.  If you're not really sure where the story is going, it will take you longer to write, but it includes the advantage of discovery.  The characters tell you stories.  For example, let's suppose a central character has to go to buy cocaine from a dealer, and when he arrives there, it turns out the dealer is a very pleasant chap, or he's a likeable son of a bitch, and then you say, “this character needs more treatment”.  And then you fall into the story and you follow it to the end.  If you make a plan, these characters have to be left out.  It's more risky, but the experience is much richer.  Every time I discover a character, I begin to leap around and say, “How incredible, you saw this character as if he turned up in your life.”  I always write several novels at a time.  I get stuck on one because I have to solve something inside it, and I move onto another.  And then the problem resolves itself in the unconscious: this is the place where it goes, and where it goes on working.

There are scenes in your novels that are very harsh, for example, the killing of Tony Capriano Muller in El Gordo, el Francés y el Ratón Pérez, or the rape and subsequent murder of Gladdys in Los muertos siempre pierden los zapatos.  What effects are you seeking to produce with these scenes of extreme violence?  Are they a way of combating the violence in true life?

No, but in any case I want to show them, I think showing it is enough.  I don't think that messages serve much purpose.  A message requires there to be someone who is willing to hear.  If they don't listen, you become a preacher in a town square talking like an idiot to save your soul, and nothing more.  I think these scenes of violence, if they are excessive – take the case of American Psycho, for example – you get tired of them.  You put up a barrier between you and them, and that's that.  They don't bother you after that.  If they come mixed in with another type of rhythm, it's as if you were walking in the street and someone punches you, and you say, “What's going on?”  It's not the same as if you climb into a ring and they land 77,000 punches on you.  The setting is different.  So this type of violent scene shows, I think, the violence of which we are capable.  In reality this sort of thing happens every day, and cases that are even worse.  The question is how you use them.  I try to use them sparingly.

Without being morbid...

No.  That's a problem for the reader.  The reader can read with an attitude of morbidity or not, but this has something to do with what I was saying.  I think that literature serves as a personal laboratory that the reader constructs by means of the story that he's reading.  So then you get into a story, of a group of rapists, for example, and you're not going to rape anyone, but for a while you're in the mind of the rapist.  There's something of voyeurism in it.  It's a case of watching what you don't dare to do, but it's healthy to confront yourself with this.  Therefore scenes of violence have to be handled with a certain balance.  It's the same with sex scenes.  I include few sex scenes, of normal sex – not of rape: that's violence, and so a different thing – because you also get tired of sex.  So I find it more eloquent to hint at it.  Look at the Greek tragedies, the moment of the murder never appears in them.  I think the same thing happens with sex.  You can mention it, the reader conceives the rest.  You have to have confidence in the reader.  If he's a good reader, he's not a fool, and he can build things in his mind using his experience, and the thing is completed.

To what extent would you say that your novels are testimonies to what you've seen and what you've lived in Argentina?  And what importance has this for you?

Too many terrible things have happened in my country for one to sweep them under the carpet as if they didn't exist.  And being conscious of them means perhaps – only perhaps – that they don't happen again.  I think that when one writes, one always tries to rewrite history in the best possible way.  What went wrong, try to do in another way.  One becomes a kind of God in reverse, reconstructing the past in different way.  So that, yes, they have to do with Argentina, they have to do with my personal history, I can't write other than from where I am, no one can write from somewhere else.
I think that one of the most powerful things that literature offers is the possibility to admit to things – not because you read your story but because it reveals your point of view.  I look from here.  As a journalist, one always comes up against this problem.  There are people who talk about objectivity...  What objectivity?  What objectivity are we talking about?  The best thing that can happen is that you're sufficiently honest in your text that it's clear what your point of view is.  Then the reader says, “Ah, he looks at things from this perspective.  I'm in agreement, or I'm not in agreement.”
So this appears in my stories, of course.  When I was a youngster, there were various military coups, bombings, deaths, torturings.  I was brought up with this connection between force and politics.  Which, in short, made it absolutely logical that I would end up in the guerrilla, the armed struggle, and then in prison; I didn't end up dead by chance alone.
So, of course, I create stories in geographical regions that I know because I've lived there.  I lived in Patagonia for fifteen years.  I lived in Buenos Aires for one year, when I came out from prison, and I didn't feel good in Buenos Aires.  It was a state of permanent anxiety, a feeling that everything was breaking up very quickly.  To write a novel you have to have the feeling you're going to finish it at some point.  I didn't have that.  I went to visit some freinds in Patagonia, I asked for work on a newspaper, they gave me a really good job, and I stayed there fifteen years.  So I discovered there were as many thieves there as anywhere else, and as many corrupt politicians as anywhere else, and then that crime could become established in places that weren't hostess bars, bars where whores join the hostesses at night, but in sunny places in the middle of the countryside.  I was very drawn to this exhibition of darkness under the sun.  Well, and then I began to do work about this place.

You mention the guerrilla.  Tell me a little about how you became a member of the guerrilla.  I believe it was at a time when there were several coups d'état [1955, 1962, 1966, 1968].

What happened during those years in Argentina – for anyone who was my age – was a the demonstration of the total deficiency of any system that isn't at least moderately democratic.  It doesn't work.  There is on the one hand the example of the Cuban Revolution, which showed itself to be possible.  And so across Latin America the armed struggle began to appear as the single option for achieving a government that would have the means to be able to keep itself in power.  If you didn't maintain it with arms, you couldn't maintain it with anything because you were overthrown.  Violence was plumbed in from above and through all levels.  Therefore, armed organisations began to emerge in Argentina that followed to some degree the Cuban model, with additional influences – there were many – from the Jewish guerrilla in Palestine.
I'd begun in the Communist Party.  Then the Communist Party opted for the non-violent path.  But we were already tired of that, and 80% went over to the other path.  So it was the only available option for the whole of my generation.
At the same time, the case of Vietnam was very apparent to you in the nineteen-seventies.  How a country of people dressed in rags, and shoes with soles made from the rubber from lorries, was able to confront a country like the United States in a war of liberation.  And, well, I got involved first in an organisation that was very small, and then in the ERP [People's Revolutionary Army], then we went into the Ejército de Liberación 22 August [Liberation Army].

Specifically, what kind of actions were the guerrilla involved in?

I would say that in general, setting aside the political differences, what you were involved in with the guerrilla was armed propaganda.  The demonstration that it is possible to form an armed force – a force that has an answer to those above – as a path towards, at a certain moment, building a political front that allows you to take power.
So what one actually did included different things.  On the one hand there was what were called the supplies operations, which are generally the type of operation that allows you to obtain arms or money: bank robberies or whatever, kidnap with extortion or anything whatever related to money.  And on the other hand, the raising of political awareness and the armed struggle by publicity operations: from graffiti in the most unlikely places, to handouts.  The latter was a case of the seizing of a lorry carrying dairy products at five o'clock in the morning, and taking it to an impoverished town, a barrio of shacks, and giving out the milk so the people could drink it.  Let's say that this was the type of operation that was always being carried out.  There were attempts by certain people to establish a military leadership in the area of the Tucumán mountains.  These were resounding failures.  But their purpose was the need to draw together, and at a certain moment, bring into being a political party.  We almost all had some kind of non-armed political posture, depending on what the circumstances were.

How did the struggle continue when they took you prisoner?

I was captured in 1974, shortly before Perón – who was at that time in government – died.  Argentina suffered an atmosphere that was horrific, because a certain section of the Perón government had set up the Three As (Alianza Anticomunista Argentina [Argentina Anticommunist Alliance]), that was a fascist group, anticommunist, that went out to mobilise any delegate, a factory delegate, whoever there was, in sum.  The streets were filled with cars with sirens – because there were already civilians who used sirens – fights occurred on any street corner, and there were disappearances.  And the Three As group was very small.  But later it came to serve as a badge for the police of any faction, at any moment, to kidnap people and then place these people in prison without having to try them and without having to kill them there and then, and they'd sign themselves as the Three As.
We weren't carrying out armed actions because there was a democratic government.  You have to take advantage of moments of democracy and not screw them up.  So what we were engaged in more than anything were actions supporting mass meetings, in the shanty districts, the impoverished towns that we knew might be attacked by the right, and were attacked more than once.  So perhaps it was a case of protecting these people from attack, and so that they could organise.  But then when this government fell in 1976, in a coup d'état, things began to return to being a confrontational struggle.

You never wanted to be anything else, as a young man?  Did you never try to find a more peaceful life, a secure job?

When you grow up in that atmosphere, you stop seeing other options.  In the midst of this type of situation, goodwill takes you nowhere.  If goodwill isn't supported by something strong, they screw you, they trample you.
In 1983 democracy returns with the victory of President Alfonsín.  Those of us who'd been prisoners had many scores to settle.  All of us had been tortured in one way or another.  In many cases – but not mine, by good fortune – our mother, our father, our brother was 'disappeared'; some turned up dead, others didn't, some were never seen again.  There were very many of us who had unfinished business, but we were all political.  So you put aside the unfinished business.  There were no reprisals of any kind made against these people.  By contrast, what there was was strict support for all legal means to put them on trial, in order not to wreck a democratic period, that is much richer than any other.  It existed; it had to be looked after.  It's still there; it has to be looked after.  But not by allowing that, in the name of democracy, the past be wiped away and forgotten.  So, which was the path to take?  Go the long way round to put them on trial.  This process has continued.
These are some of the reasons why you get into this situation.  If you don't have any other option, you have to defend yourself.  If you do another, you follow it, because in truth the use of violence is never without its costs, it always claims something.

You were in prison for ten years.  It's a long time.  What was this period like for you?

I think that if you read the history books, the testimonies of the political prisoners throughout history, you're going to come across common features.  It's not the same as what happens in prison to the thieves.  Thieves in prison put up with it there because life is outside and – when they are released – they will be where they were before they went into prison.  The political prisoner knows why he's there, and uses every opportunity to continue his development.
So, if you had a comrade who was an anthropologist, for example, it was inevitable you'd grab him by the lapels, and perhaps for a month this bloke would hold meetings.  At some times you'd be able to hold them openly, and at others you'd have to disguise them around a table where chess was being played.  Two pretended to play and the rest pretended to watch so that this comrade could explain what an anthropologist was, his specialism in his field, what he'd done, and what he hadn't done.  And another was an economist and another had been the dean of a university and another had been the base leader at a cotton cooperative in the back of beyond, away in the Chaco, in the middle of the forest.  So you shared all of this, which allowed you to continue to grow, exhausted, obviously.  There is a part of yourself that you aren't able to develop.  But the other part, you grow.  So as an experience, it's amazing, because it's also hard, they were very hard times.  Inside there, you find out that human beings are capable of everything, of the most angelic of acts, and of the most dreadful.  Everything is in there.  It shows you you're capable of almost everything possible.  I think that if they tell you you're going to be in prison for ten years, you die.  What happens is that you also have a battleground, you try to prevent them crushing you.  What the military dictatorship tries to do more than anything, is to break you, break you inside with psychological pressure, with physical pressure, by means of isolating you from your family, by making you eat alone...  So your battleground is that of not allowing them to win.  You do what you can so they don't succeed, you continue in the struggle and you continue your education.

Were you informed about what was happening outside?

At one time, at the height of the dictatorship, we received no newspapers, but we kept ourselves up to date.  If a comrade had a brother or a sister who was interested in – let's say – the economy, he said to him: “Look, when you come to visit do me the favour of reading all the newspapers.  Make a review of what's happened in the economy this week”.  And another knew what had happened in international politics, and another in the trade union movement.  So that when they came to visit – I was the international page at one time – I met with all those who had information about the international scene, and they told me the news, and I memorised it, I made a synthesis of it, and then on another day we went into the courtyard where people were presumed to be playing chess or dominoes, and the international politics page arrived and he told you what was happening outside.  And then he went and the sports page came, and so on.  So, of course, our families were astonished at how we knew all that was happening in the world.  Well, that was how you knew.
But there are two sides to this: on the one hand you were doing something that was not allowed.  If they catch you, they're going to give you a hell of a beating and you're going to end up in the punishment cells; on the other hand, you're screwing them over, you're winning a small battle – and at the same time you're not alone.
All these kinds of mechanism exist in all prisons and among all political prisoners everywhere: the invention of morse systems for communicating through the wall by tapping, and so passing news through walls; attempting to smuggle in one way or another a pen with a very fine point so that – if you have a text – you can write it very small on cigarette paper, roll it up, wrap it in plastic and keep it in your nose, and if you go to another prison you take it with you.  You take a copy.  So that documents, papers, books circulate from prison to prison in your nose, stuck up your backside, put wherever, but they circulate.  In the sense of being life experience, it's very important.  Because you manage to prevent them isolating you, you stop them breaking you, and you find a space for yourself that isn't one given as common to everyone.
I remember very fondly that there were some meetings we held in a prison where there were very mixed groups, where you might have a subsistence farmer from the end of the world, a former university deacon, a physicist, and trade union leader or a factory representative.  Each one told his story from a position of absolute equality, something that doesn't happen, because this subsistence farmer has very few opportunities to sit down with a university dean and be heard on equal terms.  So in this sense it's an extremely rich experience.
You live the days one at a time.  You try not to think about when you're going to get out, because when the dictatorship began, we all had the impression that we were never going to be freed, that we were going to stay in there until the world ended, or else they'd kill us before then.  So each day was another day of life.  Today you're alive: good, let's get on with it.  As an experience it's amazing, very rich.  An experience it's better not to have...  [Laughs].

What is the situation in Argentina like today?  Are there still strong debates about the time of the dictatorship?

Yes, it's a past that's very close.  There has been a very clear desire in Argentina that there hasn't been in other countries, like Chile or Uruguay for example, where you could find yourself in a very similar situation.  There is a militant awareness around it all.  Groups like the 'Group of Children', which is a group of children of the disappeared, were appearing.  This group has not only continued to do everything possible to find out what happened to their parents – even when the laws of Due Obedience and Punto Final [putting the past behind us] were passed to prevent trials of the suspects – but they've begun to do what are called escraches – they're starting to be done now in Chile.  Escrache is a word in Buenos Aires slang that means to photograph.  Escrachar is to “take a photograph of yourself”, or “use yourself in evidence”.  Someone comes and tells you something about himself that you don't want to know about, and says to you: “you know now, you're part of it”.
So this group is very big, and at the same time receives the support in solidarity of organisations that are not made up of children of the disappeared.  Perhaps they hear that a torturer is living in a particular barrio, in a small town, and they go and check this with someone who was tortured and who knows his face.  Then they know that a man who was working in a concentration camp, or was a doctor there, is living in this house.  Then one day, three hundred men gather in the street and begin to ring the bell and put up posters and talk to and explain to every neighbour who it is who's living in this house, what he did and what he didn't do.  They stay there three days.  And they screw up your life because then the wife of this man goes to the bakery and says: “I'd like a kilo of bread.”  And they say to her: “There is no bread.”  “What do you mean, there's no bread?”  “There's no bread.”  A kind of justice begins to emerge by another means.  Okay, we can't take you to face justice, but people know who you are.  Now go and explain to your grandchildren and to your children who you are, what you did, okay, go and explain it.  It took a lot to do all this.

Is this always carried out in a peaceful way?

Yes, they make a noise in the street.  They aren't going to touch him.  No one is going to hit him.  What happens is you show them up.  You make it absolutely clear who they are, so that the neighbours know who they're living alongside and so they can do what they want with this knowledge, that they don't say hello to them anymore, I don't know, it's the neighbours' problem.  But if this gentleman takes his dog out for a walk, they know who he is.  The point isn't to lay a finger on him.

And how do they find these people?  Aren't they in hiding?

It took a lot to do because, from the arrival of democracy from 1983 to 1990, it was something people didn't want to have anything to do with, a subject they didn't want to talk about.  Those who spoke about it were those who were involved.  These people worked with the single-mindedness of a saint.  There is a grouping of ex-detainees and the disappeared who joined together, or rather, people who were disappeared and for one or another reason were then freed, or legitimized in a prison.  Each one of these people sat at home and began to write down the places where they'd been, the nicknames of the  torturers, the names of the prisoners they'd heard.  Each one wrote down his information.  It's a bastard of an exercise, think about it, it can be painful.  And after this they began to exchange all this information, and then it began to come out that such and such a nickname was of a corporal, of a sergeant, of a general or was of this one or the other.  And who these people in the concentration camps were began to emerge, and thanks to this you could put them on trial.  In an amazing determination during the Kircher government (the government prior to the present, that of Fernández) it was possible to repeal the laws that prevented you putting them on trial, so that all those who participated in torture can now be indicted.  And besides this, three centres of clandestine imprisonment and torture were converted into a memorial museum.  They are there, in photos, with the people who tortured them and all the comrades who disappeared and died there.  This is what happened, now see what you'll do with all this.
No, it wasn't all lost.  In the same way as all the ups and downs of the economy, the cyclic crises and everything else, there has been a kind of “cleansing of the memory”.

Why is it difficult to put them on trial even today?

They held the testimony hearings before I came here, but they weren't allowed to make a judgement about these characters, they couldn't condemn them.  But they discovered a trick: they summoned these torturers – a judge summoned them – in order to gather information about people who'd been through the places where they were.  And they couldn't refuse to attend.  If they didn't attend, they were collected by the police.  So these testimony hearings began to be held in various places all around Argentina, and it was horrific.  The man was sitting there and saying, “I don't remember, I don't remember anything”, and the witnesses came and went, the men, the women these bastards had tortured.  It was a very powerful public show.  It was a different form of justice, a form of parallel justice – that somehow took a different step forward when they repealed these laws, and now with the same testimonies these individuals can be put on trial.
So this process continues all the time in Argentina, because these individuals are still there.
But at the same time there are some things that are screwed up.  For example, they've now condemned Luciano Benjamín Menéndez [see blogspot de Argemí 25/07/2008 08  blogspot de Argemí 25/07/2008] who calls himself “el Chacal” [the Jackal], a general in Córdoba, and Antonio Bussi [blogspot 28/08/2008 blogspot 28/08/2008] who was the king of Tucumán province.  There was a concentration camp that was called “la escuelita” [the little school].  It's a school they'd captured, with a hundred teachers and children and they used it to torture people.  I knew people who'd had a blowtorch used on their bodies, there.  This individual stood in the elections, and he was elected to the government.  Now, who is going to put the people who voted for him on trial?  Because you voted for him and he was in power and he completed his term.  And after this he stood as a deputy, and he won.  It was only in the Chamber of Deputies that they decided not to admit him, but the people went out and voted for him.  So, the contradiction is hanging there all the time: sometimes you begin to like these bastards.

 Thank you very much.  We look forward to reading many more of your novels.


(1)    This relates to the murder of María Marta García Balsunce.


El Gordo, el Francés y el Ratón Pérez.  Buenos Aires: Catálogos, 1996.

Los Muertos siempre pierden los zapatos.  Sevilla: Algaida, 2002.
[XXI Felipe Trigo Prize for Novels]

Negra y criminal [a collaboration].  Granada: Zoela, 2003.

Penúltimo nombre de guerra.  Sevilla: Algaida, 2004.
[XIII Luis Berenguer International Prize for Novels/ Brigada 21 Prize 2005 for the best original novel in Castillian Spanish/ Novelpol Prize 2005/Hammett Prize 2005]

Patagonia Chu Chu.  Sevilla: Algaida, 2005.
[VII Francisco García Pavón Prize for Narrative]

Siempre la misma música.  Sevilla: Algaida, 2006.
[XXVIII Tigre Juan Prize]

Retrato de familia con muerta.  Barcelona: Roca, 2008.
[L'H Confidencial Prize 2008]

Doris Wieser  (Published in Espéculo, No. 41, March-June 2009) 


Last Updated ( Tuesday, 09 February 2010 )
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