How to vanish

Michael Dibdin

‘To vanish from sight; be traceable no farther; cease to be present; be lost, especially without explanation.’ The verb in question normally behaves intransitively, but in Argentina after 1976 it learned to take a direct object as the military regime disappeared between nine and twenty thousand people. Humberto Costantini and Omar Rivabella both write about this, but their approach is so different that their books in fact complement each other.

The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis describes a moral dilemma. Francisco Sanctis, an office worker, is telephoned by a woman he knew years before, when they were both at university. He is mildly intrigued at her interest, mildly irritated by the persistence with which she gets him to agree to a meeting that very evening – Francisco had been looking forward to listening to his new record of Corelli concerti grossi. The result is very different from anything he had imagined, for the woman gives him the names and addresses of two men who are to be abducted by Air Force Intelligence that very night. She advises Francisco not to act himself, but to pass the information on to some organisation unconnected with either of them: the leak may be a trap set for her husband, an Air Force officer. Ironically, it is the very fact that he is completely innocent of any connections with such organisations, that his only friends turn out to sympathise with the regime, which places Francisco in his terrible dilemma.

Costantini’s stylistic strategy in this book is similar to Nabokov’s in the work of the Berlin period: the brutal and tawdry ambience is played off against a manner of high-profile artifice, featuring elaborate chapter-headings and an insistently chatty authorial persona. Only in the final pages, where the Christian analogy is insisted on rather too stridently, does this tone falter. ‘To keep the reader from raising his hopes too high with regard to the entertainment value of this little book,’ comments the heading to the first chapter, ‘it is here stated without further ado that ... the prospect ahead is fairly humdrum.’ Nothing could be further from the truth: although the outcome is no more in doubt than that of a Classical tragedy – the final chapter is written not by Costantini but by Amnesty International – the skill and compassion with which Francisco Sanctis’s lonely battle with himself is described, and the evocation of the late-night streets and bars of Buenos Aires, make this book as absorbing as any thriller.

Where Costantini stops short at the black hole into which the desaparecidos vanished, Omar Rivabella takes us inside, and incidentally reminds us that the moral choice which Francisco Sanctis enjoyed was something of a luxury. The reader of Requiem for a Woman’s Soul has to piece together the events preceding the ‘disappearance’ of Susana, in a process which mimics that by which a country priest pieces together her diary from scraps of paper smelling of urine and excrement which have been handed over to him without explanation. Gradually we discover that Susana agreed to hide some love-letters for her friend Silvia, whose affair with a soldier was disapproved of by her mother; that one day she returned home to find her flat smashed up and the letters missing; that Silvia’s boyfriend has presumably fallen under suspicion of involvement in an attempted coup; that Susana and her fiancé are also under suspicion because of their medical work among the poor. This doubtful and fragmentary information emerges in the interstices of the book’s main subject, which is the fate of Susana and of the other people, especially women, who fall victim to the regime. This means torture, and torture spelt out in minute and accurate detail, and this in turn raises two objections to the fictional treatment of such material. The way in which Omar Rivabella meets these objections throws much light on his stylistic strategy, which is no less carefully planned and executed than Costantini’s, although quite different.

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