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.

The first objection is moral. It can be argued that to describe torture is to participate in it: to watch others suffer pain without suffering oneself is the dubious prerogative of the torturer. Rivabella deals with this by making the victim narrate her own experiences, and by stressing the fact that part of her torture is being forced to watch the torture of other prisoners, just as they are forced to watch hers and that of their friends, lovers and children. Simply reading this almost unbearably distressing book is therefore to participate in the torture as a victim. The second objection is apparently aesthetic: descriptions of torture don’t work, because the law of diminishing returns ensures that the reader’s sensibilities soon become dulled. But this, too, is ultimately a moral objection, for it amounts to saying that such descriptions trivialise their subject.

Rivabella’s handling of this problem is masterly. Susana’s diary is interspersed with a commentary by the priest who is painstakingly compiling it, and his reflections, as the contents of the diary push him inexorably towards a mental breakdown, keep the shock of Susana’s revelations fresh by continually contrasting the hell she describes with the normality whose social and political constitution has nevertheless made her fate possible. The form of the book mirrors the pattern of life in the detention centres: long sessions of torture separated by periods of isolation when the personality gradually disintegrates, torn between the memory of past horrors and the dread of those to come. Rivabella’s book faces the truth glossed over by some recent ‘heroic’ accounts of similar atrocities, though this means taking the last shred of dignity from the victims. Orwell may have got some of the details wrong (real torturers, it seems, apply rats not to the face, focus of personality and intellect, but to the anus), but his conclusions in 1984 were accurate. Torture is only incidentally used to obtain information: its real aim is the physical and psychological annihilation of the individual. And it works.

Both these books were written in Spanish, but in neither case is there any sense of reading a translation. The same cannot be said of Words in Commotion. Tommaso Landolfi is renowned for his linguistic bravura – Calvino notes in his introduction that he ‘could do whatever he wanted with the pen’ – and Englishing his stories is as much of a challenge as making an Italian of Flann O’Brien. In such a case, half a translation is no better than none at all: Calvino points out that Landolfi’s ‘individual and unpredictable work is only possible because he has at his disposal a language which has rules with established uses, a language which functions independently of him.’ But in Katherine Jason’s version this is precisely what he doesn’t have. In ‘The Eternal Province’, a woman upbraids her lover: ‘We women, good sir, see everything. And then again, not even a guy like you can ... foresee every single eventuality.’ The contrast in register is there in the original (signor mio ... un tipo come te), but while that deflating swoop from ironic reverence to crushing familiarity is easy and natural, the English sounds closer to Beerbohm’s Abimelech V. Oover (‘We rightly venerate you as our boss’) than the speech patterns of any creature of flesh and blood. Similarly, Jason’s inability to render Landolfi’s stylistic parodies (‘Oh, wretched me, what a terrible mess I’m in, snared’ hardly attempts the bombastic elegance of Ah sciagurata, in quale terribile avventura mi trovo coinvolta, irretita, quite apart from rupturing the syntax) makes one suspicious of those passages which appear at first sight to be most brilliantly successful. In ‘Gogol’s Wife’, we learn that Nikolai Vasilyevich used to anoint his ‘wife’ (a rubber doll) with oil and ‘touch her up in various ways’: this would be breathtaking if the implied innuendo were present in the original, but alas, Gogol’s touching-up is as purely cosmetic as the damage done by this sort of waywardness is mortal. The outlandish vicissitudes of Landolfi’s characters are fatally compromised by their taking place in a zone which, linguistically, is already no man’s land. The result is that Landolfi’s flaky humour is reduced to mere facetiousness, his parody to imitation, and his complex sadomasochistic role-play to a gratuitous sexist nastiness. The earlier stories, which have more substance, fare somewhat better than the later ones, but by and large the work on offer here is not such as to justify the comparisons with Borges or Calvino, never mind Gogol or Kafka.

Calvino’s sponsorship of Landolfi is typical of the way he used his prestige to promote lesser-known writers, but he was equally concerned to rescue classics from the burden of their fame. His essays and reviews invite the reader to rethink texts and themes with a disarming modesty and infectious enthusiasm. Calvino’s associations are often disconcerting – Ovid and Robbe-Grillet, Voltaire and slapstick comedy, Guido Cavalcanti and Saul Steinberg, Pliny and the Guinness Book of Records, a version of Manzoni’s The Betrothed by de Sade – and the itinerary is eclectic: Ariosto, Marianne Moore, Fourier, Northrop Frye, Stendahl and Cyrano de Bergerac (the author, not the play). But despite the occasional nature of the items the only one that disappoints is an autobiographical fragment. Calvino stutters when asked to talk about himself, and his way of doing this is to talk about others. In Invisible Cities the Khan remarks that Marco Polo has described every city except his own, Venice, to which Marco replies: ‘What else do you think I’ve been talking about all this time?’

Jack Pulaski’s stories are set in the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn in the Fifties. ‘It is a catastrophe that comes from living in a fucking cosmopolitan place,’ one character remarks, and much the same could be said of almost everything that happens in the St Veronica Gig Stories. The general mood is upbeat: ‘The sweat shops are going fine, there’s plenty work – no one has to go hungry. These are good times.’ But the irony latent in ‘sweat shops’ soon spreads, and by the end of ‘Minnie the Moocher’s Hair’ the speaker is as mad as the woman she was attempting to console, the battered wife of an alcoholic Polish janitor whose face was ‘clenched around a scream only she could hear’. This silent scream finally finds voice through another person, the narrator’s mother, whose sexual phobias are brought to the surface by the discovery that the woman she has been sheltering ‘tried to make ends meet with the only end she had’. As the scream devours her, her husband, formerly characterised as a pillar of strength, is revealed as a mere bulvon whose insensitivity makes his son consider running away to sea, ‘like in the movies’. The prose is dense and rich, admirably conveying the perceptions of a boy of 11 who amid all the violence and suffering is above all amazed by the fact that the world exists.

Pulaski makes the reader share this wonder, working the language energetically to make us see and hear and feel. He can also create vivid characters in a few lines, such as Carlo, the ultimate macho father, who when asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage replies: ‘I may marry her myself boy ... what you think of that?’ Or Dr Schacter, who zips into and out of the story like Groucho Marx, leaving words of wisdom floating in the air: ‘Yah, von must keep assets liquid, suitcases packed, lif close to the border, yah.’ Given these considerable talents, it is perhaps understandable that Jack Pulaski does not always bother to stretch himself. Some of the stories amount to little more than genre pieces built about a single incident or character. Thus in ‘Religious Instruction’ we are introduced to Mrs Kvass, a widow ‘half a century ripe’, and her unorthodox versions of Old Testament stories. ‘When Delilah asked if she were the most beautiful woman he had ever known, Samson admitted she was, and to insure that that would always be true Delilah had his eyes put out.’ Mrs Kvass is careful to point the moral of this tale: ‘You see what happens if you become involved with gentile girls.’ It is a measure of what Pulaski is capable of at his best that this one-dimensional humour leaves one feeling that an opportunity has been missed. There are moments when the wortbetrunkener manner threatens to get out of hand, but he is also capable of remarkable restraint: ‘Mother said, “You know? – your father was an only child.” The insight was not so much given as discarded.’ Two of the best stories are ‘Alone or With Others’ and ‘Don Juan, the Senior Citizen’. The first, describing the pleasures and terrors of an 11-year-old Hispanic girl left alone one afternoon in her family’s apartment, takes masturbation, urination and child-molesting in its stride, while the second shows that Pulaski is as much at home in the world of the very old. A ‘Senior Citizen’ is the last thing that Don Juan will ever be. As the story begins, this scurrilous patriarch is celebrating his birthday (his 79th or 81st – no one is sure) surrounded by hordes of descendants, many of whom he no longer recognises, partly because he is spending much of his time thinking about Generosa, his ‘Cuban lady’. Gradually the delicate balance between reality, memory and dream shifts in favour of the latter pair, and by the final pages the fusion is complete: the old man cuts loose and drifts off into a reality that no one would dare call confused or illusory.

Kate Vaiden is just as firmly rooted in local reality – in this case, the North Carolina about which Reynolds Price has been writing for more than twenty years now. The name, at once plain and elusive, might have appealed to Henry James. The echoes of ‘maiden’ and ‘evading’ are particularly apposite, for despite starting her sexual life at the age of 13, Kate remains virginal in a more important sense, never fully giving herself to anyone, always holding back from any commitment, and steadfastly evading everyone who seems to offer anything more solid. ‘Leave people before they can plan to leave you’ is her motto – she herself having been left by her parents at the age of 11, when her father shot his wife and then himself. Nor are these the last violent deaths in her life, but any summary of the plot would do the book an injustice by making it sound melodramatic. ‘The best thing about my life up to here is, nobody believes it,’ Kate tells us. But we do believe it, because we believe her: Reynolds Price has created a narrator whose speaking voice, like her life, is both extraordinary and completely credible.

Kate’s style is rich in similes and maxims, but there is no sense of strain or manipulation. Her similes have the unself-conscious quality of folk-sayings, fragments of a forgotten oral tradition, while her apophthegms sound self-evident, statements of moral fact. Within this robust structure the most delicate shades of subjectivity find shelter and flourish. Kate’s perception of other people’s motives and feelings is unfailingly scrupulous and acute, while the dialogue is charged with a lively sense of risk, of messages that go astray or are misunderstood. But for all this, Kate never ceases to be a 57-year-old white North Carolina woman, with all her limitations and prejudices, her nostalgia for a pre-consumerist America and her well-meaning but patronising attitude to blacks.

In the last fifty pages, which briefly recount Kate’s adult life, the language turns blowsy and the folksy wisdom begins to grate. But just when it seems that the book is about to fizzle out Reynolds Price delivers the decisive ending for which he has set us up, revealing both the secret reason for the tragedy that shattered Kate’s life and the answer to the unspoken question of why she is recounting it.