Living Dead Man
- Operation Massacre by Rodolfo Walsh, translated by Daniella Gitlin
Old Street, 230 pp, £9.99, August 2013, ISBN 978 1 908699 51 0
‘From here it is possible to love Buenos Aires, if only for a moment.’ ‘Here’ is a tenth-floor apartment with a view to the river and the city in the evening. No people in sight, no politics, no struggles for power. What sort of city would you love only under these conditions, what sort of history would it need to have? Why would you think of loving it at all? As if anticipating these questions, the next sentence reads: ‘But we are not meeting because of any conceivable form of love.’
The speaker is the narrator of Rodolfo Walsh’s short story ‘That Woman’ (1963). He is a journalist interviewing the colonel who has moved the body of Eva Perón from one of its hiding places to another. Eva is not named but doesn’t need to be, and it is because of her that the notion of love is in the air. Neither the journalist nor the colonel has any love for her, and they don’t have any love for each other or the positions they represent. But then what are we to call their shared fascination with her corpse and its whereabouts? ‘If I could find that woman I wouldn’t feel alone any more,’ the narrator thinks. The story concludes with the colonel’s saying: ‘That woman is mine.’ Walsh intimates that we might call their different but interlocking feelings a kind of patriotism. ‘She was a goddess for them,’ the colonel says, referring to the working classes of Argentina. ‘They get all kinds of things into their heads, poor people.’ The journalist queries the last phrase, the colonel replies, ‘Yes, poor people.’ And adds: ‘I am Argentinian too.’ The narrator says: ‘So am I, colonel, so am I. We are all Argentinians.’
We can’t really unpick the delicate indirection of this exchange, but we can trace a piece of its hidden logic, especially if we connect it to the earlier remark about Buenos Aires. The city (like the country) can be loved as long as the light is fading and there aren’t any people in the view; Eva Perón’s afterlife is part of a complex national identity, however one may feel about her or anyone’s politics; the notion of ‘any conceivable form of love’ does not exclude inconceivable forms.
Operation Massacre, first published in 1957, with reprints in 1964 and 1969 (a movie was made from the book in 1972), is a classic of Latin American literature and not coincidentally the story of a failed love, a once conceivable love become inconceivable. Walsh wrote other works of investigative journalism – The Satanowsky Case (1958), Who Killed Rosendo? (1969) – and in a 1964 epilogue to Operation Massacre bundled them all bleakly together. ‘The outcome was the same: the dead still dead; the murderers, proven guilty, but set free.’
You can understand how I may have lost some faith – faith in justice, in compensation, in democracy, in all those words, and finally, in what was once, but is no longer, my trade.
I am rereading the story you all have read … I get annoyed thinking about how much better it would be if I wrote it now.
Would I write it now?
In 1977 Walsh published an open letter to the military junta in power, accusing its members of arriving ‘at a form of absolute, metaphysical torture that is unbounded by time’, and ending, after detailed indictments under many headings, with the words: ‘These are the thoughts I wanted to pass on to the members of this Junta on the first anniversary of your ill-fated government, with no hope of being heard, with the certainty of being persecuted, but faithful to the commitment I made a long time ago to bear witness during difficult times.’ He was not wrong, either about the persecution or his fidelity. The next day he was shot on the street and carried away. His body has never been found.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.