Living Dead Man

Michael Wood

‘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.

This translation is, surprisingly, the first English version of Operation Massacre. It’s worth the wait: accurate, patient, idiomatic, attentive to all kinds of nuance that are hard to catch, particularly when Walsh shifts his mode from stark narrative to complex forensic argument. The story of failed love is not a failed story, far from it, but time and violence have given it a tone it couldn’t have to start with, a melancholy inseparable from Walsh’s late sense of how far he had come from his old self as a writer. Reading his 1964 remarks or his 1977 letter, it’s hard to hang on to the thought that this was once an unpolitical man, who could write of his feelings in June 1956, after Perón had been ousted and gone into exile, that he was not interested in the quickly suppressed revolt against the Liberating Revolution (the watchword of the new government), ‘not interested in Perón … not interested in revolution’. All he had was a horror of what appeared to be random violence witnessed at firsthand. ‘Can I go back to playing chess?’

He could and did. ‘Back to chess and the fantasy literature I read, back to the detective stories I write, back to the “serious” novel I plan to draft in the next few years, back to the other things that I do to earn a living and that I call journalism, even though that’s not what it is.’ But then six months after the revolt, Walsh tells us, he heard a strange rumour. There had been executions reported in June, of insurgent generals and others. Walsh now learns of another set of executions occurring at the same time and still unacknowledged by any official agency. Stranger still: the executions were incomplete, operation massacre was less than half a massacre. The phrasing of the news as Walsh hears it could hardly be more dramatic: ‘Hay un fusilado que vive,’ ‘One of the executed men is alive.’ That is, as we learn from the unfolding story, a man who was wrongfully arrested in June 1956, and then wrongfully lined up and shot, is wrongly supposed to be dead. The contradictions alone are almost more than we can take – and we haven’t even got to the injury and distress.

Walsh interviews the man and his book starts here – that is, both has its origin and begins its narrative. He soon discovers that there is not one executed man who is still alive but two. No, three. At one point it seems there are as many as seven. But out of how many? Estimates and memories differ. Some witnesses say 14 people were arrested and taken out to be shot. No count shows fewer than 12. After many conversations and much cross-checking Walsh concludes ‘Without a doubt, the massacre left five dead, one critically wounded and six survivors.’

It all began with a raid on a house in Florida, a Buenos Aires neighbourhood, where a group of men had gathered to play cards and listen to a boxing match on the radio, the Argentinian Lanusse versus the Chilean Loayza. Two of the guests were avowed Perónists, and one of them may have known something about the attempted coup taking place in other parts of town. The others, whatever their political sympathies if they had any, knew nothing. The police, no doubt following up a bad tip-off, thought General Raúl Tanco, one of the leaders of the revolt, was in the house, and although he clearly wasn’t, they arrested everyone. After hours of waiting first in one police station then in another, the prisoners were taken out to some waste land to be shot. They were made to line up in the police trucks’ headlights. Some dived into the darkness, others were shot and left for dead, others simply, horribly died. Three of the survivors, after long nocturnal wanderings, took refuge in the Bolivian Embassy. The others went from police station to hospital to police station – not all police officers were aware of the orders given in another part of town – and finally made it into hiding. The bulk of Walsh’s book consists of his putting together the biographies of these men and their families and the intricate sequence of the events of the night. The remainder is a detailed discussion of the cover-up, the semi-investigation the authorities conducted and the handing over of the case to a military court, which promptly buried it. Here is Walsh’s comment on part of the suppressed investigation he managed to unearth, ‘the document that the Liberating Revolution needs to answer to, and never will’:

It proves everything that I claim in my articles … and in the first edition of this book: that a group of men were arrested before martial law was instated; that they were not given due process; that their identities were not verified; that they were not told what their crime was; and that they were massacred in an open field.

Although Walsh’s book has often been celebrated as an instance of the non-fiction novel, a remote forerunner of In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song, there is very little of the novel about it. There are moments of sympathetic, understandably lurid imagining: for one of the survivors ‘time has turned into the mere progression of pain’; in the morning after the massacre ‘the blood in the stagnant water seemed to transform it into an unbelievable river floating with strands of brain matter.’ But such moments are few, and the dominant mode is a close attention to the smooth lies of the authorities and the jagged tales of the living dead. In an essay reprinted as an afterword to this volume, the Argentinian novelist Ricardo Piglia offers an interesting take on Walsh’s straightforward style: ‘Clarity is a virtue, but not because things need to be simplified in order for people to understand – that’s just the rhetoric of journalism. The virtue lies in confronting a deliberate darkness.’ The darkness, that is, of the language of authorities who control all the lighting.

We are right to be suspicious of supposedly unpolitical persons – they almost always have a sheaf of laissez-faire politics up their sleeve – and Walsh became radically, severely political soon after writing this book, joining a militant opposition group called the Montoneros. But his initial indifference to Argentinian politics underwrites a stylistic virtue. He retains, as even the bleak late sentences I have already quoted show, a sort of shock at behaviour it has become easy to take for granted, to be horrified by only as a sort of moral display put on for ourselves. Of course dictators don’t respect the rule of law; neither do democracies when it doesn’t suit them. Of course there is torture everywhere. We can hang on to our opposition to these practices but hardly to our old surprise. This is what Walsh manages to do, in the midst of his dawning despair, and it is interesting to note that he uses the old-fashioned Spanish term for ‘rule of law’, imperio del derecho, literally the ‘empire of right’. Walsh calls it ‘that fleeting slogan from ’55’. The relevant current phrase is estado de derecho, ‘state of right’, calqued on the French état de droit, itself derived from the German Rechtsstaat, and of course this tangle of terms, especially the pseudo-equivalences of rule and state, law and right, will let all kinds of cat out of the bag if we are not careful.

There is a strong movement in the United Nations and elsewhere to settle these meanings in a positive light – as if we all knew what the phrase meant, and could only be in favour of it. This is a bit of a struggle because the rule of law/state of right means among other things:

That no one is above the law.

That the state in which the rule of law obtains is a state where legality is a dominant concept, or the dominant concept.

That politicians and others have decided to play by the book in a place where the usual practice is to ignore the book.

That the state is just playing by the book, practising an empty legalism.

That a free-market economy is in place and needs to be defended by the law and from the law.

That the law is something other and better than a set of laws, that a spirit of justice informs behaviour, and that the law might sometimes serve itself and society best by not being interpreted too literally.

The beauty of Walsh’s use of the old ‘fleeting slogan’ is the combination of belief and disbelief in what it may mean, and in many ways this combination governs the whole book. Of course it’s just a slogan, and especially in Latin America, where the conquistadors, for example, legalised their invasion by reading out their new rights to the natives in a language they could not understand. No matter. They had heard the phrases, and were now subjects of the Spanish king and beneficiaries of his capacious protection. They were also, if they now rebelled, traitors rather than enemy combatants. We can think of hundreds of legalisms of this kind, if not of this degree of elegance, in cultures all across the world. And yet. We don’t expect, or we used not to expect, these bland misuses of the law to cover, for example, the rounding up and execution of innocent people; the denial that such an event ever occurred; the immunity and continuing worldly success of all the malefactors, or at least of the well-placed ones – the less well-placed were sacrificed. These are the grounds of Walsh’s shock, the threat to his inconceivable continuing love for his country, and his book helps us to share these feelings, to remember that we also believe in, or wish for, the rule of law in at least one of its senses: a vestigial practical justice, a respect for the lives and rights of others, that ought to make certain deeds unthinkable and unperformable, whatever the technical legal conditions of the moment. In 1964 Walsh wrote: ‘I wanted one of the multiple governments of this country to acknowledge that … those men were killed for no good reason, out of stupidity and blindness. I know it doesn’t matter to the dead. But there was a question of decency.’

Walsh, like many other writers, likes to evoke the Nazis when he gets indignant, as if this comparison could always clinch a case. But this is a false move, and leads us away from the specific, pointed subject of his book: the bland, thoughtless, botched execution of the innocent. The blandness and the botching are important, local. They don’t diminish the horror or the cruelty, and Walsh performs the roll call of the dead and their bereft families with impressive dignity. ‘The massacre left 16 children without fathers.’ But Walsh chooses to end his text on an irony rather than an accusation. Some months after the executions one of the survivors is awarded a certificate of good conduct by the police. He hasn’t done anything, least of all let himself get arrested and shot.

Walsh says the case he recounts is ‘the clearest, not the most barbaric’ instance of the working of a system. Including its malfunctions, we might add. The blandness and the botching remind us how easy it is, at certain times and in certain places, to kill and get killed, and how large a part luck plays in these situations, deciding both whether you are caught up in the story and whether you escape it. As the paradox of the living dead man suggests, the absurdity of the situation Walsh reports is an aspect of its continuing immediacy. There is a pathos in a half-failed massacre that could not attach to the efficiently completed job, even if more people die in the second. This seems unreasonable, of course, but absurdity has its reasons, and its pain and its wisdom. A failed massacre memorialises not only the arbitrariness of tyrannical power but also the borderline between my life and your death, or vice versa. It informs us, in case we need to be informed, that even oppressive violence can make fine distinctions. Fine, but not intentional; random, terminal.