Tag Archives: Argentina

Rafael Courtoisie, Caras extrañas


This novel could be understood as a manifest against politically-motivated violence, of the type perpetrated in the context of military coups and dictatorships in South America, although it could apply to similar situations in any other part of the world.

The story opens with a guerilla group taking control of an industrial suburb near the fictitious capital city of Montenegro (a barely disguised Montevideo). The country where the event occurs is not named but can easily be understood to be Uruguay. A number of events follow, shoot outs between the authorities and the subversives, but we also find out about the lives of a number of people who may or may not be affected by the events. Those who are arrested or killed by the authorities often had nothing to do with the coup. Both sides rely on disinformation to maintain the upper hand. Many violent acts are perpetrated by both sides.

En 1969 la subversión copó por unas pocas horas la ciudad de Salvo, próxima a la capital del país, Montenegro.

Este hecho, al parecer de carácter menos que extraordinario, es, sin embargo, fundamental, pues está en el origen de una serie infinita de consecuencias, algunas banales, pero otras que afectan a la esencia.

The book continues with an exploration of the chain of events resulting from the takeover of the city of Salvo by the subversives.

Chapter  XVII is quite a striking departure from the story that was previously told, in its reliance on an elaborate metaphor. There the author starts by comparing the government to a clown, who becomes a sad clown because of his incapacity to stop the rebellion. He also compares the rebels to cockroaches who make fun of the clown and are too swift to be caught or neutralized with insecticides. Therefore there is a stalemate. The form in which this short two-page chapter is written is very similar to the form used for most poems written in prose in Poesía y caracol.

Most of the book is narrated by a third-person narrator, not quite omniscient as there does not seem to be complete awareness of the intentions of the characters or the consequences of their actions. He is more like a distant observer who only gets a fragmented view of events. There is a transition in Chapter XXVI to a first-person narrator who was ten years old in 1969. He comments that growing up with terror, repression and mortal fear does have consequences.

Most characters seem somewhat disembodied. We see them take action and interact with others, but we are told very little about who they are, how they feel, what they intend to do. This results in the story being told in a very detached way… almost as if someone was trying to understand the situation while attempting to remain emotionally detached from it.

The story is told in a very fragmented way and, because of this, seems to have little “density”. Montoya Juàrez describes the form as similar to video clips.

This creates a very different effect from stories about South American military dictatorships written in the testimonio genre. “Testimonio” in Spanish can be translated as “testimonial narrative” (see Beverley) and are often written in the first person, offering an eyewitness account of a situation or series of event. Therefore, they reflect the immediacy of lived experience and the intimacy of personal involvement in the events.  One book of this genre that made a very strong impression on me is Strejilevich’s Una sola muerte numerosa, a testimonial narrative of horrendous experiences at the end of the military authorities in the 70s dictatorship in Argentina. This particular book relies both on the author’s experience as well as interviews with others. At the time, I read this I was also drawn to read Nunca màs, a report on the atrocities of those years. Little did I know that Uruguay also went through similar events. I had at least one friend whose family emigrated from Uruguay in those years, but somehow I never asked why. There is certainly much more to find out about it than I have so far.

As important as eyewitness accounts may be, as well as investigations, historical research, and official reports, works of fiction also provide an important means to make sense of reality, of exploring different faces of it. With Caras extrañas, what we see at work are the powerful tools of irony and black humor (as says Montoya Juàrez) to shed light on the absurdities of the situation and the incomprehensible drive of some human beings to inflict so much pain and suffering on others.

Here is a sample:

Click to access primeras-paginas-caras-extranas.pdf


Courtoisie, Rafael. Caras extrañas. Lengua de trapo, 2001.

Strejilevich, Nora. Una sola muerte numerosa. Alción Editora, Cordóba, Argentina, 2006.

Beverley, John. Testimonio: On The Politics of Truth. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN: 2004.

Montoya Juárez, Jesús. “Miradas audiovisuales en la narrativa uruguaya de los 90: Rafael Courtoisie”, Estudios Románicos, Volumne 16-17, 2007-2008, pp. 737-745. (http://digitum.um.es/xmlui/handle/10201/9947)


Sara Cohen, La oportunidad


Sara Cohen is an Argentinian poet who has translated Gaston Miron to Spanish. She participated in the Festival international de poésie de Trois-Rivières last October. I bought this small book of poetry in part because I was attracted to its very simple white cover.

The book contains three parts: 1. Un pintor llamado Felix Nussbaum, 2. Diálogos de amor, and 3. Ligeras incomodidades, secretas imposibilidades.

The first part has poems that reflect on the nature of Jewish identity, not surprising given the poet’s last name. What is unusual to me is that whereas we often hear of South America as a favourite landing place of Nazis going into hiding after WWII, Argentina is reported to have the largest Jewish community in South America, with waves of immigration related to the Spanish Inquisition, pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe around 1860, and Nazism in the 20th century. If we assume the poems to be autobiographical, the author mentions that her mother arrived in America in 1943.

el momento justo del partir
posibilitó años después
en otro continente
el encuentro
de mis padres
y mi nacimiento.

The poems of the second part describe the distance that separate two lovers and express the feelings of longing.

Nos habíamos despedido
en el aeropuerto
hacía casi veinte horas
y une vez en mi ciudad
busqué sus palabras escritas
que como brazos
podían sosterneme.

And later,

En esa intermitencia
entre aparición
y desaparición
se ancla el deseo


el diálogo es un rumor
nacido de esa fragilidad

The third part talks about origins, relationships with parents, love, loneliness, privacy… A lovely collection.


Adolfo Bioy Casares, La invención de Morel


The title does not require translation as it is pretty much the same in French or English. This very small novel, or rather novella, does get called a “novela” in Spanish, which is the common term for a novel. In fact, I do not remember from my studies in Spanish literature a term that would distinguish a short novel from a full-length novel. In any case, this book is short: 91 pages in the Penguin edition.

I wanted to read this book for several reasons. One is that I had never read anything by this author but had seen his name in connection with José Luis Borges countless times. Another is that I have this continuing fascination with Argentinean fiction.

So, La invención de Morel… Quite a fascinating little book. It took me the longest time to get into it, and even about 20 pages from the end, I was telling my husband that I just didn’t get this book. It was confusing, I did not like or feel that I could relate to the narrator, and I kept wondering if my Spanish was just not good enough to read this book. I had just gotten through the 740-pages of the latest Ildefonso Falcones without much doubt about my ability to read big Spanish books and I was going to be stumped by this little thing?

Well, there is a twist to this book, it has a bit of a fantastic side and plays on the narrator’s confusion with respect to the situation he finds himself in. He is confined to a deserted island, but does run into some intruders. He has a difficult relationship to these intruders and keeps wondering about the meaning of what he sees and hears… until he finds out what is behind the presence of these intruders and his experience of their presence… which I will not reveal in this post, as this is a the heart of The Invention of Morel, in fact, Morel’s very invention.

Throughout the book, the narrator writes a journal that chronicles his experiences on the island. When he figures out what is Morel’s invention and how it works, he starts reinterpreting his experiences.  This completely parallels my experience as a reader. As I started getting a sense of what the invention was, I started reinterpreting the novel myself, in a attempt to make sense of everything from the beginning, and of course to make sense of my awful discomfort with the book itself. At one point, I just had to laught out loud. Now, I think that I will need to read this book again, to fully appreciate the genius of it construction.

José Luis Borges says in his foreword: (freely translated by yours truly) “I have discussed the details of the plot with the author, I have reread it; I do not think it is imprecise nor a hyperbole to call it perfect.” I returned to this sentence time and time again as I read the book. I was looking for reassurance that it was really worth reading… At the same time, I was wondering if Borges was really out of his mind, or just trying to help out a friend. This prologue is copyrighted 1989 which is much, much later than the original publication date of 1940. I did a quick search on the Internet and it did not reveal anything useful on the origin of the foreword.

In the end, I think that this book would be entirely worth reading and rereading… I would love to hear about what others thought of it.



Bioy Casares, Adolfo. La invención de Morel. Penguin Books, New York, NY, 1996 [1940].

Ernesto Sabato, El túnel


This book has been sitting in my bookshelf for at least 7-8 years. I have no idea why I have not read it until now, but the impetus came from the fact that the Libreria de las Americas’ book club is discussing it on April 30. I hope I have the time (i.e. will be in town and not in a meeting with Australian colleagues) to actually attend this meeting and get a chance to discuss this fascinating book. It would also be great to have time to reread and pay more attention to form, use of language,… and to look up the Spanish words I didn’t know.

Juan Pablo Castel is a lonely Buenos Aires painter who has trouble entering into meaningful relationships with others, especially women. During an exhibition, he sees a woman looking at one of his paintings with attention and leaps to the conclusion that she must somehow understand him better than anyone else in the world. He therefore starts to stalk her until he successfully makes contact and learns enough about her to know where to reach her.

They start a relationship that becomes more and more intimate although the level of information exchanged remains extremely minimal. Of course, all of this is strictly from the point of view of the main character as the story is told in the first person, and it seems quite obvious to this reader that the narrator (described as “deranged” by The Guardian article referenced below) has a peculiar perception of reality.

This book digs very deeply into the psychology of obsession. Castel sees María, the object of his affection as a pure, good person, despite her statement that she is bound to hurt him some day. We later find out that she is married, has taken her cousin as her lover, and that her elderly blind husband seems to condone the situation. Castel perceived María’s adultery as treason both against her husband and himself and stabs her to death in her bed at the family country estate near Mar del Plata, where she had joined her lover.

In a crazed state of mind, Castel returns to Buenos Aires to confess to the husband that he has murdered his wife and to reveal to the poor man the extent of his wife’s treachery. He then finds out that the husband knew everything… The husband eventually commits suicide and months later, in jail, Castel is left to ponder why he did it.

In the end, he seems to realize, if I understand the final paragraph well, that he himself is the only person who can understand his painting and that this essential loneliness is a hermetically-closed hell that he will never escape.


Sabato, Ernesto. El túnel. Seix Barral, 2003 [1948].






Lost in a Map: Purgatorio, from Tomás Eloy Martinez


I absolutely loved this new book by Tomás Eloy Martinez. I had previously read El vuelo de la reina, so when I got the chance to download this one, I jumped on it. It has everything I usually like in South American literature: a political theme, some whimsy, changing perspectives on reality, some magic (or is it madness?). While the story is extremely sad, it also demonstrate how extremely resilient human beings can be.

This novel tells the story of an Argentinian cartographer, whose father is very close to the Argentinian dictatorship, but whose cartographer husband nevertheless disappears during one of the working trips to map a little traveled road in the country side. She spends most of her life searching for him, despite evidence that he had been shot shortly after disappearing.

Durante el juicio a los comandantes de la dictadura tres personas declararon que habían visto el cuerpo de Simón en un patio de la jefatura de policía de Tucumán, con señales de tortura y un agujero de bala entre los ojos. Emilia estaba en Caracas y no supo si creer la noticia o no. Los testigos parecían serios, pero sus versiones era distintas.

 She eventually finds him in New Jersey when she is 73. The absurdity of the encounter is that he has not aged a day while she is quite obviously an old woman.

Desde hacía años, cada acto de la vida de Emilia era una preparación para el momento en que volvería a ver a Simón.

In fact, Simón is always in her thoughts and in her life, as spectral presence that always seems to reassure her in spite of the irreality of it.

The author uses the metaphors of maps to talk about versions of reality.

Los mapas le habían ensañado a desorientar la lógica de la naturaleza, a crear illusiones allí donde más invencible parecía la realidad. 

It is no coincidence if two of the main characters are cartographers. The frequent descriptions of the work of cartographers, the challenges of projections and representation, form part of the structure that carries Emilia’s story. She even likes to map imaginary cities.

There are so many novels set in this period in history. The exploration of the depth of human cruelty that they repeatedly carry out will most likely never completely exorcise the evil out of the Argentinian collective mind. One wishes that this kind of history would never repeat itself but there are still far too many (current) examples of it. It is somewhat paradoxical that it does become the trigger for so much human creativity as we see in writers like Martinez.


Martinez, Tomás Eloy. Purgatorio. [2008] 2010 ebook edition, Santillana Ediciones, Madrid.