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:
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)