Caryl Ferey takes on Argentina’s history in Mapuche
Crime novel on aftermath of Dirty War leaves me feeling dirty
Reading about torture creates conflicts.
What attitude does the reader assume to justify indulging in atrocity? When does reading seem voyeuristic collusion in violence, and when does it edify – even enlighten – as the dark side of history and the human condition is revealed? Put another way, when is reading a way to participate in the literature of witness, and when does it seem a way to violate real victims once again? Not to mention violating one’s own mind. Are we what we read?
Such were my problems as I read Caryl Ferey’s Mapuche, a grisly crime novel about the grime that endures long after Argentina’s Dirty War.
My response: Too much. Too much torture. Too extreme torture. Less would have been more. Despite the rich history, I did not get the gravitas I needed to feel awe for the real war the story and some of its characters the story was based on.
I felt dirty.
French writer Ferey mines – or exploits – (each reader may deliberate or decide) real stories of human rights violations, as well as the near extermination of indigenous populations in his noir series, published here by Europa Editions. He mixes the entertainment of the page-turning thriller with well-researched historical events. He does so, in part, by appealing to readers’ appetites for grisly depictions of the worst human behavior.
Mapuche opens with an opened plane door and a “package” tossed midair. The reader’s interest hooked, that action suspends mid thread, and the weaving of plotlines begins.
Ferey introduces Jana, a Mapuche, one of the indigenous peoples decimated by later settlers. She’s a sculptress, who turned tricks to pay for her art education. Living amidst the most marginal, she seeks help when her transvestite friend Paula grows concerned over the disappearance of another “tranny,” Luz. Jana appeals to Ruben Calderon, a detective who has garnered a reputation for tracking down the desparecidos – those who disappeared -- and their torturers from Argentina’s Dirty War 30 plus years earlier.
Problem is Luz is not that kind of desparecido, and Ruben is already on a pursuit seeking out the disappearance of Maria Victoria Campallo, a rich man’s daughter – also seemingly not his typical quest. He has taken on that case at the behest of a friend. He rebuffs Jana’s appeal – and her offer of an alternative way of paying for his services. Soon he discovers both disappearances -- the two strands -- intertwine. So he and Jana team up – and eventually do some intertwining themselves. Both cases, it turns out, deal with those who disappeared and their torturers. Together they will lead to digging up and gutting out names and events of the past – names that have been literally buried and literally swallowed up in the course of the novel.
Plotlines are molded on the real events of the Dirty War, such as the death flights, during which prisoners were thrown out of planes alive over the ocean, and the stolen children, the practice of keeping pregnant female prisoners alive until they delivered and then placing the infants in the arms of “apropriadores,” those military and other families who wanted to adopt. Silvia Quintela was one of these real women, whose plight is invoked by the novel. The determined mothers and grandmothers, the Abuelas of Plaza de Mayo also play their part.
Among those women in the novel is Ruben Calderon’s own mother who lost both her husband and daughter in the War. Daniel Calderon was a poet who returned from abroad when his children Ruben and Elsa were imprisoned. Upon return he too was imprisoned. Ferey takes a page from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus in his choice of tortures for the poet.
Many would argue Shakespeare didn’t get away with the extreme; Titus Andronicus is among the least powerful and psychologically shallow of his works. Ferey is no Shakespeare. While impressive historical detail gives Mapuche solidity, the lack of psychological complexity makes it shaky.
There are scenes that ring odd, false or hollow: When Ruben Calderon tells Maria Victoria’s mother of her daughter’s deat, he attacks her because he senses she is not revealing the whole truth – an odd thing to do to shocked mother; the romancing of Jana and Ruben, who both have reasons not to trust either the opposite sex or sex itself, lacks credibility. Overall Jana’s character development jars. When she learns the horror of the source of Ruben’s life motivation, it confirms her growing love and loyalty. I get it, but I don’t buy it.
Past tortures revealed are mere preludes for what comes next. Years after the events of 1976-1983, the military, politicians and Catholic clergy play out their parts in its aftermath. We meet the thugs who carried out orders as young men and continue to do so as bloated old ones. We meet the powerful and corrupt who gave orders, or who later profited from them. More kidnapping. More excruciating torture. More death and near death and dramatic saves. Then final revenge.
Resonances to other works I am familiar with conflict my response. I recall my awe when I first read Carolyn Forche’s poem about the war in El Salvador, “The Colonel,” a poem she became noted for as a poet of witness. (Severed ears appear in both her poem and Ferey’s book.) I also think about the quirky, campy works of Jo Nesbo, who includes near ridiculous methods of torture, melodrama, along with characters with bizarre medical syndromes and conditions. Transvestite Paula, whose real name is Miguel, has a mother who eats rolled up pieces of paper; she has “Rapunzel syndrome.” Nesbo’s truly fictional outlandishness amuses whereas Ferey’s confuses emotions because of its too real connections.
Finally another oddity that perhaps is a result of translation: The writer regularly substitutes the expression “the Mapuche” for Jana, as if it is a nickname, whereas it really is a tribal name. Why? Possible answers: so we won’t forget her origins? A reader adjusts so it’s hardly noticeable after a while, but still strange.
Ferey’s book does educate. He artfully weaves in the worst of Argentinian history and updates it.
But he does so at a cost I’m conflicted about absorbing. I hope what’s left after reading quickly washes off.