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Letters from Latin America: 30 August 2023

LEO BOIX reviews fiction by Argentinian Martin Kohan and Costa Rican Carlos Fonseca, and poetry by Argentinian Alejandra Pizarnik

“AS MANY people as is necessary will die in Argentina so that the country will again be secure.”

These are the words of dictator Jorge Rafael Videla to the region’s army commanders in 1975.

He was, with Chilean Augusto Pinochet, Guatemalan Efrain Rios Montt and Paraguayan Alfredo Stroessner, among the most murderous tyrants who, in the 1970s, seized power in Latin America and authorised the forced “disappearance” of thousands of people.

Videla is one the main protagonists in Confession (Charco Press, £11.99), Martin Kohan’s gripping triptych novel, superbly translated by Daniel Hahn.

In the book’s first section, “Mercedes,” we follow the narrator’s story of his grandmother Mirta Lopez’s teenage obsession with a certain young neighbour called Jorge Rafael, whom she desires while religiously watching from her window, as he walks back home from his strict Buenos Aires college. 

Mirta confesses her “sin” to Father Sune, who assigns for penance a barrage of Our Fathers and Hail Marys. 

In the second section, “Airport,” the narrative picks up speed. We learn of Operation Seagull, a plot by the People’s Revolutionary Army, the armed wing of the Revolutionary Workers Party, to assassinate Videla as his plane is about to depart from the Jorge Newbery airport in Buenos Aires.

The scheme took place on Friday February 18 1977 and involved a group of men going on a subterranean channelled river with TNT to detonate a bomb beneath the airport. 

Kohan’s masterful use of historical details and short sentences makes this section a harrowing account. 

The book ends with “Plaza Major” where Mirta Lopez is now an aged woman in a nursing home.

She plays truco (a trick-taking card game popular in Argentina) with her grandson, as she slowly reveals to him, as in a confession, a devastating secret.

A fascinating story that mixes love, sexuality, religion, violence, family (and national) tragedies and personal ambitions. A must-read. 

Costa Rican-born Carlos Fonseca is obsessed with deserts as perfect literary devices. Like in Borge’s Story of Sand, “neither the book nor the sand has either beginning or end.”

Fonseca’s third novel Austral (Maclehose Press, £20) is a complex and intellectually searching book where language, memory and philosophy combine to create a story within a story within a story, much like a set of infinite “Russian dolls.”

Julio Gamboa, the protagonist-detective of this novel, is tasked with reading two unpublished manuscripts by Aliza Abravanel, a friend and mentor from decades back who has recently died in the deserts of northern Argentina.

Gamboa travels to South America to explore Aliza’s past, and in time learns of New Germany, a “paradise” of Nazis founded in Paraguay in the 1880s. 

In his journey, Gamboa learns of Aliza’s father’s historiographical studies, of a commune of artists in the Humahuaca desert, and finally of the 1980s Guatemalan genocide through the Theatre of Memory, a project built to recover the lost memory of a community devastated by violence. 

“He turned and looked back towards the theatre, but all he saw was a mountain slope. Vast, rebellious and fierce, the fields grew without memory, incapable of knowing that they had unintentionally erased the violent traces of all that happened there.” 

This is a finely conceived novel, skilfully translated by Megan McDowell, with echoes of Borges, Sebald and Piglia.

I was immersed in Cecilia Rossi’s artful rendering from the Spanish of poet Alejandra Pizarnik’s The Last Innocence/The Lost Adventures (Ugly Duckling Presse, £11). This little gem brings to life one of the most enigmatic voices from Argentina. 

“To leave/in body and soul/leave/To break away/to abandon looks/oppressive stones/asleep on my throat./I am to leave/no more inertia under the sun/no more numbed blood/no more waiting in line to die./I must go/But on you go, traveller!” 

With an illuminating Translator’s Note by Rossi, this collection reveals in the deceiving simplicity of Pizarnik’s voice, a true “oracle” of Latin American poetry.

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