“Las cosas que perdimos en el fuego”

Cross-posted to Virtual Koerner’s.

enriquez_last-cosas-que-perdimosFemininity is all too often defined by the image (and so by the male gaze). Women are reduced to appearance, and judged in terms of the extent to which they measure up to some mythical ideal. Mariana Enríquez’s short story, “Las cosas que perdimos en el fuego” (“Things We Lost in the Fire”), presents a surreal and disturbing counter-mythology that explores what happens when that image is subject to attack, not least by women themselves.

It all starts with a woman who is compelled to support herself by begging on the Buenos Aires subway, after a jealous husband inflicts on her horrific burns that destroy her arms and face, leaving her with only one eye and a slit for a mouth, her lips burnt off. As she seeks contributions from subway passengers, she tells her story: that her husband threw alcohol on her face while she was asleep, setting her alight to “ruin” her, so she wouldn’t belong to anybody else. In the hospital, when everyone expected her to die and she couldn’t speak for herself, he said that she had done this to herself, a tragic accident after a fight. Now that she has recovered her voice, the woman on the subway reclaims her narrative and names the perpetrator. She knows, however, that she will never recover her appearance; her image was lost in the fire.

But perhaps it doesn’t all start there. As another character comments later, referring to a history of witch-hunts but also much more, “They’ve always burned women, they’ve been burning us for four centuries!” No doubt this is why the woman on the subway’s story starts to resonate so much with others.

First, it inspires copy-cat crimes: a model, who seems truly to incarnate that idealized image of femininity, is burnt by her footballer boyfriend in much the same way that the woman on the subway had been attacked. And he, too, blames her for what happened. As if it is only in death (the model does not survive her injuries) that women are granted agency, much like the famous if perhaps apocryphal witch-trials by water, in which only the drowned were presumed innocent.

Then, as Enríquez’s story progresses, small groups of Argentine women start to reclaim their agency while still alive, albeit by anticipating the torture inflicted on them by men. They begin to set light to themselves. Some do so alone, perhaps intending suicide. But, in the face of official disapproval, others form shadowy networks of “Burning Women” to aid and abet ritual ceremonies of self-immolation, complete with clandestine hospitals to ensure recovery thereafter. Because the point is to survive, and to put that survival on display. As one woman puts it: “They have always burned us. Now we are burning ourselves. But we’re not going to die: we’re going to flaunt our scars.”

The notion here is a kind of immunization: if women burn themselves, then they also rid themselves of the idealized image, the fetish that justifies men burning them. Moreover, they show that they cannot be reduced to appearances, albeit by paradoxically revelling in the way in which their new, “monstrous” appearance repels the male gaze. As the woman from the subway puts it, “Men are going to have to get used to us. Soon most women are going to look like me, if they don’t die. And wouldn’t that be nice? A new kind of beauty.” Laying claim to deformity, they challenge the gendered scopic regime of representation and power.

Yet this sacrificial logic is disturbing, and not only to men. The story is told from the perspective of a young woman, Silvina, whose mother is one of the first to throw herself into the campaign. It ends as she overhears her mother and a friend talking about her as a possible candidate for a burning: “Silvinita, oh, when Silvina burned it would be beautiful, she’d be a true flower of fire.” Here, the vision is (almost literally) of the Revolution eating its children, of a new image that ends up as horrific and coercive as the old one. The “ideal world of men and monsters” is no more (or perhaps no less) ideal than our own.

There are obvious resonances here with debates over the tactics of militant groups during Argentina’s Dirty War. There is also an explicit comparison to anorexia, which is also as much a self-destructive as a subversive mode of (re)claiming female agency. Perhaps, too, we might think of our contemporary immunological paradigm, and the price we are called upon to pay to confront all manner of diseases (metaphorical and otherwise). Fire both purifies and corrupts. Without nostalgia, and without any easy judgements, Enríquez compels us to think in new ways about what gets lost when we turn the tools that oppress us into weapons for liberation.

Operación masacre

Operacion masacre

Argentine journalist Rodolfo Walsh’s Operación masacre is an investigation into the extra-judicial assassination, on the part of the Buenos Aires provincial police, of a group of men initially suspected to be part of a Peronist uprising on the night of June 9-10, 1956. As much as an account of what actually happened in the hours shortly before and after midnight on those dates, the book is also the story of the investigation itself. Walsh describes how he was initially reluctant to follow up on a rumor about the events he had picked up in a café, but then threw himself into the pursuit of the facts, driven by outrage at the authorities but above all by sympathy for those who had, against the odds, actually survived. He soon finds himself on what is effectively a crusade for recognition and justice, though he is aware of the price he may one day pay for the trouble he is perceived as causing. Indeed, much later, during the military dictatorship of the 1970s, Walsh’s voice is finally silenced when he is killed by soldiers in a confrontation in downtown Buenos Aires, his body dragged away to be burned and thrown in a river.

But Walsh evidently believes that the dangers inherent in seeking out the truth are more than merely personal. In the introduction to the first (1957) edition of the book, he writes that “too much truth can lead to madness, wiping out a people’s moral conscience.” But he goes on implicitly to welcome this eventuality: “One day the tragic history of the June killings will be written down in its entirety. And then we will see the shock overflow our borders” (265). The truth, in short, is something not to be taken lightly; its effects are collective and potentially catastrophic. But ultimately we should take the risk of the madness and destruction it brings with it. After all, he concludes: “I happen to believe, with complete earnestness and conviction, in the right of every citizen to share any truth that he comes to know, however dangerous that truth may be. And I believe in this book, in the impact it can have” (266).

But Walsh is not content simply to leave things there, as an ominous warning for the future. He himself does whatever he can to ensure that the murky details of this “tragic history,” still incomplete when he first publishes it in 1957, should in the end come out. A second and a third edition of the book come out in 1964 and 1969 respectively. Each time he feels that he has better pinpointed the chain of events and responsibility that led to these mostly innocent men having their lives ended or, if nothing else, transformed as they were grabbed from an informal gathering in a private house and finally gunned down in a (frankly, botched) execution on the outskirts of the city. But with each new edition of the book, one also feels increasing frustration and even despair on Walsh’s part as the officials he identifies as the guilty parties continue to evade any repercussions or consequences. In the end, as in the epilogue to the 1969 edition, Walsh’s tone becomes almost frantic and apocalyptic as he expands his frame of reference to “a portrait of the dominant oligarchy” and concludes that “within the system, there can be no justice” (299, 300).

In the first place, the problem is that the investigation threatens to become interminable. The truth “in its entirety” is not so easy to uncover. There are numerous points at which Walsh admits to doubt or uncertainty, in part because witnesses are absent or unreliable, or because their testimonies contradict each other. In the end, even relatively basic facts such as the number of men taken out to the killing zone elude him. The book’s opening paragraph has to admit that “We will never know it all” (31). There will always be a penumbra of doubt however dedicated the effort to ferret out the facts. And so, for all Walsh tries to give substance and materiality to events and participants, they remain strangely ghostly, just out of reach.

But there is a worse possibility: that Walsh may manage to uncover the truth, or enough of it that should count, and yet nothing might happen anyway. At one point in his enquiry, seeking to track down yet another survivor, he comes across a little girl in the street who tells him “The man you’re looking for [. . .] is in his house. They’ll tell you he isn’t, but he is.” To which Walsh replies: “And do you know why we’ve come?” Coolly, calmly, the girl responds: “Yes, I know everything.” And though we never find out this young girl’s name, Walsh gives her one: “OK, Cassandra” (24). For Cassandra was of course the Greek princess, daughter of Priam, who was blessed with the gift of prophetic knowledge but cursed (by Apollo) never to be believed. In fact, Walsh does believe this girl (and finds the man he is looking for as a result), but he must already be thinking of himself as a Cassandra figure, destined to reveal the truth but to no avail. No wonder at times (and increasingly as new editions come out), his prose becomes increasingly strained and reliant on rhetoric as though he were trying to compensate for the fact that the truth alone will never set us free.

For the real scandal is not so much the truth itself as the fact that truth-telling does not have quite the power that Walsh ascribes to it. Perhaps it isn’t all that dangerous. Perhaps “speaking truth to power” (as they say) only puts the truth-teller at risk. Or it may even be that when Walsh is finally gunned down, it is for something else entirely.