BOOK WORLD

Laura Restrepo's "No Place for Heroes," about Argentina's Dirty War

REAL LIFE BECOMES FICTION: Mothers whose children disappeared during Argentina's dirty war of 1970s protest in Buenos Aires in December 1979.
REAL LIFE BECOMES FICTION: Mothers whose children disappeared during Argentina's dirty war of 1970s protest in Buenos Aires in December 1979. (Eduardo Di Baia/associated Press)
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By Gaiutra Bahadur
Tuesday, July 20, 2010

NO PLACE FOR HEROES

By Laura Restrepo

Translated from Spanish by Ernesto Mestre-Reed

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 272 pp. $25.95

"No Place for Heroes" begins with an interrogation, of a kind. A cheeky and precocious young man, just barely out of adolescence, is questioning his mother about a dark episode in their past. It involves his father, and when she mentions that soon his shoulders will be as broad as that absent parent's, he cuts her off brusquely: "Okay, back to the afternoon, in the park." He plays both good cop and bad, alternately sarcastic and affectionate. It's a fitting way to launch this novel because Argentina's Dirty War of the 1970s and early '80s, conducted by the military dictatorship against its own citizens through torture and interrogation, forms the backdrop.

During that dark period in Argentina's past, Laura Restrepo belonged to the underground resistance. It was not her country -- she's Colombian -- but it did become her fight for a time. She moved to Argentina after several years in the Socialist Workers Party in Spain. Restrepo gives her lead character, Lorenza, the same activist trajectory. Seeking distraction after her father's death, Lorenza joins the struggle in Buenos Aires, where she falls in love with a resistance leader. His nom de guerre is Forcás. Everyone in the movement has an assumed identity, an allusion to acting or theater, a motif as significant to the book as interrogation.

Restrepo lets us know just how significant early on. The resistance has dispatched Lorenza to deliver smuggled microfilm and forged passports to Forcás. Don't contact him, she is told; he will contact you. As she waits and waits -- Forcás is "nowhere to be seen" -- she starts "to doubt his existence, like in that play by Ionesco where the characters yearn for the arrival of the Maestro and the Maestro doesn't show." Restrepo's clue here is brass-knuckled: "No Place for Heroes" unfolds as a conversation over several days between Lorenza and her son, Mateo, two decades after the Dirty War. They have traveled to Buenos Aires from Colombia to search for Forcás, who is the boy's father. Neither has seen him since he kidnapped Mateo (then 2) in a desperate bid to regain Lorenza's love.

In the novel's present, mother and son talk nonstop about Forcás. With one exception, everyone else who appears in the story does so either in flashback or offstage. With no chapter breaks, the story proceeds in a shapeless gel of meandering talk and memory.

The nature of memory, not surprisingly, concerns Restrepo. To the extent that people in the resistance couldn't talk to each other about their lives, the Dirty War forced them to kill their memories. They didn't even know each other's real names. Restrepo shows us how memory can be warped and rearranged by trauma, as when Lorenza's friend consecrates the rest of her life to a husband disappeared by the regime, keeping a book open to the page he was reading when seized -- as if he were likely to return to it, as if they had not in fact already separated when the police came for him. Lorenza's memory of her own dark episode is stubborn and uncooperative, "a black box lost in the sea after a midair accident, unwilling to give up its information."

Her son raises doubts about the precision and even the honesty of her recall. He also interrogates the values of her generation. (Too obsessed with ideology, he thinks.) And he challenges her storytelling technique: "I don't care about the color of the sky in Bogota," he says. "I want to know what happened." Eventually, the reader, too, begins to question her narrative. Was the couple's flight from the regime exactly what it seemed? Was Forcás really to blame for the dark episode? Is he a hero or a bad guy? The novel's virtue is that it poses these destabilizing questions. It's as enamored of interrogation as Mateo is.

What's less winning is the way the novel constantly, questions itself, asking what type of story it is. ("Escape From Alcatraz," Batman and "Doctor Zhivago" all come up in the text as models.) When Lorenza tells her friend Gabriela how the dark episode ends -- in remote snowy mountains, as the junta loses both the Falklands War and its grip on the populace -- Gabriela interrupts: "This was turning into a porn movie, and now you're telling me a war story."

So, ultimately, what kind of story is "No Place for Heroes"? It's as domesticated as a fight about eating your vegetables or embarrassment over being seen with your mother at a Rolling Stones concert (two incidents found in the book). Like Argentina's secret military prisons, the story's tragic backdrop is hidden amid ordinariness. With its habits of reference and self-reference, it is ironic and postmodern, an appropriate response, perhaps, to Argentina's silent war with itself.

Bahadur is a journalist and book critic in the New York area.


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