Wednesday 7 October 2015

Book review: The Ministry of Special Cases

Nathan Englander, The Ministry of Special Cases (Knopf)

I’m a member of a book-swapping website, so when a book popped up that I’d never heard of and it turned out to be about “Dirty War”-era Argentina, I was intrigued and of course I ordered it right away – although not without a slight feeling of trepidation, because the book was by a non-Argentine, US writer Nathan Englander. Could a foreigner really capture the feeling of the time, I wondered?

The Ministry of Special Cases focuses on a dysfunctional, bleakly comic, urban Jewish family in 1970s Buenos Aires. Kaddish Poznan earns his living desecrating graves by night at the request of their family owners and struggles with his own disreputable inheritance, while his wife Lillian does her boss’s job as well as her own and, of course, the housework. When their son is abducted by the military regime, the couple is drawn into a nightmare of bureaucracy and fear as they struggle to get him back, or indeed hear anything of him at all.

It’s clear from that start – at least for anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of Argentina – that Pato is going to be disappeared, but Englander prolongs the tension before the ultimate abduction. It’s almost painful to wait for the fateful moment, and truly painful to read on as the Poznans attempt, in their very different styles, to save him. I read with a pit in my stomach as Lillian joins interminable queues and scrapes together money for bribes, as Kaddish seeks to mine his circle of acquaintances for possible sources of news, and as the terrible series of events nearly tears the family apart.

Kafkaesque – too glib? Can we avoid the word? I don’t think we can, as the couple come up against prevarication, untruths and a flurry of meaningless paperwork down every corridor of the “Ministry of Special Cases”. The style is not strictly realistic but the story is grounded in hard research. In Lillian, who refuses to contemplate the idea that her son may be dead, we can see some of the founding ideas of the Mother of the Plaza de Mayo, plus there is a guest appearance by a pilot of the death flights (see Adolfo Scilingo). We might also recall that Jews were disproportionately represented among the disappeared, and that there was an anti-Semitic aspect to their torture. The plot spirals down and down the rabbit hole into the darkness. And yet the Poznans’ unfortunate experiences with plastic surgery add a streak of humour to the book.

My doubts about Englander’s ability to draw us in to a novel about Argentina were misplaced, and I was left comparing his work to that of Carlos Gamerro – both take carefully researched stories about the country’s recent history and add a heavy dose of fantasy, violence and black comedy. This novel can stand up against “The Islands” and give the English-speaking reader a great deal to chew on.

Tuesday 19 May 2015

Argentina: The ESMA then and now

I enjoy looking at those photos where they juxtapose old and new images to highlight where past events took place. There's been a flurry of them to coincide with European anniversaries of the Second World War, and I previously noted these of Chile.

Now it's the turn of the ESMA. These photomontages are not quite like the other ones I've seen, as there is little attempt to join up the old and new scenes, but they are still interesting.

See more:

La ESMA en 13 fotos: del horror a la memoria (Infojus Noticias)

Wednesday 6 May 2015

Book review: The Adventure of the Busts of Eva Perón

The Adventure of the Busts of Eva Perón, by Carlos Gamerro, translated by Ian Barnett in collaboration with the author, published 2015 by And Other Stories

I told someone recently that - no matter how dull it makes me sound - I have to admit I'm not a fan of humorous books. It's hard to explain - I can recognise the humour, even enjoy it, but I'm rarely drawn in to the story as well. I got The Rosie Project for Christmas, started it and some bits made me laugh out loud... but did I finish it? Nope.

All of which is a way of saying that I make an exception for Carlos Gamerro. After having read The Islands, I knew I'd have to pick up The Adventure of the Busts of Eva Perón as well, and as I tweeted shortly after starting it, it made me chuckle and cringe in turn.

The novel's hero/anti-hero is junior executive Ernesto Marroné, whose boss - the vile Fausto Tamerlán - has been abducted by left-wing guerrillas in Argentina of the mid-1970s. Marroné is distracted from the various preoccupations presented by his bowel problems, his sexual inadequacies, and his family woes, as he embarks on a wild quest to save his superior and bag himself a promotion into the bargain.

The abductors have demanded a ransom including a bust of Evita in every one of the company's offices. Visiting the plasterworks to order the 92 busts required, Marroné is caught up in a factory takeover by the workers and ends up going to unimagined lengths to procure the necessary Evas.

Gamerro's prose, ably translated by Ian Barnett, is as dark and twisted as the plot, as we and the protagonist lurch from misadventure to misadventure, fuelled by Marroné's trusty executive self-help books. The novel presents a capitalist nightmare - and its equally bad alternative. I laughed out loud, but in horror as well as amusement, because the story is teetering on the brink of the "Dirty War", and if it contains corruption, violence and crime, we know there is worse to come.

I loved this satirical take on 1970s Argentina - although, as with The Islands, I wondered if the average English-speaking reader had enough information to appreciate it all. Perhaps a few judicious footnotes (Montoneros? Triple A? López Rega? Is the reader just supposed to Wikipedia them?) wouldn't have gone amiss. For that reason I would be a little hesitant to recommend it generally. But for me - well, I guess I'm the target audience - and for others prepared to take a little time to absorb the history of the period, this novel pays off.

Thursday 26 March 2015

German president in Peru

German president Joachim Gauck was visiting Peru, although his visit was cut short by news of the plane crash in France. With that in mind, I've been reading some of the German media coverage. Below is my translation of an article from Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on memory of the Peruvian conflict.

An empty place of memory

Peru has set up a place of memory for the victims of terrorism with German help – but powerful people are still struggling with the past. 

There is a memorial at the gate of the presidential palace on the Plaza Mayor in the heart of the Peruvian capital, Lima. It is a marble obelisk about four meters high on a black base. Then-president Alan García inaugurated it in May 2009. It is dedicated to the “4,357 defenders of the fatherland and democracy” who became “victims of terrorist crimes” – members of the armed forces and the police, politicians and officials. Every day around lunchtime, the colourful changing of the guards takes place in the space in front of the neo-baroque state building. 

The obelisk for the victims of terrorism is to a certain extent part of a ceremony which the Republic of Peru uses each day to reiterate its history –from independence won in 1821 from its Spanish colonial masters through to the stable and flourishing democracy of the present. The memorial in front of the presidential palace does, admittedly, not do justice to the painful era of terrorism from 1980 to 2000. In the years of the terror caused by the Maoist guerrillas of the Shining Path and the MRTA, it was not just the 4,357 military and state officials who lost their lives. Most of the about 70,000 victims of the bloody conflict between the leftist terror groups and the Peruvian armed forces were civilians, and the mother tongue of three quarters of these civilian victims was the indigenous language Quechua. 

Unlike the 4,357 victims of terror from the security forces and authorities, the much larger number of murdered and disappeared people from the mostly indigenous civilian population do not have a national monument, unless you count the various documentation and memory centres that have been set up in the particularly affected Andean region of the South by victims’ associations. Yet this gap in the national healing process of the now-secure Peruvian democracy could have been closed long ago. 

The impressive building of the “Lugar de la Memoria” (place of memory) has been ready for use in the district of Miraflores for nine months now and is waiting to be filled with content and life. Germany contributed EUR 4.5 million to the construction of the memorial, with Sweden also helping. But the design of the planned permanent exhibition is still politically highly controversial. Concepts developed by independent experts which are supposed to explain the crimes committed and experienced by both sides equally, have become bogged down in the bureaucracy of the ministries. 

There are a lot of indications that president Ollanta Humala, in office since July 2011, wants to have his say in how Peru will present its recent, bloody history in the national place of memory. After all, Humala is a former army office and in 1992 he was stationed at the Madre Mía base near Pacayacu in the Andes, from where soldiers are said to have committed human rights violations during actions against the civilian population, which was supposedly linked to the Shining Path. Former president Alan García, whose first term in office from 1985 to 1990 saw notorious massacres of the indigenous population by the armed forces, is also said to be doing his best to torpedo the exhibition plans. 

The visit of German president Joachim Gauck comes during this sustained phase of sometimes heated national debate. It is the first time a German president has visited Peru since 1964. On Saturday, Gauck opened a temporary exhibition on the history of the conflict from 1980 to 2000 in the presence of Nobel prize-winner Mario Vargas Llosa, who has provided considerable support to the Lugar de la Memoria project in his role as intellectual mentor. “Germany has been a role model for overcoming the rule of violence by being open about it instead of hiding it,” said Vargas Llosa with a view to the situation since the reunification of Germany in 1990.

Certainly, the display boards put up for Gauck's visit and the museum opening were not able to fill the exhibition rooms - in terms of space or content. In the museum auditorium, Gauck made an almost imploring speech on the subject of "No future without the past" to the overwhelmingly young audience. As he did during his visit to Colombia in 2013, Gauck offered Peru Germany's help in working through the trauma of a period of history characterized by violence and injustice. The desire to repress the past and "look forward" is understandable, said Gauck, but what is buried will resurface, at the latest in the next generation. "A nation does not lose itself when it admits its guilt," said the German president. 

The leftist terror, as well as the retaliatory terror of the army and police, were primarily directed at the Andean region of Ayacucho in the south of the country. In the capital, Lima, on the Pacific coast, terrorism made itself felt with occasional bomb and other attacks, but it did not come to the “war of liberation” in the cities which the student sympathisers of the guerrillas hoped and worked for. In June and September 1992, the Peruvian security forces achieved two decisive strikes against the terrorists when they captured Abimael Guzmán, leader of the Shining Path, and Víctor Polay Campos, leader of the MRTA. It would take another eight years for the era of terror to come to an end in 2000. Guzmán and Polay Campos are now 80 and 63 years old, respectively. They have been sentenced to long prison terms and are both held in the high-security jail at Callao, in the port region of Lima – incidentally, the same prison where the notorious former secret service chief Vladimiro Montesinos is also held. He was responsible for many massacres committed by the State and ultimately toppled due to his connections to drug cartels and widespread bribing of politicians, military officials and the media. 

The independent truth and reconciliation commission was founded in 2001. Its exemplary work, including listening to about 16,000 witnesses, is regarded as a milestone in Peru’s process of dealing with its past. The commission found that 54% of the victims were killed by the Shining Path, while the Peruvian military and paramilitary groups were responsible for 42%. 

Victims become gracious when perpetrators admit their guilt, said Gauck during his speech at the opening of the museum. He also stressed this belief during his private conversations with president Ollanta Humala. Whether his advice was taken on board remains to be seen, not least in the Lugar de la Memoria. The consensus about dealing with the past in Peru was stable enough to build a place of memory, but so far, it has not been strong enough to fill it. 
Ein leerer Ort der Erinnerung (

Monday 26 January 2015

Latin American connections with the Holocaust

Tomorrow we commemorate 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. has a fascinating article on the Peruvian victims of Auschwitz - I confess, I had no idea there were any. But apparently, there were 17 of them. Like Héctor David Levy, shot for asking for water during forced labour, and his wife and two young children, who were gassed. The two children became Peru's youngest victims of the Second World War.

Victoria Barouh Avayü was the only Peruvian Auschwitz survivor, having lost her entire family. Many years later, she went back to the concentration camp to see what had become of it and of fellow survivors.

More information about Peruvians in the camps may be found in the book Estación final by Hugo Coya (Aguilar, 2013).

Los peruanos de Auschwitz, por Hugo Coya (

Semana discusses the Auschwitz survivors who came to Colombia: Ana Orgel de Czeizler, Raquel Gedalovich, Jacobo Bron and Max Kirschberg. The article is worth reading and illustrated with beautiful photos by Erika Diettes.

"Most people have heard about what happened. But it wasn't just the Jews who suffered. There were non-Jewish Germans there, because they didn't accept the ideology, or because they argued about something, they ended up there. They took people from other faiths, Jehovah's Witnesses, Catholics, and many gypsies", says Kirschberg. When the camp was liberated, Kirschberg had lost his parents, but he recalled that his mother had told him he had an uncle living in Colombia, so he came there. In 1952, he returned to Germany to study, marry and have children, but in 1976 he returned for good with one of his sons.

More information about Colombian survivors may be found in the book Sobrevivientes del Holocausto que rehicieron su vida en Colombia, edited by Hilda Demner and Estela Goldstein

Los sobrevivientes de Auschwitz que hicieron vida en Colombia (Semana)

Sunday 11 January 2015

Peru: Retablos by Edilberto Jiménez

At the Biblioteca Virtual del Genocidio en Ayacucho, you can now see photographs of the amazing retablo scenes made by Edilberto Jiménez (who I previously wrote about here and here) from his book "Universos de memoria".They really are amazing depictions of the violence in the Ayacuchan region of Peru.

Follow this link to get the list of images and then click on "Detalles" to get to a large image.

Guatemala: A forensic anthropologist who brings closure for the "disappeared"

Thanks to Mike from Central American Politics for drawing my attention to this TED talk by Fredy Peccerelli on his work as a forensic anthropologist in Guatemala, which is so relevant to this blog that I'm reposting it here. I can only echo his admiration for the work of these incredible, dedicated people.