Ensconced in the entrance hall that grows more and more claustrophobic, Sebastián is an adult, fully grown, a respectable and solemn man. Well-defined muscles, rigid features, a bottle of wine held tightly in his fist. A deceptive outward appearance, for beneath the almost immaculate surface, this respectable man is a wreck, a body in shambles, an adolescent reincarnated with all his insecurities, all his fears renewed. He can imagine a drop of sweat running down his cheek, shattering his aura of tranquillity, undermining the composure of the face that appears in the spyhole.
He doesn’t wait for very long, but the person coming to the door isn’t announced by the sound of footfall, and the silence deprives time of any measurement. In an instant the darkness is undone by light, and in his eyes, now shut, pale circles of luminosity begin bursting. ‘Hola, Sebastián,’ a monotonous voice greets him without affection or enthusiasm, and the hand that grabs him by the shoulder is firm and pulls him close, and the lips that smack a kiss on his cheek are crinkled. His eyes now open, his skin bristling, his body leaning a second too long against this woman who is no longer embracing him, the assault on his senses is too diverse to assimilate. He takes a step back to get a good look at her, returns to an erect posture and examines her face in uncertain recognition. He knows this face or will come to know it. The features are those of his mother but with more pronounced lines, the features his mother’s face will gain one day, in the near future, except for those unruly eyebrows and the wrinkles radiating from her lips, signs of her famous sternness of character.
‘Hi, Auntie, how’s it going?’ he responds after a long delay, and the awkward timing of the phrase as well as the incongruous tone of joy that betrays a certain childishness are sufficient cause for regret. The bottle of wine passes from his hand to hers without much fanfare, a simple gracias, then it’s immediately lost among the other bottles on the shelf. She makes a quick gesture with her arm to indicate the sofa where he should sit down, the sofa that was forbidden to him throughout his childhood, because it was a place where only adults could sit, although on occasion, he recalls, alone in that apartment belonging to his ancestors, he had dared to lean back and stretch his legs on those cushions, establishing beneath absent eyes some sort of intimacy with the space.
‘Should I sit here?’ he asks with diffidence as if her gesture hadn’t been clear enough, an excessive diffidence that nullifies even that false intimacy, returning him to the condition of guest, conceding all authority to her. Now isn’t the time to be timid, he says to himself before she’s responded to his question, and clenching his jaw, he lets himself slump down on the indicated spot with a thump that is heavier than required.
‘And your children, your grandchildren, aren’t they joining us?’ Sebastián asks, avoiding the nasalized vowels of Portuguese, pressing his tongue against the roof of his mouth when pronouncing an ‘n’, attempting the music of proper Spanish, hoping to erase his own Brazilianness and impress her with his accent.
‘No,’ she responds, as though surprised, squinting her eyes at him and adding, in her own majestic Spanish, a phrase that sounds hostile: ‘I didn’t think to call them.’
‘And the family, what are they up to?’ Sebastián insists, with real interest, wanting to hear news of his cousins for whom he still nurtures some affinity in spite of distance and inherited frictions.
But she effectively eludes him with a modest play on words: ‘They’re up and about, those who can stand up at all,’ alluding perhaps to her youngest grandchildren and becoming entangled in an inopportune literalness.
‘Please tell them I send my best.’ And so Sebastián finds himself wrapping up that conversation at the wrong moment, saving himself from making any more indirect hints destined to fail.
There is in this woman a total refusal to abide by traditional conventions, that’s how Sebastián formulates his first diagnosis. Polite conversation about mutual acquaintances cannot distract her from her seriousness or alter her unruffled countenance or cause her muscles to stretch into a warm smile. To speak of close relatives – one might notice the spasmodic oscillation of the elevated foot of her crossed leg – provokes an impatience that is poorly concealed, a disinterest proportional to the interest the other person demonstrates, almost a disdain for such frivolity. The living room doesn’t seem to be a space she really enjoys, at least not as a space for domestic pleasures or as an intimate setting, a place to indulge in trivial formalities.
‘So what do you think of Buenos Aires?’ she asks – a question that counters his somewhat unsubstantiated theory, and it behoves him to throw away his previous judgements in order to devote himself more fully to the conversation.
‘Ah, but what could I think of it? Buenos Aires is eternal like water and air,’ he quotes offhandedly, and instantly regrets having done so. ‘Here things seem to have perpetuity, reproducing themselves with every decade and at every corner, always the same, always preserving the same peculiar quality.’
When he finishes speaking – expressing poorly an idea that came to him earlier that afternoon while sitting in a century-old cafe on the Avenida de Mayo, leaning over a menu identical to that of previous occasions, under the impatient stare of the very same waiter from similar afternoons – he knows he’s taken a risk with his irresponsible analysis. Buenos Aires is her city, terrain favourable to her own analyses, and it’s evident that his thoughtless remark will provide her with the opportunity for a dissenting speech.
‘I wouldn’t be so optimistic,’ she responds, already distorting what he meant to say. ‘If only we knew how to preserve the values we hold most dear, but unfortunately not a single one of those values can be found in our leaders today. That woman. You know who I’m talking about,’ and Sebastián can feel the fury in her voice. ‘That woman took over the Casa Rosada, only to ruin everything in an act of petty, foolish vengeance. Sure, now she’s rich, she got very rich, she and her husband who didn’t die soon enough, but at what price did they build their fortune in the dirt-poor valleys of Patagonia, working as lawyers with who knows what authority? Now they take vengeance on those who once spurned them, persecuting our former leaders, insulting their political enemies merely for their own pleasure, and in the meantime restricting our freedoms and the freedom of the press.’
That severe face of hers changes very quickly from indifference to the most conspicuous anger. Her eyes are fierce, the pupils dilating, and her mouth forms a different mask with every syllable she utters. Her right hand, raised halfway, starts to tremble, and her extended forefinger punctuates every declaration she makes. Sebastián, half repelled and half amazed, notices how easily she stamps her authority on the conversation, how agile her transition to a topic she holds dear and now she’s reciting the names of ministers and other leaders, the ones who in her estimation don’t even deserve the salary of a subordinate or the position of chauffeur or cleaning lady in the presidential palace. Sebastián’s eyes sweep across her face, examining the mutable creases of her skin, the smallest details, and as her voice reaches his ear, it competes with the noises emanating from the dining room, the placement of the china on the tablecloth, the clinking of the silverware and glasses laid out by invisible hands in the next room. Sebastián is barely paying attention to her words, but even so he has no difficulty understanding her anger, seeing that it reflects not so much a critique of the current situation or the nation’s politics but rather the spite his aunt feels for not being able to occupy that position herself, the position currently occupied by the woman who is the central target of her attacks.
To be cordial, to be prudent, he refrains from speaking when silence re-establishes itself in the house. Without inviting him to follow, his aunt simply gets up and walks towards the dining room, opening the large doors to reveal a setting already evacuated by the people who have prepared it. He follows her, clicking against the parquet floor with cautious steps, hesitating as to which chair he should occupy, sitting down only when she has taken her place at the head of the table. The display of food, modest and frugal, contrasts with the surrounding opulence: nothing but a lettuce salad with a few tomatoes and aubergine filled with something he can’t quite make out, accompanied by a small quantity of water already poured into each crystal glass.
Forgoing any ceremony, she begins to serve herself with the same aplomb with which she resumes her previous litany, speaking now about the shady schemes of the country’s new leaders who are blinded by power and supported, naturally, by the ignorant masses. Shady schemes involving the very same names she was listing moments before – opportunistic, dishonest and indecent people – in addition to, shockingly, ‘some of the most unseemly members of the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo’, she goes out of her way to emphasize. Sebastián is silent, and begins to reprimand himself. He’s allowing her voice to impose itself on all other voices, on his own ideas or the ideas he might borrow, and his passivity while interacting with the woman sitting in front of him would disturb anyone witnessing this banal conversation.
And so, to upset her or to shatter his own cowardice and redeem his presence at the dining table, Sebastián forces himself to respond to her in a tone that is not feverish, but composed: ‘I’m surprised by these rumours you boast of. We’ve heard nothing of this in Brazil. On the contrary, the people you insist on disparaging still enjoy enormous prestige there, as they do here.’
She takes advantage of the interruption to focus on the small bit of food she had set aside for herself. After a sip of water, she resumes her speech, as if there hadn’t been any disruption, completely indifferent to his opinions but not even showing him any disdain, as though he were not worthy of her disdain. Her words initially sound neutral and cold, but little by little they become animated as she grows more and more emotional discussing the misery of elderly men deprived of their last years of life and liberty, helpless gentlemen locked away in their homes and practically denied the right to receive visitors, and all of them destined to a tragic end, forsaken, but for the sense of honour they’ve maintained, the fortitude that has always defined their character, the pride with which they still wear their uniforms, which are now too long for their arms and legs. Except for a few who are still in good health, they’re all terribly feeble, she informs him, and now they’re obliged to appear in court in their wheelchairs, and for what? she asks. Do they have anything to answer for at this point, those elderly officers? Sure, they made some mistakes here and there – it was a war, after all – and sometimes they went too far and committed a few sins just like the others, but don’t you think enough time has passed to forgive and forget?
Sebastián can do nothing but seek refuge in his dinner plate, wishing to express through silence his profound disagreement. Is she trying to provoke him? How can she openly defend those torturers, how can she allow herself to be so insensitive when her family, her own sister, was victimized by them? And how does she dare speak such nonsense to his face when those defenceless and forsaken old men were the same ones responsible for the erratic course of his destiny, by-product of his parents’ destiny, the same ones who were to some degree his persecutors, as well?
His plate does not provide refuge, so he turns his face away to avoid looking at her directly and in doing so catches a glimpse of someone in his peripheral vision: there, on the sofa of the living room, leaning back and reading a newspaper with a few columns cut out, is one of those men in uniform. He’s not young, indeed a number of the hairs in his moustache are grey, but neither is he a feeble old man, there’s no crutch or wheelchair by his side. The man bites on the end of the pen he’s holding, and his way of biting causes Sebastián to remember a gentleman he saw just once at a dinner long ago, at the wedding banquet of his oldest cousin. He recalls laughter abounding among the guests, but his father refused to smile, and his mother seemed troubled as she tried to calm him. Uneasy, not knowing if he should join in the fun, he decided to find out what the problem was. He discovered that, at a distant table, holding his fork tightly in his right hand, the man with the slightly grey moustache who was clamping down on a big hunk of meat, that man was a general by the name of Jorge Videla.
He resented his father that night and condemned his intolerance. Of what importance was the appearance of some general if that general wasn’t even a relative of the bride or groom, if the entire family had gathered together for this event for the first time in a long while, everyone at that moment so lively and at ease? And even if indeed it was he, as they had explained, if that general, whoever he was, happened to be the person responsible for the years they had spent separated from everyone, expelled from their own home, exiled to São Paulo, why couldn’t they enjoy themselves now that the punishment had been retracted? Now that his aunt is calmly cutting a slice of tomato and continuing to talk about the mistakes of the current government, exalting the economic vitality of previous decades, now that a man in uniform is sitting on the sofa tranquilly turning the pages of his yellowed newspaper, both man and newspaper obfuscated by Sebastián’s dim peripheral vision, at last he understands what his father had been thinking at that party long ago, he feels the affliction his father must have felt, the anguish that must have weighed on him, and he wishes, too late, to escape from that night just as he wishes to escape from this dismal encounter.
He can’t stand up, he can’t remove his plate or leave the table and let her go on by herself, analysing the failings of a government without any muscle, a government averse to discipline. He’s not capable of perpetuating the great insult of making an overly dramatic exit – he can still hear the voice of his mother asking him to be more accepting of the family even when he’s all too aware of the antagonisms, even when he sometimes feels uncomfortable, oppressed, subjugated. He can’t walk away, he can’t allow the man in uniform to take his place at the grand table that belongs to everyone – he can’t run off, he can’t remain silent. He must clarify that he doesn’t agree with anything she’s said, he must express in some way his own discomfort, he must make his feelings known immediately: ‘They murdered thirty thousand people. Not to mention the tortured, the persecuted, all those kidnapped children, all the forced migrations for which they were responsible. As frail as those officers might appear today, there is a symbolic importance in punishing them. So that they and their followers might understand, as much as possible, the terrible evil they perpetrated.’
His abrasive words, his heated tone and the sudden gravity of his voice take over the surrounding space and in some way protect him, calming him at least for a moment. And for a moment she seems affected by the force of his phrases, shaking her head from side to side, compelled this time to respond to him.
Her response, however, is a summary refusal to give any ground or offer concessions, returning him to the distress he had felt moments before and restoring her inexorable dominion over the room: ‘These numbers are always inflated. Only the most rebellious, the most inconsequential, the insubordinate people died. It’s the same in Argentina as it was in Pinochet’s Chile, or Franco’s Spain: a systematic effort to exaggerate the negative aspects. The only reason why the same thing doesn’t happen in Brazil is because your military has always been too soft, so there wasn’t anything to blame them for. Did some people die here, and in Chile, and even in Brazil? Yes. But the context justified those deaths. When order is being threatened, when there’s a country to save . . .’
Sebastián can’t go on listening, he is immersed in the torment from which he can no longer escape. To listen to those words is to let himself be trapped again between the walls of terror, to return to the structure of oppression, to its fulcrum, to the site of greater evil, it’s to walk once more through the rooms of the Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada, which he visited like a distracted tourist a few days ago, without realizing the effect it would have on him. His guide, a young and very serious woman, explained: the prisoners, hooded, their hands tied behind their backs, would enter through this door. There’s another stairway over there that goes down to the torture chamber, but it was sealed up and hidden when this prison was about to be inspected, so let’s go through here. Right where we’re standing, the prisoners were undressed and subjected to a slow and meticulous ordeal – ‘making them sing’, that’s what they called it. Nothing was off limits, the contorting of arms and legs, blows to the spine, everything was allowed, lacerations, breaking bones, applying electrical shocks, it was all valid, and they used the most diverse instruments. After a day or two, or however much time was necessary, they were all taken here, to the attic, which was extremely cold in the winter and oppressively hot in the summer, and they were locked in large wooden trunks, very similar to coffins. They would spend on average a week here while the information they had provided was confirmed and compared to other depositions, but there was really no limit to the amount of time they could be subjected to this horror. They were fed the minimum, water and scraps of bread, and, to distract them, the radio would be left playing all day long at extremely high volume, hindering their ability to think or to communicate with one another. They would wear the same hood for the whole week, then immediately it would be put on another head – the smell of this hood, the pestilence in the fibres, the nausea it produced, are palpable in the testimony of those few who survived, the prisoners who somehow gained the trust of those in command. If there happened to be a pregnant woman among the prisoners, they’d give her the same food the guards ate, they’d avoid any punishment that might hurt the foetus, they’d beat her only on her arms and legs, they’d pull out her hair, her nails. When she was about to give birth, they’d isolate the mother here, in this room reserved for delivering babies, and on the very same day the child would be taken to another family, handed over to the open arms of a couple not able to have children, a couple on friendly terms with the regime. Afterwards the mother joined a group of prisoners who were taken to the ground floor where they received an injection to make them docile for transfer. Unconscious, they were brought to the vans parked just outside, and then they were taken to a plane about to depart from the Aeroparque two kilometres up the avenue. When the plane was far enough away from the coast, when all that could be seen was blue sky and the wide mouth of the Río de la Plata, the bodies were thrown from the plane, still weakened by the anaesthesia, unable even to feel the vertigo, and one by one they plummeted through the void. Each of those death flights ended with the muffled sound of a body striking the cold surface of water.
She rouses him with the metallic sound of cutlery striking the china, her arms resting on the table now, nothing left on her plate. Her mouth at last seems exhausted of speech, she’s satisfied, but there’s a quivering in the corner of her lips that disturbs him. She’s smiling, that’s what he notices, nothing more than a mere reflex, very subtle. She smiles with her chin raised high, but she’s discreet, sardonic, and he knows that smile isn’t directed at him, it could only be directed at someone behind him, someone he can’t see but whose presence makes a shadow, and the shadow grows larger, until it is undeniable. He doesn’t need to turn his head, he’s certain that there’s no one sitting on the sofa now, that the living room is empty, and suddenly he feels two hands settling on his shoulders, two hands grabbing hold of him, softly, but they do not intend to let go of him, two hands that confine him to his chair, and without covering his mouth they silence him, two hands that evoke everything and make everything disappear from his memory, two hands that are gentle but nevertheless they place on his shoulders a tremendous weight.
Photograph © Still_life88_second, 2007