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The Autofictional Turn, Playful Memories of Trauma and the Post-Dictatorship Generations

It is 1972. A five-year-old girl is sitting in the corner of a small kitchen while a man and a woman, possibly her parents, are setting the table for dinner. All of a sudden, a loud noise, stronger than a knock, interrupts them. Armed men break into the house. Everybody is shouting. In a second scene, the girl is in a bedroom with someone who appears to be her mother. One of the armed men is there. He explains to the woman that they are not there for her but for her husband. He demands that she tell him everything she knows. The man looks at the girl and asks her whether she is scared.

These memories are those of Cecilia Vallina. In the early 1970s her father was involved in the creation of a clandestine film—Informes y testimonies sobre la tortura politico, en la Argentina (Reports and Testimonies about Political Torture in Argentina)—that intended to denounce the dictatorship of Juan Carlos Onganfa (1966-1970). The scenes referred to above are in fact part of that film. Vallina took the part of the girl in the film, though the house and parents were not hers. Yet she “remembers” and treasures those images not as a simulacrum but as “the only memory I have of that experience.”1 Here the term “experience” is ambiguous: does it refer to the experience of participating in a film or the experience of being a child of persecuted parents? This ambiguity remains unresolved in Vallina’s text, perhaps because both experiences were often confused in her mind.

© The Author(s) 2016

J. Blejmar, Playful Memories, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-40964-1_2

Vallina was only able to confirm that these scenes were not memories of her real life thirty years after the events, when she received the only surviving copy of the film from Cuba. Even after seeing the film the boundaries between what she lived, what she pretended to be living and what she remembered remained unclear. That confusion was compounded when she was ten years old and someone told her about the disappearance of the parents of a friend during the last dictatorship, a story that corresponded directly with the events of the film. These images that she had kept inside her as “false memories” suddenly acquired the status of a prophecy: the fictional kidnapping became real, but in someone else’s life. At that point, says Vallina, “that image turned somehow into experience.”2

The childhood memories of many artists and writers who grew up during the dictatorship are, like Vallina’s, comprised of images of what they lived, what they remembered, what they imagined and the stories they were told during and after the events. In their cultural memories of those years they turn to that hybridity precisely to make explicit the difficulty of discriminating fact from fiction in their narratives of the past and of the self.

What other reasons motivate these writers and artists to turn to autofiction in their cultural remembrance of the 1970s and 1980s in Argentina? Are the autofictional and playful aesthetics of post-dictatorship memory the evidence of a paradigmatic shift in the way the dictatorship and the years prior to the coup are being transmitted from one generation to another? Are these works inhabited by a new type of “testimonial subject” unrestrained by the traditional norms, purposes and words that we habitually associate with testimonies? Or, on the contrary, is there nothing essentially new in these works? Is it possible, in other words, that they are just another symptom of the so-called post-modern “subjective turn” and the mere exhibition of the intimacy that has dominated the public sphere in blogs, social networks, autobiographical performances and reality shows in recent decades?

In this book I address these and other related questions by focusing on the work of a select group of post-dictatorship artists, photographers, filmmakers, playwrights, bloggers and writers: Laura Alcoba, Lola Arias, Felix Bruzzone, Albertina Carri, Marfa Giuffra, Victoria Grigera Dupuy, Mariana Eva Perez, Lucila Quieto and Ernesto Seman. Bruzzone, Carri, Grigera Dupuy, Perez, Quieto and Seman are all children of disappeared parents, whereas Alcoba’s father was a political prisoner during the dictatorship. Alcoba went into exile with her mother when she was ten years old. Lola Arias has no direct victims of the dictatorship in her family but was born during the year of the coup, which means that, like every other member of her generation (myself included; I too was born during the dictatorship in Argentina), she was affected by the violence of those years, albeit in different ways. In a broader sense, all of us are both heirs and orphans of an absent generation.

The new millennium has witnessed the emergence of a still-growing corpus of works by post-dictatorship artists and writers. I have focused my analysis on the works of the nine artists listed above, first, because I believe that each of them in their own field has been a pioneer in the way that they playfully combine fact and fiction to address the effects of the dictatorship in their lives: Arias and Grigera Dupuy in theatre, Bruzzone, Seman and Alcoba in literature, Carri in cinema, Quieto in photography, Giuffra in art, and Perez in social networks and theatre. They have all, sometimes unwittingly or without wanting to, been sources of inspiration for other writers and artists of that generation who also address their own childhood memories of those years in art and literature using autofiction.

Second, I have chosen these artists not only because they have explicitly recognized the influence of each others’ work in their own autofictions but also because many of them have worked in collaboration on different projects. Their shared aesthetics and ethics of remembering and the affinity that they mutually express for each others’ works prove that these are much more than mere personal or individual testimonies, subjective exercises or adoptive memories. In addition and unlike, for example, many post-conflict artists who use humor or “play” when dealing with other traumatic events, such as the Holocaust, to address a vicarious memory of the past (including David Levinthal and Zbigniew Libera), many of the artists discussed here often direct that humor towards their own condition of being children of disappeared parents and young victims of the dictatorship. They use it as a way to speak of their own (unspeakable) experiences of trauma. Thus, as we will see in Chapters 3 and 4, neither the “subjective turn” nor theories of postmemory can explain, at least on their own, all the ramifications and complexities of this new cultural phenomenon in Argentina.

While this trend has similarities with other transnational aesthetics, it also has attributes specific to its own local context of production. Thus before offering close readings of the works of my corpus in this chapter, I shall revisit the main trends dominant in writings of the self, art and literature during the immediate post-dictatorship era in Argentina in an attempt to understand what is new (if anything) in the more contemporary cultural memories of political violence.

One of the hypotheses of this book is that during the 1980s and 1990s, testimony/(auto)biography and fiction generally circulated in different spheres, used dissimilar languages and established opposite reading pacts. It is my contention that the autofictions that emerged in the new millennium, and particularly following the release of Los rubios in 2003, embody a space of convergence between these genres, offering new and original ways of approaching trauma and memory in ego-literature and art.

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