The Defamiliarized Past in Felix Bruzzone’s Comical Autofictions
The tensions between fact and fiction in Felix Bruzzone’s literature experienced a radical transformation between his 2008 collection of short stories in 76 and the publication of his third novel, Las chanchas (The Female Pigs) (2014).1 This transformation is based on the progressive abandonment of explicit references to Bruzzone’s life (and specifically to the fact that he is the son of disappeared parents) in favour of a more ambiguous, far-fetched and adventurous type of autofiction.2
The stories of 76 were evidently semi-autobiographical and, except for the last in the collection (set in a science-fictional future), were all realist accounts of children on holiday on the beach, young men spending the money received as part of the state’s compensation scheme for the relatives of the disappeared, or people in search of more information about their absent parents. In contrast, Los topos, Bruzzone’s critically acclaimed first novel, published the same year as 76, is a much more experimental and improbable narrative and although its autobiographical material is evident, the conception of autobiography that we find here is quite different from the one found in the stories of 76.
Carlos Gamerro, whose literature has a great deal in common with Bruzzone’s—including the humorous representation of the political conflicts of the 1970s in Argentina—has written, in reference to the constant presence of the Malvinas/Falklands War in his fictions (a war that he did not live first-hand), that “literature can be inversely autobiographical: the story not of what happened to us, but of what might have happened.”3 © The Author(s) 2016
J. Blejmar, Playful Memories, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-40964-1_7
Similarly, in Los topos, Bruzzone presents us with a playful and delirious novel of “What if...?”: What if I had a brother born in the ESMA? What if that brother were a transvestite seeking revenge? What if I fell in love with her without knowing her true identity? For Bruzzone, autofiction is a way to compensate for the lack of information and the lack of certainties that he has as the son of disappeared parents; a way not to tell the life that he has lived but to imagine one of the many lives that he might have lived. Furthermore, for both Gamerro and Bruzzone, literature is not the representation of an experience that exists outside the text but rather an experience in its own right, an experience not so much reflected in words but completed in writing.
In Las chanchas, Bruzzone goes one step further and removes any unequivocal autobiographical traces related to the dictatorship, including references to real places in contemporary Argentina, names of human rights organizations and the disappeared. Instead he replaces these references (which are evident in both 76 and Los topos) with backgrounds, shadows and milieus that evoke, but never quite mention, the Argentine traumatic past. Consequently, Las chanchas detaches itself from any testimonial or documentary strains, thanks to a series of literary procedures, including the presence of non-trustworthy witnesses/narrators, strange locations, science-fictional imaginaries, and a politically incorrect lack of distinction between victims and perpetrators.
Such rarefication is evident, for example, if we contrast the cover of Los topos with the cover of Las chanchas (Fig. 7.1). On the first there is a photograph of a man dressed and posing as a woman, whereas in the second there is the exact same body and dressed in red, but the man’s head has now been replaced by a rabbit’s head in a space hat. What in Los topos was slightly disturbing but still realist, in Las chanchas becomes pure fantasy. The white background on Los topos’ cover has also been substituted by a colourful and rocky Martian landscape.
Given this transformation in his literature, it is thus not surprising that in recent years Bruzzone’s autofictional pact with his readers has also changed. In the “biographical autofictions”4 that made up 76, the writer (masked as a character of his stories) was possibly the protagonist of verisimilar (albeit not “real”) narratives. The stories of this collection presented the characters as being “children of the disappeared,” mirroring Bruzzone’s own biography. This identification between characters and author is reinforced by the title of the book: 76 is the year of the
Fig. 7.1 Book covers for Felix Bruzzone’s Los topos, 2008, and Las chanchas, 2014
coup, the year when Bruzzone was born and the year when his parents were abducted by the military. Moreover, on the back cover there is a quote in the first person taken from “Fumar bajo el agua,” one of the stories in the collection, that states all the facts that correspond to Bruzzone’s life, not only key events that happened in 1976 but also the fact, for example, that he is married to his cousin, Lola. 76 is also described there as an “autobiography, a collection of stories, a protonovel or a broken novel,” thus confirming its “based-on-real-facts” status. The phrase “broken novel” also reminds us of Doubrovsky’s 1989 Broken Book, his second autofiction.
The opening of Los topos also establishes an autobiographical pact with the reader right from its first sentence. The novel—which combines elements from melodrama, thriller, comedy, love story, conspiracy fiction and fantasy—begins when the son of disappeared parents, who lives with his grandmother, Lela, moves from the neighbourhood of Moreno to Nunez, near the former ESMA, where his grandmother believes she will find his other grandson, who she thinks was born in captivity during the
Unlike the realist tone of the stories of 76, however, in Los topos the plot soon mutates into a very bizarre adventure: rather than following the usual quests of children of the disappeared (urban journeys to sites of memory, interviews with former acquaintances of their parents, and the scrutiny of old documents and photographs from the past), the narrator starts another type of journey and a different kind of search. While looking for his lost brother he falls in love with Maira, a transvestite prostitute he suspects might be his lost brother. After a short but intense relationship, Maira suddenly disappears and the narrator decides to look for her, a journey that reunites his search for the past (and his disappeared brother) with his search for a future (symbolized by his love for Maira). At the end, he does not find what he is looking for but the search itself throws up lifechanging surprises.
Crucial here is that in Los topos, autobiography is progressively overtaken by fantasy to the point that it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between what happened in real life and what is the product of the author’s imagination. It remains, however, a very implausible, although not completely unbelievable, autofiction. The things that happened to the protagonist could well have happened in real life. They are strange, surreal and unlikely events, but not unreal ones.
By contrast, with Las chanchas, Bruzzone reaches a completely different level in his exploration of the relationship between writing and experience. Here he does not merely “adapt” his experience to a fictional framework but rather invents a story indifferent to believability. By contrast with what happens with both the opening sentences of the stories of 76 and of Los topos, Las chanchas locates the plot, right from the beginning, in the realm of science fiction: “It is a common afternoon on planet Mars. I take the rubbish out.”5
This opening is reminiscent of the first lines of the second of Ray Bradbury’s Martian chronicles:
They had a house of crystal pillars on the planet Mars by the edge of an
empty sea, and every morning you could see Mrs K eating the golden fruits that grew from the crystal walls, or cleaning the house with handfuls of magnetic dust which, taking all dirt with it, blew away on the hot wind.6
Although the connection between Bruzzone’s novel and Bradbury’s classic book might seem quite obvious, it is still worth mentioning because it highlights Bruzzone’s intention to defamiliarize reality using the traditional strategies of this genre. It is only after establishing the extraterrestrial setting, frustrating the autobiographical pact with the reader, that the locations, characters and plot of this novel become progressively more recognizable for those acquainted with Argentine history. Even then, however, the “spell” has somehow been broken and the reader cannot see Bruzzone the author as the character of his own story any longer.
In this chapter I focus on how Bruzzone achieves the apparently impossible task of bearing witness to the traumatic Argentine past that marked his life without being self-referential. His literature is a defence of (auto) fiction and the power of humor and imagination to “play” with the past, even with its darkest episodes. In addition, I discuss the function of the animals that inhabit Bruzzone’s stories (the titles of two of his three novels refer to animals). Following Gabriel Giorgi’s study on the new literary species of Argentine culture, I suggest that the recurring presence of animals in Bruzzone allow us to read these fictions as what Roberto Esposito, cited by Giorgi, has called “affirmative biopolitics,” a productive politics of life opposed to the “politization of life” and the thanatopolitics that resulted in the massacres of the last century.