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Becoming Animals

Bruzzone’s reluctance to write a political pamphlet is most notable in his treatment of the figures of victims and perpetrators. In his literature, none of the characters are entirely victim, nor entirely perpetrator. The members of the human rights organizations that the narrator of Los topos visits when looking for Maira are all “devastated people. Or perhaps not devastated but with an air of devastation.”41 But on the whole in Bruzzone’s fictions the relatives of the victims, and most often the victims themselves, are not so much portrayed as suffering bodies, or at least not only as suffering bodies, but rather as more playful, parodic characters (one of them is called precisely “Ludo”).

In “Sueno con medusas,” for example, a story included in the German translation of 76 and which could be read as a shorter version of Los topos, the narrator imagines that her lovers, Ludo and Romina, are the leaders of new organizations called “NEPHEWS, DAUGHTERS-IN-LAW, I don’t know—in which everyone wears T-shirts with the images of the disappeared that looked like Rock stars.”42 The narrator then describes the fantasy at length, stating at one point that her disappeared aunt looked like Kurt Cobain and that was why people confused her with a Nirvana fan.

In Las chanchas, the kidnappers carry out a “Marcha de los palos de Hockey,” perhaps in allusion to the “Marchas de lospanuelos blancos” organized by the Madres de Plaza de Mayo each Thursday. Andy then also imagines a new testimonial organization called “Madres de los palos.”43 In reference to the way these fictional organizations and marches use the images of the girls in public, Hernan Vanoli has said that they could be read as a reference to the way the cultural system of kirchnerismo exhibits the talented children of disappeared parents in a "show de la Buena con- sciencia.”44 In this polemic reading the relatives of the victims would be the ones “kidnapped” by the state as a means of improving its own image. However, one can also argue that this hypothesis risks treating these artists as objects once again, ignoring the fact that many of them (including Bruzzone) have also made a “show” of their condition of “children oP without being, at the same time, exhibitionists. In one of her blog posts, for example, Perez called her online diary “elshow del temita.” Moreover, in Las chanchas, Mara and Lara also contribute to the “spectacularization” of their own drama. They attend the marches partly to see how famous they are, and they even become disappointed when people start losing interest in their case.

Bruzzone not only avoids a memory of victimhood by playing with the fact that he is the son of disappeared parents but he also presents us with victims that are simultaneously and provocatively perpetrators. In Los topos, Maira is both a victim of the dictatorship and a persecutor of policemen. In Las chanchas the ambiguity of the characters is even greater. Andy, one of the “kidnappers,” ends up being the victim of his own drama, losing control of the girls he has either kidnapped or attempted to protect. Moreover, Gordini is a pale reflection of El Aleman. Whereas El Aleman killed travesties, Gordini only kills animals, and ends up being more pathetic than frightening. Furthermore, Lara’s parents are treated by the media and the people searching for the girls as victims, but they are not really interested in finding their daughter. That indifference might also be seen as a form of crime and abandonment. In sum, the universe of victims and perpetrators in Bruzzone’s literature includes a rather large and diverse set of characters, irreducible to simple stereotypes.

Not only are the characters turned from victims to perpetrators (and vice versa) in the same novels but they also change sides from one novel to the next. In both 76 and Los topos, Romina, for example, joins HIJOS even though she did not have any disappeared relatives, thus becoming a “victim by adoption” rather than by blood or first-hand experience. In Las chanchas we hear her voice for the first time after learning, from Andy’s account, that she organizes the marches to find the girls and that she asks for more security and “mano dura” (she is also a fervent anti-smoking militant), a demand associated in Argentina with the right, and particularly with figures such as Jorge Blumberg or the president of Argentina at the time of writing this book, Mauricio Macri.

Given the blurred boundaries between victims and perpetrators, it is not surprising that Bruzzone’s literature is inhabited by doubles, pairs, conspirators, queer subjectivities, twin siblings, traitors, double agents and aliens, all characters that allude to fragmented and unfixed identities, a common theme of autofictions. In Los topos the narrator also has several nightmares about being cut into pieces. Together with doubles and traitors, Bruzzone’s books are also inhabited by all sorts of animals, a presence that gives his stories a (bio)political status. Emilio Bernini has argued that it is the continuity of fascism in the present, in the family circle and in democracy, that gives Los topos and other fictions their political efficacy.45 The thesis of the continuation of fascism in the present in this novel, for example, is made evident by the fact that the abusive father of Mariano, one of the narrator’s lovers, has killed his wife, and also by the fact that Maira has been abducted by a prostitution mafia, a reminder of the abduction of the narrator’s mother.

I should like to suggest in this last section that together with the thesis of the continuity of fascism in Bruzzone’s work, the presence of animals and, more specifically, of a Deleuzian “becoming animal,” gives Bruzzone’s fictions a (bio)political status. I also argue that this status is linked to a new way of writing the self in post-dictatorship culture.

In Formas comunes: Animalidad, cultura y biopolitica, Gabriel Giorgi traces the presence of the animal/animalistic/animality in contemporary Latin American culture. His study draws on literary fictions from the 1960s onwards, such as Clarice Lispector’s La pasion segun G.H. (1964), Roberto Bolano’s 2666 (2004) and Manuel Puig’s El beso de la mujer arana (1976), as well as on the presence of the slaughterhouse in Argentine literature, and on art installations and documentary films in which the animal functions as a political sign that points to the limits between lives worth protecting and lives abandoned by the state, the market and the logic of capital. Giorgi argues that the animal has recently changed its place in the grammar of culture. For many years it has been seen as the opposite of the human and as a metaphor of the barbarian, the untamed, the savage and the other. More recently, however, a growing number of cultural texts consider the animal not in opposition to but in close connection with the human, not an outsider but an insider of culture, an image (an artefact, as Giorgi calls it) that even defines what we understand as “human.” Indeed, from a biopolitical framework and following Judith Butler, Giorgio Agamben and Roberto Esposito, Giorgi maintains that the animal, in this new conception, points to the lives at stake in economic exploitation, the “bare lives” sent to the slaughterhouses, reified or eliminated.

Culture becomes then what Roberto Esposito, following Deleuze’s last work, Pure Immanence: Essays on a Life, has called an “affirmative biopolitics,” a place where art and literature imagine productive forms of lives that escape complicity or collaboration with that perverse logic; not a politicization of life and the submission of life to politics but instead a politics of (or pro) life. For Giorgi the animal does not appear in these texts as a representation, figuration or metaphor but rather as capturing forces that speak of what cannot be represented, classified or defined.

Bruzzone’s characters could well form part of this new bestiario of Latin American culture analyzed by Giorgi. And it would be easy to compare Bruzzone’s animals with Art Spiegelman’s use of pigs and mice to represent ideas of dehumanization during the Holocaust. But more than that his animals point to the outsiders, outlaws and abandoned lives left by both the dictatorship and the dismantling of the welfare state in Argentina.

Following both Foucault and Agamben, Giorgi argued that the biopolitics of the dictatorship produced the figure of the sovereign, who had the power to decide which lives are worth living and which others could be “sacrificed” without punishment (“we are Gods,” the perpetrators in the clandestine centres used to say).46 The biopolitics of the market, on the other hand, operates under the guidance not so much of the sovereign but of capital. Or, in other words, capital becomes the sovereign that decides which bodies will be exploited and which will be the exploiters. The matarife (slaughterer/butcher) in the slaughterhouses of Argentine culture symbolizes both “the archaic, barbaric and pre-modern violence of the sovereign and the modern violence of capital.”47 He is the quintessential example of both figures: he kills men as if they were animals and in that act he also becomes an “animal.”48 At the same time he sells those bodies as merchandise, as goods, earning money from their control, administration and exploitation. The slaughterhouse thus “deterritorial- izes any ontology between the human and the animal” because in the slaughterhouse “there are no humans or animals but only bodies caught between death and life.”49

That Bruzzone’s characters acquire animalistic, post-human and machinelike attributes, especially in Las chanchas, could be read as a reference to the biopolitics installed by the military regime and continued in democracy in Argentina. It is surely not chance that the titles of two of his three novels refer to animals: topo (mole) is a term used to name traitors in Spanish, and chancha (female pig) is a synonym of “abducted person.” In Bruzzone’s fictions the animals live alongside the main characters, sometimes developing disturbing relationships and blurring the limits between the human and the animalistic. In the short story “Lasfotos de mama” included in 76, Rita, the aunt of the narrator, trains dogs and communicates with the past through ancestral turtles. In Las chanchas, Roberto, Andy’s rabbit, becomes a sort of baby pet for the girls. He also communicates, telepathically, with Gordini. Giorgi has noted that in the texts he analyzes, the animal loses much of its figurative nature and formal definition.50 The crisis of the animal form is, for him, also the crisis of certain logics of representation and the ordering of bodies and species. Similarly, the indistinction between the animal and the human in Bruzzone’s autofictions might also be read as a protest against figuration when dealing with trauma in literature and art.

Most of the dreams and nightmares of the characters also include animals, cyborgs and machines. In Los topos the narrator dreams that he is riding a horse and that when his body starts to ache he disarms it and the parts become machines with springs, screws and valves. The same dream changes into another one in which people with disabilities play and swim with dogs. The protagonist also narrates a dream about a tank going over him and tearing him up, splashing the field with pieces of his body. The same dream then incorporates dolphins and seaweed. And later in a different dream the tank becomes the body of a panther. On top of the panther there are mimes that drink tea and throw the teabags on top of the imprisoned, animalistic body of the narrator. The humidity of the teabags hydrates the narrator’s organic tissues, recomposing them. Furthermore, in the books that Romina reads in Las chanchas, the hero is married to an eagle, that is then transformed into a girl in a story in which half-human warriors also ride birds that fly using turbines. In these dreams, not only does the human become confused with the animal but it is also reduced to organs and biological parts that do not quite form a body.

If these dreams and books suggest that the border between animals, machines and humans might only be confused in the characters’ unconsciousness, or in the fictions that they read, Bruzzone’s narrators also refer to animals and machines to describe how his characters behave when they are awake and in their everyday activities. In Los topos, for example, the workers in Bariloche act as if they were “bionic ants.”51 In Las chanchas, Mara says at one point “we have three rabbits” in reference to Omi (Andy and Romina’s baby), Roberto (a real rabbit) and herself.52 Andy also thinks that Walter and the two other workers who were persecuting the girls “look like animals.”53 He describes Gordini as a “Clown Fish” (Vanoli saw him and Andy as a sort of clownish Batman and Robin) and a “double-agent piranha” with “monkey-like gestures.”54 While telling his life story to the girls he also describes his father’s passivity as an “amoeba reincarnated in a man wearing an overall.”55 Andy also says that Romina has a great sense of smell and that she looks like a dog,56 and he describes the policeman who goes to his house to look for the girls as a “turtle” and a “snake.”57

Towards the end of the novel, in Romina’s testimony, the rabbits reproduce themselves and so do the pigs. In one of the last episodes, one of them even ends up being served as food in a final feast. This image in particular illuminates, like the slaughterhouses in Argentine culture, bodies being both treated as animals by the sovereign (matarife) during dictatorial and democratic times, and also to the bodies used for consumption in the market.

Finally, Bruzzone’s characters defamiliarize the gaze in another, more literal way. They form families, alliances and communities not related by blood ties, suggesting—in tandem with current attempts in Argentina to queer memory politics—that political claims and the memorialization of the past do not necessarily need to be legitimized (only) by biology.58 “I think that the family is the phantom kidnapper in Las chanchas.,” Bruzzone has said.59 In Los topos both Romina and Ludo decide to free themselves of that prison by considering having abortions. In the end, however, Ludo has her child, though it is unclear whether Romina has had hers.

The attempt to queer family ties in Las chanchas is suggested at the start in the famous quote by Jesus that opens the novel. Jesus is talking to a multitude of followers when somebody tells him that his mother and siblings want to talk to him. He thus responds, “who are my mother and my siblings?,” the lesson being, according to the Bible, that his only family is his Christian family and those who follow the will of God, his father. His spiritual family is thus more important to him than his human and biological family. Las chanchas also claims that biological ties do not necessarily define communities or love. This is clear, for example, in the case of Mara’s parents who are not interested in looking for her. Instead, Mara asks Gordini to be her father.60 Mara and Lara act as sisters and Andy as the big brother or “a good uncle.”61 Biological ties and kinship only matter in Bruzzone’s literature insofar as they are the starting point for all the fictions that are constructed around them. At one point in Los topos the narrator says that he cannot complete an administrative form because there is no place for him to state that his parents are disappeared. This episode sums up one of Bruzzone’s claims—namely, that formulaic ideas of what a family is do not always coincide with the reality of more complex experiences, relations and communities, particularly after the 1976 coup. The blank space in the genealogical tree must thus be filled with fictions and endless stories.

Felix Bruzzone uses autofictions to propose a way of writing the self in which the mere exposition of a distressed subjectivity is replaced by more playful and humorous explorations of the effects of trauma on identities. His books are lucid reflections on how the figure of the victim in post-dictatorship Argentina has been “kidnapped” by different politics of memory, the state and family narratives, and also cultural reappropriations of the past. As a result, this figure is often at risk of becoming a mere parody of itself. Bruzzone does not claim that literature is therefore a sort of utopian practice that frees memory from all these prisons and delivers the “true” image of the past. Quite the opposite. For him, literature is another prison for memory: “to write is also another form of kidnapping,”62 he affirms.

With Las chanchas, Bruzzone achieves the apex of self-fictionalization. “I do not write chronicles,” he recently said in an interview, “but pure fiction,” adding that “we writers of fiction prefer not to double-check that the facts that we are telling are true facts.”63 While many books and testimonies of the immediate post-dictatorship period attempted to testify to what happened in Argentina as faithfully as possible, he goes exactly in the opposite direction, taking his characters to Mars, giving them animalistic and robotic features, and proving that fiction can be testimonial without being (self-)referential.

In this sense, Bruzzone’s fictions do not focus so much on how he deals with being the son of disappeared parents (we know surprisingly little about his family, his mourning processes or his searches) but rather on how various discourses (of the state, human rights or literature) have constructed an image of people like him. In this vein it would be inaccurate to classify his autofictions as examples of the centrality of the intimate, the autobiographical and the so-called subjective turn. Giorgi argues that contemporary cultural texts that focus on the animal remind us that “life is irreducible to an I,” and that the bios that the autobiographical impulse wants to appropriate under the sign of subjectivity—a signature, a “person”—is always rebellious.14 Giorgi mentions a series of writers who use autofiction, including Sylvia Molloy, Pablo Perez, Paloma Vidal and Fernando Vallejo, and who work with an intimacy that is less the space where the subject can say I than a departure point for interrogating their own identity. These are texts that are born out of the certainty that a life cannot be summarized by the notion of the individual. Bruzzone’s autofictions are inscribed in that trend, using self-narration to stress precisely the collective nature of the self.

The endings of his writings are usually happy, with the characters reunited in a bucolic place, eating together and awaiting a positive future. But it would be naive to believe that these stories end here, as we have already learnt that these characters will return in new adventures, whether reincarnated in other characters, domestic animals, cyborgs or creatures living in alien worlds.

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