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Monstrous Memories

In the fictional film Nariz: Una historia de la ESMA (Nose: An ESMA Story) (2011), Leopoldo “Polo” Tiseira reconstructs the story of Horacio Domingo “Nariz” Maggio, a Montonero militant kidnapped in 1977 and held prisoner in the ESMA. Maggio was one of the few disappeared people who escaped the clandestine torture and detention centre on 17 March 1978. The armed forces found him again a few months later and executed him. During his time outside the camp, however, Maggio wrote a long letter denouncing his captors and also describing how the ESMA functioned, the death flights, the torture sessions and the perpetrators, a letter that became crucial legal evidence in the 2006 trials against the military. He also made a name for himself among the survivors because, following his escape, he used to call the torturers to insult them, threaten them and even mock them.

Nariz: Una historia de la ESMA not only tells this story of resistance and bravery but does so using a very particular group of “actors,” mostly children of people disappeared during the dictatorship who have no professional training. Tiseira, himself son of a disappeared father (Francisco Enrique Tiseira was abducted on 19 April 1976), had asked his friends and fellow members of the Cdh to play different roles in the film. The “children” play the parts of the victims, perpetrators (Massera, Astiz and “Tigre” Acosta) and priests who were accomplices of the military regime; they were also in charge of the production of the film.1

The same year as the premiere of Nariz: Una historia de la ESMA at an informal venue (the film was never officially released and was shown © The Author(s) 2016

J. Blejmar, Playful Memories, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-40964-1_8

only a few times in private screenings), Benjamin Avila released his semiautobiographical film Infancia clandestine (Clandestine Childhood), a cinematic autofiction that blends documentary, animation and acting, and draws on Avila’s own life and his experiences as a child of Montonero militants living underground during the dictatorship. Towards the end of the film, Juan, the twelve-year-old boy who plays the main role in the story, is taken to his grandmother’s house after witnessing the murder of his parents at the hands of the military. The director has a cameo in that final scene as the interrogator who escorts Juan who, in turn, is supposed to be Avila as a child.

Avila’s decision to play the role of the captor was inspired by a scene from Cronica de una fuga (Chronicle of an Escape) (Dir. Caetano 2006), another film about an escape, in this case of four prisoners from the clandestine torture and detention centre known as Mansion Sere. In Caetano’s film, Guillermo Fernandez, one of the real survivors, provided the voice for the interrogator of the character played by Nazareno Casero, whose role was based on the experiences of Fernandez as a prisoner of the dictatorship.

Why would the victims of state terror in Argentina want to play the role of the perpetrators in these productions? What do they gain by putting themselves “in their shoes”? Avila quotes Fernandez to explain his own decision to play the interrogator: “I wanted to be on the other side and somehow feel that I was creating a different space (to talk about the past).”2 Similarly, Ernesto Seman, son of a disappeared father (Elias Seman disappeared on 16 August 1978) and author of Soy un bravo piloto de la nueva China, the novel that I address in this chapter and in which the torturer is one of the main characters, has said that one of the most difficult challenges for him when writing the novel was to develop

an empathy for that “other” who seems incomprehensible to you, but whose actions you still need to understand; only in the context of fiction could I imagine the torturer’s pain, without establishing any moral equivalence with the victims, but at the same time looking for answers beyond being the son of a disappeared father.3

This chapter discusses the issue of what it means for post-dictatorship artists and writers, many of them children of disappeared parents, to play the perpetrator in their cultural memories of trauma, and to empathize with that figure, even if momentarily, a task that, as Seman has rightly said, is perhaps only possible through (auto)fiction.4

Seman’s word choice—the use of “empathize” rather than “sympathize”—in his statement is an important one. For Jill Bennett, empathy is “the most appropriate form of engagement with trauma imagery”5 since it demonstrates how art is capable of transforming perception. In her book Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma and Contemporary Art (2005), she analyzes non-representational art, which she sees as overcoming problems of identification, mimesis and appropriation because it invites viewers to “feel for another [mainly the victim of traumatic events]” at the same time as becoming aware of the distance between the spectators and the other’s irreducible and inaccessible experience of trauma.6 Unlike sympathy, empathy is thus not a merely emotional or affective response but rather an intellectual engagement with the object (or subject) in question. In other words, as Alison Landsberg puts it, if sympathy “is a feeling that arises out of simple identification, often taking the form of wallowing in someone else’s pain,” empathy “does not depend on a ‘natural’ affinity but recognises the alterity of identification and the need to negotiate distances.”7 The experience of empathy creates not only an emotional connection but more importantly a cognitive one. It allows the subject to learn about an experience of pain, trauma and brutality but never to forget the fundamental differences between the victims and the perpetrators.

Ludic memories of other traumatic events have rarely included victims of atrocities in the role of perpetrators in films or performances (as Fernandez or Avila do) or represented them in irreverent fashion in literature (as Seman does). In Argentina there are various examples of artworks that have offered images of the perpetrators in the post-dictatorship culture.8 However, it is only with the arrival of these artists that those who imagine the “other” in their works are also (young) victims of the dictatorship. Moreover, these works are usually playful or humorous, a feature that creates an even more unsettling effect on the viewers/read- ers. Finally, in many of these narratives we find a figure, another actor of the past, who is still unexplored in testimonies or more conventional discourses of memory—namely, the child of the perpetrator(s) who condemns the crimes of their parent(s).9 This particular type of “child” of the dictatorship complicates the memory narratives constructed exclusively around the experiences of the children of the victims and raises important questions about the intergenerational transmission of trauma, such as whether guilt and shame can/should be inherited,10 or to what extent we are responsible for the actions of our parents. In the last section I establish a connection between the presence of monstrous characters in second-generation narratives with the understanding of autofiction as a monstrous type of writing, the result of a laboratory experiment that, as Manuel Alberca puts it, mixes the DNA of different genres to create an androgynous “creature.”11

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