BUENOS AIRES, Argentina’s sprawling capital, is the backdrop for two new novels, Ingrid Betancourt’s The Blue Line and Hélène Grémillon’s The Case of Lisandra P. Both authors set their stories and their female protagonists against the backdrop of the country’s most recent military dictatorship, from 1976–1983, and the brutality of its underground killing machine.
For her part, Betancourt smartly smudges the line between the personal and the political — showing how, if such a line even exists, it does so in the way that a far horizon can be either sea or sky, or both at the same time. In her depiction of what life was like for so many people in Latin America late in the 20th century, the political is terrifyingly personal, and the personal is always political. Life continues to jar even after the country’s trauma has ended. A former victim might bump into his kidnapper on a bus. A man can unknowingly fall in love with the daughter of his torturer.
The Blue Line focuses on Julia, now settled in suburban life in the US and approaching middle age, and her attempt to pull her life together as her marriage flounders. We also see her younger life, crossing the sea-like Río de la Plata from Uruguay to Buenos Aires with her family as a little girl, falling in love with Theo as a young woman, the couple embracing extreme political activism, enduring torture and then giving birth in a clandestine jail, managing to make it into exile, raising a son without knowing for a while whether his father is dead or alive, and finally settling down to see the stability for which she fought so hard begin to falter.
And there is even more to Julia than her dramatic story. She has an “inner eye,” a condition handed down through generations to special members of her family, allowing her to anticipate events. The temptation here is to consider that Betancourt is indulging in her own version of magical realism. But the revelation of Julia’s gift is thrust upon the reader almost immediately, rather than released in little magical doses that would make you tingle with surprise. At best, it’s an experiment that goes awry well before the book’s conclusion.
The Blue Line is not without its own stylistic merits, though, and is almost flawless when describing the bizarre Argentine political contexts of the 1970s. The seasons, the events, are juggled and juxtaposed much in the way they would be in a person’s mind, allowing for a more vivid understanding of Argentina’s infamously turbulent political past than a straightforward history could provide. In The Blue Line you’ll bump into El Brujo José López Rega (the esoteric private secretary to President Juan Perón who established the right-wing death squads ahead of the dictatorship), the left-wing Peronist guerrillas Montoneros, and, perhaps more significantly, father Carlos Mugica. Mugica was the Third World Catholic priest who worked in a slum in the heart of Buenos Aires, Villa 31, and was gunned down before the dictatorship rose to power in 1976. The slain priest is to this day revered in the slum, which still exists and is still growing very close to a towering Sheraton Hotel. His unwavering commitment to serving the poor can be considered part of the essential influence now driving Pope Francis, who, like Mugica, was born and preached in Buenos Aires. Betancourt, unfortunately, has not risen to the risk of throwing such a complex historical figure into a novel; she has not delved deep enough to make Mugica into a real-life character.
More successful is Grémillon’s The Case of Lisandra P., set in the post-dictatorship Argentina of 1987, by then a bankrupt nation whose citizens struggle to attain life’s basic necessities while the democratic government of Raúl Alfonsín dithers between jailing former junta leaders and allowing the lower-ranking torturers to roam free. Grémillon tells the tale of psychoanalyst Vittorio Puig, who is arrested on suspicion of having thrown his beautiful young wife to her death off their sixth-floor apartment’s balcony. (Buenos Aires is famously a brooding swamp-city, to quote Pope Francis, “at the end of the world,” full of shrinks and patients, and the name Puig is a reference, perhaps, to the late Argentine novelist Manuel Puig — a master novelist, often parodying pop culture using the voices of the average Buenos Aires residents.) Eva Maria, a middle-aged patient to the psychoanalyst, takes it upon herself to get to the bottom of this suspected murder — initially with the intention of clearing her shrink. She makes for an original, if unlikely, detective while meanwhile also trying to accept that her missing daughter may have been eliminated by the military.
But the real hero of this story may well be the victim of Puig’s crime: his wife Lisandra. Consumed by jealousy, Lisandra hunts for lovers lusting for the kind of passion she thinks her husband no longer has for her, and she even seems ready to sacrifice her life to turn her tormentor into her victim, framing him for her own death. At times, Lisandra’s existential angst sounds like it might have been pulled directly out of one of those turbid 1920s tango lyrics for which Buenos Aires is famous.
Grémillon does occasionally drop a quote from a tango lyric into the narrative. It works so well that you almost wish she’d taken this stylistic recourse a little further, effectively making more of a nod to Puig (the novelist, not the jailed husband). Still, the book doesn’t lack for style. The Case of Lisandra P. kicks into a frenzy when Eva Maria gets drunk and lets her wine-fueled mind race into thoughts of Vittorio’s guilt, at which point the book suddenly transforms into a thriller and the prose takes on a mysterious exactitude reminiscent of Franz Kafka.
In Grémillon’s novel, the brutality of the dictatorship is ingrained in every character’s psyche — whether they know it or not — as they play out their existence in the grim yet somehow voluptuous Buenos Aires of 1987. A police state, after all, is essentially about instilling the right amount of paranoia in the population, and then feeding off it — even after that police state has nominally collapsed. An almost complete lack of ethics feels almost normal. That is the case for Lisandra P.
There isn’t a character in the novel that you can be too sure of. The psychoanalyst husband desperately pleading his innocence might have been the secret-service shrink who tried to mentally destroy the pianist held as a political prisoner. One of his patients may have been a torturer who snatched babies from their mothers, held as political prisoners in clandestine detention centers. Anyone in the city could be one of Lisandra’s many occasional lovers. And the tango dance teacher could end up being, well, nothing more than an affable tango teacher in his 70s. Lisandra is the only dead person in the book, but practically all the other characters in this novel, fascinatingly so, are also victims — if they are not also tormentors.
These two books hold gripping stories about lives spent in, and by, a repulsive context that will linger in the mind. Even when they don’t fully meet expectations.
Martín Gambarotta is a news editor and political columnist with the Buenos Aires Herald. He has three volumes of poetry published: Punctum (1996, republished in 2011), Seudo (2000, republished in 2014), and Relapso+Angola (2005).