A FRIEND ONCE TOLD ME that her parents took her along to see Saturday Night Fever when she was just seven years old. This shocked me. For many, this movie is nothing more than a nostalgic time capsule for disco and John Travolta. What I remember vividly, though, is the traumatizing backseat gang rape scene. I marveled that adults would take a child to see a movie like this, but my friend reasoned, “I guess when you’ve lived through the Holocaust, there isn’t much left that can shock you.”
This conversation returned to me as I was trying to wrap my head around Argentinian writer Guillermo Saccomanno’s Gesell Dome, a 600-page novel translated by Andrea G. Labinger that is bursting with incest, rape, child abuse, spousal abuse, drug abuse, political corruption, suicide, patricide, matricide, infanticide, all-purpose murder, and torture. Saccomanno has said, “In a country that had concentration camps, one cannot look the other way.”
Saccomanno is a survivor of Argentina’s “Dirty War,” which spawned an estimated 340 secret concentration camps throughout the country. Born in 1948, he was in his late 20s in 1976 when a military coup d’état overthrew the Isabel Perón presidency. In the years during and surrounding the junta’s rule, an estimated 30,000 people disappeared — mainly opponents of the right-wing regime. This era is still fresh in the country’s memory, and its bruised ghosts are a haunting legacy in Gesell Dome, which takes place in the present day.
From April to November in the seaside tourist town of Villa Gesell, as autumn gives way to winter, “the vacuum creeps in […] Here, nothingness tastes like salt. Bodies and hearts grow dull, too. On nights like this, when you walk around here, the corrosion overcomes you.”
This is an understatement if ever there was one, for the off-season in this place is a blitzkrieg of corrosion, bloated with atrocious, overlapping crimes that are coolly described by an unidentified narrator whose telling at times can verge on taunting: “Who’s who in this Villa, who’s each one and who’s the other. And the biggest question of all: who am I, who’s telling this story, who’s writing it.”
This question is never answered, and as for the community of 40,000 inhabitants:
We’re not bad people. We are what we can be. It isn’t much, but it’s quite a lot considering the possibilities in a community that lives from whatever it can earn in two months. If you think about it, it’s not so terrible that barely 10% of the inhabitants have a criminal record. It could be worse.
This, of course, depends on your perspective, and your definition of worse — from where I’m standing, I find it hard to imagine, but I haven’t survived large-scale atrocity.
Saccomanno gives readers a taste of Villa Gesell’s bleak, off-season culture by opening with the suicide of a pregnant middle school girl and a stabbing in a night class. Having warmed up with these grim events, he boosts the misery with a scandal at the reputable Nuestra Señora del Mar, a grade school for children of the upper class. Nineteen kindergarteners are sexually abused, and soon vigilante groups are roaming the city, terrorizing a priest, a homosexual, and anyone else who fits their idea of the kind of person who would commit such a crime.
Meanwhile, as the police investigation begins, a Croatian builder named Dobroslav razes surrounding forestland to construct a twin tower residential development. Because of “laws that forbade cutting a single weed,” this required greasing palms, most notably those of the Quirós brothers who are known collectively as the Kennedys for the power they wield in Villa Gesell. In a place underpinned by corruption, this corrupt act stands out, since the environment is the Villa’s main draw for the million tourists that pass through each year.
Villa Gesell is a real place. Saccomanno has lived in this resort town on Argentina’s Atlantic coast for decades. Like its fictional counterpart it is a tourist destination — its pine forests and beaches are its main attractions — founded by a German man a few years prior to World War II and colonized by Central Europeans.
In Gesell Dome, there are rumors that the town was a haven for Nazi war criminals, many of them scuttling away from Germany with the Führer’s gold. Throughout the novel, people whisper about swastikas and photos from concentration camps hidden in basements, and in one scene, a Jewish woman walks into a bakery and recognizes the kapo from Buchenwald behind the counter. The bakery closes the next day, and the owner vanishes.
But this past, like so much else in Villa Gesell, is pushed down, because of how it would affect tourism. So when the child abuse scandal explodes in the media, Alejo Quirós, a lawyer and the most influential of the Quirós brothers, worries not about the children but about what this news will do to the summer economy if it’s not contained. His concern is exacerbated when a baby is found burned to death in the woods.
There is an undercurrent of suspicion that this heinous act was carried out by the sons of the town’s most influential families, and it mingles with misplaced outrage as the narrator explains, “Even if we had suspected that sooner or later they would pull something, no one ever thought they’d be capable of roasting a Bolita baby, even though it’s not a big deal. Because something serious, I mean really serious, would be, like, kidnapping a blond baby and then setting it on fire.”
This kind of thinking is prevalent in Villa Gesell, a place where German blood still matters and any declines the town has seen over the decades are blamed on half-breeds, moishes, criollos, and illegal immigrants, including the Bolivians whose little Bolita baby was so cruelly murdered. Quirós, naturally, wants this to go away, just as he wants the child abuse scandal and the rumors of Nazi sympathizers to go away.
There are a head-spinning number of main characters in Gesell Dome, but one stands out from the rest. Left-wing journalist Dante arrived in Villa Gesell in the 1970s, “fleeing from terror, like so many others.” Escorting the reader through a modern-day Inferno, this aptly named man is the publisher and sole reporter for the local newspaper, El Vocero, which is owned by Alejo — a circumstance that curtails freedom of speech. Although he has his own issues, he emerges as the sole voice of reason and principle in Villa Gesell’s moral cesspool. I found myself clinging to his appearances throughout the book, the way one clings to a life raft.
As the winter months pass, Dante suspects ulterior motives behind the accusations of sexual abuse in the Nuestra Señora del Mar case, and he becomes vocal with his criticism. He is chastised (and discreetly threatened) by Alejo, who wants Dante to focus on the positive — i.e., not abused children. But as the scandal mutates, so does Dante’s anger at a community that values its reputation and economy more than its people.
The term “Gesell Dome” also has a counterpart in reality. In the early 1900s, Arnold Lucius Gesell, a psychologist, pediatrician, and professor at Yale University — unrelated to Carlos Gesell, who founded Villa Gesell — developed a new way of studying child development. He created the Cámara de Gesell, a dome with one-way glass that allows the observation of children in a controlled environment.
It’s no leap to say that Villa Gesell is Saccomanno’s controlled environment, making his readers the observers looking through the glass. As for the town’s inhabitants, they are trapped inside the dome by corruption, inequity, and the limitations imposed by seasonal employment. Along with the numerous main story lines, countless heartbreaking peripheral stories punctuate the novel. Women, called witches or bitches, are raped and battered. Thugs break into houses, beating the occupants to near death. If an infant isn’t killed by torture, he dies by a falling pinecone during a picnic. Children poke sticks into the wounds of a beached sea lion while their parents watch, amused.
There came a point while I was reading Gesell Dome that I cringed whenever new characters were introduced, wondering what horrible things were going to happen to them. But I somehow knew that, even as a reader, I was not allowed to look away. As I grew weary of horror after horror, all I wanted to do was turn my head — but if I did, then I would become complicit.
By using a narrator who is not shocked, who does not look away from anything, Saccomanno shines a gruesome, graphic light on what people are willing to ignore so that their comfort remains intact. He compounds this with a fearlessness when it comes to rationalization. “We’re not Auschwitz,” the narrator declares, and if someone sexually abuses a few kids, “it’s not the same as Bosnia. Give me a break. There’s no comparison.”
This suggests that pain is about quantity, not quality, which is simply not true. Just ask the mother whose baby has been burned to death, or the child who has been abused. At the same time, as James Baldwin wrote in The Cross of Redemption, “You must understand that your pain is trivial except insofar as you can use it to connect with other people’s pain.”
My friend’s parents — having known barbarity firsthand — could have chosen to shelter their daughter. Dante (who may or may not be Saccomanno) could have looked away. But the moment one does this, all is lost. It is only by looking that we can connect with other people’s pain, and it is only by connecting that we can attempt to make that pain go away.