“WATERBOARDING” wasn’t a normal English word until after 9/11. Now it’s a meme. It’s turned up in a protest video by Pussy Riot; it was tested in real life by Christopher Hitchens; it’s been championed as a basic hardass tactic by Donald Trump. (“I would bring back waterboarding,” he said in a February debate. “I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”) Ever since Dick Cheney convinced the American public that simulated drowning should belong to the range of acceptable harm for US officials to inflict on prisoners, torture has trotted like a showgirl onto the stage of popular culture, where it used to be taboo.
Ingrid Betancourt’s first novel, The Blue Line, has enough powerful descriptions of torture to scare a reader straight. The novel is reminiscent of Betancourt’s memoir, Even Silence Has an End, about her six and a half years of captivity by Marxist rebels in the Colombian jungle. Betancourt has called her protagonist Julia’s odyssey through secret Argentine prisons “a reverse biography” because, while the stories are very different, some of the violence has been painted from personal experience.
The Blue Line skips in short scenes between Julia’s latter-day American exile in Connecticut and her long nights of incarceration for political activism in the 1970s, during Argentina’s “Dirty War.” Along with a lover named Theo, she becomes one of los desaparecidos, the disappeared, under President Juan Perón’s reactionary third term in office.
The fictional lives of Julia and Theo entwine with the real historical fate of the activist Father Carlos Mugica, one of Latin America’s best-known liberation theologians. The novel also shows the hangover of Perón’s late misrule into the near-present day.
It’s a “reverse biography” because the politics are flip-flopped — Betancourt herself was not abused by a far-right government like Perón’s but by the far-left FARC guerrillas. They kidnapped her and part of her entourage in Colombia, while Betancourt was running as a Green Party candidate for president in 2002. She was held in a series of camps and prisons in the rainforest, sometimes in a cage. “In the vastness of the jungle, where everything was lacking except for space,” she wrote, “the guerrillas had chosen to confine us in a narrow, insalubrious place whose conditions led to nothing but crowding and conflict.” She escaped systematic torture but not rape, confinement in chains, beatings with chains, beatings with rifle muzzles, and threats of execution.
Such savage mistreatment isn’t a question of politics. It belongs to the desperate and the degraded, from the developing world to Washington, DC. “The character [of Julia] was inspired by a woman with whom I became friends, who was actually arrested and tortured,” Betancourt explained to a French newspaper, Le Figaro, hoping to put some daylight between herself and her novel when it came out in France in 2014. “I was kidnapped by an extreme left organization, my Argentine friend by a far-right dictatorship. These crimes have no ideology.”
Julia and Theo and some of their friends belong to an underground resistance group called the Montoneros. When the Perón government snares them in its archipelago of unofficial prisons, its thugs find strange pleasure in trying to extract information:
Julia heard Adriana screaming over the music playing in the background. She raised her head and saw the young girl struggling in a nightmare. Then came the electric shock. A black hole, and then her whole being shattered under the pressure of millions of needles speeding through her veins in an endless circuit running from her head to her toes and back again. The electric particles split her skin, exploded inside her limbs, and pierced every cell in her body. Julia felt liquefied, crushed from the inside, burned alive as if by a stream of acid.
Suddenly the intensity of the voltage increased, as did the deafening volume of opera music that reverberated inside her head, accompanying the infernal pain that shook her. The current plowed a furrow deep into her bowels. Julia had no eyes, no lungs, no stomach. She was torn apart, impaled, jerked like a hooked fish above the wire mesh; she had no existence outside of her suffering.
Julia foresees not just her own torture, but also Father Mugica’s murder in 1974, and Theo’s infidelity much later in Connecticut. She’s clairvoyant. Now and then she comes down with migraine-like symptoms — seizures, flashes of light — and glimpses mysterious but crucial moments of the future through other people’s eyes. The first vision occurs when Julia is five or six, and the only person who understands it in her dusty poor neighborhood is her grandmother, Mama Fina. The gift skips generations, Mama Fina explains. No one else knows about it. “My grandmother used to call it the ‘inner eye,’” she says. “Only a few girls in our family receive it.”
It makes Julia a Cassandra, a crazy wise-woman who sees the future. The conceit helps Betancourt hold her fractured story together. It also feels forced and thin. Her publishers call it “magical realism,” but by now that’s just industry jargon for something that can’t happen in real life but does happen in Latin American novels. Betancourt’s flights of fancy lack the poetic force of the surrealism in Borges or García Márquez.
Her novel would like to take up position somewhere between Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden and just about anything by Isabel Allende. The sensibility is feminine, experienced, and politically aware. Betancourt draws a distinction between Theo, who clings to his rage after prison, and Julia, who finds a way to move on. The difference is stirring to think about but not quite realized in the novel’s language, translated from the French by Lakshmi Ramakrishnan Iyer and Rebekah Wilson. Betancourt has spent half her life as a politician, and the book has a public demeanor, a formal voice that overshadows the intimate human drama.
But the prison scenes are urgent and dark. They’re a reminder that the taboo against torture in the US and Europe during most of the 20th century was a cultural achievement, no matter how incomplete. It didn’t last long. Now even our language of torture is callous and glib, and the degrading effect on the culture is hard to miss.
Trump walked back his determination to torture after a scolding by military figures in March, then hinted he would broaden American law to get the job done anyway. He wasn’t the only presidential hopeful this year to favor waterboarding: every major Republican candidate on the campaign trail wants to reverse Obama-era legislation against it, and Ted Cruz has wondered all over again whether it meets the “recognized definition of torture.” (It does.) Frat boys think it’s okay to indulge in the same blurry language — university “hazing” parties have included actual waterboarding — and the Pussy Riot protest video, however well-meaning, is just a few steps away in taste and style from a 2008 waterboarding scene in the Danny DeVito sitcom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. (“I like what I’m seein’ here, Frank!”) Such easy descriptions of torture shift attention from the dank and wretched reality behind the word.
Betancourt, thank God, isn’t so glib. And she’s right — these crimes have no ideology.
Michael Scott Moore is the author of an LA novel, Too Much of Nothing, and a travelogue about surfing called Sweetness and Blood, which The Economist named a best book of 2010.