Lucia Buttaro
Adelphi University

The above mentioned campaign saw the capture, torture, disappearance and death of thousands of people. Most of those subjected to the military regime’s terror tactics were innocent victims. In the face of widespread state sponsored torture and repression, self-censorship and exile – both inner and outer – was the price that many people, especially the intellectuals, paid for survival, since “the least hint of opposition could result in “disappearance” [Skidmore, 99]. Discourses on the guerra sucia multiplied especially after the end of the dirty war.

The events of the guerra sucia and its aftermath were cloaked in an atmosphere of denunciation and fear which left a profound impact on society. Thomas Skidmore and Peter Smith write that “the repression and subsequent search for justice would leave a deep scar on Argentinean society” [102-103]. While the guerra sucia and its aftermath saw the emergence of an atmosphere of denunciation and fear, the events have also influenced the nation’s culture as part of their legacy as evidenced by some of Argentina’s post dirty war cultural production. The influence is especially tangible in the field of literature and cinema.  Gabriel García Márquez, the celebrated Colombian author, is known to have said that in Latin America it is them, those who suffered  and women of letters who write the truth, not the historians. It is therefore no surprise that the exposition of the truth, the denunciation of the abuses, and the preoccupation of many writers and filmmakers in the years following (and even during) the guerra sucia (otherwise known as “The Dirty war”).

In this paper, I examine some of the literary and filmic narratives from Argentina that make the dark and somewhat obscure terror filled era of the dirty war their subject. My objective is to highlight and clarify certain elements and features of these discourses that more often than not, implicitly and indirectly evoke the trauma of the period and address the sociopolitical experience of this part of the Southern Cone as it relates to violence, repression and exile. In this paper, I first discuss the phenomenon of forgetfulness that prevails in these narratives and the manner it is tied to the idea of censorship. In the second part of this paper, I focus on the discernable influence of French critical theory on the chosen dirty war narratives. I highlight the manner in which Argentinean writers and movie makers draw from French critical theory to narrate the dirty war.

Amnesia and Silence
One of the films that takes up the theme of disappearance is La Historia Oficial  [“The Official Story”] which won the Oscar in 1984 for the best foreign film. Set in the final years of the military dictatorship, it depicts a well off history professor from the bourgeois class who, although a sterile woman, is the mother of an adopted girl thanks to her husband who has ties with the military. Alicia, the protagonist, begins to gain cognizance of the truth when she begins to have suspicions about her husband’s dark deeds when she stumbles upon what is possibly  a torture session. Another turning point is when she meets a grandmother searching for her little missing granddaughter just like all the older women in search of their missing loved ones that congregate in the Plaza de Mayo, in Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina. Circumstances, her investigations, and her quest for the biological mother of her daughter make her reconsider the “official story” and she learns what has really happened in her country.1 A student in her class declares that history is written by assassins who hide the truth. As Damien Cannon points out, it is her students who are “routinely disbelieving of written records,” and contest the history written by assassins (the military) while to the “bourgeois and protected Alicia these actions are incomprehensible.” While she awakens to the truth ultimately, it is ironic that she is depicted as a history professor who has no memory/knowledge of the recent past. These kinds of contextual elements are significant because what is implied is that history is nothing more than memory and that memory is very important for a society because if there is no memory then there is no real history. Memory, or rather its binary opposite, is a key thematic element in this film which reminds us that society needs to remember and keep its memories alive for the sake of the truth.

In La historia oficial, (The Official Story) individual oblivion (Alicia’s) perhaps serves as a symbolic substitute for the amnesia of the elite social class. Such a sociological interpretation makes all the more sense if one considers Skidmore’s assertion that the anti-guerilla campaign had the tacit and often explicit support of the influential middle class [99]. Similarly, in Soy paciente, a novel by Ana María Shua, whose ambiguous title may be translated as “I am Patient” or alternatively as “I am a Patient”, we encounter more instances of the loss of individual and collective memory. A nameless patient stays in a hospital without knowing why he is there. He is told by the doctors that they do not know what his illness is. In the beginning, the patient wishes to go away and thinks about characters like James Bond who have the ability to escape from any situation but eventually becomes resigned to his fate. He realizes he may never escape and surrenders to the doctors.2 This novel was written during the era of the military dictatorship and is interpreted as an allegory with the metaphor of a sick society that is ministered to by an authoritarian government. Sick society, although harsh in terms of definition, is due to the fact that when one stops questioning everything that surrounds him/her and “abnormal” things become the “norm”; then this is quite dangerous. There were after all, those who did believe that: “si no hiciste nada malo, no tenés por qué preocuparte” (If you did nothing wrong, there is no need for you to worry). The question is then, what is defined as “right” and “wrong?”The text represents oblivion as a survival strategy. At the time of the narrator’s interview with the director and his secretary, they inquire why he wants to leave the hospital and ask him to enumerate three reasons. But the poor narrator who is also the ingenuous and innocent protagonist has already undergone a slow process of degradation by then and cannot recall a single reason. He finds his head to be empty.  The text does not make it definitive whether his memory failure stems from self-imposed censorship and the inner exile to which he has taken recourse in order to survive or whether it stems from an external censorship exercised by his persecutors. What is clear is that it is dangerous for him to speak. He senses danger and is aware that he feels he is under threat. Moreover, the question of who is going to listen compounds the situation. Forgetfulness for the narrator-protagonist in Soy Paciente occurs in a repressive setting and as a victim there is no exit for him. He finds himself in a Kafkaesque situation and his loss of memory serves as the only available expedient for survival.

Guerra Sucia narratives depict yet another manifestation of self-censorship in the form of desire for the loss of memory which occurs ex post facto when the characters want to forget the past as in Julio Cortázar’s short story tiled La escuela de noche“The Night School.” At the very outset we see the traumatized narrator who is haunted by his memories begin his story by declaring the following: “De Nieto ya no sé nada ni quiero saber. Han pasado tantos años y cosas, a lo mejor todavía está allá o se murió o anda afuera. Más vale no pensar en él… [Of Nieto I don’t know anything any more and neither do I want to know. So many years have passed and so many things have happened. Maybe he is still there or maybe he died or maybe he is roaming somewhere outside. It’s better not to think about him…”; This kind of self – censorship is thematically further developed in the film Un Muro de silencio, “A Wall of Silence,” which has historic reconstruction as its theme. The film portrays the character of Sylvia whose husband has disappeared during the dictatorship. An Englishwoman, in other words a foreigner, arrives in Buenos Aires to make a film on this historic period (1976-1986). Since the protagonist of this film is to be based on Sylvia, the English director begins to delve into Sylvia’s past. Sylvia now has a new husband. Everyone wants to forget the past but is forced to remember due to the nature of the project: a film based on past events. The foreign director asks troubling questions and everyone has to help her put the pieces together. Bruno, Sylvia’s new husband accuses the English moviemaker in the end that his wife was happier earlier but isn’t anymore because the painful memories have come back. She had lost her first husband but had erased the memories and the pain. Everyone had forgotten the traumatic past and had voluntarily abandoned memory. In this film, the silence of all the characters represents their loss of memory. It is interesting that the reconstruction of history takes place with the intervention of a foreigner because of the total collective loss of memory – that of Sylvia and her entourage. It is the presence and the curiosity of someone from the outside – the gaze of the foreigner – that resucitates memory and the truth despite the reluctance of the Argentineans to do so for themselves.

The examples included in this discussion indicate the prevalence of an overarching thematic constant in the Argentinean Guerra Sucia narratives, namely the loss of memory. Oblivion comes across in these texts as the apotheosis of self-censorship, a coping mechanism in the face of trauma. Anthropologist Antonius Robben writes:

The examples included in this discussion indicate the prevalence of an overarching thematic constant in the Argentinean Guerra Sucia narratives, namely the loss of memory. Oblivion comes across in these texts as the apotheosis of self-censorship, a coping mechanism in the face of trauma. Anthropologist Antonius Robben writes:

There is a common assumption that individuals and societies alike need to repress traumatic events for extended periods before they are able to confront and mourn them. Psychoanalysis states that people resort to repression or dissociation to protect themselves from memories too painful and destabilizing to admit to consciousness [Brett, 1993; Freud, 1920, p. 12-18; Mitchell and Black, 1995, p. 118-122]. Similar ideas have been expressed about genocides, massacres, and especially the Holocaust. “The traumatic event is repressed or denied and registers only belatedly [nachtraglich] after the passage of a period of latency. This effect of belatedness has of course been a manifest aspect of the Holocaust, [p. 123].

Studies such as those conducted by Robben on accounts of terror and violence in Argentina show that “there is a similarity with contemporary accounts of the Jewish holocaust” [76]. He also asserts that the problem with accounts of violence is that “traumatic experience can only reach us through the distortion of words” [75]. In other words, they are difficult to convey directly. However, while for the victims and survivors of the Holocaust, memory, remembrance, and the desire to tell and make known the experience were of capital importance as Elie Wiesel indicates in “The Holocaust as Literary Inspiration,” the Argentinean victim, as depicted in the Argentinean novel and film, does not exhibit this trait but rather finds refuge in silence that is voluntary. We thus find the Guerra Sucia text displaying a curious paradoxical characteristic: at the narrative level – at the level of the characters – silence, oblivion, and amnesia stand out as dominant elements although that is not the case at the level of the author, who, through the silence, oblivion, and amnesia of the characters, is denouncing the dirty war and its ravages as a witness.

Invariably, the authors and cineastes who have dealt with the theme of the dirty war are committed intellectuals with a cause. Their objective is the representation of truth: the trauma of the dirty war. Their works are their reaction to the brutality of state repression. The author-intellectual is not silent or forgetful.

Embedded Theories

In the second part of this paper, I investigate another aspect of Guerra Sucia narratives. A closer look at three novels and films reveals that these narratives share a certain affinity with French postmodern theory. Flora Schiminovich argues that “unas de las tendencias de nuestra época es la de valorar las obras literarias por la mayor o menor cantidad de planteamientos teóricos implicados en la lectura de esas obras. A su vez, la teoría se nutre de la literatura para poder manifestarse” [“one of the tendencies of our present era is to value literary works to the degree that theory may be developed in the reading of those works. Theory, in turn, derives sustenance from literature in order to manifest itself”; (136)]. It appears that Argentinean intellectuals who have created dirty war narratives reflect a certain propensity for French critical theory. In this portion of my paper, I discus the manner in which French critical theory finds its parallels in the literary and cinematographic works of these intellectuals. My aim is not necessarily to prove the influence of French postmodern theory on Argentinean cultural production but rather to reveal how it can inform our understanding of the methods used by Argentinean writers and filmmakers to represent the atrocities of the dirty war.As a first example I wish to draw attention to the correspondence between the ideas propounded by Michael Foucault and Eliseo  Subiela’s film, a so called science fiction thriller entitled Hombre mirando al sudeste [“Man Facing Southeast”] in which a patient in a mental hospital claims to be extraterrestrial. This film is really a commentary on three categories of illness: mental, social and statal. The mental hospital that is the setting of the film is charged with symbolic value. The mental asylum serves to reflect the state of the country. The madness of Rantes, the protagonist, is a form of subversion because it threatens the order desired by the psychiatric establishment as exemplified in the climatic scene of the concert in the park where the codes and protocol are subverted as Rantes, “suddenly infected by human feelings, takes over the orchestra and conducts Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as the audience and hospital patients break into a Dionysian dance” [Schuman]. In fact, it is nothing but his difference, his divergence from the norm that constitutes his madness – a norm established by and belonging to the authorities. While Rantes is a patient, a lunatic for the authorities of the establishment, the spectator finds that Rantes does not have the characteristics of a deranged person but in fact incarnates Christ-like compassion. In an environment filled with repression and psychological violence, he is the only one who has compassion, feelings and understanding for others. He is the only one who has insight into the insanity of “normal society” and into the terrifying reality of the human condition. His “madness” is depicted in terms of positive qualities. In the film we see Rantes helping others, giving food to the hungry, offering his own coat to a fellow inmate, etc. His madness represents his denunciation of a society wherein “human stupidity” reigns supreme. As he says, the mental hospital is the best place for him to tell the truth because outside, nobody is likely to believe him. He also tells Julio, the doctor “treating” him and giving him his medications that the patients are the sane ones because they do not “subscribe to the blatant stupidity of the so-called normal people” [Schuman].

Michael Foucault, who in Madness and Civilization traces the history of madness as a social construct, reports that the seventeenth century “houses of confinement” were “houses of correction” – places where a mixed group of people, such as the vagabonds, the unemployed, the sick, the criminals and not just the insane were sent. Their confinement was a “massive phenomenon” because as marginal groups they posed a risk to social order “no differentiation was made between them” [Sarup, 61]. Such asylums, designed to suppress the potential sources of social disorder evolved into instruments of moral uniformity – juridical spaces where one was accused, judged and condemned [Sarup, 63]. We have the same concept in Hombre mirando al sudeste where Rantes, because of his ideological divergence (his lucidity about the insanity of “humans” [the establishment] and his marginality (he claims he is “an extraterrestrial alien”), is held captive so that he can be treated for his insanity. He does not belong in “sane” society and poses a risk to the order that the authorities have imposed. The film madness to divergence and dissidence, reminding us that during the Guerra Sucia dissidents were often dispatched to mental hospitals.

Attribution of madness is also present in Un muro de silencio. The film depicts the mothers looking for their “disappeared children”. Skidmore writes that:

The only protestors who managed to defy the generals were a small group of older mothers who met spontaneously every afternoon to march around the Plaza de Mayo in downtown Buenos Aires prominently displaying the names and pictures of their missing children. Hesitant at first, they courageously stood their ground when police and military harassed them with threats and intimidation. By some miracle the women were allowed to continue. Were these men, normally so ready to brutalize any suspect, now afraid to attack mothers, the supreme symbol of the values they claimed to be defending? [99].

The plaza, as the focal point of political life in Buenos Aires, is a masculine space that represents masculine power. The mothers represent resistance against the repressive order. They organize protests in the Plaza de Mayo and in doing so effect a transgression by invading a masculine space. As the mothers subvert masculine power, they get labeled locas, “mad women”. According to Jacques Lacan, “madness is a discourse, an attempt at communication, that must be interpreted. We have to understand rather than give casual explanations… We cannot separate a person’s psychology from his or her personal history” [Sarup 7]. The mothers of the plaza are communicating the disappearance of their children, a fact that the authorities deny. They are, however, viewed as insane for the same reasons as Rantes: they are marginal and subversive.This brings us to the second example that demonstrates how French critical theory finds echo in the Argentinean dirty war literary and cinematographic narratives. There seems to be a parallel between Jean-Francois Lyotard’s ideas and Luisa Valenzuela’s writing and descriptive styles. Her short story “Cambio de armas,” [“Other Weapons”] is recounted through the consciousness of a woman who is the captive sex slave of a man, a military officer, who claims to be her husband. She does not have any memory of the past including that of her own identity. She refers to herself as the so-called Laura because that is what she has been told her name is. Held prisoner and suffering from induced amnesia, she is repeatedly subjected to abjection and violation which she can only narrate synchronously in language which for her has broken down and which she has trouble accessing. His visits are for her a source of both pleasure and humiliation. The text depicts the female body as the site where power and oppression are exercised. A distinguishing feature of this narrative is the effect that is produced through fragmentation. Laura Sesana writes that by subverting the language accepted by an oppressive and patriarchal society to talk about feminine sexuality, Valenzuela also violates and transcends political censorship and represents that which is prohibited. The structure of the text itself is fragmented consisting of distinct parts with titles such as “words”, “the concept,” “the photograph, and “the well,” each one an allegory that renders the reading a decoding. There is symbolic value in each category and its decoding provides access to the experience of the woman who is being subjected to diverse forms of destruction and degradation. The raping or violation of the body causes the mind to fragment itself. The whole thus becomes an accumulation of “parts,” the body separated from the mind.  Madan Sarup writes that “rejecting totality, Lyotard and other postmodernists stress fragmentation – of language games, of time, of the human subject, of society itself” [147]. He also argues that the purpose of rejecting organic unity and the espousing of the fragmentary is the deliberate dissolution of unity.

The text displays fragmentation in mise-en-abyme style. As the organic unity of the narration is destroyed, there is also a fragmentation of the representation of the body of the female character and of her experience. The technique provokes the reader to distance herself and reflect on the text as it describes an unspeakable experience.  Fragmentation of narration and representation is a technique that Luisa Valenzuela may have found more effective as an author to articulate trauma which perhaps wouldn’t otherwise be rendered so powerfully if narrated directly. By having the victim do the narration, there is a risk of “self inflicted censorship”, otherwise known as “selective memory.” Trauma may cause one to remember certain things but to “forget” others.

Valenzuela also seems to reflect the ideas of Lacan. As already mentioned, in “Cambio de armas,” the male perpetrator symbolizing the military dictatorship is depicted destroying the identity and psyche of the female through torture, drugs and sequestration. One of the ways he degrades the woman is with mirrors on the ceiling. He commands her, “abrí los ojos y mirá bien lo que te voy a hacer porque es algo que merece ser visto,” “open your eyes and look carefully at what I’m going to do to you because it is something well worth seeing” [122]. He wants to dominate her completely with his power. For Lacan, “one can only see oneself as one thinks others see one” [Sarup 13]. While the woman has no recollection of her identity or memory, she resists her psychological degradation. She uses her victimizer as a mirror to construct an identity. Lacan believes that we try to reduce the other to an instrument – a mirror [Sarup 13]. According to him, the first articulation of “I” occurs in the mirror stage as it prefigures the whole dialectic between alienation and subjectivity [Sarup, 8]. Laura, in “Cambio de armas,” reconstructs herself and her identity with the help of the mirrors on the ceiling that “multiply and destroy” the image of her persecutor [124]. As Lacan states, “our fantasies are symbolic representations of the desire of wholeness” [Sarup 16]. The character of Laura reflects this idea.


To conclude, my examination of Guerra Sucia narratives reveals that loss of memory is a recurring theme in these narratives, a simulacrum of the collective amnesia that was imposed on the people during the dirty war and is part of the Argentinean sociopolitical experience. Oblivion or the loss of memory is linked to exile – both inner and outer, to (self)-censorship, but also to denunciation, torture, terror, and violence. It is driven by trauma as well as by aspirations for freedom. As literary narratives, these narratives are also rich for the way they permit engagement with theory, particularly French critical theory. There is another level of richness contained in these works. Catherine Boyle reports that according to Ana María Shua whose Soy paciente used a “brutalized hospitalization as a metaphor for the country, writers inside the country were “the kings of euphemism,” their language “made out of allusions,” [757]. The authors and cineastes who have addressed the topic of the dirty war have used various strategies and devices such as humor, caricature, irony, allegory, symbolism, grotesqueness, and spatial and temporal metaphors to distance themselves from the direct articulation of trauma, to overcome censorship and to give voice to the oppressed. I have found that speaking to Argentinians within Argentina would differ drastically from speaking to Argentinians in the United States. There was/is still the fear of “being caught saying something wrong”; the looking over one’s shoulder as one speaks, the avoidance of having certain topics discussed via phone and preferring “face to face” meetings. The examination of these devices constituting the literary richness of these works would have to be the object of another study. Conflating history with function, these narratives are first and foremost political commentaries by literary craftspeople.


1Thomas Blommers writes: “Marguerite Feitlowitz in her exhaustive study of the period of the Dirty war, A Lexicon of Terror, notes that most pregnant detainees were killed after giving birth and their babies were sold to families of the military or police. She states that, “The baby’s biological ties and family identity had to be erased, lest it fulfill its “genetic destiny” and become a guerilla” (p. 67).

2I have adapted the condensed synopsis from the following online source:


Blommers, Thomas, “Social and Cultural Circularity in La Historia oficial.” 11 Feb.2008.

Boyle, Catherine. Rev. of Narrativas de la Guerra Sucia en Argentina: Piglia, Saer,Valenzuela, Puig, by Jorgelina Corbatta, Journal of Latin American Studies Aug.2002: 757-758.

Cannon, Damien. “La Historia Oficial.” Rev. of La historia oficial, dir. Luis Puenzo.1997. Movie Reviews UK. 11 Feb. 2008.

Corbatta, Jorgelina. Narratives de la Guerra Sucia en Argentina: Piglia, Saer, Valenzuela, Puig. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Corregidor, 1999.

Cortázar, Julio. “La escuela de noche.” Deshoras. México, DF: Editorial Nueva Imagen,1987.

Feal, Rosemary. “The Politics of ‘Wargasm’: Sexuality, Domination and female Subversion in Luisa Valenzuela’s Cambio de Armas.” Structures of power: Essays on  Twentieth-Century Spanish-American Fiction. Albany SUNY Press, 1996.

Feitlowitz, Marguerite. A Lexicon of Terror, Argentina and the Legacies of Torture. New  Oxford University Press, 1998.

Historia oficial, La. Dir. Luis Puenzo. Perf. Hector Alterio and Norma Aleandro. Historias Cinematográficas/Progress Communications, 1984.

Hombre mirando al sudeste. Dir. Eliseo Subiela. Perf. Lorenzo Quinteros, Hugo Soto and Inés Vernengo. Cinequanon Productions, 1986.

LaTopo. Rev. of Soy paciente. Shvoong Read Free Summaries. 12 Jun 2007. 11 Feb.2008. http://es/

Muro de silencio, Un. Dir. Lita Stantic. Perf. Vanessa Redgrave and Ofelia Medina. Lita Etjos 24.1 (1996): 71-106.

Robbin, Antonius. “Ethnographic Seduction, Transference, and resistance in Dialogues about Terror and Violence in Argentina.” Ethos 24.1 (11996): 71-106.

—“How Traumatized Societies remember: The Aftermath of Argentina’s Dirty War.” Cultural Critique 59 (Winter 2005): 120-164.

Sarup, Madan. An Introductory Guide to Post –Structuralism and Postmodernism. Athens: University of Georgia P, 1993.

Schiminovich, Flora. “Corbatta, Jorgelina Fidia: Mito personal y mitos colectivos en las novelas de Manuel Puig.” Revista Hispánica Moderna 43 (1990): 135-137

Schumann, Howard. “Man Facing Southeast,” Review of Hombre mirando al sudeste, dir. Eliseo Subiela. Talking Pictures. 11 Feb. 2008.

Sesana, Laura. “Procesos de liberación: Cambio de armas Luisa Valenzuela (Buenos Aires, 1938).” Concept: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Graduate Studies(2004). 11 Feb 2008

Shua, Ana Maria. Soy paciente. Buenos Aires: Editorial Losada, 1980.

Skidmore, Thomas, and Peter Smith. “Argentina: From Prosperity to Deadlock.” Modern Latin America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Soy paciente. Dir. Rodolfo Corral. Screenplay by Ana Maria Shua. 1986.

Valenzuela, Luisa. “Cambio de Armas.” Cambio de Armas. Hanover: Ediciones del Norte, 1982.

Wiesel, Elie: “The  Holocaust as literary inspiration.” Dimensions of the Holocaust. Evanston; Northwester UP, 1990.


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