by Barbara CAREY
In the early 1980, when Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay (collectively known as the Southern Cone) were all in the grip of military dictatorships, the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America published a report that described the region as "one gigantic prison." Argentinar returned to civilian rule in 1953. Since then, a wave of cultural activity in literature, film, and theatre has focused on that period in the nation's history, and especially on the fate of thousands of desaparecidos (the disappeared) who were kidnapped, brutally tortured, and assassinated by the security forces.
The case of one such desaparecido forms the basis of Alberto Balcarce's first novel, A Long Night of Death. (Balcarce eras barn in Argentina, but studied in the U.S. and now lives in Canada.) The story is narrated by Roberta, an expatriate Argentine who returns to his homeland from California just at the time when the armed forces overthrow the government and impose martial law. Though he seems an unlikely radical - he is affluent, and interested in politics only as a topic of dinner-table debate - Roberto becomes embroiled in a plot that lands him in the hands of fast Argentine then Paraguayan "interrogation specialists."
Balcarce graphically details Roberto's physical ordeal, and also renders a convincing portrait of the devastating psychological effects of torture. The torturers themselves are not portrayed as sadists, but as ordinary men who are performing "a patriotic duty in defence of Western Christian and democratic values," as one government official piously remarks.
Balcarce obviously doesn't want to set up a Bad Guys vs. Good Guys dichotomy. (Indeed, he seems to be suggesting that the capacity to inflict grievous pain is an innate part of human nature.) Through much of the novel, however, the narrator remains an unsympathetic character -- self-centred, pompous, and manipulative. especially with regard to women.
Only toward the end of this grim narrative does Roberto really engage the reader, and by then he seems totally broken by his experiences. Overall, this book is very depressing. It's not necessary to be an idealist for one to wish for at least a glimmer of dawn in A Long Night of Death.