Many novels are announced as treating memory and family, or memory and gender, or memory and politics, or memory and whatever else. Memory seems to be a particularly well vending attribute. Unfortunately, so many of the books announced that way don’t actually talk about memory, but in memories, and confusing these two, one could easily guess everything was memory. One of the blurbs to Margarita García Robayo’s Lo que no aprendí (Malpaso, 2014) therefore allerted me. It said, Margarita would unite memories as if they were flowers. Aesthetically, the comparison of her writing with flowers does most definitely hold. But what Lo que no aprendí has to say about memory is more complicated than that.
Contrary to the common-sensical idea, the difficulty of remembering (read: re-member-ing) in the novel might actually be the invention. To handle those flowers creatively, as if uniting them in a beautiful bouquet for the funeral of a controversial figure, effacing any trace of a more complicated, more nuanced, personality, is the real work for Catalina, the protagonist of the novel. The author presents us with this bouquet of Catalina’s mostly happy childhood memories in Cartagena. In a second part, however, she explains the uses, not of the flowers, but of the bouquet, to us readers, and we come to realize that beautiful flowers can be conventions covering up for the things that cannot, and in the case of funerals conventionally should not, be said. The flowers, it turns out, are memories of a different life, of a different Catalina who has little to do with the woman that today lives in Buenos Aires.
How did I come across the book?
I saw a good friend of mine mention it in a Facebook post from a bookstore in Bogotá, asking for the best book its customers had read in 2016. It is most definitely in the top three of my 2017, thus far.
When and where did I read it?
I found the time and place particularly matching in this experience: A warm summer week in Constance can at least temperature-whise keep up with Cartagena, where the first part of the novel is set. I finished the second part on a lazy sunday morning in bed, which also combined well with a loft in Buenos Aires. But it made me wonder: is Buenos Aires Latin America’s sunday morning in bed?
… si no te gustan mis recuerdos, empieza a juntar los tuyos; y si tampoco te gustán ésos, cámbialos, y así: es lo que hacemos todos. (p. 182)
Londres 38, a former torture centre, is in walking distance from my friend’s place, so we stroll through the neighborhood to get there. Before the official visit starts, we’re invited to explore the house on our own. It’s a beautiful building with light-flodded rooms with wodden floors and big windows, a dream for anyone with a taste for period property. But I have to imagine living there on my own, because the rooms are empty and don’t offer any anchors for the imagination. Or that’s what I think then, because when the visit starts, I will be told about the meanings of the holes in the plastering. The visit is conceptualized as a dialogic encounter, inviting the visitors to engage with the place in their own terms, rather than explaining and lecturing about historical events. This is why we are not considered visitors, but rather, participants in the construction of memory. I am not entirely sure that’s what we did there, because as a non-Chilean I am not too confident about my ability to help in this construction. But I do my best trying to relate what the guide tells us about the place with what I have heard and known about other episodes from the German past. Among these thoughts is the questions of what the neighbors knew, since the house is in the middle of a busy quarter, and the adjacent houses a stone’s throw away. It’s impossible to imagine that they haven’t heard or seen any of the extralegal proceedings. Then again, they wouldn’t be the first to ignore these kinds of activities, be it out of fear, ot because they believed that surely, the people abducted there must have done something to deserve this kind of treatment. Which is what brought me to wonder about what I would have done. Sure, I like to imagine myself as the kind of person who courageously intervenes, accuses and resists. But I have never been in a situation like that. How would I know?
If you liked this post, here is another one about my visit to Villa Grimaldi.
This time, creative writing pratice was a collaborative effort. I invented two characters, another participant a conflict. The task then was to bring both together. Sorry, again Spanish only.
Gloria va al Estadio todos los años. Cada once de septiembre, se compra una entrada para asistir al evento que haya ese día. Es su forma de hacer memoria desde que la tenían allí detenida con los otros cinco mil. Estaba embarazada entonces, pero eso no les importaba. No sabe que pasó con ese niño que iba a tener. Algunas veces hizo el esfuerzo de buscarlo, pero nunca salió nada. Dejó de buscarlo, aunque sigue creyendo que está vivo. Pero tendrá su vida sin saber nada de su madre, o creyendo que es la que le tocó. No hay que despertar a los demonios de los demás. Sus propios demonios, sin embargo, están despiertos, y por eso todos los años va al Estadio.
Ese año le toca un concierto de los Red Hot Chili Peppers. Hay mucha gente joven y tatuada alrededor de ella, que a Gloria no le incomoda para nada. Viene también para conocer, ya sea otro estilo de música, o de deporte, o de vida. Un joven con el pelo mojado se siente a su lado y ella, chismosa, le pregunta si se mojó el pelo por el calor. Aunque es alto y tiene una espalda bien ancha, parece muy tímido. Mira hacía abajo cuando le habla y le cuenta que es nadador profesional y que acaba de llegar de la práctica en la piscina olímpica que tienen en ese mismo campo.
En ese mismo instante empiezan a volar los aviones. Gloria los reconoce de inmediato, pues se parecen demasiado a los que habían atacado a la Moneda. Todo el mundo los mira confundido y la tensión en el Estadio es palpable. Empiezan a dar vueltas y piruetas, con humo blanco, rojo y azul que les sale de la cola:
Únanse al baile de los que sobran
Gloria sonríe porque reconoce la frase de una canción y de pronto, todos empiezan a cantar: Nadie nos va a echar de más. Nadie nos quiso ayudar de verdad. Los jóvenes tatuados se levantan de sus sillas y saltan las rejas, reuniéndose en el centro del Estadio. Allí empiezan a bailar, y Gloria lo pregunta al joven nadador si la quiere acompañar. El la mira por primera vez a los ojos, y en este momento Gloria siente un rayo en su corazón.
The Year in Readings started with a mission: more ethnographic monographs. The first book I finished, however, does not fit into this category. On the upside, at least it is remotely related to what I do in my research. Memory, Subjectivities, and Representation. Approaches to Oral History in Latin America, Portugal and Spain by Rina Benmayor, María Eugenia Cardenal de la Nuez and Pilar Domínguez Prats (eds.; Palgrave Macmillian 2016) is meant to be an introdcution to oral history work in Latin America, Spain and Portugal. I’ve been doing a more formal review for the Oral History Forum d’histoire orale from the Canadian Oral History Association, which you can find here, if you’d like to have a look.
For the purpose of continuing with my subjective review series, I am just going to mention a few key points. Overall, reading edited volumes is often a challenge, because personally, I am rarely interested in all the contributions. This one had the great advantage, that it were those articles I thought wouldn’t fit my interests, which were the most inspiring. Some of the topics are innovative, like the articles on Lisbon’s tattoo scene, or the performance piece on the Portuguese dictatorship, and I especially liked the articles focusing on female militants from the Southern Cone and on migrant sex workers in Spain. But I would have liked more of that. Most articles are concerned with worker’s history. A real downer was the fact that articles on Latin America were restricted to the Southern Cone and Mexico, giving a somewhat eurocentric idea of the continent, and completely leaving out any indigenous contributions. Given that it is particularly this area where Oral History flourishes in Latin America, I found that quite disappointing. Apart from this (serious!) flaw, the volume is a solid contribution, and might be of interest for people wanting to know more about current trends in the region.
How did I come across the book?
Actually, the journal approached me to ask whether I would review it. I found that flattering and agreed.
When and where did I read it?
In one of Bogota’s amazing public libraries around New Year’s.
Yet another practice in fiction, this time in English. Enjoy!
I’m not exactly sure what it is about mermaid hair that fascinates me this much. It exudes an air of peace and tranquility in otherness, I think. Colors flow in ways that make it impossible to know which one exactly it is one is looking at, because it always already changes into something else. People with mermaid hair look strange, unnatural, as if from outer space, and yet known and familiar (it is still hair, like most of us have on different parts of our bodies). It is irritating to the same degree as it is serene.
Mermaid hair is exceptional, unruly, yet never dangerous. Somewhat like Berlin in the 90s. Or that’s what I’ve heard, because I myself was to young to remember. In 1993, I was only five years old, and even though my mom and I lived pretty close to the ctiy, I seldom went there alone. When we went together, she would take me to the Tierpark, the theater, and sometimes the movies, too. (Note the Tierpark is just like a Zoo, but it’s the one in the eastern part of town, and designed much more like a park. The one in Western Berlin is called Zoo.) I love the stories she tells me about that time. There’s this picture of me on a swing in the Tierpark. I am wearing a sky blue snow suit thick enough to protect me from the Berlin winter, but also making me look like a tiny version of the Michellin figure. My aunt is pushing me from behind, and I have this utterly satisfied smile on my face. A memory made of cotton candy.
When I was about 9 years old, I remember I wanted to dye my hair green. It has always been my favorite color, because it is not pink or blue, but something in between. Everybody back then said their favorite color was blue, boys and girls alike, and I just found that lame. First, because everybody said it, and at age 9 I didn’t want to be like everybody else. And second, because the color blue just doesn’t appeal to me. When I look at something blue, nothing happens. I just get bored. Green in turn always intrigues me, as if there was something more to understand about it, something that didn’t give itself away with the first glance. And I’m not talking forrest green, which has its own charm for sure, but more in an earthy way. I’m talking garish green, the woodruff soda variant. Which is also not exactly the green in mermaid hair, but it is precisely this “not exactly” that is so attractive to me, and which might be the reason I’m fancying mermaid hair right now.
Back then, I didn’t dye my hair green. My mom wouldn’t prohibit it, she never really did that with anything. She would rather tell me about how damaging this would be for my hair, and explain the long process of first having to go blond and then green, and about how terrible it would look once it grew out. Instead of prohibitions, she persuaded me with reasons. As a social worker in the city’s youth clubs, she gave seminars about drugs and addiction, and so from early on I knew exactly how Ecstasy pills looked like (from photographs), and about the dangers of more mundane drugs like cigarettes and alcohol. As with the green hair, she would never tell me not do do drugs, but instead explain to me how they worked and what dangers lay in consumption. She would always advise me to talk to her first before trying out something, but since I had the feeling I already knew everything about drugs thanks to her, I never did.
I was a 20-something when I smoked my first joint, at a party of a high school friend of mine and all her Greenpeace buddies. That was the Neukölln of the late 2000s already, but it would still take me another three years to finally feel something that could be called a fine frenzy. I had just moved into a flat with my best friend, not to far away from that Greenpeace party, and he had bought some dope in Görlitzer Park, which back then wasn’t that overcrowded with police. He was the one introducing me to laughing gas when we were teenagers, and would have done the same with magic mushrooms, had I wanted to. That lovely summer evening at the open window of our kitchen, I challenged him to smoke until I would finally feel something. About four joints later, our kitchen was painted in the loveliest version of mermaid hair colors I can imagine.
Looking at it now, the “not exactly” of mermaid hair is also the “not exactly” I feel comfortable in. The sense of something that is not one way or another, but always something in between. It’s nostalgia what is condensed in mermaid hair, and the longing for a time in which having a certain gender didn’t mean to subscribe to either pink or blue (and everything that goes along these lines). Mermaid hair moments are the ones in which I didn’t feel the need to explain anything to anyone, in which ambiguity was the state of being, and it was fine.
It is a warm summer day in February, shortly before noon, when I arrive at the gates of Villa Grimaldi with a friend. The place is quiet, no-one to be seen walking the beautiful gardens. We enter the site and get two audio guides to do the tour. The sun is burning, so we rush from shadow to shadow to listen to the explanations of the guide. I don’t really connect to the place until we’re halfway through, instead being fascinated by the incredibly noisy birds populating the scrawny araucaria trees. The place was a restaurant before it was appropriated by the secret police (DINA) shortly after the 1973 coup. It was then used as a secret detention center, where people were tortured and disappeared. While the original main building and detention cells have been destroyed, the trees bear witness to the history of the place. It comes to no surprise, then, that many of them have specific meanings in the context of constructing memory.
Apart from the araucarias, another tree that captures the attention is a bushy bougainvillea right next to the closed former entrance door. Its bright pink flowers remind of the lush garden surrounding the former restaurant. The door, however, has been closed forever, expressing the desire that no political prisoner will ever have to enter through that door again. In general, the plates and sign-boards have been attached close to the ground, to resemble the view blindfolded prisoners had of the place – never actually being able to see the beautiful trees and green spaces, but only the floor through the tiny holes the fabric left.
As we continue walking, we enter a kind of field, about nine squares separated by tiny cobblestones, each with a birch at its center. As the audio guide explains, they symbolize the former prison cells, the birches being the isolated prisoners. Next to them, there’s a giant evergreen ombú, a species native to southern Patagonia. As we learn from the audio, the majestic tree has been used to create examples for the prisoners: some of them were hung there for everyone to see.
Next to the ombú, there is a circular bed of roses, interspersed with orange-red signs. Some of them have names of former female prisoners on them, some of them are left blank to remember those who passed through Villa Grimaldi unaccounted. At the center of the bed, there is a small fountain with a quote of Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral at the bottom: “We all would have been queens”.
After around two hours, we have explored almost every corner of the park. During that time, we were the only visitors, and only one or two employees crossed our path. The atmosphere was peaceful, the airy spaces and the plants make this a solemn experience, that allows one to connect to the history of the place, but not in a ravagingly emotional way, but much more quietly, with the option of just taking in the contradictions of the place. As we take the bus back to Santiago’s city center, we pass by a restaurant with the telling name: El Trauma. 80’s.
More information on Villa Grimaldi can be found on the webpage of the Villa Grimaldi – Corporación Parque por la Paz (spanish only).
Children and the Afterlife of State Violence. Memories of Dictatorship (Palgrave Macmillian, 2016) is based on the doctiral thesis of Daniela Jara. It treats transgenerational transmissions of memory in affective terms in the Chilean context. Through individual and group interviews, Jara opens up the discussions about the transmission of historical trauma in family contexts. She does, however, not understand the family as a necessary unit for investigation, but rather, an ideal case for the observation of affective transmission. The book is full of amazing stories and interpretations about growing up during the dictatorship (1973-1990), and what consequences a culture of fear can have on the communicative patterns among family members and with outsiders. The book is especially concerned with descendants of the disappeared and political prisoners.
When and where did I read it?
During a very intense week, in which I read two more works on transgenerational transmission of memories, watched several documentaries of the so-called post-generations of different Latin American countries, and mixed these with a soap opera about a family in the German Democratic Republic.
How did I come across the book?
I was searching for books to review for a special issue of a journal edited by some of the MemoriAL people. I wanted to connect different books on the topic of transgenerational memories, and was lucky enough to find several (upcomming!).