The Little School: Tales of Disappearance and Survival in Argentina
by Alicia Partnoy
translated by Alicia Partnoy with Lois Athey and Sandra Braunstein Cleis Press, PO Box 8933, Pittsburgh, PA 15221, 1987, 136 pp., $7.95
You Can’t Drown the Fire: Latin American Women Writing in Exile
edited by Alicia Partnoy Cleis Press, 1988, 258 pp. $9.95
Alicia Partnoy writes about ghosts — those taken abruptly in the night, those tortured beyond imagination, and those forced to vanish into the cracks of history. A surviving “desaparecida,” one of the 30,000 who disappeared in Argentina after a 1976 military coup, she rescues these ghosts from oblivion in The Little School.
The granddaughter of Russian Jews, and the daughter of a professor-father and an artist-mother, Partnoy grew up in an Argentina rife with military juntas, and acute political repression. As a university student in Bahia Blanca, she became politically active, supported the workers’ strikes, and opposed the military repression. On January 12, 1977, the army came and forcibly took her and her husband to La Escuelita, (the little school), the ironically named concentration camp for dissidents.
For three and one half months, eyes blindfolded, wrists tightly bound, forced to remain prone, Alicia Partnoy was a “student” of the constant violence of “the little school.” Knowing nothing of the fate of her nine-month-old daughter, she was moved to another camp in April 1977 and then to a prison for two-and-a-half more years. There, she was allowed to see her daughter, and learned that her husband had also survived.
In vignettes and prose poems, Alicia Partnoy writes of her own experience as well as out of the imagined consciousness of other prisoners. Stories — “Latrine,” “Bread,” “Toothbrush,” “The Denim Jacket,” “My Nose” — focus on concrete details which resonate with human emotion. Even her nose, which she once detested, becomes a means of resistance. She writes, “My nose allows me to see. No, I haven’t suddenly become metaphoric … .the shape keeps my blindfold slightly lifted. Portions of the world parade before these small slits. Only Peine knows how to tie a blindfold well enough so it can trick my nose … .My nose seems to grow, proudly, with each new blindfold… .my nose and I have reconciled.”
The blindfold appears in the sadly beautiful illustrations by Rachel Partnoy, the author’s mother, and is symbolic of the slanted, indirect style the author uses to write about the horror she experienced. The blindfold is metaphoric for American readers, too: a reminder of our failure to see how United States tax dollars are connected to “little schools” in Argentina, El Salvador, Guatemala.
In her second book, You Can’t Drown the Fire: Latin American Women Writing in Exile, Alicia Partnoy selected and edited 34 testimonies, essays, narratives, letters and poems of Latin American women.
Rigoberto Menchu tells of her life as a peasant in Guatemala, of poverty, poisoning and the witnessing of a “guerilla council,” a military lesson where kidnapped children/prisoners receive public punishment. “When my mother saw my little brother she almost gave herself away… .They had pulled out my little brother’s fingernails, they had cut off parts of his ears, his lips.” And the final lesson: “The officer ordered the prisoners covered with gasoline and then set fire to them, one by one.”
Caly Domitila Cane’k, a literacy teacher in Guatemala, is in exile after three of her brothers were killed or disappeared. Her poem, “Candles,” reminiscent of Hannah Senesh’s “Blessed is the Match,” [Senesh was a young Jewish resistance fighter killed by the Nazis] is about the fire of resistance: “Extinguished candles/still will light new candles./Thus is struggle: candles that light/and fade.”
Marta Benavides of El Salvador writes of the Spanish invasion of her country five hundred years ago, how the land was stolen, the culture destroyed, “just like the Jews [who were exiled to] Babylon.” Benavides says there is no such thing as “voluntary exile.” Yet Jacinta Escudos of El Salvador urges: “do not let this book become a whining sorrowful lamentation. We shouldn’t let exile defeat us.”
Sensitive to the task of creating a text which does not become a “pornography of violence,” Partnoy deftly juxtaposes the horrific and the humane. In an excerpt from a novel which traces her Old World roots, Argentine writer Alicia Dujovne Ortiz has her character Samuel, a Russian Jew, surprised by the sounds of Yiddish coming out of the mouths of gauchos (Jewish cowboys!).
You Can’t Drown the Fire debunks stereotypes about Latin American women — that they are controlled by men, or merely politicized peasants or heady intellectuals. The brutality described here may be persistently ugly, but the background, language, and perspective of the women vary as much as women vary everywhere.
In an essay on women and prisons (similar to the prison writings of Emma Goldman), Maria Tila Uribe writes about subtle class differences and oppression: “peasant women suffer more … in prison; they are discriminated against not only for being poor and female, but for being peasants,” and Ana Guadalupe Martinez, imprisoned in El Salvador, speaks of the obscenities directed at women, the strips, the repeated rapes.
Claribel Alegria details the U.S. Pentagon’s “Doctrine of Low Intensity Conflict;’ (that is, “minimal effects on U.S. and international public opinion…. but for the victims, the intensity is maximal and mortiferous”) and brings home to North American readers the necessity of probing beneath the slogans of foreign policy.
Alicia Partnoy is in very good company. She is part of an important literary tradition of witnessing. Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel, as survivors, and contemporary novelists like Lawrence Thornton in Imagining Argentina and Toni Morrison in remembering slavery’s ghosts in Beloved — all writing about what is unpleasant, but necessary to know.
Despite all the money, military hardware, and brutality harnessed in order to silence these words, these testimonies do exist, and within them lies the capacity to resist and transform.
Janet Zandy teaches literature and writing at the Rochester Institute of Technology.