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Revista Interamericana de Bibliografía (RIB)
Número: 2
Título: 1998

ARTICLE

The desire to record and interpret the past has stimulated the imagination of Latin American writers for centuries, beginning with el Inca Garcilaso de la Vega whose Comentarios reales capture in writing the founding stories of his maternal ancestors. The myths and legends of the oral tradition, and the documents and letters of the official archives continue to be a source of inspiration for contemporary authors whose fictional texts offer alternative readings to authoritative historical accounts. Ultimately, it is a quest for origins and a search for identity which motivate writers to record and interpret the past, whether it be the history of a nation, the chronicle of a family, or a combination of the two. The search for identity is particularly relevant to the narrative fiction of Argentina, a nation whose population is comprised of generations of immigrant families. Of the 11,000,000 Europeans who immigrated to Latin America between 1824 and 1924, more than 50% settled in Argentina (Ainsa 8), statistics which lend credence to the old joke which says: “los peruanos descienden de los incas, los argentinos de los barcos.” Indeed, for those Argentine writers who are descendants of immigrant families, the quest for origins begins with the story of a voyage. Such is the case in Mario Szichman’s Los judíos del mar dulce (Buenos Aires: Galerna, 1971), Mempo Giardinelli’s Santo oficio de la memoria (Bogotá: Norma, 1991), and Ana María Shua’s El libro de los recuerdos (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1994).

Among the many Jewish immigrants from Europe and the Middle East who found their way to Argentina in the early 1920’s were the grandparents of the Argentine writer, Ana María Shua. Born in Buenos Aires in 1951, Shua’s literary career began at the early age of sixteen with the publication of her first book, an award-winning collection of poetry entitled El sol y yo (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Pro, 1967). Since then, she has written best-selling novels, short stories for children and adults, collections of short short stories, humorous books, as well as journalistic articles and scripts for television and cinema.1 Although her narrative fiction resists classification, each work bears the trademark of this exceptional storyteller who employs humor and irony to comment on the daily life of the Argentine family, in particular, the trials and tribulations of the Jewish-Argentine family.

Shua’s Jewish heritage has left an indelible mark on many of her works; for example, the collection Cuentos judíos con fantasmas y demonios (Buenos Aires: Editorial Shalom, 1994) reflects the author’s interest in Jewish legends and folklore, while the humorous book El pueblo de los tontos (Buenos Aires: Alfaguara, 1995) presents updated versions of traditional jokes regarding the foolish Jews of the village of Jelem, and her unique cookbook Risas y emociones de la cocina judía (Buenos Aires: Shalom, 1993) entices the reader with popular Jewish recipes which are accompanied by stories of najes and tzures, that is, joys and sorrows. Although Shua focuses on the more intimate aspects of family life in her novel Los amores de Laurita (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1984), and in her anthology of humorous essays El marido argentino promedio (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1991), it is in her third novel, El libro de los recuerdos, that she explores the problems of domestic relationships and cultural identity, setting the extraordinary tales of a not-so-ordinary Jewish immigrant family against the backdrop of the past seventy years of Argentine history.

For many years, Shua dreamed of incorporating in a novel the stories and anecdotes about her father’s family who immigrated to Argentina from the Middle East during the early part of the century. Her Grandfather Musa Schoua, a Lebanese Jew, and her Grandmother Ana, the daughter of Morrocan Jews, settled in Buenos Aires where they raised ten children in a large house which was later sold, and eventually became “un Club de la Tercera Edad,” a Senior Citizens’ Center, where one Saturday night the author’s Uncle Jaime died of a heart attack on the dance floor when he was more than seventy years old. Later, the old house was converted into a brothel called “El Partenón.” With such incredible material who needs to invent stories? Nevertheless, after interviewing her relatives, and recording their contradictory versions and distortions of the same incidents, the author came to the conclusion that not only is the truth impossible to establish, it does not exist; nor do the past and memory exist, but rather only the words used to reconstruct and interpret past events.

Shua’s third novel, El libro de los recuerdos, was born out of this frustration, and departs from the notion of the impossibility of narrating the past. Important political figures and events are woven into this family chronicle narrated by several unidentified voices which compete and contradict each other in an effort to re-create the past of the Rimetka clan, beginning with the hardships endured by the patriarchal Grandfather Gedalia before, during, and after his journey to Buenos Aires in the early 1920’s, to the dangers which threatened his grandchildren fifty years later during the dictatorship, and ending, finally, with the ravages of old age which accompany the return of democracy to Argentina.

History and fiction are intertwined with truth and lies as the narrators attempt to piece together the saga of three generations of the Rimetka family, revealing in the process their virtues and vices, successes and failures, and desires and fears as they struggle to survive amid the economic and political turmoil of their new homeland. Their only reliable source of information is El Libro de los Recuerdos, the Book of Memories, which always tells the truth, but unfortunately, never the whole truth, or not necessarily the truth which one would like to hear. Although the novel provides the reader with a testimonial account of contemporary Argentine politics, the author is more concerned with the problematic reconstruction of history than with the actual events themselves. Shua comments in an interview: “Contar la vida de una familia es también contar la vida de un país” (La Nueva Provincia). Like the story of this Jewish immigrant family, Argentina’s tumultuous history is also confusing and often distorted by falsifications, rumors, lack of evidence, and loss of memory. The novel raises such questions as: what is the truth, how can we know the past when it no longer exists, is memory a reliable source of information, why are certain events recorded as History while others are considered mere versions or subversions of the “Official Story,” and ultimately, what is the relationship between fiction and history? This study will address these issues as it examines the narrative strategies used by Ana María Shua in El libro de los recuerdos, a novel which paints a unique portrait of an important but often overlooked sector of Argentine society, the Jewish community.

The first dilemma all writers face is that of how to begin their tale, especially one which spans more than seventy years of a family’s personal history. Shua’s novel incorporates many thematic elements found in the narrative fiction of Argentine writers who have captured the immigrant experience in their works, from one of the earliest Jewish Argentine novels, Alberto Gerchunoff’s Los gauchos judíos (1910) to one of the more recent treatments of the subject, Pedro Orgambide’s Hacer la América (1984). Although conventional motifs of the immigrant narrative are present in El libro de los recuerdos, what sets Shua’s novel apart from earlier Jewish Argentine works, is the use of humor, irony and other narrative strategies which challenge the validity of the master stories that have been passed down from generation to generation, and inscribed in the family archive.

The novel reflects many of the characteristics of “historiographic metafiction,” a self-reflexive narrative which thematically and formally challenges basic assumptions regarding historical discourse. In her study A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction, Linda Hutcheon outlines the tendencies of those novels which attempt to re-create the past, and in so doing, actually question whether such a reconstruction is truly possible. According to Hutcheon, historiographic metafiction first recalls or inscribes the past events, only to later confront and subvert the notion of a single, objective, authoritative account of the past (92). In these new historical narratives, the past is not rejected, but rather revisited with a healthy dose of irony which affords critical distance and precludes nostalgia (Hutcheon 89-90).

In El libro de los recuerdos Shua employs ironic humor to debunk the archetypal myths often found in immigrant narrative fiction. For example, the novel begins where one would expect the tale of an immigrant family to begin, in the old country, in this case, Poland, which happens to be the homeland of the author’s maternal grandparents Meishe Szmulewicz and Tzipe Raskin. Other anticipated elements of the immigrant narrative which are incorporated into the first chapter include the presentation of the patriarchal figure, the dream of coming to America, and the journey to the New World. In his article “‘La Tierra Prometida’ como motivo en la narrativa argentina,” Fernando Ainsa explains that America was an “espacio del anhelo,” for thousands of immigrants who left their homelands in search of freedom from political, economic or religious oppression (Ainsa 5-6). Shua’s novel undermines the idyllic image of America from the onset, beginning with the title of the first chapter, “Como América, pero no tanto,” “Not Exactly America”, which suggests that the utopian dream of the Promised Land has been displaced by a less than desirable Arcadia. The opening lines of the novel reveal that disappointment, rather than hope, initiates the patriarch’s new life in the New World:
El abuelo estaba flaco cuando cruzó el mar. Estaba flaco y era muy joven y todavía no era el abuelo cuando dejó Tomachevo para cruzar el mar. El abuelo no quería venir aquí. Nadie quería venir aquí. Esto no era exactamente América. Era apenas una América de segunda. (9)
Like so many other immigrants, Grandfather hoped that from South America he could make it to the other America, “la verdadera, la del Norte;” (11) nevertheless, because of the dubious aspect of his documents, he had to settle for Argentina.

The reader learns that Grandfather Gedalia deserted the army during World War I, and hid in his fiancée’s house for a year while he waited for another young man to die so that he could buy his papers, assume a new identity, and cross the sea. Upon his arrival in Buenos Aires, a resourceful immigration clerk, after failing to decipher the original name on the Polish document, created a new name for his Argentine papers: “un apellido, Rimetka, que jamás existió en el idioma o en el lugar de origen del abuelo, que jamás existió en otro país ni en otro tiempo” (16). With the narration of Grandfather Gedalia’s illegal activities, Shua subverts two very important elements of immigrant fiction: the heroic image of the founding father and the origin of the family name.

In his study Myth and Archive: A Theory of Latin American Narrative, Roberto González Echevarría suggests that the myth of origin is fundamental to both Latin American history and fiction. According to González Echevarría, the law and legal documents figure prominently in the Latin American novel, whose founding stories often involve an “escape from authority” (8). Hutcheon’s observations that “the protagonists of historiographic metafiction are anything but proper types: they are the ex-centrics, the marginalized, the peripheral figures of fictional history,” (113-114) support González Echevarría’s theories regarding the relationship between literature and authority. Grandfather Gedalia certainly conforms to this profile: a deserter who relinquishes his true name, which is never inscribed in the family archive, for a new name, which is subsequently distorted by a civil servant who invents the name Rimetka. The heroic image of the founding father is replaced by that of an anti-hero or “pícaro,” whose keen business sense, lack of moral ethics and exceptional accounting skills enable him to support his family. Although Grandfather Gedalia dominates the Rimetka family and is the protagonist of many of their stories, he is an outsider to the dominant culture of his newly adopted homeland, as are his wife and his four children. Linguistic problems, as well as ethnic and social discrimination, prevent the Rimetkas from blending harmoniously into the melting pot of Buenos Aires. The fact that the name Rimetka is founded on false documents further complicates the problem of cultural identity for this Jewish immigrant family.

The use of multiple unreliable narrators is the primary discursive strategy employed by Shua to undermine sacred family legends, and to underscore the impossibility of establishing the incontrovertible truth about past events. Shua employs a variety of narrative points of view and forms in the novel, such as, a monologue in the first person when La Babuela, Grandfather Gedalia’s wife, speaks from the grave, or traditional dialogue in the second person when the characters or the narrators speak to each other, and, conventional third person omniscient narration in the intertextual documents which are reproduced from the Book of Memories. Hutcheon explains in her study of postmodernism that historiographic metafiction privileges plurality, disparity and subjectivity over singularity, unity and objectivity (90). The following observations made by Hutcheon, regarding the types of narrators used in historiographic metafiction, adequately describe the unidentified voices of Shua’s novel: “On the one hand, we find overt, deliberately manipulative narrators; on the other, no one single perspective but myriad voices, often not completely localizable in the textual universe. In both cases, the inscription of subjectivity is problematized” (160).

Although they are never named, the reader may infer from their remarks that the narrators are members of the Rimetka family, presumably of the third generation. For example, when one narrator challenges another with the question: “¿Y vos cómo sabés tanto?,” the response is: “Preguntale a tu primo Gastón, el hijo de tía Clara. Ese sí que sabe todo.” (144). For the most part, the narrators’ recollections are not based on eye-witness accounts, but rather on hearsay, gossip, and stories they have been told by older members of the family. The narrators often use an indirect form of narration to corroborate their statements about a particular event or person. For example, the first chapter ends with the following observations regarding Grandfather Gedalia’s character: “El abuelo, dijo la tía Judith, era un hijo de puta que nos cagó la vida a todos. El tío Pinche decía que la tía Judith era mentirosa y muy bocasucia. Al tío Pinche nunca le gustaron las mujeres bocasucia” (14). These statements neither confirm or deny that Grandfather Gedalia was “un hijo de puta.”

Although certain chapters of the novel contain texts which have been reproduced directly from the Book of Memories, and therefore are imbued with a more literary tone and elevated style, the majority of the family stories are related by several narrators who use an intimate tone, vernacular language, and a simple syntax which leave the reader with the impression that he or she is eavesdropping on a conversation around the kitchen table. At times the narration takes on the quality of a bedtime story which appears to be told by a traditional omniscient narrator; however, the interjection of personal conversations among the narrators who argue with each other over which familiar anecdotes should be told, which details are superfluous and need to be omitted, and in what order the relevant information should be presented, quickly reminds the reader that this is a story in the making, and that he or she is a participant in the construction process. For example, the reader is privy to the following secret conversation between two of the narrators as they discuss the many lives of “la Casa Vieja”:
Pero antes de ser Club de la Tercera Edad, fue otra cosa.
¿Qué otra cosa?
Después te cuento en privado que aquí están anotando todo lo que decimos. (142)
According to Hutcheon, historiographic metafiction places the emphasis on the “process” of writing, rather than on the “product” or finished text (220), as the preceding dialogue indicates. González Echevarría echoes this idea when he points out the tendency of the contemporary Latin American novel to disguise itself as a non-literary text (7), in many cases as an unfinished manuscript or work in progress subject to the changes of “writing, erasing and rewriting” (2). Indeed, Shua’s novel is presented as a rough draft, or “borrador” of the Rimetka family history, rather than as an authoritative chronicle. Like the last Aureliano Buendía who deciphered Melquiades’ manuscript in Cien años de soledad, the reader is a witness who participates in the reconstruction of the family saga and, in so doing, becomes entangled in the labyrinth of memories along with the other members of the Rimetka family.

Amid the interplay of voices, certain narrators seem to dominate and assert their authority over others who appear to be younger and therefore must submit and acquiesce to such commands as: “—Vos hablás de oídas, no te metas, dejame contar a mí,” (60) and “Callate, ¿querés? Callate y escuchá” (74). In the chapter entitled “El negocio de lana de vidrio,” which narrates one of Uncle Pinche’s many failed business ventures, a certain hierarchy may be detected among the narrators as they challenge each other’s authority:
No, así no se puede empezar. No tiene sentido. Si lo que querés es contar la historia del negocio de lana de vidrio, vas a tener que empezar por otro lado. De otra forma.
¿Pero no fue así? ¿Lo del diablo?
Sí, fue exactamente así. Pero hay que contarlo en otra parte.
¿Entonces por dónde empiezo? (56)
As the previous dialogue suggests, the objective of the narrators is to tell the family stories in a logical and sequential fashion; however, in spite of their good intentions, interruptions occur which lead to digressions that are often just as intriguing as the principle story they are trying to relate.

Another narrative technique is the use of a series of very short paragraphs which consist of only one simple sentence. The first narrator makes a statement which is subsequently revised by a second narrator whose revision is, in turn, corrected by a third narrator. A good illustration of this form of narration may be found in the closing statements of the third chapter “Sobre la personalidad del abuelo Gedalia,” in which the narrators argue over whether Grandfather Gedalia would have bought his oldest son Silvestre a ham sandwich:
El abuelo Gedalia no comía chancho porque está prohibido por la religión.
El abuelo Gedalia no comía chancho en público.
El abuelo Gedalia era un chancho. (23)
Instead of privileging one narrator’s version of a particular incident over another, the novel admits several possibilities. For example, when the narrators cannot agree on the details surrounding Aunt Judith’s attempted suicide after Grandfather Gedalia kicked her out of the house for dating a Christian, all the versions of the near-tragedy are recorded:
Entonces ella se fue a su pieza y lloró y después se cambió y se puso el trajecito blanco tipo Chanel con el spencer para morirse de punta en blanco o se desvistió y se quedó con la combinación negra pituca con puntilla de Flandes o siguió vestida con su ropa de mal gusto toda colorinche y se tomó el frasco entero de Veronal o de Seconal o de Folidol. El frasco entero. (53)
The title of the chapter which narrates Uncle Pinche’s mysterious disappearance, “De cuando el tío Pinche se perdió o se escapó o tuvo la amnesia de las pastillas adelganzantes,” is another good example of the tendency to privilege multiplicity over singularity. In this chapter several theories are proposed to explain what happened to Uncle Pinche during the three days he disappeared, including the possibility of a temporary memory loss due to Dr. Gdansk’s famous diet pills. The avoidance of the verb “desaparecer” is explained in a footnote which appears on the first page of this chapter: “Uno dice ahora que el tío Pinche se perdió o se escapó o tuvo la amnesia de las pastillas adelgazantes por no decir que desapareció. Porque mucho después vino la Epoca del Miedo y le cambió el sentido a la palabra desaparecer” (92).

This footnote serves as the link between this chapter and the one which follows, entitled “La Epoca del Miedo.”2 In this chapter the subject matter transcends the intimate circle of the Rimetka family and focuses on a national phenomenon, the collective fear felt by the Argentine society during the military dictatorship of 1976-1983. This terrible chapter of Argentine history has been designated by some as “La Dictadura” or “La Guerra Sucia,” while others refer to it in more euphemistic terms as “El Proceso de Reorganización Nacional,” or “nuestra historia reciente;” nevertheless, for those who lived through the period, it was quite simply a time of fear. “La Epoca del Miedo,” the name invented by Shua to signify this historical period, was born out of the memory of the collective terror which paralyzed Argentina for nearly a decade.

The chapter opens with a description of the Book of Memories which is the only reliable source of information to which the narrators may turn in order to settle disputes or to corroborate their versions of a particular incident. Speaking on behalf of all the narrators, one of them states: “El Libro de los Recuerdos es nuestra única fuente absolutamente confiable. Por eso es tan fácil enojarse con él. Porque lo que dice es cierto, pero nunca dice todo, nunca dice ni siquiera lo suficiente” (109). Quite often the information provided in the family archive is insignificant or seemingly irrelevant; for example, the Book of Memories tells us that Grandfather Gedalia wore a narrow-brimmed hat when he boarded the ship which brought him to America. Nevertheless, whenever there is a lack of concensus among the narrators regarding the details of family stories, invariably one of them will ask: “Y en el Libro de los Recuerdos, ¿qué dice?” (60).

In addition to documents and testimonial accounts of certain memorable events, family photographs also appear in the Book of Memories, which would lead the reader to believe that it is a tangible object; however, el Libro de los Recuerdos is not a real book, but rather a narrative tool which functions as the repository of the collective memory of the Rimetka family, and by extension that of the Argentine society, as the author explains in an interview:
Las voces de los personajes no son creíbles, cada uno tiene su versión. Entonces me di cuenta de que necesitaba ese libro de los recuerdos que es claramente un recurso porque además no tiene entidad física, no aparece como objeto y ninguna persona va a un cajón a buscarlo sino que decidí que era la zona de condensación donde confluyen los recuerdos de todos, los pequeños, parciales y arbitrarios recuerdos en los que todos están de acuerdo. (Domínguez 6)
Foremost among the collective memories shared by those Argentines who lived through the last military dictatorship is the experience of fear which permeated their lives and left an indelible mark on the national consciousness. One of the most extensive and informative documents in the Book of Memories is “La Epoca del Miedo,” a literary text which attempts to explain the logic behind the disappearances of “los señalados,” a term created by Shua to allude to those Argentine citizens who the military singled out as subversives. Although the reader is told that the text was written by hand in blue ink on unlined paper by a member of the third generation of the Rimetka family, it is reproduced in the novel in italics, thus setting it off from the observations made by the narrators in the opening and closing sections of the chapter which bears the same name.

In the paragraphs preceding the reproduced text, the narrator raises the issue which is the crux of the novel and the primary concern of this study: how can fiction adequately represent history, and more specifically, what is the value of a literary text which attempts to disclose the truth about historical events when the facts surrounding them have been distorted by lies, censorship, denial and oblivion. In the following passage, the narrator questions the validity of the text entitled “La Epoca del Miedo”:
Porque ese original es finalmente literatura de ficción y no una investigación periodística o un testimonio sobre la época. La relación con los hechos es indirecta, casi se diría que el autor los usa a su antojo, mezclándolos con invenciones y con ciertos trucos literarios bastante convencionales. Nada parecido a un texto de historia. (110)
With these observations the narrator seems to rank history above literature in the search for truth and authenticity, nevertheless, critics who have studied the relationship between history and fiction have shown that historians often utilize the “tricks of the literary trade” to select, order and narrate the events of the past. In his study Violence in Argentine Literature, David William Foster refers to the fine line which exists between historical and literary discourse when he writes:
Readers are accustomed to believing that there is a clear-cut break between history and fiction, and that narrative accounts belong expressly to one category or the other. However, just as some forms of historical narration may make use of literary devices in order to highlight and enhance the image of human experience they relate, the contemporary novel has often explored the rhetorical possibilities of documentary fiction, the nonfiction novel, new journalism, and the like. (33)
After the narrator remarks that the literary text in question has nothing in common with a testimonial document, the observation is followed by a parenthetical statement which inverts the established hierarchy of history over fiction with an ironic twist: “(Aunque es cierto que a veces un cuento o una novela ayudan a entender o a imaginarse mejor una época que un libro con muchos nombres y fechas que terminan por hacer olvidar o confundir lo que de verdad les pasó a las personas)” (110). This comment alludes to the important role which fiction may play in revealing the truth which is often concealed by historical documents.

Before the text is reproduced in the chapter, the reader is informed by the narrator of the motives which lead the fictitious author to write about this period of Argentine history: “Una aclaración previa, en otro color de birome, explica que la persona que cuenta siempre tuvo ganas de escribir algo sobre la Epoca del Miedo, algo que sirviera para que otra gente que nunca había pasado por esa época o por este país, entendiera cómo fue” (110).

As informed readers we realize that the person who always wanted to write about the Time of Fear is none other than Ana María Shua herself who, like the fictitious author of the text, also belongs to the third generation of a Jewish immigrant family. During the years of the dictatorship, Shua suffered the pain of exile, and the loss of family and friends. She spent nearly a year in France in 1976-1977, and her only sister went into exile in the United States where she continues to live today.

Shua also experienced the frustration of censorship during the years of the dictatorship when she submitted her first collection of short stories Los días de pesca (Buenos Aires: Corregidor, 1981) for publication, and was told by the editor that she had to remove anything which could be construed as dangerous or offensive. Thus “hijo de puta” was replaced by “desgraciado” in one story, and the original title of the story “Las putas de París” was changed to “Mujeres de París.” This anecdote is incorporated in the text “La Epoca del Miedo” which mentions that a certain writer was forced to remove all the “malas palabras” from his first book of short stories (113).

Shua has written about this dark period of Argentine history in essays and articles, for example, in “El navío de los inmigrantes,” the final text of El marido argentino promedio, she refers to the devasting impact of the dictatorship on her own family. In addition, certain critics have analyzed Shua’s first novel Soy Paciente (Buenos Aires: Losada, 1980) as an allegory of the repressive regime. For example, Jorgelina Corbatta states: “En una palabra, lo que subyace a todo el texto es la subversión como enfermedad” (374), an observation which refers to the attitude of the military regime toward the country as a sick patient whose illness needed to be cured or erradicated. David William Foster views the “exploitation of medical science” in the novel as “an instrument of terror” (68). Shua insists, however, that she never intended to write about the dictatorship in this novel, stating in a recent interview:
Nunca, ni remotamente, quise hacer con Soy Paciente una metáfora de la dictadura. Si en ese momento hubiera pensado que podía entenderse así, no la habría escrito, o la habría quemado. Pero además, y para ser realmente sincera, no creo que la idea de una burocracia opresiva y absurda como la del hospital en la que se interna mi Paciente se pueda comparar con el terror que significó la Dictadura militar. A veces, leyendo alguna crítica, estoy a punto de convencerme. Y después, vuelvo a recordar: no, no era un sentimiento absurdo kafkiano lo que yo sentía en esa época, sino miedo a la muerte. (personal interview with the author, May 1996)
Although references to the period appear in earlier publications, it is in the novel El libro de los recuerdos that Shua first incorporates the horrors of the dictatorship into one of her literary works. In the chapters “La Epoca del Miedo” and that which follows, “Selva o Liliana, la hija de la tía Judith,” Shua faces the dilemma of how to narrate the fear that the Argentine people suffered during the dictatorship. The problem of how to represent violence in literature is one which many Argentine writers confronted during the period of repression and one with which they continue to struggle more than a decade after the return of democracy to the country. Fernando Reati addresses this dilemma in the preface of his provocative study Nombrar lo innombrable, when he poses the following questions: “Es posible realmente comunicar el horror, el miedo, el dolor? ¿Es posible representar la violencia?” (11).

In Shua’s novel, the fictitious author of “La Epoca del Miedo” attempts to describe the terror which invaded the country during the dictatorship by comparing it to the intense and exciting fear of the rollercoaster, the anxiety brought on by crime in New York City, and the paranoia over the AIDS epidemic. Nevertheless, the author admits that none of these examples is analogous to the institutionalized fear which became an integral part of the daily lives of the Argentine people, and offers the following analysis of the phenomenon:
Pero cuando un miedo es fuerte y muy largo, uno ya no lo siente, se mezcla con la carne, con la grasa, se trepa por las venas, hace nido en el hígado y las personas se lo olvidan, andan por ahí cargando con ese miedo pegajoso, eructando miedo sin saberlo, creyendo que viven y duermen como siempre y sin embargo más pesadas, más lentas, midiendo cada gesto. (111)
The author of the text writes that it was the illogical nature of the disappearances and the uncertainty regarding the selection process of the so-called “señalados,” or subversives, which provoked the sensation of paranoia. He then relates the theories regarding the abductions and the forms of protection against them which spread throughout the populous. For example, rumor had it that individuals could by singled out for the clothing they wore, the water they drank, the cigarrettes they smoked, the books they read, the music they listened to, or the pets they kept. Other rumors circulated about the fate of the disappeared ones. According to some, they were tortured and then loaded onto planes or helicopters and thrown into the sea, while others speculated that the victims were cut into pieces and ground into corned beef for export to England. While the rumors regarding drinking water, pets and corned beef are clearly fictious inventions, other rumors, such as the death flights over El Río de la Plata are no longer subject to speculation. In the aftermath of the dictatorship, these and many other atrocities of the Dirty War have been exposed in gruesome detail in such reports as Ernesto Sábato’s Nunca Más (Buenos Aires: Editorial Universitaria de Buenos Aires, 1984) and Horacio Verbitsky’s El vuelo (Buenos Aires: Planeta, 1995). Nevertheless, the author of the text refers to all these allegations as “disparates,” and states: “Los que sostenían esas tonterías eran muy difíciles de disuadir en su convencimiento” (114).

It is interesting to note how Shua blends the truth and fiction in this text to the point that historical facts are subsequently questioned and dismissed as rumors, exaggerations and nonsense. One of the narrators makes the following observation about the information provided in the text: “Desde cierto punto de vista el texto en sí mismo es con seguridad auténtico, aunque no lo sea la información que contiene” (110). Shua explains the intentional blending of history and fiction in this particular text in the following manner:
Yo había escrito ese texto antes de empezar con la novela. Mi intención era contar una historia extraña, casi de ciencia ficción y que al mismo tiempo sirviera para transmitir en parte lo que sentíamos en esa época. Mezclé datos completamente ridículos inventados por mí, con otros no menos disparatados, pero que eran reales, como una forma de marcar lo absurdo y terrible de aquella realidad. (E-mail to Rhonda Buchanan)
The manner in which Shua blurs the line between facts and lies, and history and fiction in this text reflects yet another trait of historiographic metafiction, “the shift from validation to signification” (Hutcheon 96). Hayden White explains this shift of emphasis in the reconstruction of the past in the following manner:
This is not to say that certain events never occurred or that we have no reasons for believing in their occurrence. But a specifically historical inquiry is born less of the necessity to establish that certain events occurred than of the desire to determine what certain events might mean for a given group, society, or culture’s conception of its present tasks and future prospects. (487, emphasis in the original)
In “La Epoca del Miedo,” the text imbedded within the Book of Memories, the emphasis is placed on the terror which the Argentine society experienced during the dictatorship and its impact on their daily lives. Whether the fear was provoked by actual knowledge of the events which took place, or whether it was heightened by speculation, uncertainty and distortion, is not as significant as the manner in which it determined the thoughts and actions of those who felt its presence.

In the final paragraphs of the chapter, the narrator intervenes to inform the reader that the text is no longer legible due to smudged ink, and concludes that in spite of this interruption there are no reasons to complain because it is rare to find such detailed information about a particular topic in the Book of Memories and, after all, the document has served the purpose for which it was reproduced, that of establishing the climate for the events of the following chapter which concern the fate of Aunt Judith’s daughter Liliana, a political activist whose code name is Selva. Although the text is truncated, the reader knows that eventually what remains to be told about Argentina’s Time of Fear will find a space in the pages of history and literature which constitute the nation’s family album. By attempting to name the unnameable in El libro de los recuerdos, Ana María Shua contributes to the process of democratization, along with her fellow writers who, each in their own way, guard against the loss of memory and the return of tyranny to Argentina.

In conclusion, the question arises as to the value of a novel which questions and subverts the very history it attempts to inscribe? Is there a lesson to be learned from a chronicle which is fabricated from truth and lies, history and fiction, facts and imagination? The final words of the novel, “para quien no cree en otro mundo, la vejez es el infierno” (200), leave the reader with the disconcerting notion that the past offers no redemption and the future holds no guarantees that history will not repeat itself. For those Argentine families whose grandparents arrived on the boat of the immigrants, and whose grandchildren were forced to embark on the journey of exile, history has completed a full circle. In spite of all the uncertainties, including the possiblity that future generations may have to undertake voyages through uncharted waters, the reader may find comfort in the knowledge that the master stories of the family and the nation will live on forever in the wharehouse of memory, as long as there are grandparents to tell them, authors to record them, and readers to interpret them.