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Requiem for a Woman's Soul by Omar Rivabella; translated by Paul Riviera and Omar Rivabella (Random House: $14.95; 98 pp.)

June 08, 1986|Allen Boyer | Boyer, a former student of Latin-American history, teaches law at the University of Oklahoma. and

Victim for victim, the holocaust that swept across Argentina during the 1970s echoed the Nazi holocaust. What the Argentina terror lacked in scope, it made up in cruelty; the death squads who worked out of Argentina's barracks and police stations had the leisure to indulge every sadistic whim. "Requiem for a Woman's Soul" by Omar Rivabella (an Argentine essayist now relocated to New York City) follows one victim into this hell. The book draws on interviews with women who suffered under political repression. Their stories are shocking, which makes it doubly unfortunate that they have been retold in such a poor novel.

"Requiem" unfolds as a diary within a diary. One morning after Mass, Father Antonio records in his journal, he is handed a cardboard box. Inside are countless scraps of paper, which he gradually pieces together into the prison diary of a young woman named Susana. The diary tells how she was arrested, shackled to a prison cot, tortured, interrogated and raped.

Its underlying facts are harrowing, but "Requiem" reads like bad propaganda. Rivabella's writing is heavy-handed and wooden. ("Today one of the torturers began to amuse himself by shamelessly caressing my body, while delivering a lecture about 'foreign and dangerous ideologies.' ") The diary format is hackneyed. Instead of narrating, he piles on scene after scene of brutality. Except for Father Antonio, who is a stereotype (the troubled priest), the characters are merely names tagged to case histories.

The translation, by Rivabella and Paul Riviera, is flawed. Religious terms are carelessly handled, which is irritating in a book supposedly written by a Catholic priest. Among this book's intended audience, too, the word desaparecidos will be as familiar as gulag or Gestapo . To call the death squads' victims "the disappeared," as the translation persistently does, sounds stilted and sanitized.

For a first-person account of the Argentine holocaust, there is Jacobo Timmerman's "Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number." Among novels, there is "The Gods, the Little Guys, and the Police," by Humberto Constantini, which conveys the random nature of the carnage, and makes one feel for the inoffensive people caught up in it. "Requiem for a Woman's Soul" is not in their class; a book is not compelling just because it deals with a tragedy. The desaparecidos deserve a better monument.

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