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Richard Eder

'They Have Taken My Wife' : IMAGINING ARGENTINA by Lawrence Thornton (Doubleday: $16.95; 214 pp.)

September 20, 1987|Richard Eder

A regime of terror is marked not simply by its concrete killings but by some particular identifying abstraction.

In the case of Argentina in the 1970s, this abstraction was syntactical. It concealed inside the most intransitive of verbs--"to disappear"--a fearfully transitive concept. Hence, the thousands of desaparecidos , an existing word given a new meaning in Spanish, and one that in English required inventing: "the disappeared."

Ostensibly, it meant "those who have disappeared." In fact, it meant "those who have been made to disappear." Those who were taken from their homes in anonymous green Ford Falcons, held and tortured for months or years, and buried in remote parts of the countryside or thrown from helicopters into the Rio de la Plata.

Implicitly, of course, there were disappearers , as well, but the word does not really exist. So, the generals, colonels and captains had syntactical anonymity; just as their victims had anonymity of another kind, equally despicable and far more cruel.

To this deadly abstraction, Lawrence Thornton has opposed a deeply inventive retort. "Imagining Argentina" is an inspired fable that confronts the Disappearers with a Finder.

Carlos Rueda is an artist and musician, director of the Children's Theater in Buenos Aires. He is intuitive, dreamy and the farthest thing from a man of action. His intellectual life, in the words of Martin Benn, the retired journalist who serves as narrator, is "wholly metaphorical."

Even the most imaginative renditions of Anderson and Grimm present no real challenge to the generals whose mission is to purify Argentina and render it pristine. But Carlos' wife, Cecilia, is a journalist; after she writes a searing editorial about the abduction of 15 students, she herself is taken away while preparing dinner.

Thornton accurately pinpoints the agony. All that Carlos finds when he gets home is the plate of chopped crudites that Cecilia had set out on the table. For the next few days, he refuses to relinquish the yellowing bits of broccoli and cauliflower. There is no other material remains, no word, no official acknowledgement; only the testimony of neighbors who saw three men push Cecilia into their green car, followed by a deep silence that blankets the pain of so much of the country.

In his suffering, Carlos discovers an unearthly gift. One of the students at his theater turns up, crippled with grief over the abduction of his father, a professor. Suddenly, Carlos "sees" the prisoner in his cell and "hears" the decision of his captors that he is innocuous and can be released. The father will return home that night, he tells the student; and he does.

Thus, a private, absent-minded man finds himself with a crushing public destiny. Thornton is wonderful at small details. To get word out, Carlos can think of nothing more complicated than to join the daily procession of bereaved mothers in front of the Casa Rosada, or presidential palace. He has made himself a small sign: "I am Carlos Rueda. They have taken my wife. I can help."

Soon, grieving parents, spouses, children come flocking to his house. Each evening, he sits on his patio, listens to the first details of a disappearance, and relates the rest. The vision is a terrible one, full of details of physical and mental torture. Often he "sees" deaths; sometimes, he "sees" an impending release or escape.

But whether the message is brutal or hopeful, it breaches the inhuman silence. It remedies that most fundamental loss, which is the loss of communication, of knowledge, of the ability to name what has happened to you.

The terrible scenes that Carlos transmits are a fictional but authentic panorama of what went on in the secret military prisons of those years. At the same time, Thornton portrays Carlos' own terrible pilgrimage; his effort to see what is happening to Cecilia and to his daughter, Teresa, who is subsequently abducted and killed; and what is happening to himself and his country.

Thornton's style shows splashes of the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marques, and in one or two places, the surreal humor of Julio Cortazar. The dry narration and the symbolic displacements recall Jorge Luis Borges, and one of Thornton's mistakes is to refer self-consciously to the Argentine fabulist instead of simply profiting from his influence.

It is a first novel, not perfect, but remarkable. Thornton overwrites a good deal; his symbols crowd each other; there are too many dreams and presentiments and colors. Sometimes, he strands himself on his own tide. The narrator device adds very little.

On the other hand, Carlos, the innocent and afflicted Finder, is a haunting and revealing creation. Carlos' journey to the Casa Rosada to confront Gen. Guzman, architect of the terror--he is a cold, correct and monkish man--is quite perfect. And there are a number of smaller perfections, as when Carlos reflects on the solace afforded by rain and umbrellas in a dictatorship:

"The dry circle beneath his umbrella created an inviolable space, one inexplicably beyond the generals' threats. And Carlos thought it must be the same for everyone he saw as he made his way; even those people who caught his eye seemed not far away, but deeply within themselves, strangely impregnable." He imagines clusters of umbrellas multiplying around the Casa Rosada, "little cones of freedom."

Thornton, we are told, has never been to Argentina. There are some small signs of this: The name of the street is Cordoba, not Cordova. Alfonzo is a misspelling for Alfonso. It is a little odd to speak in the same phrase of the beaches of Buenes Aires and Rio, since the Argentine capital lies along a muddy and uninviting estuary.

But the title is splendidly exact. Thornton has imagined Argentina truly; his fable troubles and feeds our own imagining.

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