Los pichiciegos II

Los pichiciegos

See also pichiciegos

Almost at the end of this Falklands/Malvinas conflict novel, the last survivor (though he doesn’t know it yet) of a doomed colony of Argentine deserters who call themselves “pichiciegos” hears the sound of engines at a distance. He sits down to wait for whatever vehicles might be making the noise as it gets closer, but all of a sudden everything goes silent. Without taking too much time to ponder the matter, he reflects that this is just one more mystery in a “war that would forever lack any explanation” (209). So when he, much later, tells the book’s shadowy narrator “You think you know, but you don’t. You don’t know” (127) and “You don’t understand a thing” (152), he’s not simply referring to the notion that you had to have been on the islands to understand his experience. There’s something about the war itself that defies all explanation.

What were they doing there in the first place? Fogwill plays up the inhospitality of the archipelago: all mud, driving rain and snow, barren hills, the odd sheep. Who would want to live in this godforsaken place? “You’d have to be English, or like the English, to get stuck in there and die of cold while all the while you had Argentina so huge and so beautiful and always sunny” (94). But not even the English, more focused and efficient as they are, seem to be able to make head or tail of things: not even they “understood what was going on” (96). The pichiciegos–the name comes from a small Argentine armadillo that burrows into the ground–show no love for the British, but nor do they buy the patriotic propaganda that urges them to continue fighting for Argentina, for a cause that makes no sense at all. Deserters, they have opted out of the war, dug themselves a shelter somewhere in no man’s land, and hope merely to make the best of things by scavenging scraps from the battlefield.

But beyond the basic mystery of what the war was all about (“two bald men fighting over a comb,” as Jorge Luis Borges famously put it), there are other strange occurrences on the islands. At one point a couple of the pichis report that they have seen a pair of nuns, “giving out papers among the sheep that were wandering all around them. [. . .] ‘I saw them. He saw them. [. . .] Two nuns. It was at least ten degrees below!’” (102, 103). Were these just visions produced by the men’s exhaustion and fantasies? Or are these apparitions no more (or no less) spectral than the deserters themselves, who many believed to be the “dead, living underground, which after all was half true” (109). The pichiciegos haunt a strange buffer zone: between the two sides at war, but also between life and death. No wonder then that they might be more attuned to other strange events and circumstances, without for all that understanding things any the better.

“And what about you?” asks the narrator of the sole survivor, in a scene that hints at analysis or therapy, “do you believe that I believe what you’re telling me?” “Just note it down,” he replies. “That’s why you’re here. Take notes, think hard, and come to your own conclusions” (105). And ultimately this is what the book requires of us, its readers: not so much to believe as to think, and to come to conclusions that can only ever be provisional at best. For if war teaches us anything–and even this may grant it too much pedagogical or moral import–it is to doubt the power of any explanations.

Link: Hugo Sánchez, who fought in the Falklands/Malvinas, gives a brief opinion on Los pichiciegos: “The most real thing I read about the Falklands/Malvinas is a book of fiction.”