Operación masacre

Operacion masacre

Argentine journalist Rodolfo Walsh’s Operación masacre is an investigation into the extra-judicial assassination, on the part of the Buenos Aires provincial police, of a group of men initially suspected to be part of a Peronist uprising on the night of June 9-10, 1956. As much as an account of what actually happened in the hours shortly before and after midnight on those dates, the book is also the story of the investigation itself. Walsh describes how he was initially reluctant to follow up on a rumor about the events he had picked up in a café, but then threw himself into the pursuit of the facts, driven by outrage at the authorities but above all by sympathy for those who had, against the odds, actually survived. He soon finds himself on what is effectively a crusade for recognition and justice, though he is aware of the price he may one day pay for the trouble he is perceived as causing. Indeed, much later, during the military dictatorship of the 1970s, Walsh’s voice is finally silenced when he is killed by soldiers in a confrontation in downtown Buenos Aires, his body dragged away to be burned and thrown in a river.

But Walsh evidently believes that the dangers inherent in seeking out the truth are more than merely personal. In the introduction to the first (1957) edition of the book, he writes that “too much truth can lead to madness, wiping out a people’s moral conscience.” But he goes on implicitly to welcome this eventuality: “One day the tragic history of the June killings will be written down in its entirety. And then we will see the shock overflow our borders” (265). The truth, in short, is something not to be taken lightly; its effects are collective and potentially catastrophic. But ultimately we should take the risk of the madness and destruction it brings with it. After all, he concludes: “I happen to believe, with complete earnestness and conviction, in the right of every citizen to share any truth that he comes to know, however dangerous that truth may be. And I believe in this book, in the impact it can have” (266).

But Walsh is not content simply to leave things there, as an ominous warning for the future. He himself does whatever he can to ensure that the murky details of this “tragic history,” still incomplete when he first publishes it in 1957, should in the end come out. A second and a third edition of the book come out in 1964 and 1969 respectively. Each time he feels that he has better pinpointed the chain of events and responsibility that led to these mostly innocent men having their lives ended or, if nothing else, transformed as they were grabbed from an informal gathering in a private house and finally gunned down in a (frankly, botched) execution on the outskirts of the city. But with each new edition of the book, one also feels increasing frustration and even despair on Walsh’s part as the officials he identifies as the guilty parties continue to evade any repercussions or consequences. In the end, as in the epilogue to the 1969 edition, Walsh’s tone becomes almost frantic and apocalyptic as he expands his frame of reference to “a portrait of the dominant oligarchy” and concludes that “within the system, there can be no justice” (299, 300).

In the first place, the problem is that the investigation threatens to become interminable. The truth “in its entirety” is not so easy to uncover. There are numerous points at which Walsh admits to doubt or uncertainty, in part because witnesses are absent or unreliable, or because their testimonies contradict each other. In the end, even relatively basic facts such as the number of men taken out to the killing zone elude him. The book’s opening paragraph has to admit that “We will never know it all” (31). There will always be a penumbra of doubt however dedicated the effort to ferret out the facts. And so, for all Walsh tries to give substance and materiality to events and participants, they remain strangely ghostly, just out of reach.

But there is a worse possibility: that Walsh may manage to uncover the truth, or enough of it that should count, and yet nothing might happen anyway. At one point in his enquiry, seeking to track down yet another survivor, he comes across a little girl in the street who tells him “The man you’re looking for [. . .] is in his house. They’ll tell you he isn’t, but he is.” To which Walsh replies: “And do you know why we’ve come?” Coolly, calmly, the girl responds: “Yes, I know everything.” And though we never find out this young girl’s name, Walsh gives her one: “OK, Cassandra” (24). For Cassandra was of course the Greek princess, daughter of Priam, who was blessed with the gift of prophetic knowledge but cursed (by Apollo) never to be believed. In fact, Walsh does believe this girl (and finds the man he is looking for as a result), but he must already be thinking of himself as a Cassandra figure, destined to reveal the truth but to no avail. No wonder at times (and increasingly as new editions come out), his prose becomes increasingly strained and reliant on rhetoric as though he were trying to compensate for the fact that the truth alone will never set us free.

For the real scandal is not so much the truth itself as the fact that truth-telling does not have quite the power that Walsh ascribes to it. Perhaps it isn’t all that dangerous. Perhaps “speaking truth to power” (as they say) only puts the truth-teller at risk. Or it may even be that when Walsh is finally gunned down, it is for something else entirely.

2022 La guerra del gallo

In some ways there is nothing more real than armed conflict–it is after all a matter of life and death. But in other ways there is nothing more surreal, more phantasmatic. And if one literary response to warfare emphasizes its grim materiality (think, say, of Erich Maria Remarque’s All’s Quiet on the Western Front), another stresses the absurd: Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Likewise, it may seem odd to think that one of the best-loved TV shows of the twentieth century portrayed the Korean War with canned laughter, but that was exactly what M*A*S*H did. War: it makes us laugh as well as making us cry.

Juan Guinot, 2022 La guerra del gallo

While Juan Guinot’s debut novel 2022 La guerra del gallo isn’t perhaps as funny as he thinks or hopes it is, it certainly makes hay with the absurdity of war. And the second half especially has all the (il)logic of a rather bad dream. Indeed, I was more than half-expecting that that’s how the book would end: with the revelation that the titular “war of the cock” was nothing but the febrile fantasy of a protagonist whose grasp of reality is tenuous throughout.

It’s another commonplace to note that war drives us mad; that even if we were once lucid, the experience of battle is enough to make us lose our mind. Today, the medicalization of this effect goes by the name of PTSD; in other times, it was known as shell shock. The difference with Masi, Guinot’s (anti-)hero, is that he goes crazy not because he has seen war up close and person, but because he hasn’t. He is an adolescent at the time that the Falklands/Malvinas conflict breaks out, and though he eagerly signs up to fight as a patriotic Argentine, “to his dismay the [call-up] letter never arrived, the war ended sooner than anticipated, and the final result of the conflict was so disastrous that it left him shocked and he started to show all the signs of an ex-non-combatant; he saw Englishmen everywhere” (27). Traumatized by Argentina’s defeat, and above all that he could play no part in it, he therefore vows personal revenge against the colonial power of the English “pirates” whom he blames for all his ills.

Masi’s obsessive preparations for the future war of triumphant vengeance are at times no more than faintly ludicrous: he stalks the suburban rail services for spies, for instance, and when he finds one (identified by the fact that he’s wearing a “Kiss” t-shirt), he follows him, shouting at him to “go home” to the annoyance of the so-called spy and his fellow-passengers alike. But more often he is frankly deranged, and ultimately he (literally) gives his father a heart attack when, on receiving as a present a small styrofoam globe, he shouts out “I have the world in my hand. Now they won’t stop me. [. . .] English bastards, I’m make them shit fire” (52). Then, kneeling over his father’s corpse, Masi pledges “My victory will be yours” (53).

Unsurprisingly, the boy is carted off to a mental hospital. Equally unsurprisingly, he believes this to be a dastardly trick of Anglo-Saxon imperialism. In any case, decades pass and he is still far from cured when, in late 2021, he finally escapes his imprisonment and, with globe in hand and balaclava on head, he sets off on his new mission: to liberate the Rock of Gibraltar.

The world has changed by 2022 and here the object of Guinot’s satire shifts. For it turns out that everyone in this dystopian near future is effectively deranged and has lost the power to distinguish between reality and the imagination, the real and the symbolic. For the War of the Cock ends up being a dispute between France and Portugal in which two Dr Strangelove types, one on either side, decide to launch missiles against each other. This is the result of a deadly televised reality show in which boxers from the two nations brawl for the exclusive claim to their shared national symbol, now sponsored by a nefarious mega-corporation called BioCorp.

In the middle of the mayhem, and as the collective eyes of the world remain glued to their TV screens, Masi makes his way through Spain on a deserted train in the company of a stray dog with apparently supernatural powers. (There is much magic in the book; Guinot would have been better advised to leave it out.) And in the final dénouement he does indeed manage to expunge the stain of Argentine defeat forty years previously, by expelling the English from Gibraltar and raising the Argentine flag on top of the Rock. But the pity is that almost nobody notices. By 2022 if it doesn’t happen on television (and Masi’s antics don’t), then it might as well not have happened at all.

It would be hard to accuse Guinot’s book of subtlety or even of much sophistication. But then that’s perhaps partly the point. War is stupid, he’s telling us, and it makes fools of us all, whether we are doing the fighting or not. On the other hand, this novel is often so farcical that it makes one pine for at least a little of the bloody materiality that Guinot suggests we have forgotten in our militaristic obsessions. After all, the strange thing is that this is a war book in which there are barely any casualties: the French and Portuguese missiles collide midway in the heavens with little damage done, as the entire population of southern Spain is hunkered down in their bunkers to watch TV; at the end, the only victims are Gibraltar’s Barbary apes, who collectively leap to their deaths in the Mediterranean. If this were the only idiocy of war, then surely there wouldn’t be much to fear.

Trasfondo

Patricia Ratto, Trasfondo

The Falklands/Malvinas war was a conflict fought as much, if not more, at sea as on land. A majority of the casualties on both sides came from attacks on shipping, especially if we include the British losses from landing craft at Bluff Cove. Five larger ships were also sunk, including HMS Sheffield and the Atlantic Conveyer. For the Argentines, almost half their dead came from one incident: the controversial sinking of the General Belgrano. But it was largely thanks to the loss of the Belgrano that there were no naval battles in the strict sense, that is, no ship-to-ship conflict. All the British ships were hit by shore-based aircraft; the Belgrano itself was torpedoed by a submarine. And in response to the cruiser’s destruction, the Argentine fleet was recalled to base for the duration of the conflict.

With one exception. From May 2 to May 17, 1982, the submarine ARA San Luis was the sole representative of the Argentine navy in active operation. It is this ship’s story that is the subject of Patricia Ratto’s Trasfondo.

The novel is essentially a ghost story. For a submarine is always in some sense a spectral presence: largely invisible, hard to locate, registered only by faint echoes, yet the source of intense anxiety and fear. A submarine is a fantasmatic object par excellence. Yet Trasfondo shows that from the perspective of the submarine and its crew, the ships on the surface and even the war as a whole were equally ghostly and unknowable. Down below–and the San Luis was almost permanently submerged–neither sea nor sky could be glimpsed; the enemy could be discerned only through careful attention to faint traces on the Sonar. The few times that the vessel surfaced, it found only gloom and fog. On the whole it was out of range of any communication or maintained radio silence. As Martín Kohan notes, its crew were at the center of the action, but in some ways were further removed from the war than anyone.

On board, time becomes elastic and the combination of boredom and tension plays strange tricks on the mind. The crew are soon lost in “a labyrinth of echoes and rumours, as they wait for what the sea may bring them” (72). Small details become both comfort and distraction: a jar of capers that rolls around the boat; the narrator’s boots that seem to have a life of their own. Some draw, some read, others play cards to pass the time. It’s better to be doing something, no matter how futile. Most of the men put on their lifejackets as the enemy approaches (the youngest crewmember never takes his off), but they know that this will do them little good in the event of disaster. For if they are hit, “There won’t be time for anything, no time to call out, no time to escape, no time to hear, no time to see, the blood will stain the water with a thunderous red that bit by bit will be diluted until it is just water again” (79). Often enough it seems as though this doomed mission is already at an end: “Perhaps we are all dead already, one coffin piled up on another, but we simply haven’t noticed yet. Can one really die and not know it?” (71).

At the core of the book is the question of the relationship between knowledge and death: the knowledge of death, but also the knowledge that death either enables or obscures. Ratto reports that she was inspired by Giorgio Agamben’s observation about the Nazi concentration camps, that the only “comprehensive witness, who has experience of it all [. . .] would be the one who dies in the camp and so, paradoxically, the one deprived of a voice with which to testify. Meanwhile, those who survive have the voice to tell of what happened, but their experience is partial, incomplete. What we have, then, is always a lacuna, a grey zone that is impenetrable, inaccessible, without a voice to narrate it.” In Trasfondo, Patricia tries to give voice to this dead zone at the heart of any tragedy, any war, only to find that it is less the place of clarity and understanding than a new depth of epistemic murk where even the border between life and death itself becomes unstable, uncertain.

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.”

“La furia” and Other Stories

Silvina Ocampo, La furia

“El vestido de terciopelo” (“The Velvet Dress”), a short story found almost halfway through Silvina Ocampo’s collection La furia y otros cuentos, is narrated by a young girl, eight years old. The narrator is very much ancillary to the story’s main plot, which concerns a dressmaker from the Buenos Aires suburbs who comes into the city so that an upper-middle class woman client can try out a dress before setting out on a European vacation. It is not even clear why the girl is there: everyone assumes that she’s the dressmaker’s daughter, and she’s been dragged along against her will. She helps out with the fitting, for instance by gathering up some pins that are dropped on the floor, but her main contribution is her repeated commentary: “¡Qué risa!” (“What a laugh!”). Incongruous from the outset, this refrain becomes ever more out of place as events steadily turn to the weirder and the worse: the dress barely seems to fit, its embroidered dragon takes on a life of its own, the woman can’t take it off (“It’s a prison,” she says [159]), and finally all of a sudden she drops down dead. The dressmaker’s response is to lament the money spent making a dress that she can now no longer sell: “It cost me so much, so much!” (160). And the girl? “¡Qué risa!”

Welcome to the world of Ocampo’s short fiction, in which the strange and the fantastic so often erupt with surprising violence from the mundane and everyday. But seen through the eyes of a child, or perhaps some other character who is marginal to or not fully integrated within the events that unfold around them, the tone that the stories take is frequently at odds with the uncanny horrors that they relate. Ocampo depicts daily life as constantly susceptible to the emergence of sinister doubles, inexplicable cruelties, abrupt reversals, and sudden death. Take another example: “Voz en el teléfono” (“Voice on the Telephone”), which begins as a one-sided conversation in which the narrator, despite his reluctance (“I hate the telephone!” [193]), is explaining to his partner why the other day he was reluctant to light her cigarette. This involves a “history of matches” and takes him back to his childhood when, during his fourth birthday party, he and his fellow-toddler guests lock their mothers in a room and set the house ablaze. But the entire tale is told in such a matter-of-fact manner, and simply to explain a moment of social awkwardness. What’s more, having briefly described his last sight of his mother–“her face looking down, propped on the balcony balustrade” (202)–he shifts immediately to report on the fate of an antique Chinese chest of drawers that, “happily” was saved from the fire. Some of its carved, wooden figures, however, were damaged: not least one of “a woman carrying a child in her arms that looked a little like my mother and me” (202).

The fact of looking “a little like” is key, I think. For what’s most uncanny about a double is that it is never entirely the same as its twin. What’s sinister about any resemblance is that it’s the same but somehow in a different key. Or more generally, for the most part the power of Ocampo’s narrative arises from the fact that it portrays scenarios that we can almost recognize, but not quite. And perhaps we can’t always quote locate with great precision the point at which things start go veer towards disaster, however much hints of the grotesquerie to come are embedded even in a story’s opening lines. Everything is just a little bit off from the start, and as such the stories reproduce the perspective of those who are already somewhat out of place: the girl tagging along with the seamstress; the suburban lower class in the fancy apartment; the child trying to make sense of the mother’s conversation; the woman making the best of a bad marriage; and so on and so forth. And by the end of it all you’re wondering who the real freaks are. In “La casa de los relojes” (“The House of the Watches”), for example–another tale told by a child–a party gets out of hand as a small mob decides to iron out the wrinkles in the local hunchback’s suit, and then by an irreproachable extension of the same logic, to iron out the hunchback’s back, too. All this is told in the form of a letter to a teacher, as a sort of “What I Did in My Summer Vacation.” It ends with the promise to write again once the author finds out what’s happened to the hunchback, followed by final salutation of warm regards from a “favourite student” (55). But what lessons are being learned when the whole world is apparently out of kilter and yet nobody quite seems to register the disarray?

All this could be read as in part political allegory: “El vestido de terciopelo,” for instance, is set during the epoch of Juan Perón’s first presidency, and as such its combination of the uncanny with the threat of class-based violence reminds us perhaps of Julio Cortázar’s “La casa tomada.” (Christian Rodríguez makes this comparison here.) Likewise, both this story and “La casa de los relojes” might make us think of (Ocampo’s husband) Alfredo Bioy Casares’s collaboration with Jorge Luis Borges, “La fiesta del monstruo.” The mob, then, would be a specifically Peronist mob; and the dressmaker from the suburbs and her incongruously comic child sidekick with their deadly handiwork would represent the threat of the cabecitas negras to the housewives of the Barrio Norte. This is too crude (or too reductive), but it would still be worth considering the more general potential political charge of Ocampo’s stories, which is finely balanced between horror and sympathy for the marginal and the outcast. The fact that the “other” is never completely other, but perhaps just a degree or two distinct from “us,” can be (and often is) taken as a cause for elite anxiety or panic. In Ocampo, on the other hand, however she was fully part of that elite, there’s also the treacherous thought that the privileged and those who pass for “normal” deserve a comeuppance, that vengeance against them is never completely unjustified or misdirected, if not necessarily in the horrific form that they consistently seem to get it in her short stories. The furies, after all, are not entirely wrong.

La traición de Rita Hayworth

Manuel Puig, La traición de Rita Hayworth

At first sight, Manuel Puig’s La traición de Rita Hayworth seems to stand out for its gaps, for what it lacks. It has, for instance, no plot or narrator, at least in any conventional sense. For many critics, it has no protagonist. It consists merely of a series of texts, more or less connected but written from different perspectives and often in very different styles, that span fifteen years (from 1933 to 1948) in the life of a loose community in a small town on the Argentine Pampa. With each chapter we leap a year or so (sometimes, more, sometimes less) and are propelled into the concerns and obsessions of a new character or series of characters. Little attempt is made to “fill in the blanks” of what might come between these periodic bulletins from or about the town of Coronel Vallejos and its inhabitants. In one chapter (the fourth), the gaps are quite explicitly woven into the text itself, as we are presented with a “dialogue” between two characters, but only given one side of the exchange. At best, then, it may appear that we have little more than an approximation to the “real story,” whatever that may be, or even to a story at all. As such, in a book that (as its title suggests) is often preoccupied by the cinema, our experience as readers is much like that of someone who has not seen a film and has to have the plot described to them. This book is littered with such descriptions, which we gradually suspect are at times highly tendentious and far removed from the real thing; yet another gap opens up, between the description and the thing itself. But then how “real” is a movie, anyway? This novel puts that question center-stage.

But what is important here are ultimately not the gaps or the absences. Or rather, each gap is only the site of a new production or creation. So retelling a movie’s plot is the chance to construct a new narrative, a new version more fitted to the teller or the listener’s life and situation. Likewise, why see the multiple shifts of perspective in terms of the information that is skipped over or lost? In fact, they’re part of a drive to provide always more: more perspectives, more styles, more genres, more possibilities or actualizations of a consistent set of problematics. It’s in this sense that Linda Craig can point out that La traición is “a novel of supplementarity” (Juan Carlos Onetti, Manuel Puig, and Luisa Valenzuela: Marginality and Gender 72). Her prime example is the book’s logic of naming: just about every character has more than one moniker, their “given name” (e.g. José L Casals) plus a nickname (Toto). Likewise, “Rita Hayworth” was originally Margarita Carmen Cansino, her Hispanic heritage erased (but not quite) to make her a global star. The supplement is always political, potentially subversive, and Craig quotes Derrida’s definition of it as “the sign which replaces the center, with supplements it, taking the center’s place in its absence” (qtd. 71). Of course, precisely such relations between center and periphery are at the novel’s heart: General Vallejos and then Merlo (the desolate one-horse town where Toto goes to college) are both on the periphery compared to the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires; not even the radio, Toto’s piano teacher complains, reaches her out on the pampa. But Argentina as a whole is in turn itself on the periphery compared to the sights and sounds of global culture transmitted by machinery of film. And the novel’s various characters comment on the distance between their own lives and what they see on the silver screen, but more importantly they also construct connections between the two worlds: and in translating their circumstances into the vocabulary of the cinema, they produce a second version of their own lives, a supplement that complicates (and to some extent undoes) the entire dichotomy of center and periphery.

The real fear here is not so much that these Argentine lives somehow fall short of the models disseminated by Hollywood mass culture. The real fear is not distance but identity, resemblance, as is indicated by Toto’s abashed admission that a photo he shows his piano teacher depicts someone he’s told he resembles, and that “on getting to fifth grade I’m going to be like him” (306). This is the desultory predictability of social reproduction. But mass culture promises a way out, an alternative, or at least the chance to dream. What’s at stake in these people’s relationship to the cinema is not mimicry but betrayal, though here the novel’s translated title, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth is misleading: it’s not so much that the Argentine spectator is “betrayed” by the sirens of the silver screen, though a case can be made for that reading; but the films’ audiences, who are never simply passive consumers, are equally prepared to betray their idols, too, not least in their always unfaithful translations and repackagings of Hollywood plots for their own needs and desires. There’s also a third rendering of the title’s meaning, in that it’s around the figure of Hayworth that Toto’s father betrays him: he says that she’s his favourite movie star and promises to accompany him to the cinema, but never does. As such, the title is probably best rendered in English as The Rita Hayworth Betrayal, which conveys the multiple forms of resistance, deviation, and resignification that run through the novel. At precisely the time that Peronism is trying to constitute an Argentine people, not least through political technologies based on the cinematic experience, La traición de Rita Hayworth undermines the very notion of a cinematic pact, by refusing to give us a recognizable plot that would bind its constituent parts in the service of a single grand narrative. No: instead of a people, the book’s radical fragmentation and refusal to settle on a single point of view, its constant productive betrayal, point instead to a multitude that rebels against any attempts to reduce multiplicity to identity.

Rubble

Gastón Gordillo, Rubble

Before ruins, there was rubble. This is the startling and counter-intuitive claim at the heart of Gastón Gordillo’s magnificent new book. It is counter-intuitive because we tend to think of rubble as an extrapolation of ruination, ruination taken to the nth degree. Rubble is what we are left with when we don’t even have a ruin, when the forms of ruined structures are no longer comprehensible, leaving us with little more than shapeless masses of material and debris. Rubble is what ruins ultimately become, if left to their own devices; they are what ruin the ruin itself. If ruins are a palimpsest, rubble is their holocaust. If in the ruin, as Walter Benjamin observes, “the idea of the plan speaks” (The Origin of German Tragic Drama 235), and we can think we imagine a completed building, a unified structure, by contrast in the mound of rubble little can be discerned. Rubble is illegible, seemingly mute and expressionless; it defies representation. Or if rubble speaks, surely it tells us only of the extreme violence that has silenced it, that has erased the history that it once incarnated? No, says Gordillo: quite the opposite. Rubble’s apparent formlessness is an indication of its generative potential. From heaps of rubble mighty ruins spring.

Gordillo’s book, then, is a wide-ranging account of the production of ruins from rubble across a swathe of Northern Argentina from the foothills of Andes to the Paraguayan border, in the once forested plains of the Gran Chaco. He shows how diverse forces, from the Spanish conquistadors to the colonial Church or the contemporary state, have at various points tried to seize hold of the rubble that litters the region and capture it to produce what (following David Harvey) we might call a “spatial fix” to cement power, shape memory, and organize bodies, human and material alike. For even “naming something a ruin” is, as Gordillo quotes Ann Stoler saying, “in itself a political act” (196). Ruination is a process of selection that negates certain potentialities that remain virtual within rubble, even as it actualizes and celebrates others to produce “deceivingly positive landscapes” (16) punctuated by fetishized monuments to an official version of the past. If there is anything negative in the ruin it is this: the ruin sets out to negate rubble and with it its generative power and complex multiplicity. Against the flexibility and fluidity of what seem to be unformed mounds of material, scattered here and there in all manner of combinations, ruination produces “rigid objects presented as nodes of memory” that “transform space by gathering bodies around them and organizing and modulating their gaze and affective disposition” (206). But with rigidity comes brittleness. It’s no wonder that these ruins become objects of ritual veneration that require “repetitive ceremonies that something worth remembering happened there” (206). Ruins have to be endlessly (at)tended, reconstructed, shored up, rebuilt. Hence the irony that there are no structures more carefully conserved and preserved than ruins, supposed monuments to impermanence and decay that are in fact shaky bulwarks of projects to ensure stability and purity. Ruins have to be kept “whole” to hide the fact that all great structures are only ever ruins in waiting, and that everything tends to return to rubble. Ruins are the precarious legitimation of sovereign power; built on rubble, in the end they are not so mighty after all.

For the transformation of rubble into ruin is not a one-way process. Ruination is not rubble’s destiny, and Gordillo’s history is also the tale of constituted power’s constant battle with rubble’s perennial resurgence. While the elite battle against rubble, perpetually in fear of the ways in which it manifests “the fragility of state power” (57), or indeed the failures of any other would-be hegemonic project, in and around the debris itself arise other practices, other memories: subaltern reappropriations of place, such as the wild parties (“fiestones”) and “exuberant events of a Dionysiac nature” that one of Gordillo’s informants tells him used to take place in an abandoned Jesuit mission. It is this same informant, a local man called Alfredo, who first shocks Gordillo into realizing that if “we aren’t afraid of ruins” (as his Conclusion has it), it’s because we fear rubble even less. Calmly breaking off pieces of stucco, “enthusiastically eroding the materiality of the wall” (4), Alfredo happily demonstrates the vulnerability of ruins, their susceptibility to a subaltern counter-violence. Sous les pavés, la plage; beneath ruins, rubble.

But what comes before rubble? Or is history simply some kind of endless dialectic between rubble and ruin, violence and counter-violence? No. Gordillo suggests that before rubble is the void. But void does not here mean absence of any kind. It is true that Gordillo has much to say about negation, and in general his book is often dressed up in Frankfurt-School and particularly Adornian and Benjaminian rags. But his is an Adorno who, in proper Deleuzian fashion, has been well and truly fucked in the arse. So despite imperial or national depictions of the Chaco as some kind of savage abyss, defined by everything it supposedly lacks (culture, order, hierarchy), Gordillo stresses its plenitude, indeed its multiplicitous excess. This is what truly makes elites tremble: not that there is nothing there, but that there is too much, as is evidenced by the void’s power to create rubble. For perhaps it is better to speak not of the void, as though it were one object among many, but of voiding as an activity, as an insistent presence, a vital expression of the war machine as constituent power that (here Gordillo references Pierre Clastres) exerts its own violence to ward off the state, and in so doing creates rubble. The difference between the void and rubble is that the void is truly formless, a smooth space of pure immanence. Rubble, by contrast is organized (much as the state cannot see this or has to deny it) in zones of intensity, or what Gordillo consistently calls “nodes,” which themselves constitute “constellations.” This makes sense of the description of rubble as “ruptured multiplicity” (2), as opposed to the “ruptured unity” that more conventional accounts suggest. For it is not unity but multiplicity that is prior, and it is this basic (pure) multiplicity of the void that rubble ruptures.

Gordillo wants to persuade us not to fear ruins, in the name of a plea that we appreciate and affirm rubble. But should we not then love the void even more? Is this a radical call to embrace the war machine, reversing all the polarities of constituted power? Again, no, for this is not a book tainted with nostalgia for the so-called primitive, nor does it surrender to banal dialectics. There is something deeply ambivalent about the void. And we can see why if we look at the latest forces to shape the landscape of the Argentine Chaco: truly “primitive” accumulation in its purest state; neoliberal agribusiness as incarnated in the so-called “Soy Boom” of the past couple of decades. For what marks the process by which the forests are destroyed to be replaced by vast fields of soy is that the devastation is near absolute: not even rubble is produced or left behind, while the rubble that was once there is now consumed by fire. This is truly a smooth space. Moreover, there is something of the nomad, something of the war machine and even something multitudinous in these new multinational forces sweeping through the Chaco. Their voiding is certainly vigorous and active, and ultimately as threatening to state sovereignty as marauding indigenous bands ever were. These are the new spectres that haunt the Chaco, constituting lines of flight in pursuit of capital that (as Deleuze and Guattari comment in another context) “emanate a strange despair, like an odor of death and immolation, a state of war from which one returns broken” (A Thousand Plateaus 229). In the face of this latest challenge to the Argentine (but not just Argentine) spatio-historical ecosystem, it is the signal merit of Gordillo’s book to remind us of the value of the loose, but productive and fertile, horizontal connections and communities that make up the network of nodes and constellations that we too easily dismiss as “mere” rubble.