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Book Review: Departing at Dawn: A Novel of Argentina’s Dirty War by Gloria Lisé

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In an extremely well crafted first novel, Gloria Lisé has put a human face on the story of 30,000 “disappeared” people who lost their lives from 1976-1983 in Argentina. The military government which took over Isabel Peron’s country proceeded to eliminate anyone felt to be a threat to their position. A lawyer and professor, Lisé must have been tempted to add yet another non-fiction account to a historical tragedy, but in this finely tuned work of fiction she manages to show the impact the government’s hunting of dissenters has on one family and as a result show the human toll that numbers cannot reflect.

We follow the incidents surrounding Berta, a young woman studying to be a doctor who watches her lover thrown to his death from a balcony. A union organizer, he was rumored to have money set aside. Government officials think Berta may have it, and she is forced to flee her family and city to go to relatives she barely knows in the country. Where Lisé avoids another hero/heroine surviving the chaos of the times is by placing her main character in a serene, slow-paced setting. While all around her the country reels, in her ancestral home she finds safety and at times peace.

But, of course, no family is without history either, and here Berta learns more of where she has come from and how she fits in her own tradition. She does not escape her own tainted past as she meets the Indians her family has forced into a small area of existence. She sees other current concerns as she travels with the Armenian midwife and learns of the miracle of birth in an area with little access to medicine. She learns of the personal failings and misfortunes of her own family, placing her own struggles in perspective.

Lisé’s style is sparse, clean, and confident. She trusts her story enough to avoid creating judgments, instead letting the reader draw their own conclusions. At times, the chapters seem to jump, but it becomes clear she is creating a backdrop for the world in which Berta finds herself. Early on we get a chapter entitled “This is My Family,” and these are augmented later by character sketches in “Aunt Avelina,” “Tristan Nepomuceno,” “Lusaper Gregorian,” and other chapters. Lisé brings to these characters a believable fullness which shows the lives of others trying to survive in a world turned upside down. Many of them survive quite well since they are comfortable with themselves and have seen other difficult times. Lusaper Gregorian, the midwife, is a refugee from the Turkish massacre of the Armenians, so her take on what is occurring is always influenced by what she has survived. These people also create a context for Berta and for how we view Berta.

The novel also succeeds because Berta is such an identifiable victim. She was not involved in any “subversive” activities herself, but the fact that her lover was makes her guilty. She does not face the government and become a martyr, but understandably runs for her life. Berta’s time with her new family is slow and probably at times quite boring. While others may be looking for her, she is simply biding her time for approximately two years, waiting to know what to do next. But, of course, this is the most important type of hero: an everyday person caught up in the midst of madness and making whatever rational decisions so she can to survive until another opportunity arises.

Lisé herself was 15 when the overthrow occurred, so she lived through this time and likely saw many such simple heroes. By creating a novel following the story of one person she has managed to make the tragedy of the government known while not letting us get lost in facts and numbers. In a similar vein Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien has taught more about the realities of the war through his fiction than many non-fiction books have ever succeeded in doing. One hopes the Lisé will continue to use the novel as a vehicle to express her knowledge, since she does so powerfully.

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