Edgardo David Holzman has written a fascinating yet, appropriately, disturbing debut novel, Malena, with which he explores Argentina’s Dirty War (1976-1983) and how it impacted lives outside of that nation as well. Setting his book in 1979, three years after the fall of the Peronist government, Holtzman uses facts from human rights reports as well as his own life experiences to write this book which he has called a “book of conscience.”
The author explains in the email interview we conducted why he chose to write about these hard facts in a book of fiction and in what ways he is similar to the protagonist, Kevin Solorzano (called Solo for short). Both Solo and Holtzman have worked as translators, for example.
Another character is Diego, who is in the Argentina army but is trying to get out because he is increasingly becoming aware of what the military is doing, much of which he has moral objections to. This character gives the reader a chance to see what life in Argentina might have been like from the eyes of someone in the military. Both Diego and Solo are vying for the love of the same woman.
Prior to reading book from Nortia Press and its promotional materials my limited knowledge about the Dirty War came from Sting’s song about the mothers of the disappeared, “They Dance Alone,” from Amnesty International, and other sources. An estimated 30,0000 people, during this period of sate terrorism, accused of being “subversives,” were secretly kidnapped, tortured, and killed by authorities, according to the book’s promotional materials.
I had heard bits and pieces about the terrible actions during this war, including the report that some pregnant women who had been arrested had their babies taken away and given to well connected political families. These and other topics related to the Dirty War have been explored in books and films including Apartment Zero,The Official Story and The Secret In Their Eyes.
Holtzman, who lives in Philadelphia, was born in Buenos Aires in 1947 and grew up in Latin America and Southeast Asia. He moved to the United States at age 24. He has worked for a number of organizations as an attorney and translator. His work in human rights in the 1970s led him to the historical record behind the Dirty War. Many of the book’s stories can be traced back to the official report on human rights abuses issued in 1984, according to the book’s publisher. That report by the Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared, Never Again, has been the model for truth commissions in other countries.
While Malena deals with difficult, awful topics it does so in a fascinating and engaging way. The book’s title is the name of a popular tango. The tango is danced several times in the book—Diego is praised for his tango skills– and like a good dance this book has many twists and turns. I recommend reading it as you think you too will find it both educational and entertaining, always a good combination.
One part of the Dirty War that I was unaware of concerned the Catholic Church’s role in all of this. So let’s start the interview by talking about that. In response to my emails about the church’s involvement, the author provided several links with great background on all of this.
While I knew about some parts of the Dirty War I was unaware of the religious overtones, both the anti- semitism and the role of the Catholic Church. Has the Catholic Church ever apologized for its involvement?
The role of the Catholic Church remains one of the most painful aspects of the Dirty War among Catholics who compare it with the often courageous stance of the clergy under the military dictatorships in Chile, Brazil or El Salvador. In Argentina there is no real separation of church and state. The state is constitutionally mandated to support the Catholic Church, and there has always been a symbiotic relationship between the Church and the military.
During the Dirty War, while clergymen and nuns who denounced the carnage or helped the victims’ families were themselves “disappearing,” the Argentine leadership of the Church overwhelmingly defended the regime, and the Vatican remained silent. Chaplains stationed in hundreds of military units throughout the country visited the secret death camps, urged the tortured prisoners to confess, blessed the death flights that dropped people into the ocean. A 1996 pastoral letter from the Argentine bishops and similar subsequent statements have fallen short of the apology many expected and have not quelled the debate. It’s one of the many wounds from the Dirty War that have yet to heal.
How did the idea for the book develop? Was the plan always to delve into these topics, including the Dirty War, through a novel?
The idea developed out of personal experiences when I became involved in human rights work in the 1970s. I knew then that I wanted to write about it, though I had not yet settled on the Dirty War as the subject or on the idea of a novel.
In the publicity materials for the book you suggest this book would have more power as a fictional work than it could have had through a book of non-fiction. Can you elaborate? Do you mean because more people would be likely to read about these topics if it was part of a novel?
Governments, international organizations, NGO’s and scholars continually churn out books and reports on human rights. Few people other than experts, advocates and officials of various kinds ever read these publications, invaluable as many of them are. They are to be found mostly in specialized libraries, not bookstores for the general public.
Fiction, paradoxically, is the closest thing we have to real life. It’s where readers can put themselves in the characters’ shoes, occupy their heads and hearts, feel their emotions. On a subject as fraught with drama as human rights, a novel is particularly well suited to involve the reader. Over time I realized that I wanted to write a gripping, entertaining story, a thriller about a serious, sobering subject.
What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
I hope that most will gain a deeper understanding of human rights, which to many people remains an abstract concept. They may also carry away a heightened awareness of the gulf that separates self-serving national narratives from reality. And, perhaps, readers will close the book with a sense of how easily a society can fall under a terror regime and what it’s like to live under it.
How would you describe the protagonist of Kevin Solorzano (Solo)? In what ways is he similar to you and in what ways is he different?
Solo is a composite of people I’ve known or imagined, including me. There are plenty of parallels between his life and mine: he’s an interpreter, bilingual and bicultural, and we’ve both lived in some of the same cities—Washington, D.C., New York, Buenos Aires, Then, too, the encounter with state terror marks a turning point in both our lives. But our roots, family and personal life are vastly different. His international experience notwithstanding Solo is innately American. I am more of a mixed bag, having been born in Argentina of Jewish parents and spent my teenage years in Southeast Asia when my father was in the foreign service.
Did you work to keep this book as historically accurate as possible?
Painstakingly. The entire story takes place in late 1979, a very eventful year. As readers will discover, there are many complex strands to this story, including the Cold War, terrorism from the left and the right, the influence of fascism and Nazism in Argentina, the role of the Catholic Church and that of the United States. Each strand had to be thoroughly researched. I did take some minor authorial liberties for the sake of dramatic efficacy, but the novel hews closely to the historical record.
Did you draw from your own experiences when writing this book? Is it partly autobiographical? Can you talk about some of those experiences? You, like Solo, have worked as an interpreter, right? Did you work in Argentina? Were you living and working in America or Argentina during the “Dirty War?”
In 1974, when I was working at the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C., I was part of a team of lawyers sent by the OAS to report on the human rights situation in Chile one year after the Pinochet coup. The atrocities we uncovered highlighted for me the contrast between the official government story and reality, and planted in my mind for the first time the idea of writing about it. Eighteen months later, in March 1976, Argentina joined the ranks of its neighbors and fell under military rule. That was the coup that ushered in the “Dirty War.” I was living in the U.S. at the time, though frequently traveling to Argentina. Outwardly, the country maintained a veneer of normality. It even hosted the 1978 Soccer World Cup.
Later, in March 1981, I served as escort interpreter for General Roberto Viola, then head of the Argentine junta, when President Reagan invited him to Washington soon after taking office. My feeling at the time was that the human rights story had come back looking for me, letting me see it from different angles: first the inspectors in Chile, then the head of a government accused of massive human rights violations. More years would pass before Malena jelled in my mind and I put pen to paper, but these two experiences were the genesis of the novel.
Do you think people in America and Argentina grasp the enormity of how bad the Dirty War was? Is that part of why you wanted to write this, to educate people?
It took a long time for people in Argentina to take in the magnitude of the tragedy and come to terms with it. Amnesties and pardons buried the issue for decades. But in recent years, with the repeal of impunity laws and the resumption of trials and testimony, the full horror of the regime has come to light. In the United States, however, it remains a story largely unknown. I hope that people will take an interest in it because its lessons remain undiminished today.
What other research did you do for this novel?
The major part of my research was devoted, of course, to the human rights situation in Argentina and Latin America during the novel’s time frame. But the roots and ramifications of the issues pointed in many directions, including the Nazi influence on the Argentine military, the ratlines organized after World War II to bring war criminals to Argentina, and the role played in the “Dirty War” by the U.S. and the Catholic Church. Lesser aspects of the novel had to be meticulously researched as well, from Basque immigration to Argentina and the U.S. to the architecture of certain buildings in Buenos Aires to tango. It’s a complex novel with many different threads.
Can you talk about the impact the Dirty War had on the human rights movement?
Many human rights scholars believe that the Dirty War and its aftermath shaped the course of the modern human rights movement. The 1984 report on the “disappeared,” issued after the military left power, has been a model for other countries’ “truth commissions” ever since. The Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo were the actuating force behind major advances in DNA analysis, forensic anthropology and the establishment of a pioneering genetic data bank to identify victims of the regime. International conventions have been signed to protect children, combat torture and crimes against humanity. And now, three decades after the Dirty War, the trials of hundreds of members of the regime are unprecedented worldwide and are setting a new standard for prosecuting crimes against humanity.
How has the book been received since it’s publication on April 10? Are you paying attention to its reception and impact in Argentina and elsewhere?
The book has just come out, but I’m already astounded by the chord it has struck, which affirms my belief that this story needed telling. The novel has not been released abroad yet. When it is, I hope for the same favorable reception.
This is quite an impressive literary debut. Was your plan always to have your debut be about such weighty matters or have you written other novels and this was just the first to be published?
Malena is the novel I wanted to write, but I am now working on a sort of sequel to it. It’s about the hundreds of babies and young children of the “disappeared” who were stolen from their blood families and handed over to be raised by loyalists of the regime.