Thursday , February 29 2024
A work that has been called Argentina's Catch-22 blends the mundane and the horrible and reality and surrealism.

Book Review: Malvinas Requiem by Rodolfo Fogwill

America seems to take an almost chauvinistic approach to literature, displaying little or no interest in works originally written in another language and then translated into English. The potential disconnect with Malvinas Requiem will probably start with the title. Regardless, those who have called it Argentina's Catch-22 just may be justified in doing so.

The Falklands War may ring a bell with most Americans. Very few, though, probably know that in Spanish, Argentina's official language, the Falkland Islands were las Malvinas. Thus, from the outset the book reflects the perspective Rodolfo Fogwill takes on the conflict — the viewpoint of about two dozen deserters from the Argentinian army who are hiding out underground.

With the focus on characters hiding underground and generally emerging only at night, the book was titled Los Pichiciegos when first published in Argentina. Pichiciegos is a small armadillo native to central Argentina that is considered an endangered species. Accordingly, the novel called the men in the hideout "pichis." While the title changed in the English version, the translation remains true to the original as it refers to them as "dillos." (Although the book could have been helped provide greater context with notes or other explanatory material for items related to Argentina's history with which many English-speaking readers may be unfamiliar.)

Life as a "dillo" is far from exciting. Most of the time is spent sleeping, smoking, talking or just thinking. The boredom is outweighed only by the ramifications of leaving their shelter, something only a few designated ones do at night to gather supplies and even trade with nearby British soldiers. Fogwill helps reflect the feeling by there being little sense in conversations of who among the men is saying what. At times, the reader might even wonder which of the various characters is actually the narrator.

Malvinas Requiem also expresses the attitude and at times dry humor of the soldiers toward the war itself. On the first sunny day in three weeks, one decides that, as far as he is concerned, the British could keep the islands. "You had to be British, or like the British, to want to come and freeze your arse off here, when over there lay Argentina, so fine and wide and with the sun shining down on it."

It is in such fashion that the slim volume strikes the reader as if Fogwill were actually there. Not only was he not on the scene, the book was completed before the surrender of Argentina less than 10 weeks after the conflict began. Yet what perhaps makes Malvinas Requiem most notable is that just as mundane daily events and the soldiers' feelings reflect the real, Fogwill combines it with the surreal. One of the best examples of his ability to do so is demonstrated in the course of just three pages. In those pages, Fogwill first describes training versus reality:

The army takes good soldiers, more or less trains them to shoot, run, clean their equipment and, with a bit of luck, how to stick a bayonet into a body. Then war comes along and you discover you have to fight at night, using radios, radar, infrared sights all in the dark, and you can't do the only thing you really know how to do, which is run, because behind you the engineers in your own regiment have been laying mines as you advanced. And mines are the worst of all.

Fogwill then describes a ewe stepping on a mine. Reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote in a Roadrunner cartoon, the ewe is "suspended in mid-air. She pulls in her legs, turns her head, and looks backwards, twisting her head as if she had the neck of a giraffe." Fogwill slowly transmutes this image into the real, describing the disintegration of the ewe from the explosion and the rest of its herd moving like a pinball amidst the landmines they are setting off. The conclusion of the passage brings home the grittiest reality: "The stench of sheep blown apart by a land mine is similar to that of a human being blown apart by a landmine: the smell of a slaughterhouse[.]"

In this respect, the original language of the work is irrelevant. Fogwill's exploration of how the events of war range — and change rapidly — from the mundane to the horrific speaks the universal language of soldiers in an armed conflict.

About Tim Gebhart

After 30 years of practicing law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs. Tim Gebhart is now perfecting the art of doing little more than reading, writing and sleeping.

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