18 January 2011

Gloria Lisé, Departing at Dawn, 2005

There are, fortunately, novels other than Nathan Englander’s excellent The Ministry of Special Cases that deal with Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’ and that are available in English. Published by the Feminist Press in 2009, Departing at Dawn is clearly seen as a definitive novel of 1976-1983 Argentina, because by decree it’s now permanently available to read at every library throughout the country. It tells the story of Berta, who has seen her partner, a trade union organiser, thrown from a window to his death by the government’s goon squads, and she flees Tucumán to stay with remote relatives in the Argentine interior, escaping the junta’s relentless pursuit and disappearance of anyone even vaguely associated with Leftist politics. Curiously, given the subject matter, this is a novel written in delicate literary watercolours as opposed to oils, and I was expecting a much more immediate and punchier read. It does also have some strongly written passages such as the long and engaging description of the bleak backwater town of Olpa where Berta ends up, but the tone was set at the beginning with the first half of the novel mostly given over to delicate character studies using Berta’s family history as source. I did wonder if or when the novel was ever going to pick up the pace a little, which it thankfully did towards the last quarter of the book, but even that kept the political strife off-screen and instead used it as the background context for Berta’s eventual exile. Quietly powerful, and indeed a very worthwhile read.  PY


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