(Re)Interpretation of History and Catharsis of Collective Guilt in Holzman’s Malena

Holly Fernandez

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Literature is traditionally a space for a people to record and assert their national identity. Their struggles, their history and their aspirations are communicated and deliberated through poetry, song, essay and fiction. These themes are modified or transformed in accordance with temporal and geographical settings. Latin American literature proposes its own thematic references that are unique to its identity. Specifically, the Postmodern era in Latin America deals with themes such as the military dictatorship, exile and state terrorism. While Argentine literature in the 1970s was scarce because of persecution or exile, experiences of the “dirty war” in works by authors of the 90s abounded. Their fictional works protagonize Argentine characters and their experiences under state terrorism and how they dealt with their identity and their association (or lack of) to the collective assignment of blame, shame and guilt.

But one element of Postmodern era literature is the revision of history, and herein lies the achievement of Edgardo David Holzman’s Malena. It stands out for its reinterpretation of the historical facts according to investigations and documentation revealed subsequent to most comparable works. In Malena, no longer is the state terrorism or exile of the “dirty war” a uniquely Argentine experience with which the Argentines must reconcile themselves and their collective psychological state. Beginning in 1992 with the accidental discovery of the Operation Condor documents in Paraguay by Martin Almada, U.S. involvement in the coordination and surveillance of dissidents and exiles became a historical fact. Holzman has extended historical involvement to include that of the United States by writing in English to an American audience about an American protagonist whose country and family are significant participants in the events taking place in Argentina. Therefore, the historical perspective presented to the reader is not that of an isolated period in a distant land but rather one in which the American reader must reevaluate their own American identity and their role in sharing the burden of collective guilt.

Historical events that provoke moral judgment involve a series of steps taken by individuals to first evaluate the association of the event to the group (ingroup or outgroup) and subsequently to themselves (Lickel, Schmader, and Barquissau, 36). Once this group affiliation and individual association is determined in the mind of the individual, only then can emotional reactions be allocated in respect to blame for the event itself, guilt for actions taken, and shame for the character of individuals. This process occurs both on the individual level (self-evaluation or other-evaluation) as well as at the social level, such as the assignment of individuals to ingroups and outgroups. Ingroups are generally defined as those who are the offenders while outgroups are victims. This is seen in the aftermath of the Holocaust, where social cleavage had appeared along racial lines, and the ingroup nation came to display a collective shame.

However, in the case of one segment of a group committing an offense against others in their group (Argentine against Argentine) the psychological and social consequences are complicated to the point where event association and group assignment are far less clear. The spectrum of blame, guilt and shame between offender and victim becomes a complex categorization to which not all members of the group agree. Such disagreement perpetuates the continual negotiation of the collective experience in which, ultimately, social catharsis is illusive. Postmodern Argentine literature has dealt with this theme and continues to do so even in more recent publications.

I will first address the association and affiliation of the Argentine characters in the novel before I progress to analysis of how Malena extends guilt to the United States collectively and Americans individually.

Silencio es salud

During the “dirty war,” silence was the requisite for a guarantee of safety (“silence is healthy”), a social pact of sorts between the military and the public (Holzman, 153). This maxim threatened those who spoke out by opposing the National Reorganization Process through protest or claims of injustice with political reprisals in the form of arrest and torture. Absent from the novel is any representation of a participant clearly guilty through commission of violent acts. Holzman omits the psychological profile of the armed leftist guerrilla or the detention center torturer. Although present, we have no name, dialogue or actions on their part available for evaluation. Those who carried out such acts are, without doubt, both associated to the event and affiliated with the ingroup, and thus guilty both in the legal sense, as individuals who have violated the law, and in the moral sense, to which we direct our attention. There is an entire spectrum of ambiguous assignments of guilt between these two extremes who were required to maintain silence.

The contortions of logic to justify their moral actions can be seen in characters like Father Bauer, Colonel Indart and Admiral Rinaldi. Rinaldi blames the “leftist insurgency, guerrilla groups and Marxist priests” for his actions (Holman, 86). Further he claims that, “many may be innocent people caught in the middle” because poor “coordination [allows for] rogue elements in both the military and the police” (Holzman, 87). Unlike Rinaldi, who is lying to cover up his ideology and knowledge, Father Bauer shows us a much more sinister justification for his actions. He considers his affiliation to be “a patriotic duty” for which “God is grateful” (Holzman, 41). He further tries to brainwash Diego by reminding him that he was a victim of terrorism as well when he was injured in the bombing that killed Mrs. Indart. Father Bauer consecrated his interrogations with the useful euphemism of “confession” (Holzman, 46). The people who were associated through their actions of performing interrogation, giving a command, or telling a lie, such as the characters mentioned above, can have plausible deniability in that they never killed or tortured anyone personally. Nonetheless, they are undoubtedly associated with the event and affiliated with the ingroup which allows us, as readers, to assign collective blame for the event, guilt for their actions, and shame for their character.

Indistinct on the spectrum are those individuals whose involvement is less blameworthy, chief among them Diego. He is associated with the event by being present at the murder of the prisoners. Moreover, he was facilitating the event by working to fix documents for property seizure and false testimony. But can we say that he is affiliated with the ingroup as an offender? He was only a witness to the first murders and shot over the heads of the others at the second event of execution. Most importantly, he not only morally objected to the action but took steps to make reparations by notifying the families of the victims. These subversive activities put his life in jeopardy as well as his loved ones. Diego is an example of a character whose affiliation is ambiguous as far as deserving collective blame for his actions. However, some would impute shame for his lack of character claiming he should have ran earlier or done something to prevent the murders. The portrayal of this character who is associated with the event but not necessarily affiliated with the ingroup serves to demonstrate continual negotiation that occurs on a social level which impedes collective healing.

Even more difficult to delineate is the responsibility of those who knew of the abuses but chose to take no action and remain silent. Had Diego not decided to make reparations with victims families, he could fit this category. We find an example of someone who was aware of the abuses and took no action in the Mahlers. Mrs. Mahler forbade Solo to take any action or report the events to anyone. She was under threat to remain silent while the lives of her other family members could still be salvaged. However, if she had spoken out, could she have prevented the death of someone else? How much guilt can be imputed to a mother of a victim whose silence may have facilitated other murders? Some who were closely affiliated to the events chose to adhere to the threat, silencio es salud, while others chose to resist involvement and attempt reparations for what they witnessed.

Algo habrán hecho

This maxim, “They must have done something” was a way for the Argentines to distance themselves from conscious knowledge of the events they were witnessing and sustain a reasonable acceptance that detainees were receiving due process. The novel portrays characters who are not associated with the event through their actions nor are they affiliated with the ingroup as offenders. However, when one segment of a group commits offenses against members of their own group, complete denial of association and affiliation is difficult to accept or justify. Further, association through inaction must be considered.

During the “dirty war,” the upper classes were complicit in that they perpetuated the neoliberal policies that favored their economic interests through condoning the actions of the military. Mr. Maldonado is one such character who expresses his support and adherence to the proceso. He utters the words, “They must have done something” when he explains his support for the military (Holzman, 96). In order to eliminate the “kidnapping, people’s jails, bombs,” he dismisses the other negative consequences that occur as a result. As long as order is restored and the economy is fixed, Mr. Maldonado is content to dismiss any rumors of acts committed against missing persons.

Publicly the target of arrest by the Junta Militar was the leftist armed guerrilla. However, the victims that we are aware of in the novel are David Mahler, his wife Beatriz Suárez, Deborah Mahler and Malena. None of these are guilty of any violent acts. David was a shop steward and most likely involved in strikes for workers’ rights. It appears that Deborah and Beatriz are taken for their association to David. The only “offense” that Malena is guilty of is being homosexual. Nonetheless, none of the victims in the novel are guilty of violent acts. It seems that the “something they must have done” was to oppose the regime and be Jewish. They are victims and the portrayal of members of the outgroup who did not commit any violent offense deserving of arrest.

The above discussion presents only a few examples of characters from the novel that represent an array of ambiguous categories of group assignment. The first step in the process determining collective guilt is association of the event to the group. As stated above, in the case where the ingroup and outgroup are not binary oppositions, this process is complicated: the us/them binary, the ingroup/outgroup binary, and the victim/offender binary are tenuous. Further, deciding group affiliation is closely related to and dependent upon how the individual sees themselves as affiliated to the group and associated with the event. This theme is one that has been well dealt with in numerous works of fiction in Argentine literature that have served the purpose of contributing to and representing the collective social discussion in this process of affiliation and assignment. The unique aspect that Holzman brings to bear in Malena is that the main character of the novel is not Argentine. Therefore, he is neither affiliated to the group nor associated to the event, or is he?

Operation Condor

The extension of assignment and affiliation to the United States serves two purposes. One is to make a contribution to the existing body of Argentine literature that facilitates this collective social discussion. The second is to implicate the American into the social discussion for assessment of his own affiliation and, by extension, guilt. Upon the discovery of the Terror Files in Paraguay and the undeniable evidence of U.S. guidance in the event orchestrated through Operation Condor, the results and consequences, whether legal, moral, individual or social, should not be relegated to the geographical region of Argentina. Doing this would be the curtailment of responsibility and the interminable catharsis of social healing.

According to Lickel et al, members of an ingroup are unlikely to have feelings of guilt if the actions can be seen as justifiable under the circumstances (38). We have already examined characters in Malena where this is the justification and the result is a lack of feeling guilt, as in Mr. Maldonado. Other Argentines who do not adhere to this justification have been unable to purge themselves of guilt because they are unable to dissociate themselves from the group. Regardless of the level of personal involvement, they were Argentine during the event and will always be associated to the event as an Argentine.

The introduction of a fictional work into this literary genre where the main character is American can provide some relief for Argentine society. It allows for a new discussion, in the field of literature, where the ingroup and outgroup can be extended. Whereas in previous works all members of ingroup and outgroup were Argentine, in Malena we can redefine the ingroup offenders as Americans and the outgroup victims as Argentines. Malena, therefore, serves as a means to an end where social catharsis can take place and a reinterpretation of the historical events occurs.

But this shifting of outgroup blame triggers the necessary evaluation on the part of the American to categorize affiliation and association for his own part, both individually and socially. Herein lies Holzman’s main goal as our main character is an American and the novel is written in English. Kevin Solórzano is the son of a man who took his family to live in Argentina for a time. During his childhood there, Solo learned Spanish, fell in love for the first time, and lost his father in an accident under mysterious circumstances that have never been uncovered. After investigating, he learns that his father was, in fact, an agent for the United States Central Intelligence Agency who taught anti-insurgency interrogation tactics to foreign agents. These foreign agents and the tactics they learned were being used in the very cases of humanitarian abuses that Solo was investigating as a member of an Organization of American States (OAS) team. Solo struggled with this knowledge once he connected all the pieces. He knew that the torturers that he was investigating were “his father’s disciples” (Holzman, 291). And he had the further incongruent comprehension that logically he was “utterly innocent of his father’s sins,” but emotionally he felt blame and a need to make amends (Holzman, 292). Solo negotiates his own association to the group and affiliation to the event and, as a result, is motivated to respond in some manner.

By extension, each American reader should be examining his or her own involvement. If they “do not perceive that ingroup members caused an event, they are not likely to feel guilt” (Lickel, Schmader and Barquissau, 38). Malena brings a little known event in the American psyche to the forefront. Perhaps through this work of literature, the sins of the father will be visited on the son and while the event of history is properly reinterpreted, collective guilt will also be properly attributed.


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