Christina Colombo

Overcoming the Hardships of Life through the Revealing Soothing and Even Magical Effect of Words

Christina Colombo

During the last decades, Argentina has been stirred by political, social and economic upheavals that have shaken the very foundations of the country and the condition of its society as well.

A brief outline of the recent past would show:
A bloody confrontation between armed groups and military forces that ended in a dictatorship, the effects of which can still be perceived in the population’s unhealed wounds.

The Malvinas Islands’ War (also known to the world as the Falkland Islands’ War) waged against the United Kingdom with its sequel of killings on the battlefield and suicides among veterans after their return to the continent.
And last but not least, periods of failed civil leadership that led to bankruptcy, unemployment, poverty, exile and despair.

Of all these issues, the Malvinas Island’s war has received the least treatment in children’s literature.

The conflict broke out during the last days of the 1976-1983 military dictatorship and even though at the time, the announcement of the islands’ occupation aroused a widespread approval and a deep feeling of patriotism, the final disastrous outcome only brought bitterness, humiliation and anger to the civil society.

It hastened the retreat of the military regime but the war itself ended by being disregarded as the product of the feverish minds of transitorily empowered dictators.

In spite of the significance of this dreadful event the whole episode has been overlooked as a literary subject, most likely due to the fact that authors do not feel consubstantiated with a war outrageously planned and put into action by an autocratic authority.

Thus, an eloquent silence fell over the heroic exploit of the young men who were sent to the islands. And, now, twenty six years later, our children’s literature has still not found the way to celebrate the intent to recover an unredeemed territory and the spirit of those who offered their lives in defense of the cherished land.

A short story by Esteban Valentino, “Don't let the bomb hit the carnation on the tray”, is a thorough example of the state of alienation attached to any memory of the war that may be rationally evoked but is ideologically rejected.

The very geography of the islands is sensorially altered. The action takes place in a ghostly scenery, the surrealist territory of a god’s forsaken place.

There is no room for familiarity. The islands are alien to the soul, more prone to turn into a topographical metaphor, a paradigm of nostalgia than a robust historic fact.

In that nightmarish background, bombs seem to play hide and seek with Emilio, a soldier and the main character of the story, on the verge where life and death meet in some sort of obscene game.

His superior is killed in action and Emilio has to take charge of his buddies who look up to him in distress. Moments of anguish, despair and a feeling of orphanhood follow. Emilio’s lack of emotional commitment is replaced by a deep agitation that leaves his conscience in a state of numbness.

At that moment, his recollection of his first meeting with Mercedes, his sweetheart and the image of his handing her a carnation, as a token of love, prevails over the present. As a consequence, a sudden epiphany casts its glow over the whole scene at the front and anticipates Emilio’s own salvation and the salvation of his men.

Constantly throughout the story, Emilio’s attitude towards the war is one of estrangement; the same estrangement the whole text exudes. Nearer to an oneiric experience than to reality, war is felt like a condition of the soul marked by loneliness, destitution and isolation from the outer world. This barren landscape will only become fertile through the overwhelming power of Emilio’s deep affection for Mercedes that endows his spirit with a heroic flame.    

Finally, it will be the language of Emilio’s recovered humanity amidst the horrors of the war, an alphabet of love that will powerfully remain in the mind of the reader at the end of the day.

The beginning of the millennium found Argentina immersed in the worst economic, social, political and institutional crisis of its recent history.

People’s savings were confiscated. Unemployment grew dramatically and at a certain moment 8.5 million people looked for non-existent jobs falling into despair.

Fourteen different kinds of painted paper money were issued to keep business going and pay salaries. Inflation soared and fifty percent of the population fell behind the limits of poverty and indigence. Thousands of children died of malnutrition and nearly three hundred thousand people (an actual diaspora) went into exile.

But then, in the midst of chaos, society found its own way of survival.  A new institution grew among the ashes: the exchange of goods and services that took place in clubs which rose to the number of 5000 all along the country. With a currency of its own and a whole supply to meet all kind of demands: from plumbing to medical treatment; from masonry to mechanics. Even handicrafts were offered, most of all by thousands of women who rising to the occasion, showed creativity and determination not to let their families perish out of disease or starvation.

Many books reflected this hard and demanding period when some succumbed to despondency; others managed to find their own road to salvation and all together discovered the meaning of the word solidarity in a time of extreme necessity and deprivation.

Hugh is hungry”, by Silvia Schujer, author and Monica Weiss, illustrator, is a crude and endearing illustration of the extreme condition to which the poor and desperate may be thrown into.

The book is about a lonely boy who wanders the streets, hungry and angry because his stomach and his soul are both in pain.

Text and images merge and complement to give the reader a powerful insight into the boy’s destitute world. Hugh is invisible to others. He has become part of the grey landscape of the city streets, his skin tainted with the faint colours of walls and pavement alike and his appearance, unobserved as the presence of a tree.
In this context, the coming and going bodies around him become formidable agents revealing lack of solidarity, indifference and self centeredness.

Hugh’s urgent needs distort reality to the point that the whole world turns into a painful edible picture where human links run the risk of disappearing.

But Hugh’s hunger goes deeper that a physical demand, it is his emotional existence that is also in want.

It is at this moment that an encounter with a dog as lonely and hungry as Hugh himself takes place. And in that world still indifferent, with Hugh’s stomach still roaring, his anger finally subsides.

A sudden empathy blossoms in the arid land. The boy and the dog find out their mutual material and affective needs. This recognition as equally rootless and displaced beings, anxious of giving and receiving love, this tacit understanding will mark a turning point and show yet another form in which the unnoticed miracles of life work.

As an author, I myself have also devoted part of my work to the hard, political period of the beginning of the century in “For Ever Friends” and “ Love songs for a street dog”; a story of loss and recovery, of hope and wretchedness that begins when Ignacio’s father is fired from his job.

A period of adjustment follows in which a series of changes take place that will affect the conducts and shake the feelings and even the beliefs of the whole family group.

Eventually they will have to move into a house in a traditional neighborhood, where Ignacio’s grandmother, a skilled poet, lives. In the process, their friends and in Ignacio’s case, his sweetheart, will be left behind.

Unable to fully sever his ties the boy refuses to quit his old school, thus starting a painful daily pilgrimage. Uprooted and lonely in his wandering between his new place of residence and the former one, Ignacio feels helplessly reduced to the condition of an astray street dog.

In addition, the certainty that his father has stopped being the self sufficient man he used to be makes Ignacio begin to perceive the frailty of his old hero as a sign of surrender. Incertitude, lack of communication and confidence follow.

Time passes and the implosion of the family seems irreversible with silences and words contributing to this picture of desolation. In the midst of his distress, alienated by a hostile geography and a hostile environment, Ignacio manages to find a refuge in his grandmother’s house and a consolation in her poems.

Then, at the darkest of hours, Ignacio finds a job in a newsstand.

Soon his new position gives him a sense of fulfillment and self importance and a fresh insight into his father’s predicament. For Ignacio the time is ripe now to accept the actual state of affairs, to stand unprejudiced and receptive ready to be permeated by the world around him.

Suddenly, the whole landscape seems to come to life and reveal its hidden meaning through its old buildings and walls covered with graffittis, its historic squares and passages, the sound of melancholic tangos and the numerous cafés with their crowds of people and their loud and friendly noise.

Deep inside him what is about to happen finds a new language made of images and words: a proposition of his own to turn the family house, an appropriate Spanish construction, into a small hotel, a cozy place for tourists.

The whole family closes ranks around the boy’s plan. In the course of time, as it is being carried out, the project will serve a multiplicity of purposes; join the family around a common effort, provide it with a living and above all, with a powerful feeling of determination and accomplishment.  

Now, I will refer to the most painful period in the history of Argentina, between 1976–1983, a time of radical violence when armed groups of different signs waged a non-conventional war that led to a brutal military dictatorship.

These awesome years were afterwards reflected in many books. Among them all I have chosen an auto biographical novel originally written in French and published by Gallimard under the title “Manèges”; later on translated into Spanish as “La casa de los Conejos”, that will now appear in English as: “The Rabbit House”.

The author, Laura Alcoba, a 37 year old woman fictionalizes a period of her own childhood as the daughter of a couple of militants belonging to the armed group MONTONEROS.

When the political situation obliges the guerrilla organization to adopt a condition of clandestinity, Laura and her mother move to the outskirts of a populous city.

The house has been chosen by Montoneros for its adequate location and disposition of rooms to carry out their activities, with a rabbit store as a façade.

A new life begins for Laura and her mother, full of secrecy and fear

Laura shares the tension that the whole situation implies, persecuted by an unknown enemy, her own life in danger, her innocent mistakes condemned as fatal errors and her menacing spontaneity constantly anathematized by the adults around her.

In the long run, out of mere necessity, Laura will eventually learn to simulate, lie, deceive, claim for recognition and be constantly on guard while yearning for normalcy in her inner self.

Throughout the story, the pathos is heightened by the voices of the author, as a grown up woman and a little girl, that alternate contributing a tone of melancholy and innocence to the choral narration.

After the arrival of the military to power, on March 1976, the situation for Montoneros becomes hopeless. Hundreds of activists are killed, entire groups, disappeared. An unstoppable force seems ready to sweep away all trace of opposition. At that moment, the organization allows Laura and her mother to go into exile.  

A few months later, that same year, the Rabbit House is stormed. The attack, led by police and military forces in which seven militants died was incredible violent. The noise of the machine guns and the smell of the incendiary bombs bewildered the terrified population and for ever stamped the memory of that day on the city walls.

Nowadays the Rabbit House, a vivid memorial, with the traces of the attack intact, has become a museum. It is a space of reflection that inspires an extremely powerful feeling of awe and reverence as if the place were permeated with the spirit of those pushed to the ultimate experience of death amidst neither mercy nor respite.

As we reach the end of this story we learn to love the little girl, an unwilling witness of so much hatred and intolerance and we cannot but admire the woman who leaving any ideology aside tried to recapture those terrible days not to judge or condemn but to honor the living and pay homage to the dead.

At this point I hope that I had been able to show our authors’ need to exorcise the abuse, despondency, helplessness and humiliation rampant during some of Argentina’s darkest days. But when I speak of our authors I also want to include all those authors around the world who constantly commit themselves to denounce the misery to which the human condition is subjected time and time again.

In the exercise of this collective effort, words have always proved an efficient remedy to address the most painful facts of life. But in those circumstances, what words should we choose, among all words? How should an author recognize the best way to display his own state of grace? And finally, how should he make emotions break loose on the page until the text carefully selected fulfills its cathartic role?

Fictionalization starts long before the writing process. It takes place while the experience that moves our soul oozes out its essence, drop by drop revealing its own flesh and blood.

Then, it will be necessary to explore and mine. Time is on the author’s side. Distance too may be of help. It will give him the correct perspective and an exact point from where to start.

Soon the moment will arrive to extrapolate this raw material into an incipient mode of expression.

What the author may find in this deliberate chosen path of consciousness will depend on the different nuances his perceptive being can grasp.

Now, it is in this territory and under these extraordinary circumstances that the alchemy of words will take place.

Nevertheless, no matter how hard the author tries, no matter how long, words will just be words if his innermost beliefs, the way he cares for his own existence and that of his fellow men remains devoid of the heroic meaning all human experience bears in itself. And even then that experience will still have to be turned into some kind of sacred bread on which to feed for words to get endowed with a true aesthetic, religious, healing force.  

Thank you.