Departing at Dawn: A Novel of Argentina’s Dirty War – Gloria Lisé

LiseOn March 24, 1976, Army Commander General Jorge Videla launched a successful coup against the government of Isabel Peron. The coup marked an end the reign of the Peronist party, universally known from the era of former President Juan Perón (1895-1974) and wife Eva (1919-1952). For many Argentines, the departure of Isabel Peron was a sign that perhaps the country would truly be on the road to democracy. In fact, Berta observes the occurrences and remarks: 

“Thus, on this morning, nobody was feeling sorry for Isabelita; the “Female Fool”’s game of playing President had ended. Both the “Old Man” and his minister for social welfare, the so-called “Wizard,” were gone. The horizon was clearing. It seemed that Peronism had finally come to an end and that from now on to call yourself a Peronist would be to say a bad word.”

In the wake of the coup, a dictatorship seized control of the country and embarked on a campaign of mass terror against those deemed to be enemies of the state.  Murders, kidnappings and disappearance instilled fear across the country as no one knew who might be next.  It is estimated that at least thirty-thousand people were murdered between 1976 and 1983. The true number may never be known.  Each year in the capitol of Buenos Aires, relatives of those who disappeared gather in the Playo de Mayo to remind the public of dark moments in Argentine history.  The campaign against those on the left and others considered subversive, was an extension of the plan known as Operation Condor, initiated by the administration of former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006). Survivors of wave of terror now referred to as the “dirty war” carry with them deep scars from their experiences at the hands of the right-wing government.  Gloria Lisé was fifteen years old at the time of the coup and later turned her memories of the era into this book originally titled Viene ClareandoIt is not an autobiography but a short novel of a story that certainly comes from many dark truths. 

The main character is Berta, whose is close to Atilio Sandoval, a target of the right-wing government. He is eventually murdered at the Tucumán Federation of Sugar Cane Workers.  Berta soon realizes that she must get out of the city. Her mother decides to send her to stay with her relatives, the Rojas del Pino family from which her late father descends. While avoiding the authorities she comes to learn about her distant relatives with whom she has very little connection.  As she explains early in the book, her father’s mother did not have a welcoming attitude to her son’s children with a woman she did not approve of.  We soon meet Tristán Nepomuceno,  Tristán Clímaco, Tristán Javier and her aunt, Avelina.  Berta recalls her experiences with several of them while she remains hidden from sight.  Her mother Amalia sends her letters but is very clear on what she should and should not do. Argentina is in crisis and everyone knows that death lurks around the corner. 

As the story progresses, Berta’s paternal family comes to life leaving readers with many anecdotes about life in an Argentine city.   Readers from North America may be surprised at some things in the book. However, after having visited Argentina several times and being able to truly experience Argentine culture, there are many things in the book that hit home. In their small town life is simple for most who only wish to survive each day.  But as to be expected, some language in the book is coarse and Argentines are not known to hold their tongues.  The story vividly captures daily life in the wake of a coup that stunned an entire nation.  

The story is actually told from two points of view; Bertha gives a firsthand account in some chapters and in others, the author writes about Bertha and her plight.  It is an interesting approach with two narrators showing us life under dictatorship.  Time soon begins to run out and after receiving another letter from home in which her mother advises that Berta’s friend Trinidad has disappeared, it becomes hauntingly clear that it is just a matter of time before Berta joins her.  Her next destination is Spain and mom pulls strings within the family to make it happen.  And after following vital instructions, she soon learns that yes, she will be departing a dawn. 

Readers familiar with Argentine history will readily recall many things in the book.  It is not intended to be a full account of the Dirty War but rather a small snippet of the hell that existed in Argentina after Perón’s removal.  In the years that followed, multiple dictatorships would assume power and waves of corruption continued to plague Argentine society as the people struggled to establish true democracy.  And while the nation currently has its share of issues, there is hope that it will one day achieve the democratic processes unavailable to Berta and others who lost their lives in the country they loved.  Berta gives a quote that addresses the crisis that sums up the story: 

“During those days, Argentina was like an unfinished poem somebody was keeping in a bottle, for later.”


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