by Carlos Gamerro

[Note: the Argentinian writer and journalist Rodolfo Walsh was an active member of the resistence to the military junta that took power in Argentina in 1976. He was murdered by members of the Argentinian armed forces in 1977; his body and a cache of his writings were never seen again. Walsh became a PEN case at the time and was made an honorary member of the Danish PEN Centre in 1979.]

‘The son of two lines of Irish immigrants’, is how he described himself. Rodolfo Walsh was born in Choele-Choel, Río Negro Province, Argentina, in 1927. By 1950, he was already installed in Buenos Aires and writing detective stories. Three of these, ‘The Adventure of the Proofs’, ‘Variations in Red’ and ‘Murder at a Distance’ form the book Variations in Red, a collection that, in 1953, would win the Premio Municipal de Literatura. Featuring the protagonist Daniel Hernández, these stories clearly belong to the classic – or English – model of the detective story, one promoted in Argentina by Borges, Bioy Casares in collection of detective novels that they directed, ‘The Seventh Circle’. In this series detective is an amateur who solves cases through deduction and by the close examination of physical evidence; the police search for the easiest solution but eventually end up looking ridiculous; there is always at least one plausible, though incorrect, explanation for the crime before we are given the detective’s final, definitive one; there is little realistic motivation; and there is absolutely no social criticism nor any critique of the institutions of power.

Walsh’s best known work, the non-fiction novel, Operation Massacre, was described by the author as a ‘breakaway text’, one that represented a rupture from what had gone before. In 1956, a year after the military coup that had brought down the democratic government of Juan Domingo Perón, Walsh was an involuntary witness to events in the city of La Plata, namely the unsuccessful pro-peronist revolution led by General Valle. Walsh tells of having seen ‘a car bored with holes, and inside, a man with his brains in the air’; he tells of having listened to a conscript die beneath his window; news arrives to him of illegal shootings of civilians. But he wants nothing to do with any of it. ‘Valle doesn’t interest me. Perón doesn’t interest me, the revolution doesn’t interest me. Can I go back to playing chess?,’ he asks. And in his question ‘chess’ also refers to ‘literature’, or more precisely, ‘the literature that I’ve practised until now.’ But then Walsh hears the words “one of the shot lives,’ and his life (as a writer, which is what concerns us here) changes for ever. He dedicates himself to investigating this state crime which would be a prologue to the more terrible crimes that were to come in the years that followed. Operation Massacre can be seen as a reaction against the ‘pure fiction’ model represented by the detective stories, but also as the most perfect realization of one the variations of the genre: the author of detective stories who suddenly finds himself involved in a ‘real’ case (and yes, in Walsh’s case, one should remove the quotation marks from the word ‘real’).

The last of Walsh’s texts that have come down to us, written shortly before, and during, the bloody dictatorship that began on 24 March 1976, are all political or journalistic: the internal documents of Montoneros (the peronist revolutionary group he belonged to) in which he urgently, but impotently, argues for retreat in order to remove the group’s militants from the impending slaughter; the dispatches from ANCLA and Cadena Informativo, the underground news agencies he founded in order to breach the dictatorship’s censor; the moving ‘Letter to my Friends’, in which he writes about the death of his daughter Vicki, who was killed in a fight with the army; and above all, A Writer’s Open Letter to the Military Junta, which Walsh finished writing and then mailed to various recipients on 24 March 1977, the day before his death.

The Open Letter remains Walsh’s last will and testimony, bearing witness to his decision to opt for denunciation, for writing put to the service of pressing political needs. However, this is not to suggest a lack of interest in the passion and precision of literature: if Walsh teaches us anything as writers, it’s that we should not allow ourselves the ‘moral excuse’ that the testimonial value of a political or ethical theme exempts us from working on the formal aspects of the writing to the best of our abilities. Operation Massacre wasn’t merely a courageous denunciation (in the midst of the deathly silence imposed by the dictatorship) of the 1956 mass shooting, it’s also one of the best-written books in Argentinian literature. Walsh knew that with polemic, when one wants to speak a truth that has been silenced or ignored, the writer must seek out all the stylistic and rhetorical resources that lie within his reach. If he doesn’t, he runs the risk of creating a contrary effect to the one that he is seeking, i.e., the facts become unbelievable, the dilemmas banal, the reader’s resistance is strengthened – provoking rejection, scepticism or indiferrence. A badly written denunciation, Walsh knew, was a point in the enemy’s favour. This attitude reappears in the Open Letter. Alongside the accuracy of the research and the depth of analysis, we also encounter the forcefulness of certain phrases – ‘freezing salaries with rifle butts while raising prices on the tips of bayonets’ – and the effectiveness of his rhetoric – ‘what you call successes are failures, what you recognize as errors are crimes and what you omit are calamities’ – all of which stays forever in the memory of the reader. The Open Letter is written with one eye fixed on the immediate present (in which, as Walsh knew, the likelihood that it would be read and disseminated was minimal), and the other on the duration of literature. We know from his partner, Lilia Ferreyra, that Walsh used Cicero’s Catilinarian Orations as a model, searching for ‘written words with the force of a oral ones, as in the Latin invective’, and reading aloud the paragraphs that he was writing in order to discover ‘an adjective or a word that weakened the concept or altered its rhythm’. The Open Letter, in other words, is written to change the immediate present and also to last 2,000 years, so that – just as today – if we remember the historically insignificant Cataline only because of Cicero’s speeches, in the distant future the infamous names of the military junta will only survive as footnotes to Rodolfo Walsh’s text. This is the stuff of politically potent literature. Walsh described his text as a letter from a writer to the Military Junta, and contrary to his usual practice with the texts that he wrote for the CGT (General Confederation of Labour) and Montoneros, he decided to sign it with his name and identification number. In this final text the individual writer and the anonymous militant were reunited.

But the failure of the revolutionary project, the deaths of his comrades and the importance of denouncing the crimes of the dictatorship, re-ignited rather than extinguished his desire to write fiction, to set out broader contexts and more profound analyses than those permitted by the immediacy of journalism or political obligations. ‘A few weeks before his fiftieth birthday’, recounts his partner Lilia Ferreyra, ‘he decided to set himself two challenges for the 24 March 1977, the first year anniversary of the Military Junta government: one was to finish his story ‘Juan Was Going Down the River’ and the other was to disseminate a document criticizing the crimes of the dictatorship’ (this obviously refers to the Open Letter). The story would go on to become part of the the first novel that Walsh was planning, but that he would never complete.

And if Walsh’s death – that death which, according to a myth as dubious as it is timeless, is what gives final sense to the life of man – has come to be associated only with the Open Letter, it is due, in part, to an irony of fate. Walsh met both his challenges, but what the soldiers were looking for – the Open Letter – escaped the net; in contrast, the text of the novel, in which they were neither interested nor could they understand, was seized from the San Vicente estate, and to this day, like its author, remains disappeared.

(Translation and note by Cathal Sheerin)