Friday, June 21, 2002

Ilan Stavans on Jacobo Timerman (Forward)

June 21, 2002
An Argentine Mandela, Twenty Years Later

The following is an abbreviated version of Ilan Stavans's introduction to the 20th-anniversary release of Jacobo Timerman's 1981 book, "Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number," to be published in August by the University of Wisconsin.

By Ilan Stavans

'I have lost none of my anxieties, none of my ideology, none of my love or my hate," Jacobo Timerman (1923-1999) writes toward the end of "Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number," which is more than the mere chronicle of his imprisonment in 1970s Argentina, in the period known as the Dirty War, la guerra sucia. The volume is also a descent to a chamber of hell overused in the 20th century, where prisoners of conscience such as Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel have been kept in bondage.

It is difficult to think of a more influential book by a Jewish author from Latin America. It became a cause célèbre when the English translation by Toby Talbot appeared in 1981. More than two decades have passed since then, enough time to ascribe to it the adjective "classic." As a window to an age of terror, it ought to be read alongside similar narratives of self-determination from the region, such as Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz's self-defense against the corrupt Catholic priests of Mexico in 1691, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento's dispatches against the Rosas tyranny in the River Plate in 1948, and Rigoberta Menchú's controversial autobiographical account of 1978 about human rights abuses in the Indian population of Guatemala. Like them, "Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number" is a testament to dignity and endurance.

Extending a tradition of tolerance that reaches back to Europe, he was arguably Argentina's most important Jew from the '60s onward: His role as journalist and newspaper editor allowed him venues to express his democratic ideas openly and without reservation. He had been the founder of the newspaper Primera Plana and editor in chief of La Opinión, a paper modeled after Le Monde and closed by the government. In its pages he stuffed reportage about corruption and antisemitism. It also published the habeas corpus to the courts by the families of the desaparecidos. The nation's army became furious and went after him. It made him turn the term "dissidence," in vogue at the time of Juan Domingo Perón's second presidential period (1973-1974), back to its semantic origins. (Dissidence: from the Latin dis + sedere, sitting apart.)

At the time Latin America didn't yet know how best to approach democracy. His arrest came on April 15, 1977, as some 20 civilians obeying orders from the army besieged his apartment. He was described as the scum of the earth: a Zionist, a usurper. The description Timerman offers of his physical ordeal is macabre. "The cell is narrow," he states. "When I stand at its center, facing the steel door, I can't extend my arms .... The floor... is permanently wet. Somewhere there's a leak. The mattress is also wet. I have a blanket, and to prevent that from getting wet I keep it on my shoulders constantly. If I lie down with the blanket on top of me, the part of my body touching the mattress gets soaked."

At one point, a guard leaves the peephole ajar: Timerman knows he is observed, and he too observes his counterpart outsider. In those extreme circumstances, a friendship evolves between torturer and victim. Each wonders what is in the other man that he might recognize in himself. The conscience that evolves from this self-recognition pushes the prisoner to a roller coaster of reflections in which he questions his loyalty as a Jew toward the Ukraine, his place of birth; toward Argentina, to where he immigrated at the age of 5, and toward Israel, a state where, stripped of his Argentine citizenship, he was flown to when the Argentine junta, under international pressure, finally set him free.

"Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number" uses a literary technique that mimics his state of mind, moving back and forth in time from the isolation in jail to philosophical meditations on the nature of evil and the excesses of the state. As the pages accumulate, the reader gets the sense that Timerman is growing stronger. He discusses his Jewish education, his journalism and how tyranny seeks to impose "an Artificial Order" onto the universe. His Judaism, he concludes, is "a political act. But Judaism as a political category [is] impossible for the military to understand." For them it is a religion; or better, a conspiracy.

Eventually, Timerman learns from Holocaust survivors that he is a victim only if he recognizes himself as one. Thus, he seeks his own courage. Freedom, he is convinced, is a state of mind. The word "Argentina" keeps popping up. What does it mean to be an Argentine? As a Jew, has he ever become an integral part of his adopted country? He becomes emotional in the process. He doesn't shy away from a critique of the Argentine Jewish community. But his true target is more abstract. "It is essential, I suppose, to attempt some explanation of what Argentina is," he announces.

Yet I find it almost impossible to do so in normal terms.... [The problem] is that I myself perhaps am unable to understand her. Or it may be that I've lived though a period of such political and social disintegration that it is hard for me to conceive that some coherent explanation would emerge from such disparate and anarchistic opposing elements. In this context, a statement by Borges is, I think, useful. Borges remarked, some thirty years ago, that the Argentine is not a citizen but an inhabitant; that he lacks an idea of the nation where he resides, but views it as a territory which, owing to its wealth, can be exploited rapidly.

Timerman recalls that Argentina, since the late 19th century when the first Yiddish-language settlers arrived from Eastern Europe, had been perceived as a Promised Land of sorts. Intellectuals such as Alberto Gerchunoff dreamed of a society where Jews would not only be accepted but where they would become active participants in the civil dialogue. But already in 1919 a pogrom, known as la semana trágica ("the tragic week"), crushed those utopian aspirations. From then on, the dream shattered repeatedly as one coup d'état after another crippled the hopes of the population. The land of milk and honey became the land of sour grapes. "We'll show the Nazis how to do things," an Argentine officer says while handling a Jewish prisoner. And adds: "Don't worry, you only die once."

The critic Howard M. Fraser once stated that the touchstone of Timerman's work is the uprootedness of the Jewish tradition "brought about by centuries of wandering in the diaspora." In the end, he portrays himself as a transhistorical Jew, whose mission is to enhance tolerance around him. He stumbles at times but comes back to his senses. "Was it inevitable for me to die like this?" Timerman asks himself. "Yes, it was inevitable," he replies. "Was it what I desired? Yes, it was what I desired. Wife, children, I love you. Adiós..." But he changes his mind. He convinces himself that his obligation — his only obligation — is to survive and become a witness. No room for tenderness, for "tenderness, is the enemy," Timerman states. "The intoxication of tenderness is tantamount to death."

Upon his release, Timerman authored a polemical critique of Israel's invasion of Lebanon, as well as autobiographical volumes of reportage on Chile and Cuba. After Raúl Alfonsín came to power, he returned home with his wife. By then he was seen as a statesman, with local and international honors regularly bestowed on him until his death by a heart attack in 1999.

Jean-Paul Sartre believed in a dialectical relationship between antisemites and Jews: Both exist thanks to the other. The thesis might be flawed, but it applies to Timerman, an assimilated Jew whose victimizers turned him into a symbol of survival that is, to a degree, the voice of the approximately 1,500 Jewish desaparecidos in Argentina. Their death and his anguish he turns into fortitude.

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College. His memoir, "On Borrowed Words," will be issued in paperback in August by Penguin.