77 by Guillermo Saccomanno, trans. by Andrea G. Labinger (Open Letter 2019)
Reviewed by Allison McCausland
Fear makes people do crazy things. When a country is in turmoil politically, its hard to distinguish the clear-cut actions of people as heroic or survivalist. In the case of Professor Gomez, the protagonist of Guillermo Saccomanno’s latest translated work, 77, he acts as more of an active bystander, drawing in the reader through his retrospective narration of his time in Buenos Aires during the Jorge Videla coup d’état in 1977. Saccomanno captures the uncertainty and day-to-day dangers of living in this era with visceral scenes and inner longing for a better life. Translator Andrea G. Labinger keeps the rhetoric in line with Saccomanno’s vision to ground readers in both terrifying and startlingly mundane situations.
Professor Gomez’s narration demonstrates not only the average fear and uncertainty of the era for Argentines in general, but the minority groups that lived in the country during this time. Three encounters in particular shape Gomez’s decisions, and portray the paranoia of the era. The first is his relationship with one of his favorite students, Esteban. Esteban’s humanitarian and inquisitive nature encourages a sense of longing for innocence in Gomez, until one day Esteban is violently “disappeared” in the middle of Gomez’s classroom. Looking back, Gomez imagines the torture and human rights abuses Esteban most likely suffered for having his inquisitive nature associated with the socialist insurgents the Videla-era tried so hard to destroy. It also increases the paranoia and fear of Gomez’s more liberal associates, and shapes Gomez’s daily encounters with his landlord, students, and fellow teachers, who could easily inform on him as someone did on Esteban.
The incident with Esteban causes Gomez to keep his head down as more and more people are “disappeared.” He chooses not to act out of fear until his nonthreatening status attracts the attention of one insurgent named Martin. Martin asks Gomez to shelter his pregnant lover, Diana – both are associated with the socialist resistance. Diana’s headstrong nature makes her time with the paranoid Gomez tense. Nevertheless, Gomez slowly begins to unravel the mystery of Diana and her motivations for joining the movement. Gomez discovers the biggest motivator only after Diana leaves him, via letters to her lover, Mara. Gomez, a member of the LGBTQ community himself, finds beauty in the two women’s love for one another and the drama Diana caused when she took up with Martin to help cover her feelings for Mara. Through Diana, Gomez sees that his inaction, sparked by fear of the government, can also be seen a risk.
The third encounter, heard second-hand by Gomez’s friend De Franco, causes Gomez’s human desire to finally outweigh his fear. DeFranco often uses Gomez as a sounding board for his affair with his lover, Azucena. DeFranco started the affair when Azucena was still a student of his, but their ongoing relationship has outlasted her marriage, and tragedy after tragedy she has suffered. DeFranco takes her feelings for granted until he starts spending full days with her outside of their clandestine hookups. He sees the sorrow Azucena holds for her son, who was “disappeared,” in addition to her around-the-clock care of her disabled husband, Perdito. The pain the two carry overwhelms DeFranco, but he insists upon helping Azucena as her mental state deteriorates over time. DeFranco’s apprehension at providing emotional support leads to the heartbreaking death of Azucena and Perdito, after Azucena finds out her son is dead and Perdito sets their house on fire.
Gomez realizes the dangers of being apathetic toward the pain of others. This allows him to follow up on Mara and Martin, both of whom are killed in a standoff, and Diana, who has been captured by the military. To make peace with her death, Gomez tracks down Diana’s parents to let them know her fate, so they will not sink into grief like Azucena and Perdito. Saccomanno uses Gomez’s casual encounters and experiences during 1977 to show how living in a constant state of fear can keep one submissive, but can also encourage a person to act in the smallest of ways to bring peace to their fellow man. The retrospective retelling by an older Gomez adds poignancy to the narrative, to show how the mistakes of those who lived in fear of the past can inspire present and future generations to act. Saccomanno continues to be a complex voice in the literary canon, writing about present problems by framing them in the not-so-distant past.