Past Present: On ‘Todos eramos hijos’ by María Rosa Lojo

By Jessica Sequeira

Todos éramos hijos
María Rosa Lojo
Sudamericana, 2014 

The election and re-election of Perón. The Cordobazo protest movement. The guerilla activities of the Montoneros. The return of Perón and the Ezeiza massacre. The assassination of José Ignacio Rucci. The violence of the Triple A. The death of Perón. The presidency of Isabelita. The move underground of the Montoneros. The occult practices of José López Rega. The Operation Independence. The military coup toppling Isabel. The rise of General Jorge Rafael Videla. The National Reorganization Process.

How should the experiences of the ’70s and ’80s be presented? The question has been a pressing one in Argentine writing for decades. One option is the documentary novel — tending toward the fragment, eschewing commentary, attentive to aporias, skeptical of a clear trajectory, often adopting a melancholy approach suffused with anesthesia or cynicism regarding the ability to link disparate moments. A second option is the narrativizing novel — generally realist, founded on personal experience and documentation, tending toward the lyrical, presupposing a continuity between present and past, retaining despite its subject matter a faith in politics and historical reconstruction in achieving understanding and avoiding repetition.

Todos éramos hijos, the new book by popular historical novelist María Rosa Lojo, takes up the narrativizing approach, reading social history through its effects on the lives of individual characters. It begins in 1971, at the secondary school Sagrado Corazón de Jesús in the wealthy Buenos Aires neighborhood of Castelar, and is supposedly written years later, when the narrator is going through her old diaries and papers. Moving through various stages of Argentine history, it remains loosely focused on a girl named Frik — a young version of the author — and her friends.

Secondary school here is the seedbed for future adult lives, with transitions recounted in a fluid stream of anecdotes. Frik attempts to avoid politics, studying at the University of Buenos Aires with the hope of one day writing books, while her classmates and teachers embark on alternate paths toward political militancy or family life. A back-and-forth exists between adolescent and older selves, as well as between generations. Despite the children’s attempts at rupture, parental desires regarding their futures remain pressing, introducing a number of tensions.

Since the characters in Lojo’s novel so closely parallel historical reality — with characters made to represent certain ideas or swept along by events — it is clear from the start that the idealism of the school years will be challenged, giving way to violence and disillusionment especially by Frik’s leftist friends. Complicated parallels exist between Catholic militancy and Peronism, and between the loss of religious faith and the loss of faith in Perón. Lojo is strongest when discussing how the religious becomes political, and vice versa — from the Second Vatican Council and the Medellín Documents, to priests’ social work on behalf of the poor and campaigns against celibacy, to Montonero ethics and liberation theology.

The title of the book is a twist on the Arthur Miller play All My Sons, staged by the students, a dramaturgical theme extending into the structural division of the book into acts and a last chapter written in script format. Though the recourse may seem contrived, the novel seems aware of its own didacticism: “As we saw in class,” says a teacher of Miller’s play, “this is a text full of nuances, which doesn’t prevent it from being a work with a thesis.” The same could be said of Todos éramos hijos, which in its run through history incorporates authorial interventions and a level of contextual perspective not necessarily available to either the young Frik and her older avatar. Information is presented through dialogues and a classroom question-and-answer format, with the narrator’s voice not that of a teenage girl or a (never clearly delineated) mature woman, but rather the explanatory tone of Lojo herself.

After Franco’s death, Frik’s father — a Spanish immigrant — hopes for justice for the exiles, but Lojo writes that “there was no poetic justice for History, there was no justice for the dead, and the ones who hurt no one ended up being the worst.” After the coup in Argentina toppling Isabelita, she writes that “the news didn’t surprise anyone. The headlines, with large capital letters and exclamation points (“Isabel has fallen!”) were read with relief by many fed up with El Brujo [López Rega] and his inefficient successor.” And she reminds the reader of the murders of Azucena Villaflor, Esther Ballestrino de Careaga, and Mary Ponce, who worked to trace what happened to the disappeared during the years of state violence and who ”remained, indelibly, in the memory of their adopted country. Although everything possible was done to erase, disintegrate, pulverize them; although their living bodies, knocked out with Pentothal, were thrown into the sea from an airplane, such that during the fall their skulls were destroyed and their bones broken.” (This sociological analysis of women’s violated bodies, rhetorically resurrected on behalf of a political cause, makes for deliberately uncomfortable reading.)

Lojo harbors ambitious notions about what information a narrative can convey and the effect it can produce on the reader. Her background as a CONICET-funded researcher appears to support a continued faith in historical continuity and progress that makes contemplation (intellectual work) just as useful as action (militant work). By positing a parallel between personal and universal history, her novel takes on a strong pedagogical tone — it believes strongly that about these events there is still something to say.

Inclined toward analysis and summing-up though the novel is, there is one moment when young Frik feels detached from the historical structure. Walking around her neighborhood one day in late fall, nearly winter, she notices how many yellow leaves there are on the ground. Gardeners are piling them up outside country houses and setting them on fire, a burning scent she associates with a long ahistorical past. The narrator writes of Frik that:

At that moment she was and wasn’t herself, she was no one and everyone. Deprived of her minor story and her own name, she experienced a strange evening illumination, leaving the infinite wheel of lives for a moment to escape time. She saw herself, a stranger amidst strangers, in an incomprehensible world that only to the blind seems normal and routine, free of enigmas.

This admission of bewilderment is a fascinating glimpse into how disorienting and complex the events of this world might appear to one who has lost faith not only in divine continuity, but also in historical narrative.