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The Uncivil Servant: Terror in Buenos Aires

Mitchell Abidor
January 2, 2017

by Mitchell Abidor

Discussed in this essay: Once@9:53am by Ilan Stavans and Marcelo Brodsky. Penn State University press, 2016, 119 pages.

IT WAS AT 9:53 on the morning of July 18, 1994, that a car bomb went off in front of the building of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), in the Once (two syllables, long “o” on the first, second syllable “say”) neighborhood of Buenos Aires. Eighty-five people were killed and over 300 wounded in the attack on the Jewish community center, for which no one was ever arrested -- though it is all but certain it was carried out by Iranians.

The Mexican-American writer Ilan Stavans and the Argentinian photographer Marcelo Brodsky give us a fictional account of the bombing in their Once@9:53 am, in the form of a fotonovela. This choice is a bold one. Graphic novels on grave subjects have been no oddity for some time: Certainly, since Art Spiegelman’s Maus there is no shock in seeing events as horrific as the Holocaust depicted in comics. The individuality, the artistry allowed by the form, we have learned, lend themselves easily to the expression of a personal experience. The fotonovela is quite another thing, however. A peculiarly Latin American genre, it features seemingly artless photographs that are strung together in comic book form, complete with balloons containing dialogue. Hemmed in by simplistic conventions, it seems an unlikely form for so dark a tale as this, and yet it is precisely the ways in which Stavans, who wrote the text, and Brodsky, who took the photographs, both use and modify the conventions that makes Once@9:53 am the powerful work it is.

The book is more than an account of the bombing, which actually occurs off-screen on page 98 of 109 pages of text. Stavans and Brodsky use the bulk of the book to build up to the attack by providing a documentary record of life in Once, one of the historically Jewish neighborhoods of Buenos Aires.

The main character, Roli Gerschunoff, is, like Brodsky, a photographer who does freelance work for Playboy, and he is drawn into the attack while doing a photographic portrait of Once. The neighborhood is the heart of the story, with its cruddy-looking businesses, its graffiti, its low- wage workers arguing about the previous night’s soccer, and its Jews.

Gershunoff (the name is not an accidental choice: Jewish literature in Argentina traces its birth to the novel Los Gauchos Judíos, by Alberto Gerchunoff) is drawn into the bombing by that most Argentine of attitudes, machismo, as he follows a beautiful blonde through the streets of the neighborhood, losing her trail, finding her again, photographing her all the while. Following her leads him to a kosher deli, whose owner remembers Gershunoff’s father and offers him “knishes de papa”, “jalah” and “a bit of homemade pastrami, the best in all of Buenos Aires.”

The paths of the blonde and the bombers meet, the former being part of the latter group, and Gershunoff’s random photographs lead him to snap photos of the men who will eventually park the vehicle containing the bomb.

ALONG THE WAY, the photographer will meet signs of Argentina’s past, including a swastika for sale in a shop window (“Perón opened the door to Nazi generals escaping a Germany in ruin. Killers and victims ended up living in this same neighborhood’). In a modernist touch, he even encounters author Marcelo Brodsky who is working, he explains, on a fotonovela that is “the chronicle of a death foretold.” Brodsky is known for his work on the memory of state terror in Argentina, most famously in his beautiful book, Buena Memoria, and was one of the motive forces behind Buenos Aires’ Parque de la Memoria, which commemorates the 30,000 disappeared -- among them, his brother. [See Mitchell Abidor's article on memorializing the victims of the junta by clicking here.--Editor]

There is no point at which we don’t know what is about to happen, and each chapter is headed with street and time coordinates. The fotonovela is edited like a Hitchcock film, but unlike in a Hitchcock film, the good guys are not saved at the final moment, and the best evidence against the bombers, Gershunoff’s photos, is lost when an accomplice steals his camera and tosses it in a garbage truck. A further meta -- let’s say Borgesian -- level of the book is that the discarded photos are actually the book we are reading, taken not by the fictional Rudi Gershunoff, but by the real Marcelo Brodsky, himself both author and character.

Once@9:53 am is not flawless. In an effort to stress the Jewishness of the people on the streets of Once, everyone we see is in a black suit and hat or at least is wearing a yarmulke. The Jewish community of Buenos Aires, nearly a quarter of a million people, is every bit as diverse as any Jewish community, but how is one to signify Jewishness without descending to caricature? Indeed, we learn in Stavans’ afterword that the photos are filled with Jewish porteños, none of whom are recognizable as such because they look like, well, Argentines. The translation from the original Spanish, which Penn State University Press has published simultaneously, following the 2005 Argentine edition, contains some curious omissions and changes, not the least strange of them being untranslated Yiddish balloons that differ in the two versions.

This event of over twenty years ago continues to have repercussions. The government of Carlos Saul Menem did almost nothing to track down the culprits. The governments of the two Kirchners made efforts to do so, but nothing was accomplished, and, in 2015, there was the mysterious case of the prosecutor Alberto Nisman, whose dead body was found shortly before he was said to be ready to reveal proof of Sra. Kirchner’s attempts to further delay justice. Investigations of her and her foreign minister, Hector Timmerman, son of the journalist Jacobo Timmerman, himself a victim of torture under the military dictatorship, are again pending.

As the book’s text puts it, “El Once, then, is a monument to memory. At first one gets the impression that nothing we do leaves a mark. Argentina is a country with an abundance of memory that people prefer to ignore.” This event, which served as so horrible a shock to Jewish Argentina contains an irony: Once –- Spanish for "eleven" -- is an abbreviation of the quarter’s full name: el Once de Septiembre.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His other new books include Voices of the Paris Commune and his collection of writings by and about the anarchist “propagandists of the deed,” Death to Bourgeois Society. His translations of the poetry of Benjamin Fondane can be found in the collection Cinepoems and Others, published by NYRB Poetry.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936 – 1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.