Sunday, January 27, 2008

Rodolfo Walsh- Argentinian-Irish Writer and Revolutionary Recalled

An interesting piece on RTE Lyric FM the other day introduced me to for the first time to the life and writing of the radical Argentinian writer and journalist Rodolfo Walsh. Walsh came, as his surname suggests, from the Irish community in Argentina, and is increasingly recognised throughout Latin America as a writer of considerable stature.

Rodolfo Walsh was born in Choele-Choel, province of Río Negro, the third son of Miguel Esteban Walsh (1894-1947) and his wife, Dora Gill. Miguel Esteban Walsh was the second son of Miguel Walsh (1866-1910) and Catalina Dillon. In his early years , Rodolfo Walsh was sent to the Irish school in Capilla del Señor and then to the famous Fahy Institute in Moreno, considered to be the centre of the Irish Argentinian communities educational world . "I was born in "Choele-Choel", he wrote, "which means heart of wood", and he added "many women have scolded me for my wooden heart!" The Walshes were typical Irish Argentines. One of his brothers is a naval officer and a sister is a nun. He inherited his love of literature from his mother, Dora Gill, an avid reader. When the family fell on hard times in one of Argentina’s recurrent crises, Rodolfo was sent to an orphanage-cum- boarding school "to learn reading, writing and arithmetic from priests who never forgot to use the stick". He also learned to stand up for himself against these abusive priests and bullying schoolmates . Los Oficios Terrestres and Irlandeses detrás de un Gato are stories about his school days and portray the pitfalls, cruelty and loneliness of boarding-school life. In 1951 he published Los Nutrieros about the ups and downs of otter poachers. The die was well and truly cast and Walsh’s concern all his life was justice for the physically weak and the socially excluded.

Walsh started his career as a journalist, and from 1959 to 1961 he worked for the agency Prensa Latina in Cuba. Back in Buenos Aires, he wrote for Panorama, La Opinión and Confirmado. His political activity led him to the Leftist Montoneros group, where he acted as an intelligence officer. Walsh played a key role in the bombing of the cafeteria at the police headquarters in 2 July 1976. "On the first anniversary of Jorge Rafael Videla’s dictatorship, 24 March 1977, he committed the unforgivable crime of accusing the dictatorship in an open letter of "toppling an elected government…banning political parties…hampering trade unions…gagging the press…installing the worst reign of terror ever known in Argentina… imprisoning thousands of people without due process…brutally torturing and summarily executing them…disappearing 15,000 people and exiling tens of thousands more …throwing prisoners into the ocean from aircraft…creating concentration camps where judges, lawyers, journalists, and international observers cannot enter… plunging millions of people into preplanned misery by destroying industry, freezing wages and increasing prices…without hope of being listened to, I know I will be hunted down, but I am faithful to the commitment I assumed to give testimony in times of difficulty".The latter 'open letter' is considered by Gabriel García Márquez 'one of the jewels of universal literature'. But 'the day after Walsh decried these atrocities', writes US historian, Donald C. Hodges, 'three army tanks demolished his home in the capital’s suburb of San Vicente and disappeared him as well'. He was murdered in broad daylight in downtown Buenos Aires by a military death squad whose instructions were to capture him alive, but had to kill him when he pulled a gun to return their fire. His dead body was dumped into the boot of a car, taken to the notorious Navy Mechanics’ School (ESMA), gloated over, desecrated and never seen again" (Geraghty 2002).
Rodolfo Walsh is credited with being the father of investigative journalism in Argentina. In 1957 he published Operación Masacre - based on an interview with a survivor - which tells the real story of how a group of 34 men, most of whom had no connection with a recent revolt against the Aramburu dictatorship, were taken to a garbage dump in José León Suárez, a suburb of Buenos Aires, and summarily executed in a hail of machine gun fire.

In 1969 he had published ¿Quién Mató a Rosendo? which tells how trade-unionist, Rosendo García, died in an Avellaneda pizzeria in a shoot-out between rival unionists, Raimundo Ongaro and Augusto ‘Wolf’ Vandor . In 1973 he published ‘El Caso Satanovsky’ which tells the sordid tale of the murder of a leading lawyer who was litigating against the military government. None of these cases were ever solved and Rodolfo Walsh became unpopular with many powerful people for having investigated them.
He was also a master of the short story genre and Esa Mujer, published posthumously in 1986 is considered by many one of best short stories in Argentine literature. It evokes the memory of Eva Perón without ever mentioning her name. In it Walsh illustrates brilliantly through an interview with a drunken army colonel the immense power for good and for evil she exercised on Argentines even after her death. Unfortunately many of Walsh’s unpublished manuscripts were destroyed in the 1977 military raid on his house in San Vicente.

In September 1976, his oldest daughter María Victoria, also a member of the Montoneros, was killed in a shoot-out. Walsh was shattered emotionally and he penned Carta a Mis Amigos about "the short, hard, marvelous life" of his dead daughter "whose true cemetery is our memory. It is thought that after the violent death of his daughter at the hands of the repressive government that he too probably sensed his end was near, and he founded Cadena Informativa, a two-page newsletter. He typed it himself on his battered, portable Royal typewriter, mimeographed and distributed it however he could. It always ended telling readers "terror is based on the absence of communication, defeat it by breaking the isolation, so copy and circulate this information and rest assured tinhorn dictators surrounded by bayonets and truncheons are terrified by spoken words and stirring thoughts".
His second and surviving daughter, Patricia Cecilia Walsh, was elected to the House of Representatives in the last election on a leftist ticket and on 19 March 2002 she delivered on a campaign promise to table a motion in Congress to have the "full-stop" and "due obedience" amnesty laws repealed. However only 46 out of Argentina’s 257 legislators turned up to debate the motion which was dropped because of lack of quorum. Argentina continues to be a country with a great capacity to forget its own tragedies and is therefore irrevocably condemned to repeat them. Rodolfo Walsh fought to prevent the tendency to forget the atrocities of the right wing military dictatorships, and immolated his own life in the process. May he rest in peace wherever he lies.

Among his published works are Diez cuentos policiales (1953), Cuentos para tahúres, Variaciones en rojo (1953), Antología del cuento extraño (1956), Operación Masacre (1957), Secuencia Final, the plays La granada and La batalla (1965), Los oficios terrestres (1965), Un kilo de oro (1967), ¿Quién mató a Rosendo? (1969), Un oscuro día de justicia (1973), and El caso Satanovsky (1973).

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Mikhail Gorbachev 'might' see "Presidents Holiday"

An interesting piece on BBC Radio 4's "Start The Week" the other day about a play, 'The Presidents Holiday' by Penny Gold (Hampstead Theatre, London until 16th February) , a drama which examines the period when the fearfully deluded Mikhail Gorbachev was held hostage , whilst what is usually referred to as 'hard liners' attempted to reverse the course of his glasnost and perestroika reforms. I say 'fearfully deluded' because Gorbachev always claimed, well up until recently anyway, that he did not intend the replacement of socialism with capitalism, when he introduced the reforms which would in fact ultimately result in the collapse of the USSR. The fact that the Soviet Union ceased to exist is without doubt the greatest victory that imperialism had obtained in over 100 years, and its absence still reverberates throughout the world, in that there is no longer the progressive counterbalance to the whims of US imperialism which used to exist. What was most interesting about this interview was that Andrew Marr seemed intrigued by one of the play's main characters 'Plekhanov' played by Robert Demeger, who patiently explains to Gorbachev what would be the disastrous consequences of the process he set in train. Marr suggested that this character actually makes a pretty good case against the undermining of the Soviet Union to Gorbachev, and one of the other commentators also observed that most of the gloomy predictions enunciated by this loyal communist, in fact turned out to be pretty accurate, certainly for the disastrous Yeltsin years. Yeltsin's played a crucial role in cementing organised crime's hegemony over post-soviet Russia , Yeltsin will be best remembered as the drunken criminal buffoon, who was given such a heart felt send off by his western friends at his funeral, whilst the Russian people were only too glad to say goodbye to the rogue.
In the interview, the plays author Penny Gold said : 'The starting point for me of the play was realising the degree to which global capitalism seems to be winning everything and that there are many, many people who proclaim that Socialism is utterly dead and a discredited notion. So I started to ask whether it's possible to have a socialist, equal and just society that isn't based on coercion. I therefore wanted to look at revolutions and how they failed - the collapse of the Soviet Union being the obvious case. Then I came upon this extraordinary dramatic story with a thriller element to it - in fact every kind of element to it - the personal, the political, it has it all - of Gorbachev and his family under house arrest during the 1991 Coup.' Listen to interview
The precis of the play which is on at Hampstead Theatre is reproduced below, some people were whispering that Gorbachev might be coming to see it, but I have also heard that this is largely 'wishful thinking' on behalf of the theatre, well no harm in trying to garner a bit of publicity is there? Nevertheless it is refreshing to see a play being staged that does not simplify things so as to assume that there were no serious minded people in Russia at the time, who did not have the gravest of misgivings about the path that Gorbachev was steering the USSR's ship of state.
"One late summer, afternoon a successful middle-aged man sits peacefully with his wife on the verandah of their summer house. Somewhere below them, their grandchildren are playing on the beach.
Half an hour later, all communication with the outside world has been cut off, and the house is swarming with secret police and heavily armed officers.The man is Mikhail Gorbachev, President of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and the date is 18 August 1991.Penny Gold’s gripping and deeply moving play takes place at a pivotal moment of world history. Part political thriller and part personal drama, The President’s Holiday draws on the diaries of Raisa Gorbacheva to tell the story of a family under siege and an idealist who unwittingly destroys everything for which he has fought."
Tickets for the play can be booked online on the Hampstead Theatre website-