By Lawrence Thornton.
214 pages
New York: Bantam Books, 1988
ISBN: 0-553-34579-6

Comments by Bob Corbett
October 2001

Lawrence Thornton's griping first novel is a story of hope and the occult in Argentina during the reign of terror of the generals beginning in 1977. The generals' right wing coup introduced to the world the noun form of the verb "to disappear." Now we are all familiar with the terrifying noun "the disappeared." Unlike the verb it doesn't mean simply to have suddenly gone away, but implies the much more sinister notion of having been taken away, suspected, often on the slimmest suggestion, of political resistance, and subjected to extra-legal torture, death and secret disposal.

Shortly after the terror began women of Buenos Aires began to walk in the main square across from the generals' headquarters, wearing white headbands and carrying photographs or posters with names of loved ones -- the disappeared. Thornton suggests that the generals tolerated the now famous women of the Plaza de Mayo since they thought they were harmless, their protest too focussed on individuals and too small. It was just a few women, a dozen or so in the earliest days. Gradually, as we all know now, this silent protest grew and captivated the world. There is no question it played an important role in the eventually fall of the regime.

While the women of the Plaza de Mayo play their role, this is the story of Carlos Rueda, his love for his disappeared wife, Cecilia and later his daughter, Theresa. It is a buoyant tale of Carlos' non-flagging optimism and his special "gift."

He was a dreamer, poet, playwright and director of a children's theater; his wife Cecilia an incisive and uncompromising journalist. When the generals disappeared a group of young students for political protests she wrote an op-ed piece attacking the regime in harsh terms and all of Argentina was abuzz with her message and courage. A couple of days later she was taken. Carlos was devastated, confused, lost without her. A few days later he joined the women of the Plaza de Mayo, but continued to run the theater. One of his young students was devastated when his father disappeared and while trying to comfort the boy Carlos had a dream-vision and related in exact detail what happened to the boy's father and what would now happen -- his release in a few days. Carlos is quite startled a few days later when he learns of the boy's father's release, and that Carlos had described the exact details of the man's capture, interrogation and release. Carlos acknowledges his strange power.

And thus began the Thursday night gatherings at Carlos' house, held in the spacious garden. People, mainly women from the Plaza de Mayo, came and related their own stories. In the midst of this Carlos would begin to speak, picking up on the known story and begin a detailed account of that person's subsequent treatment, pending release or even coming death. This is his "imagining Argentina." A number of his accounts are of those who would be released and his fame grew, as others confirmed the details of his visions.

Carlos quietly accepts his gift and shares it as he can on the Thursday nights. He comes to believe that this is just another tool to be used in keeping hope alive -- not so much hope for the individuals since many of his visions are of horrible deaths by torture -- but hope for Argentina. The people cannot give up and give in to the generals he insists. They must keep on in hope and faith. His gift, his visions, these imaginings of Argentina are part of that hope.

However, Carlos is not without inner conflicts from the agony of his lost Cecilia. He can imagine parts of her story in disappearance, but he can't break through it all. He believes she is alive and that his own belief and searching, both physically in the world and in his visions, are what keep her alive.

Eventually he must go farther and writes a play for the children's theater "The Names" in which a sort of theatrical children's version of the Plaza de Mayo is acted out. The theater is shut down, and ruined, Carlos severely beaten and his daughter, Theresa, taken. He is devastated and his own hope and faith are deeply challenged.

The rest of the story is, perhaps, best not told. The essential take is of his gift, the power of his optimism, its connection with the energy of the women of the Plaza de Mayo and other resistors and forms of resistance. It is a story of tremendous courage and really unimaginable faith; a story of the triumph of good over evil, but not without the price of enormous suffering.

Thornton's telling of the story is as gripping as the tale itself. The evening meetings in Carlos' garden take on a surreal tone and in scenes which require the leap into the suspension of disbelief, Carlos' quiet narrator reveals the imagined tales. The story is actually quite simple, brilliantly told, gripping, the mix of terror and hope working well together to leave the reader with a sense of a possible future for us humans despite the threatening historically moments like that of the generals' regime which press on us almost everyday somewhere in the world.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett