Author: Edgardo David Holzman,

Publisher: Nortia Press

ISBN: 978-0-9842252-7-9

Malena (1941) is the name of a tango with lyrics by Homero Manzi (Homero Nicolás Manzione Prestara) and music by Lucio Demare (this duo wrote two other tangos I like, namely Negra Maria from 1942 and Tal Vez Será Su Voz from 1943). Malena is also the name of a character in Edgardo David Holzman’s fictional portrayal of some of Latin America’s darkest days—the Dirty War in Argentina from 1976 to 1983. This novel uncovers the heart and soul of this beautiful and often troubled South American country. Pick it up for a few cozy evenings to learn what happened during that period in Argentina; spend the rest of your life trying to forget it! I read it cover to cover in three installments—you need to stop periodically and take a deep breath.

Fascism and genocide are often evil fraternal twins locked in an incestuous embrace—Turkey’s persecution of the Armenians, the Nazi holocaust before and during WWII, Argentina and los desaparecidos, Pinochet’s Chile, the ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, and many other cases where human beings become monsters, torturing and killing thousands (millions in the case of Nazi Germany and Ottoman Turkey). In the U.S., we take comfort that this has never happened here, yet our consciences should not be clear—we have let it happen elsewhere and, in some cases, been willing accomplices.

Using the facile excuse of anti-Communism and preservation of Western Christianity, a brutal military junta “disappeared” thousands of Argentines. The military took lessons from the Nazis and improved on their techniques. The implication here is that the American CIA was also involved (the U.S. was certainly complicit—see below). It didn’t have to perform such a direct role in Argentina as in Chile, where the murder of Allende and establishment of the butcher Pinochet were engineered by that agency—the Argentine military was as fascistic as they come and didn’t need much outside help.

During these years, I lived in Colombia. With an insurmountable chasm between rich landowners and poor peasants, between ruthless capitalists and their sweatshop workers, Colombia at least pretended to be a democracy, rotating the presidency between liberals and conservatives according to an agreement signed when they deposed the Colombian dictator Rojas Pinilla. But fascist governments in Latin America often have the common characteristic that their governments are not representative of the people, who often rise above their sufferings to embrace life. Colombians have a love affair with Argentine culture, for example, especially in the state of Antioquia where the tanguero Carlos Gardel lost his life in a plane crash.

I became addicted to the Argentine samba and tango, both sung with lyrics like Malena’s, telling sensuous stories of life and death, love and hate, and struggles to survive. My first wife’s aunt had lived in Buenos Aires. In 1972, she passed away in New York City. We went to visit her friends in Buenos Aires. We went for a week and stayed three. Little did I know that many of the wonderful persons we met in that port city would soon have to cower in fear and horror, wondering where their relatives were, whether they were being tortured, or whether they were already dead.

I write dystopian science fiction. This book is dystopian historical fiction and so close to reality it makes my skin crawl. The official campaign of terrorism in Argentina was carried out by the military with ready accomplices found in the police, the courts, and the Church. The latter was complicit in some of the worst atrocities, especially against Jews. During and after WWII the Argentine Church ran Nazi relocation programs, bringing the likes of Eichmann to Argentine shores. In the novel, Father Bauer is a priest who blesses the prisoners before they are tortured or executed. He says to Captain Diego Fioravanti, a protagonist who is forced to participate in an execution, “What we did today, Diego, was for the good of the country. God knows that.”

This book hints at some of the horrors of this political cleansing that began on March 24, 1976. Like the best thrillers of historical fiction (Uris, Forsyth, and other authors come to mind), it’s difficult to separate the fiction from the facts. Malena—the woman, not the tango—is a tragic figure. A lesbian and a Jew, she has two strikes against her from the junta’s point of view. Her discovery of the American-led Operation Condor becomes her third and fatal strike.

Operation Condor was a program designed to filter out “undesirables” (read: anyone not agreeing with the fascists). Its participants were Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Brazil, all military governments run by ruthless thugs. This program was responsible for at least 60,000 deaths. The U.S. provided technical support and supplied military aid to the participants, as portrayed in this novel.

I give this much of the plot away—Malena’s demise—because Argentina had that in common with the Third Reich. The junta’s favorite targets were Jews, their slaughter the worst since WWII. Gays, lesbians, leftists, union leaders, and populist priests were also targeted. We in the U.S. cannot imagine the atrocities, but this book will help. I know that it was much worse than portrayed in the book. The author personalizes the violence—the real violence was often coldly impersonal.

The best description of the book is quiet, intense anguish. Yet there is enough action to call it a thriller, and also plenty of suspense. Every page is a literary treasure. I don’t understand why it isn’t a runaway bestseller—perhaps because it’s the honest portrayal of man doing his worst to his fellow man, all aided by the U.S. government? Too many times, we bury our heads in the sand when it comes to such atrocities.

I’ve spoken of Malena, who is attached to the Argentine Embassy in Washington, and Diego, the dashing military captain who moonlights as a tango instructor. The main protagonist is Kevin “Solo” Solórzano, the OAS interpreter assigned to their Human Rights Commission. Finally, there’s Inés Maldonado, Solo’s first love and Diego’s new one. Ergo, we have the classic love triangle, albeit a tragic one.

The cast of villains is larger. I’ve mentioned Father Bauer. Diego’s superior, Colonel Indart (later promoted to General for his patriotic work) supposedly lost his wife to a terrorist attack. I think the author is being too kind here. Too many of the military in Argentina had no real excuse for their actions. Certainly, the Argentine ambassador, a navy admiral, had no excuses. His evil stench came jumping out of the pages at me from the very beginning. The way the junta created informants, by kidnapping their relatives and threatening with torture and death, is accurately portrayed. You begin to wonder how Solo, Diego, and Inés are going to survive. Of course, that’s the story, and it’s a very good one!

But there is humor too. The author’s description of trying to find a working telephone in Buenos Aires reminds me of my sojourn in Colombia and my travels around South America. I don’t know about modern Argentina, but Colombian landlines are still so bad that most people have migrated to cell phones if they can. What I call the “doctor syndrome” is also common to Argentina and Colombia. In Mexico, any person with a tie is a licensiado. In Argentina and Colombia, a tie wearer is a doctor (accent on the second syllable—what do they think of our Silicon Valley?).

Of course, all this local color could only be described by a person who experienced it en carne propia (literally, “in his own flesh”). The author is such a person. He also has more of a nodding acquaintance with Washington D.C. intrigue. Considering our similar ages, I’d love to meet him and have a chat. Maybe I will someday because he lives close-by. Meanwhile, I anxiously await his next novel. Does his experience in Southeast Asia give us any hint about its subject?

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