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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sex and Terror in Generals' Argentina

Several years ago the Argentine journalist, Horacio Verbitsky, was approached by a strange, slightly disheveled man who had a story to tell. He turned out to be a former naval officer named Francisco Scilingo and he wanted to bear witness to the part he had played in the terrible atrocities committed by the Argentine military during the "dirty war" against subversion which began in 1976 and continued until 1982.

The Flight (The New Press, $22), which became a record-breaking bestseller in Argentina, is an account of the ensuing conversations between the two men. It catalogues with brutal candor the murderous tactics with which the Argentine military dealt with real or imagined opponents in the post-Peron era.

As a junior officer in the Naval Mechanical War School (an academy whose name was synonymous with terror), Scilingo participated in the torture, kidnapping and "disappearances" of a tiny fraction of the 9,000 of his fellow citizens liquidated by the regime. The favorite method of dealing with the victims was to strip and drug them before throwing them out of an airplane and into the ocean far below. It was during one such raid that Scilingo lost his grip and nearly fell to his death.

The near fatal accident would appear to have awakened Scilingo's conscience. He underwent a severe emotional crisis, resigned from the Navy, and decided to turn informer.

Unfortunately, Argentina is not yet ready to face the horrors of its history in full. Scilingo is currently serving a jail sentence for fraud, and the present regime of Carlos Menem has pardoned the generals.


Sticking with the Argentine theme: Colm Toibin, one of Ireland's most able young writers, has chosen to set his third novel The Story of the Night (Picador, ?15.99 or $23.99) in the Argentina of the generals. The novel has garnered praises from critics, with The Times noting that it "demonstrates that [Toibin] has transcended his own background to become a leading figure of European literature."

In perfectly observed, lucid prose the novel tells the story of Richard Garay, an Argentine-English hybrid, who lives in Buenos Aires with his aging mother. She is obsessed with all things British -- she thinks that the Queen and Margaret Thatcher both "look so well in blue" -- but her son is beset by problems of identity. He hides the frantic promiscuity of his homosexual night-life from his mother.

With the onset of the Falklands War (which Toibin describes from the Argentine perspective as a medley of tragicomic emotions ranging from euphoria and an all too rare sensation of freedom, to fear, shame and the acute humiliation of defeat) Richard commits himself to being Argentine.

But the issue of Richard's sexuality lies at the heart of the book, from his first furtive couplings with farm boys and strangers in the saunas of the city, to his eventual love affair with an American diplomat. And with it comes a clear and unflinching portrayal of living with AIDS.

-- Compiled from The Sunday Times and The Times.