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Exploded Sheep or the Senselessness of War

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Rodolfo Fogwill, Malvinas Requiem, Serpent’s Tail, 2007

At a press conference, Borges encapsulated the futility of the Falklands War by famously describing it as “two bald men fighting over a comb”. Focusing on the desolate winter landscape and the bleak weather of the islands, Fogwill makes one of his characters remark: “You had to be British to want to come and freeze your butt off here”. Originally published in Spanish as Los Pichiciegos (1982), a term that refers to blind and nocturnal armadillos that live in burrows in northern Argentina, Malvinas Requiem (2007) tells the imaginary tale of a group of twenty-four young conscripts who have deserted from the Argentinean army and are hiding in a subterranean settlement, a warren dug by them and gradually extended to hoard supplies. They refer to themselves as the Armadillos. They focus on daily survival, their bodies, cigarettes, sugar, kerosene, diarrhoea, the stench, the pills and their own fear. They are waiting for the war to be over, while exchanging information with the Brits for cigarettes, chocolate, batteries.

We are plunged into this underground cave in the middle of nowhere, amid minefields and heaps of dead soldiers, as if we had missed the first ten minutes of a realist film. There is no context. Only trivial exchanges related to physical survival. We are soon faced with the absurd fact that even under these extraordinary circumstances there is a strong hierarchy ruling the Armadillo hole: The Four Kings. We don’t know where their power comes from. It seems a self-invested power. And the submission of the Armadillos seems the more poignant. Their exchanges offer little hints of interiority. They are a dissociated lot. There is a lack of empathy. They can’t stand pain. There is a collective consensus against having to endure the pain of others, who are left in the cold to freeze when ill. ‘Wounded’ means dead. And the only observation before heaps of corpses is that it is incredible that their watches keep on ticking. A macho rhetoric prevails. They swear, they speak in a simple language their inane thoughts. And yet it is the accumulation of banal dialogue and the sheer pragmatic nature of their survival that slowly builds intimacy with the rough world of these maroons. Missiles become an exciting and spectacular fireworks display, with the benefit of sure damage. However, there are a few occasional counterpoints to the absence of moral values, which point to a subjective ethical code, and as the novel proceeds, the narrator’s detached tone and the physical deterioration of the characters begin to spell out that their indifference might be a survival tool.

The senselessness of war is best captured by the magnificent indifference of the Armadillos towards the war that is going outside of the warren. They are outsiders to the war, holed up under the earth. Their lack of concern over the legitimacy of either the British or the Argentineans, is embodied by comments that undermine both sides. The Brits (not English, but Scots, Welsh and Ghurkhas) are only ‘worse’ since they are better trained, tougher bastards and, unlike the Argentinean soldiers, they are actually paid for it. The Armadillos belong to neither side, they commerce with both and they are aware that they can be fucked over by either. It must be remembered that on the one hand there is the President of the last military dictatorship, General Galtieri, described as thick as a brick since he thought that war would be won, and on the other, Margaret Thatcher. And so, the Armadillos represent a familiar third space: the space of those who are not represented by either side, who do not believe in sides and whose sole power resides in absenteeism.

If corpses and the absence of moral values punctuate the landscape with the senselessness of war, it is the landmines covered with exploded sheep which foregrounds its brutality, as a cartoon-like description features a sheep first suspended in mid-air to then blow apart into pieces that fly off in all directions. It is a scene that brings an all-too-real tragicomic element into the surreal reality of warfare, not only because the sheep are absolute outsiders to the absurdity of war, but also because we know that what happens to sheep is what happens to humans, even if the description is not quite accurate.

Rather than the politics and the absurdity of war, almost half the novel engages in an implicit critique of power and hierarchy. To begin with, the Falklands War (March-June 1982) is barely mentioned and it could almost be said that initially it merely conforms the outside of the novel. It is only towards the end, when the war is lost, that it emerges in long descriptive passages. For a reader who does not know about the Falklands War, or its immediate political background, an early reference might not be enough to understand where the Armadillos are coming from. The only politics that the characters superficially discuss are those of Videla, as they wonder whether he killed fifteen thousand or ten thousand. Responsible for thousands of disappearances and large-scale human rights abuses, the name of Videla, who was the previous President, signals a demoralised country trodden by successive dictatorships of variable brutality and provides a context for understanding the Armadillos, but only if you are a reader in the know. Translated into English twenty-five years later, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Falklands War, extra pointers would be needed to provide a context: a small note, a short preface or glossary.

Written as the war was ending, Malvinas Requiem offers a layered understanding of power relations, pillage, humiliation, the link between indifference and survival, as well as the dangers of shitting in subzero weather when there is no chemical powder to neutralize the smell of shit. In an interview, Fogwill says that he wrote the novel with 12g of cocaine in two days and a half. 24g and a further editing week, would have improved his writing venture, which presents odd narrative flaws such as the dream of the Uruguayan and the belated appearance of the narrator and a listener. And yet, it is a novel that grows on you, as a rare sense of realism and oneiric and mysterious moments prevail in your consciousness, and the hazardous situation of this tribe of young men who disappear into the ground to save their skins seeps in. They eventually become one with the land, by accident, poisoned by gas, and their disappearance becomes complete, a solid mass encrusted in the soil, merged with it, part of the geological strata. A befitting end. As if it was the logic of the landscape of a country whose immediate past was steeped in the disappearance of thousands of people.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Susana Medina is a writer. Born in Hampshire, England of a Spanish father and a German mother of Czech origin, she grew up in Valencia and has resided in London since 1989, the city which has both inspired and nourished her, and where she has developed most of her literary work. Susana Medina has written and published poetry, a novel, stories, essays and a cinematographic script. She has obtained numerous awards, amongst which the Max Aub International Short Story Prize must be highlighted. A doctoral thesis on Jorge Luis Borges, which has become a book — Borgesland — and the re-editing of Philosophical Toys — her first novel in English on the special relationship of Medina and Bunuel to objects-, have plunged the author into a phase of intellectual hyperactivity.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 7th, 2007.