The End of the Story by Liliana Heker, translated by Andrea G. Labinger

November 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

Diana Glass is a writer living in Argentina in the seventies during the Dirty War—a time when the country’s rulers were waging war on its own citizens, particularly left-wing activists, unionists, journalists and other subversives, in order to rid Argentina of undesirables. This “war” was waged by means of widespread rape and torture, as well as “disappearing” people. As she waits one day to meet her school friend Leonora Ordaz, she sees her being violently taken away and fears that she too has become one of the disappeared. Leonora seems initially to be a glamorous activist, sparkling with hope and excitement. She and her husband Fernando  have devoted their lives to the Montonero cause; even having a daughter does not restrict their political activities. Diana has always been in favour of the guerillas, but her engagement lies more in intellectual methods than in practical action. She spends much of the novel trying to find a way into writing about Leonora and the wider context of her disappearence, but every attempt and every new snippet of information brings her face to face, with depressing regularity, with her own naivety.

It’s tricky to summarise the plot of Liliana Heker’s The End of the Story, published by Biblioasis in a delicately spare translation by Andrea Labinger, not least because the narrative is shared between three narrators, with the borders between them being deliberately blurred. In addition to Diana and Leonora, there’s an older woman, Herta Bechofen, who has lived through a similar period of brutal repression and thus is detachedly cynical about Diana’s moral hand-wringing. The book is, in one sense, actually about the impossibility of one voice dominating with a linear story, and form and content combine organically to achieve this.

Postmodernism is often a good fit for fiction that deals with this kind of subject: resistance, war, the machinations of power and totalitarian regimes, the way it is easy to suddenly find oneself on the wrong side of a line, or how history and rules are rewritten to suit a particular moment. In this novel, the tightly structured circles within which the information slowly unfolds work to change a celebration of activism, loyalty and resistance into a critique of personal gain, collaboration and betrayal. Leonora begins the novel an adored hero, although we sense early on that the almost burlesque portrayal of her character will not be maintained, and ends it disgraced. After Leonora is taken prisoner and tortured (described in horrific detail), she is not only somewhat complicit in the murder of her husband also falls in love with her jailer and becomes an agent of the military.

Heker is well known in Argentina, and indeed in other countries outside the English-speaking world, as a writer determined to bear witness to both the regime and the fractured, complicated resistance. The former comes off as badly as expected, but the novel directs anger and contempt towards parts of the latter. Heker refused to leave Argentina in the seventies when many other intellectuals were fleeing for safer shores, and her determination to call out foul play no matter which side of the political spectrum it comes from has made her extremely controversial. Labinger, the novel’s translator, wrote a fascinating piece about deciding to translate the novel, which you can (and really should) read here.

When we are not part of a country, and its history is not something we feel in our very blood, it’s easy to say that a novelist should be free to write about anything, even if that subject matter means exposing flaws  in something we would like to idealise. (For the record, there were documented cases of activists changing sides after capture.) But in many cases, the concept of solidarity is well named: if you are not for the cause, you are against it. The left often finds itself tangled up in these simplistic Bush-isms even as it wants to prevent them. In Argentian, Heker has been criticised–as a writer who avoided imprisonment and torture–from all sides: for judging Leonora too harshly as well as for corrupting the ideal vision of resistance as pure and good.

The End of the Story is not an easy read, either in subject matter or language. It’s a work of meta-fiction that has a weird parallel with the discovery of the “true” authorship at the end of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, but while that’s merely a grand, stylistic punchline, this revelation is integral to the novel’s work as a document that questions who exactly gets to tell whose story.

Review copy

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