(The original version of this review was first published in Spike Magazine)
Tununa Mercado’s novelistic memoir, In a State of Memory, translated from the Spanish into the English by Peter Kahn, with a foreword by Jean Franco, and published by the University of Nebraska Press in April, 2001, recounts the pain of exile and the even more keenly-felt pangs of return. Mercado, an Argentine writer born in the Province of Córdoba on Christmas Day, 1939, and about to turn eighty, experienced two periods of exile: the first, in the wake of Juan Carlos Onganía’s 1966 coup (also known as the Argentine Revolution) was spent in France and lasted for three years; during the second period, spanning 1974, the year of Juan Domingo Péron’s death, to 1986, she lived with her family in Mexico.
Mercado is at her most evocative when describing the dislocation of the so-called “ArgenMex”, those Argentines forced into exile in Mexico after political upheaval back home had ushered in the de facto military regime. While some of these deracinés succeed in bridging the cultural divide, most cling implacably to their national heritage, hanging up the Argentine flag in their living-rooms and turning up their noses at fríjoles. During this time of estrangement, Mercado writes for Ovidio Gondi’s political journal, seeks to ward off alienation—and perhaps even madness—by the daily repetition of banal tasks, makes regular, quasi-religious visits to the former home of fellow-émigré Leon Trotsky, and treasures a special folder in which she keeps mementos of those friends who have “disappeared” during Argentina’s “Dirty War”.
There is, however, nothing edifying about Mercado’s account of her Mexican sojourn which she compares to a lead-colored Rivera mural. Indeed, her attitude towards her adopted country—she is “possessed by the covetous and impossible desire to be Mexican”—is inspired not so much by any affection towards it as by a feeling of having been betrayed by a motherland that cast her out. And so, Mercado and her compatriots spend most of the day fretting over events in Argentina with the nights, when they “almost always dream of death”, giving no respite.
When Mercado admits to her feeling of nakedness, this can be read as a metaphor for statelessness. After a total of sixteen years of banishment, she finally returns to Buenos Aires. where after a few days, she summons up the courage to attempt to reclaim the city, only to find, in a Rimbaudian déreglement de tous les sens, that memory assails her at every turn. On one occasion, the onrush of the past is so harrowing that, in an act of decorous self-restraint, she swallows back her own vomit. Months later, she again ventures out but recollection, held temporarily at bay by willed amnesia, can be triggered by even the whiff of garlic emanating from a nearby restaurant, as Mercado finds herself face-to-face with the building where she once worked, and from which many former colleagues had been abducted, just a stone’s throw away from the former home of Rodolfo Walsh, the writer riddled with bullets.
And yet it is clear that Mercado’s attempts to “fill the void” are not preeminently bound up with displacement. While the subsequent violent deaths of her friends provoke in her spasms of gastritis, throat infections and neck cramps, even before her first period of expatriation, spent in France, she had sought out the services of shrinks, cranks and faith-healers. In her quest to find a cure for her sense of splintered self, Mercado drops acid, psilocybin and mescaline. Desperate to spill out her angst, she turns to friends, but they prefer not to listen, scrutinizing her instead for signs of “lasting damage". Mercado’s malaise is compounded by rootlessness, but is essentially existential: “Not even my loved ones seemed really to belong to me.”
Mercado’s search for truth reaches its nadir in phrases such as ”so that reality would reveal its reality”, a self-indulgent vaporing alongside which Hegel’s oeuvre is a child’s primer, but this novelistic memoir succeeds in distilling the disaffection that is so often the lot of the refugee, in the process conjuring up arresting images, such as that of the woman who, having lost all of the members of her own family during the military dictatorship, and having designed a banner to commemorate each one, cannot find the strength to hoist them all up as she protests outside the Argentine Embassy in Mexico City.
The end of In a State of Memory finds Mercado once again ensconced in Buenos Aires, alone in her study. She has reached an impasse as she stares at a seemingly insurmountable wall. But suddenly, in a surreal flight of fancy, her pen takes on a life of its own, filling up the blank surface with cryptic writing. No doubt catharsis inheres in the verbal expression of even the most painful memory: the words bear down on the structure and force it to fall.
Buenos Aires, December 13, 2019
The Power of Prose