Sparking major controversy in its home country upon publication in 1996, Liliana Heker’s The End of the Story chronicles the atrocity of the Argentinean “Dirty War” not on the grand scale of historical generalization, but on the infinitely more stunning and painful level of personal tragedy. The story is told through the overlapping narratives of three women: revolutionary-turned-mutineer, Leonora; her frustrated biographer and childhood confidante, Diana Glass; and Hertha Bechofen, a cynical writer and Austrian refugee. It’s often unclear who is narrating the story, and by the end it becomes evident that the piece is metafiction taken to a whole new level: The End of the Story is not just Diana’s story about Leonora, it’s Bechofen’s story of Diana writing about Leonora. But the predicament of perspective doesn’t end there. Parents and children, torturers and victims, believers and cynics all have a voice in this novel as Heker peppers the already-potent mixture with a host of polemical, conflicting viewpoints. And as Heker describes Leonora’s torture and defection, Diana’s hope and disenchantment, and Bechofen’s sage understanding, she leaves us guessing, refusing to fully identify herself with any one point of view. However, if we try to conflate Heker with a character or voice, we’ve missed the point entirely: the book constitutes a reaction against ideology itself, by very nature of its multifaceted storytelling.
Leonora was the childhood friend and teenage compatriot that writer Diana Glass always looked to for inspiration, zeal, and leadership. The book contains many passages in which Diana waxes nostalgic, attempting to immortalize the heyday of their Communist cause, with Leonora at the vanguard:
“She spoke, and Argentina became a burning rose, crying out for justice. How could we not follow her? Behind her magnetic words, the holier-than-thou declaimers of Astolfi and the blasphemers, the virginal and the deflowered, agreed to join the strike. Even the holdouts showed their mettle: ignited with reactionary passion, they brandished their faith in the Church and their disgust with the popular cause like a banner. No one remained indifferent when Leonora spoke. In the classrooms where small, private dreams had nestled for years, a political conscience began to grow like a flower.” (14)
After witnessing Leonora’s sudden and horrific abduction at the hands of the government, Diana resolves to document her life in a grand, impassioned subversive tragedy. However, the facts that eventually surface interfere with her pre-planned storyline of glorious heroism and martyrdom: Leonora has been brutally tortured and given information to the government; Leonora has defected and joined the other side; Leonora is in love with her torturer, who is also her husband’s murderer. Upon learning the truth about Leonora’s fate, Diana experiences a type of literary paralysis, willfully self-editing her text because the truth is so abominable to her.
Heker’s book is largely about disillusionment and betrayal, and this applies not just to Diana, but also to readers. Only when we’re three pages from the end do we know for sure who the narrator has been all along: it’s the wily Hertha Bechofen, who voyeuristically watches Diana writing in cafes, eavesdrops on her conversations, and writes about life through the eyes of torturers, victims, mothers, fathers, children, and survivors. Indeed, the book wouldn’t be possible without her impartiality, since Bechofen’s past experiences in WWII Vienna allow her to perceive the Dirty War with emotional distance and calm level-headedness. Where Diana is indignant and myopic, Bechofen is skeptical and detached, making her the better narrator for the story:
“…this isn’t a story about heroes, my dear,” Bechofen chides, “it’s a story about murder and murderers. And it’s also a story about survivors…So, forget your heroine and tell what you have to tell.” “It isn’t what I wanted,” Diana protests. “History is never what one wants, my dear. But it doesn’t matter. If it doesn’t feel right for you to write the story, I’ll write it myself. For a while now I’ve been looking for an interesting character; now I have two.” “Go on and try, Hertha, but you won‘t be able to. Now I know the story well. I know it will end for you in the first chapter. The character already shows her true colors there…she tore my own story to shreds, you see, my own sacred springtime. She ruined it forever.” (175)
What Diana wants to write conflicts with what actually happened: her intense emotional investment in history prevents her from documenting the truth. Throughout the novel, Diana grieves the breakdown of her ideology and the loss of her heroine. Because Diana can’t work through her own disappointment and obstinacy, Bechofen is the writer that ultimately takes over the story.
Unlike Diana’s lyrical reminisces, there’s a strangely flattened, matter-of-fact quality to the narration in the descriptions of violence and imprisonment in this book, as though Heker were trying to dissect a tragedy:
“Interrogations aren’t the only activities that take place in the basement, but the woman lying on a cot, chained, has no way of knowing this. She can only distinguish what can be heard in the distance—music on the radio, cries, fragments of interrogations—or at times, whatever happens to cross her field of vision, since her blindfolded condition—if the recumbent woman is lucky—might not be permanent. In the strictest sense, almost nothing is permanent in this section since, according to what the recumbent woman can distinguish, subjects are taken away once the session is over or in the event of death. The electrical equipment can be observed on a small table near the cot. Anyone lying there, chained, would be perfectly able to deduce, if observant enough, that all the compartments must have similar equipment and that other instruments—clubs, pliers, scalpels for pulling off skin—must be brought in especially for certain sessions. The lighting—logically, since it’s a basement—is always artificial.” (82-83)
This cold-blooded tone of voice actually makes the torture even more disturbing; the text is stripped of detail and emotion, which makes readers suspect—chillingly—this unbelievable series of events hasn’t been romanticized or fictionally embellished at all.
As in many effective war novels, Heker spares us from nothing—with unflinching candor she takes us right into the torture room, with all of its animal sights, sounds and smells.
But what stuns about Heker’s book is the way that she fearlessly mines the psychic states of torturers, and—arguably—even creates sympathy with them simply by giving them a voice in the novel. Because of the monstrosity of state-sponsored violence unleashed during the Dirty War, many would consider the articulation of such viewpoints to be pure evil, or at least propagandistic—“She’s playing right into the military’s hands,” in the words of one incensed writer. But in my opinion, these are the moments that make the book so strong: Heker is not afraid to voice any perspective of the war in her novel, as dangerous as it may be. Though she herself is a former Argentinean left-wing journalist and self-proclaimed socialist, through many of her characters Heker voices a deeply bitter disenchantment that other former revolutionaries might be too timid—or too proud—to articulate. And by telling about the love affair that occurs between Leonora and her torturer, she shows how even in times of war, the human instinct is stronger than abstract systems of honor and dogma that supposedly govern human life.
Many readers have criticized Heker’s book for its lack of closure and resolution, but this is precisely what gives the novel its realism. In life and war, no absolute truth or simple answer exists; Heker’s story achieves this reality by exploring the motives and perspectives on both sides of the conflict. This spectrum of emotion and thought furnishes the book with a literary richness and depth that would be impossible if Heker were openly rooting for one team. Which side is right; who’s culpable for the war; whose philosophy is more sound? – Heker refuses to answer these questions for us. What she does offer us instead is the infinitely more valuable opportunity to think critically about the evidence presented, instead of blindly accepting the ideology of one authority (philosophy, government, author, party, faction). Heker’s book shows that there is never simply one way to tell about a war, or one way to end the story—there are many.
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