In selling literature in translation, there’s always a joke/fear that readers won’t pick up a book by an author whose name they can’t pronounce. Or if they do, that they’ll struggle dealing with names and places that are unfamiliar, with too many consonants, that are obviously foreign.
Rodolfo Fogwill’s Malvinas Requiem has a similar, yet different problem—my guess is that most U.S. readers have no idea what “Malvinas” might signify, and although “Falkland Islands” might help clarify, the Falkland War is not something frequently studied in our not-very-top-notch public school system.
Which is a shame, since Fogwill’s book is quite remarkable, deserving of the Catch-22 comparison in the jacket copy, and a very interesting, literary “war book” that is both localized and universal in its themes.
Just to refresh everyone’s memory, the Falklands War was fought in 1982 between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the disputed Falkland (or Malvinas) Islands. Argentina invaded in March, lost the war in June. About 250 Brits died in the war, and about 650 Argentines. What’s also worth noting—at least in regards to Argentina—is that this war fueled the growing protests against the Argentine military government, leading to its collapse.
Against this backdrop, Fogwill tells the story of the “dillos” (short for armadillo), a group of Argentine deserters who are living inside a cave, trading goods with both the British and Argentine armies, trying to survive the conflict.
Each newcomer was told: the Kings are in charge here, they’re the ones who started everything. The Sergeant started it all. The Sergeant had got together the Turk, Quique and Viterbo, when they began to dig the trenches. He had lined them up in front of him, grabbed them by the lapels, gave them a shaking, and asked:
‘Are you arseholes or what?’
‘No! You lot aren’t arseholes, you lot are the smart ones. Are you smart?’ he’d screeched.
‘Yessir. Yes, Sergeant,’ the three replied.
‘Well then,’ the Sergeant said to them. ‘Here’s what you do. Go further up,’ he pointed at the mountain, ‘and dig there.’
He explained that the trenches were useless. Headquarters had designed them, drawn them on a map. He said that when it rained those trenches would flood, and that everyone would either drown or freeze like idiots, and that the smart ones should go and start digging in the mountainside, without a word to anyone.
The dillos, firmly established in their Warren, with a pack of smokes a day for everyone, and plenty of food (from giving away strategic info to the Brits), joke, talk politics, and create a livable community. But the war is always raging on in the background, and Fogwill has a tremendous ability for switching from more light, casual writing to something more jarring and violent. The use of the second-person in this passage works particularly well to disrupt the reader’s sense of comfort.
On the islands the sheep run and jump about more than the dogs do. They leap over a wire fence as if it were nothing to them: just raise their forelegs and jump. Now the human observes the sheep from a way off and thinks: ‘What a fucking stupid animal: the best it can manage is to run off!’ He carries on observing her for a while, having nothing better to do, while waiting for real night to close in, so he can return to the Warren. All of a sudden there’s a flash of light: boom! Beneath the sheep’s hooves lay a mine and when she trod on it, there was a blinding flash of fire as through the sun had suddenly risen. You could see the whole sheep suspended in mid-air. She pulls in her legs, turns her head, and looks backwards, twisting her head as if she had the neck of a giraffe. She’s flying through the air, and it’s only then that the human, at the very same instant, hears the sound of a mine exploding, blown apart by the sheep.
And expanding from an individual act of random destruction is the group chaos:
When the other sheep—if there are any—hear this, and see what happened to their mate, they stampede in the opposite direction. Instead of remaining quietly on their own, they herd together, before all rushing off as one. That’s the big mistake, because as soon as the next flash of light occurs—meaning another landmine has gone off—another sheep flies into the air like a toy animal then disintegrates, and the ten or twelve other stupid sheep around her also jump and, too far from the explosion to be blown apart, still drop down dead with their muzzles flat on the ground, after struggling in vain to get up again.
In many ways, this is a nasty, disturbing book. The reader’s comfort is constantly provoked, building up to a rather horrifying conclusion. This is much more than a war novel though, and the construction of the novel is quite interesting. As the reader finds out towards the end, the author of the book is writing it based on tapes of conversations with the dillos. Which leads to an interesting artistic question—this novel first came out 1983 and was written right after the war, when there wasn’t a lot of widespread information about what had actually happened on the islands, yet according to others, Fogwill’s descriptions are remarkably accurate, and insightful, which is one of the reasons this book is credited with helping fan the anti-military fires in Argentina.
And today, twenty-five years later, the book is definitely still work reading. The translation is fantastic—Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson always do a wonderful job—and the book is interesting on so many levels, even if you have no idea where the Falkland Islands are located.
“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
“And this—what. . .
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