(Seven Stories Press, 2013)
In December of 1956, Rodolfo Walsh was sitting in a cafe in Buenos Aires playing chess with his friends when he learned that a man who had supposedly been executed was, in fact, alive. It had been more than a year since Argentine president Juan Perón was deposed in a military coup. In the wake of Perón’s ouster, the military outlawed the former president’s party and even the mention of his name—but that didn’t stop faithful Peronists. On June 9, 1956, there was an attempted counter-coup. It was quashed, and the following morning, a radio communiqué announced that 18 civilian rebels had been executed in Lanús. The government failed, however, to reveal that it had also ordered the execution of 12 working-class men who had gathered at a friend’s house to listen to a prize fight. These men, who were unarmed and by and large ignorant of any rebellion, were taken to a field in José León Suárez, shot at, and left for dead.
“Left for dead” because it was one of these dozen men, Juan Carlos Livraga, who was, apparently, alive. “I don’t know what it is about this vague, remote, highly unlikely story that manages to draw me in,” Walsh writes, “But [after meeting Livraga] I do know why. I look at that face, the hole in his cheek, the bigger hole in his throat, his broken mouth and dull eyes...I feel insulted.” The surreal revelation of Livraga’s survival launched Walsh’s investigation into what became known as the José León Suárez massacre. Over time, Walsh discovered that there were seven survivors, only one of whom was even aware of an uprising (although by the time of the arrest, he thought no rebellion would take place). The others knew nothing, even if some were Peronists. In any case, the men were not tried or arrested with probable cause.
Operation Massacre was initially published as a series of articles in Mayoría, a small leftist newspaper, since others would not touch it. It is an account of the night’s events that relies heavily on survivor testimony. Walsh’s goal was to collect irrefutable, factual evidence that could be used to mount a case against Colonel Desiderio A. Fernández Suárez, the man who ordered the massacre, and the government protecting him. Walsh’s argument rests largely on the fact that even though martial law was put in effect on June 10th at 12:32 a.m., the victims were arrested at 11:00 p.m. on the 9th. The government essentially retroactively applied the law. “And that is not execution,” Walsh writes, “It is murder.”
While comparisons to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood are inevitable because both are pioneering works of investigative journalism, any further juxtaposition would be amiss, since the authors’ intents radically separate the two. While Capote’s goal and achievement is largely stylistic, Walsh’s motivation is action and justice. To be sure, Operation Massacre has many novelistic elements: a snapshot of the characters, the suspense, and of course, the recognizably Latin American element of magical realism—the executed come back to life. (Livraga’s father, aware of his son’s survival, sends a telegram to the president of the country asking about his son’s whereabouts two days after the massacre: “Juan Carlos Livraga executed the 10th at dawn on route 8…I anxiously request your human intervening to prevent being executed again.”) But Walsh is actually writing against fictionalization, against any obfuscation of truth, a practice in which the government dealt proficiently. As Michael Greenberg’s introduction notes, the account “is built upon that rarest element of Argentine life at the time: facts. Facts were a form of sedition with their icy power that nothing—not opinion, passion, or rumor—could equal.” As a result, Operation Massacre’s body text is meticulous, and sober, and simple: Walsh structures it in three parts—people, events, evidence—to most clearly present his case.
As such, it is this edition’s numerous prologues and epilogues, written years apart for subsequent re-releases, that are the work’s emotional core. They not only chronicle Walsh’s progressive disillusionment with the possibility for justice, they clarify the stakes: in the prologue to the first, 1957 edition, he writes, “I wrote this book for it to be published, for it to act.” Then, in the epilogue to the second, 1964 edition: “There was a question of decency at hand, I don’t know how else to say it. I wanted those who escaped...to have some kind of authority, some institution, any respectable part of this civilized country, admit to them in words at least—here, where words are so easy, where they cost nothing—that there was a mistake, that there was a fatal lapse in consideration, let alone a murder.”
Operation Massacre was only the beginning of Walsh’s lifelong defense of decency over partisanship or dogma. His last work, “Open Letter from a Writer to the Military Junta,” published in 1977, cataloged the horrors inflicted by the government upon its people: the torture, the disappearances, the silence—in sum, the logical and grim evolution of the mentality and practices that enabled the perpetrators of the José León Suárez massacre and its cover up. The career begun with Operation Massacre would end with this open letter, written “with no hope of being heard, with the certainty of being persecuted, but faithful to the commitment I made a long time ago to bear witness during difficult times.” The day after its submission to local and international newspapers, government agents shot at Walsh and kidnapped him in broad daylight. The letter and his fate were, respectively, the embodiments of his guiding philosophy and of the criminal nature of the regimes he worked against. Even now, more than 35 years after his murder, he remains a symbol of commitment to truth and civic responsibility. The call to “never forget” is the backbone of his work, the tool with which he fought a government that would not acknowledge its own crimes. The people responsible for his murder were only arrested in 2005. That there is, to this day, a weekly protest in Buenos Aires’s central square, the Plaza de Mayo, by the mothers of the disappeared is a testament to the continued strength of the message of confrontation and remembrance of past and present crimes, an effort that Walsh helped promote and propagate. So it is strange to be reviewing this book at all, since it is a classic of Argentine literature. It has done its work. It does not need the imprimatur of a review 50 years after its publication. It only needs your awareness of its existence.