A Capote Reader 'I‘ruman ('apote (Hamish I lamilton £15.95l'l'his hefty volume should he read in short instalments. f'ot‘ in prolonged sittings I found its aeeumulating pmt er. like the silhouette ol'(‘apote from the dead. reaching ottt alarmingl} to possess me.
Its po\\ er is rooted in the laet that much of the writing ix intimate. as in the timella ‘Breaklaxt at 'l‘illan} 's‘ and in “the ( irass l larp‘ his autoltiographieal testament ol'_\outli in Ameriea's Deep South. the travel sketehes too. the essa}\ and the reportage all \\ hisper and suek at the ear. sedueing the reader \\ ith sentenees so stylish. and prose so poised that it l\ e;t\_\ in o\ L‘I'ltitilx tilie ol'(’apote's great strengths natural authorit} oltone.
Almost all his \sork is here. a \\ ritten geograpli} of his life lrom Brookltn I Ieigltts to the Mediterranean to North .-\lriea. But \\ hate\ er Ills ehosett l‘aelxtlt'tip. ('apote's presenee is supreme.
I Its pitt‘tl‘alts til eelel‘t'lties are among the most powerful of his
the Inn el slsetehes. l'.‘\ Ride 'I'lirough Spain" is man ellousl. are like the \ttittels til eleetrieit} till the tongue.
()eeasionalh . as in some of the short stories. the \\ riting is transparenth a triek lira\ ura and eutting. But \\ hen he euts he entertains - it's ltile \\ith sttle'.f lom
A Case of Knivest'anaia sit-William (Bloomsltur) Lll‘l.‘ l ( )ne of the characters in .-I (‘use (if/(mics is deserihed as being "rigid with snohhert” and asks. 'll that pleasure is not innoeent. \\ hat is'." It seems his ereator IitlsL‘\it\lIIIllttt'\lL'\\ for her novel is thiek \\ ith deseriptionx of elegant food and eloflies. and patronising eomments ahout tlioxe \\ ho ha\ e no taste. I here are also little aphorismx on that eurious raee ‘the Seots'. .\lean\\ hile the sophtseated London eltaraeters are enmeshed in a ele\ erl} told plot. furl it is hard to maintain interest [it their \ptillt li\es. LIC\L‘I'll‘L'tI lti gilded
language. Reading this no\ el ix like
By her own admission, Alicia Partnoy is not a professional writer: ‘I work in a bookstore fora living.’ Yet in her book, ‘The Little School“, she has to translated her experiences in an Argentinian concentration camp into the kind of universal poetic writing
that goes furtherthan just telling it
Alicia was detained by the Army in Argentina in January 1977, and taken to a concentration camp ironically named The Little School, after the university where she had been a student. Separated from her baby daughter and her husband, who was also imprisoned, she ‘disappeared’ for three and a half months— blindfolded and forced to remain silent and prone, covered only in dirty blankets. From there she was taken to another, less inhumane, prison for anothertwo and a halfyears.
‘The Little School‘ deals solely with the first camp, treading a delicate path between revealing the truth to the world, and celebrating anothertruth, the fellowship of the prisoners.
In each vignette, each ‘tale of disappearance and survival in Argentina,’ the author identifies the quirks of human nature that enabled her or her fellow ‘disappeareds’ to think about something other than death. On one occasion she considers ‘telepathy’, as she struggles to remember her daughter’s face, on another, the phenomena of ‘my nose', a once detested protuberance which allows Alicia to see out from underneath her blindfold.
In other chapters Alicia enjoys the freedom of her fiction to resurrect the
thoughts and feelings of prison friends now ‘disappeared‘ for good — like Vasca, revelling in the pleasure and pain of raindrops:
‘A drop fell on herforehead, just above the blindfold, and slowly began to make its way to her heart. Her heart, hard as stone, after having shrunk to dodge anguish, finally softened. Like day-old bread soaking in water. . .'
Much of ‘The Little School’ is deliberately warm and humorous. As Alicia admits: ’I realise more and more that it is a very young book. There was a lot of destruction in that concentration camp and I didn’t know how to deal with that in a way that reflected how we felt and wasn’tjust nihilist—l mean in a way which did justice to our goals and ourspirit.’
Separation from herfamily was particularly painful, though Alicia is honest about the difficult feelings she had about her marriage. ‘When you are in traumatic situations, everything in your private and emotional life is at stake. The tendency is to be very idealistic and think that because you have been in the same situation, you will stick together, but the pressure divided many families.’ Alicia
separated from her husband after she was released and is now married to another ex-prisonerfrom Argentina, whom she met while in the United States, where she now lives and works.
At the time of herarrest, her daughter, Ruth, was one and a half years old and they were not reunited until she was four. Alicia‘s parents helped by being honest about where her motherwas, but Alicia is aware of the ‘destruction of a generation of children' because ofthe terrible feelings of abandonmentthey suffered. Today she still carries in her handbag one of the hasty letters she was able to send her daughter while she was in prison — in a tiny envelope so that Ruth could keep it in her pocket. Now Alicia is working on a play called ’Paperhouse’ about prison-life and the attempts of prisoners to ‘rebuild their home-lives by writing letters.’
Not a writer but with a burning need to write, Alicia is also compiling an anthology of work by other women in exile, so that more voices may be heard, and injustice prevented. Despite her testimonies and those of other survivors, only two military leaders have so far been sentenced for their part in the Little School crimes, and Alicia is worried that even her own work may not have the effect she desired: ‘I am afraid that people may look for recipes for survival in it instead of focusing on the destructive thing itself. My main goal is that people have a very deep idea of this situation and that they work to stop it.’
The Little School: Tales of Disappearance and Survival in Argentina, by Alicia Portnoy, is published by Virago at £3.95.
dining on the eranherry sorhet its
author so painstakingh describes: it lea\ es sou feeling unsatisfied and hungr} to fill up on some substantial \\ riting. (Iili/aheth Burns)
As Long as Nothing Happens, Nothing Will /.hang.lie l \‘irago £4.50) Five short stories e\pose the distorted features on the faee ol(‘ommunist ('liina. /.hang.lie. amird-xs'inning author. satiri/es the hlank ohedienee of (‘liinese suhieets to the State. The eountt'} ix riddled \\ith letharg}~ and nepotism. \\ hieh hind a nation in a “dud latalisttt. Sulunissix'eness leads to t'ldieultitls extremes. ‘l’rol‘essor Merit: Abroad~ offers a protagonist \\ ith a bladder problem. So seared is he of the authoritarian tour leader \\ lio dishes out poeket mone} to the tra\ ellet's. that the i’t‘olessorottl} summons up eourage to ask for spend-a-penny eoinx \\ hen the situation is desperate.
National quirks are unem'et‘ed: foreigners are held in absurdly high esteem. llie intelleetual rexolution promises that (‘hina'x gifted will he \ enerated. \\ hilxt the rest of the population starx'es. Hospitals are drastiealh short of equipment -a surgeon is redueed to stealing st ringes from an .-\meriean hospital \\ hen he ix aliroad. t'nemployment is ettpltetttistieall} ealled ‘\\aiting lot‘ etnplo_\ ment‘. And tied around this ehaos is hair-tearing liureauerae} and Red red-tape.
.\ parable of suppression. \\ herein the suppressed is a eat \\ ho allows the“ to he Islelsed It} its master. teaehes the lesson of l'atalism: unless you retaliate. the heatings \\ ill keep eoming. As the weaker \essel. the eat ean onli lash out \\ ith language: ‘his laee is shin_\ like the hell} ola lislt.'
/.hang.lie's stories lias'e open elaws and serateh hard at the unresponsive eolleeti\ e laee.
Mating Birds l.e\\ is \ktisi f l’lamingo L35“) .\lr Silti} a is named early lfi life that ‘\\ hite people are as smooth as eels. but the} de\ our tts like sharks. llis lust for the \oluptuous \‘eroniea. however. lIltll\L'\ him heedless of this attd leads hint to a South :\l'riean eourt on a rape eharge. \kosi skilfullt \liti\\\ hon Siltita's aeeount. ineluding the \\ hite woman as eompliant aetor rather than horrified \ ietim. is too ineredilile for the \\ hite iudieiar} to ltelie\ e. Ills \tUt‘} is told in lilaslihaels through a series of inter\ ien s \\ ith I)r l)ulre. a pst'ehologist. l)uf're is a earieature ol the ultra-rational \\ hite seientist and his eharaeteri/ation. together with other \\ hites in the tit)\el. is yer} flawed. 'l‘hix should not undermine respeet for the adept narrative teehnitjue \s'hieh overturns the white \ersion ol’eVents and provides soeiologieal reasons to explain why the hlaels man is loreed to stand trial \\ hen Apartheid is to blame. (Alan Riee)
54 The List 19 Feh— 3 Mar 1988