Finding a Voice, Discovering a Body: Towards the Construction of a Gendered Identity in Graciela Montes’s El umbral


Gail González

University of Wisconsin-Parkside



In her 1998 novel El umbral Graciela Montes presents readers with an in-depth treatise on the issues surrounding the construction of gender identity, particularly for women, in contemporary Argentina.(1) In a narrative that opens in the style of a detective novel and continues through a series of events which seem more appropriate to a work of science fiction, the dueling protagonists take on and cast off a variety of gender-specific roles with notable ease and fluidity.  Throughout the novel the construction of personal identity becomes entangled in questions of political solidarity, personal desire and the search for an authentic narrative voice. In this work I will examine the way in which Montes approaches the question of female identity through her characters’ struggles toward a more conscious expression of selfhood.

Two female voices, belonging to la entubada and la oficiante, alternate as narrators of the novel. Each chapter begins with la entubada’s voice and continues with that of la oficiante. The typographic layout of the novel assures that readers never confuse the two; the entubada’s sections appear in a regular typeface, and the oficiante’s in italics. As mentioned above, the novel opens with remarks made by the entubada that would seem to indicate that the action will center on the uncovering of the details of a crime: “La pantalla ya se encendió y nos vamos a tener que ocupar del expediente. Es lo que dice el reglamento, yo estoy para contar mi crimen y usted para tomar nota, hasta cerrar el expediente” (9). Her meandering story, however, does not lead us to any greater clarity about either the commission of the crime, nor, indeed, of its nature. When we arrive at the oficiante’s first narrative, we being to sketch in some of the elements of their world. The oficiante describes a society dominated by a system of computers controlled by grotesque beings called archangels. Although this world is an Orwellian landscape where the computers spy on citizens to ensure their loyalty to the archangels and their system it is also identifiable as Buenos Aires, albeit a divided and walled Buenos Aires. The oficiante maintains a small corner of this world in its proper order by the “proceso de adjudicación de responsabilidades” (33). As her title indicates, she fulfills this task as a sacred duty.

However, if on the one hand the oficiante and her keepers form part of a nightmarish future world which is controlled by machinery, on the other hand the oficiante serves the structural function of the detective in the rigid economy of a work of detective fiction. In the typology of the detective novel (whether of the classical mode, hard-boiled, or any of the more current variants such as Pyrhönen’s metaphysical detective story or Gomel’s investigative dystopia) we find three necessary elements: the commission of a crime, usually murder; the figure of a detective, the person who sorts through the evidence in an attempt to name the culprit; and the presentation of all evidence, clues and red herrings to the reader who can then engage in a race to discovery with the detective. We see clearly that the oficiante plays the role of detective in El umbral. She goes out in search of evidence, sifts through the stories of the accused, and attempts to assign responsibility for the crime.

Although the oficiante and the entubada play the parts of detective and criminal on one level, on another level, readers, particularly Argentine readers, also easily identify them with a different, much too well-known dyad, that of torturer/victim. The entubada, as her nickname indicates, is connected to the governing system by a series of tubes inserted into her body. She is immobilized on a platform in front of the oficiante and her computer screens. Her naked body is covered with wounds and ulcers. The oficiante, for her part, denies the entubada the use of a blanket, inspects and measures her wounds, and attempts to elicit the details of a confession. She has at hand, but never uses, instruments of torture.

The apparatus of the state controlled by the archangels functions in a totalitarian mode; further, its efforts at complete control of the citizenry are carried out in a manner which directly parallels the operations of the military juntas which governed Argentina during the dictatorship of 1976-1983, known variously as the Dirty War and the Proceso.  Whereas the larger picture of a state-directed campaign of terror against the citizenry could point toward any one of a number of totalitarian states of the twentieth century, there are numerous more subtle indications which lead us to the identification of the state controlled by the archangels with that of the juntas of the Proceso. (2)

During the course of the novel the two voices participate in an intricate dance which weaves in and around issues of power. The sections dedicated to the entubada’s voice transcribe what she says from the platform. The sections dedicated to the oficiante’s voice record her thoughts and the messages she sends and receives via the computers. The entubada frequently addresses the oficiante directly, though her narrative tends to wander off from its initial focus. The oficiante never directly speaks to the entubada in the course of the entire novel. One might describe the novel as a series of parallel monologues.

The two narrators also serve as protagonists of the novel. Their conversations, which are not conversations at all in a conventional sense, consist largely of a struggle for control over voice, body and memory. Other characters enter the novel, principally through the entubada’s narratives. It is, however, through and around the conflict between the narrators that Montes presents to readers a series of possibilities for the construction of gender.

Of the various roles which the protagonists play at different moments in the novel, the most striking can be characterized as a series of binaries: detective/criminal, torturer/victim, mind/body, speaker/mute. These binaries tend to position themselves along a gender divide, and it is precisely at the interstices between these binaries where this gendered division of roles begins to break down. I will base my analysis of the construction of gender in the novel on an examination of these binaries and the manner in which the characters accept, reject or modify them. Although these different binaries overlap, in some cases to a large extent, we will treat each in turn, starting with a gendered analysis of the detective/criminal dyad.

Regardless of the form of its current incarnation, all detective fiction necessarily springs from a construct first and most famously articulated by Poe, based on an understanding of the world anchored in Enlightenment principles. In John Irwin’s brilliant analysis of Borges and Poe he posits that the figure of the detective is emblematic of modern man (and I use the masculine pronoun here advisedly). I wish to reproduce here a rather lengthy quote from Irwin’s book to illustrate this point:


In creating the detective story, Poe produced the dominant modern genre, and I mean this not merely in the sense, so often cited, that it is the genre with the most titles listed or the most copies printed in any given year, but that it is preeminently the genre of an age dominated by science and technology, an age characterized by mental-work-as-analysis. In the detective scenario and the figure of the mastermind Dupin, Poe gave us at once the most appealing format and the most glamorous mask for mental work and the mental worker. […] But we should note that in creating the detective story Poe also gave us a cautionary tale about the mastery of mind and our modern scientific world. For Victor Frankenstein and C. August Dupin are products of the same period and the same impulse, except that Dupin is his own monster. Which is to say, he is the first great characterless character, the name for a mental position in an entirely plot-driven scenario, the image of a man of whom one could remark that what he does is the sum total of what he is, a man who foreshadows our present world in which the manipulation of electronic gadgets takes the place of thought and in which machines are all too often more interesting than people. (xvii-xviii)


Irwin’s analysis, with all its intelligence and insight, however, fails to address the issue of gender. Irwin’s and Poe’s detectives are essentially masculine constructs, housing an unexamined series of assumptions about the roles of men and the relative invisibility of women. (I would like to clarify here that I use the adjectives “masculine” and “feminine” as descriptions of culturally-defined gender attributes which may be assigned to either men or women.) As Judith Butler, among many others, points out, “reason and mind are associated with masculinity and agency, while the body and nature are considered to be the mute facticity of the feminine, awaiting signification from an opposing masculine subject” (37). If this is the case, then the role of the detective is extremely masculine, bringing to bear as it does both an absolute certainty about the efficacy of the use of reason and the agency which finally brings the criminal to justice. How, then, does the oficiante operate within this role which stands at odds with societal expectations of her gender?

From the outset of the novel the oficiante attempts to bring order and the use of reason to her task of completing the investigation. She demonstrates a strict Cartesian understanding of her world and the rules which govern her task, to the point of complaining about her prisoner’s lack of knowledge: “Me resulta intolerable. Deduzco por su postura que no ha comprendido bien las reglas del juego. Vuelvo a insistir en que tendríamos que proveerlos del manual correspondiente antes de entubarlos” (22). She sees no irony in her complaint that her prisoner has failed to respond to her demands in a more efficacious manner. In fact, through the first part of the novel the oficiante is completely humorless and incapable of irony.

The archangel’s society operates and maintains it power by separating and isolating its neighborhoods, people, and the histories of its citizenry. There exist a series of opponents against which the regime defines itself, labeling them dissidents, heretics, bomb throwers. The most serious threat, however, seems to emanate from a substance called either el indeleble or simply jugo. This ill-defined substance seems to flow freely in the areas outside of official control. Within the areas which the archangels control, however, it is contained by the omnipresent tubes. The oficiante understands the basic functioning of the system; as she states, “la regla número uno del sistema es la parcelación, el cercado” (238). She seems to accept her part in that world, speaking of “nuestra inquebrantable decisión de anular los jugos” (119, emphasis is mine). Even in moments in which the investigation seems to be escaping from her control she takes comfort in her profession, “¿qué hay sino el oficio, la gran colcha de retazos, [...] el mester de entendería” (126).

This adherence to the system, however, springs as much from fear as from a reasoned acceptance of the benefits which accrue to her via her participation in the system. Her fear, moreover, originates not only in her knowledge of the consequences of disobedience, but also from a sort of existential terror of the unknown. She feels most at ease when the world surrounding her cell conforms to her expectations of order, when “[l]os motores ronronean confiados, hay orden, cierto progreso” (122). She asks herself “¿De qué sirve gozar por fin de un sistema si no es capaz de detener el flujo, el impulso irresistible hacia el vórtice del abismo?” (238). Such is her need to understand the universe as an orderly system which can be made comprehensible by the course of studies she has followed, that when she begins to detect fissures in the edifice she convinces herself that she is misinterpreting the clues:


Pensar en un resquebrajamiento general del sistema me produce escalofríos. Prefiero sentirme observada, optar por la teoría de la prueba: i.e. se trata sólo de un simulacro de desorden, está todo perfectamente calculado, etc. etc. (el Comité Central suele ceder a esos caprichos). (91)


Nevertheless, the oficiante’s participation in the system as a detective becomes more and more problematic. She declares her adherence and loyalty to the system so frequently that we begin to question the sincerity of her declarations. As the oficiante begins to ask questions, the reader witnesses her transgressing some of the minor rules imposed by the archangels. The evolution of the oficiante’s understanding of her role has everything to do with her questioning the gendered assumptions which shape the figure of the detective.

The oficiante at the start of the novel occupies the role of detective as portrayed in the classical problem story (as in Poe, Conan Doyle, Chesterton).  According to Maureen Reddy, in this early iteration of the detective story, “distanced rationality is the highest virtue”; these stories “tend to celebrate traditionally masculine values and to reinforce conservative social attitudes” (5). These narratives have a rigid structure, as explained by Reddy:


The classic crime novel begins in disorder or in violation of order and proceeds more or less linearly to order; it is therefore essentially reassuring, its message proclaiming that it is not only desirable, but actually possible, to banish or to destroy disruptive social elements, and that the greatly to be desired continuation of bourgeois, patriarchal society depends upon general acceptance of the control of a masculine authority figure who is alone capable of explaining the world satisfactorily. (5-6)


The oficiante initially accepts the masculine role of detective in a piece of classical detective fiction and takes pride in her performance of it. She desires, above all, to close the file, abandon the entubada to her fate, restore order to her corner of this world. Moreover, she understands her role at a more profound level than might be immediately apparent. She sees the inconsistencies in the entubada’s story, and understands the inherent injustices of the system. Nevertheless, she chooses to play her part: “sé que nuestra función es el entubamiento de los jugos sueltos y no la justificación de los hechos” (72). She becomes Irwin’s mental worker whose “manipulation of electronic gadgets takes the place of thought”.

However, as the novel unfolds, precisely through the use of her much-appreciated reason, she begins to see more and more cracks in the façade of perfection, much though she attempts not to see.  We learn that several of her revered teachers, the masters who instructed her in her craft, have fallen afoul of the system and been ejected. The archangels, although capable of maintaining the computer network, seem incapable of directing the most minor of tasks in other areas. Her cell is never cleaned and old disks, worn-out consoles, papers, and cables clog it to the point that she can barely move, much less preside efficiently over an investigation. Moreover, when she leaves the cell to investigate portions of the entubada’s story, the city she encounters, although superficially calm and in order, is also falling to ruin.  Eventually she starts to move away from the stance of total faith in both the system and in the use of reason. Or, rather, she does not abandon the use of reason, but begins to supplement it with other ways of knowing, which include the physical and the relational.

As she listens to the entubada’s seemingly incoherent stories and as she travels in the world which surrounds her cell the oficiante begins to question the masculinist ideal of pure rationality. For the first time since her acceptance into the academy which prepared her for her profession she begins to experience reality through the lens of her own senses (more about this below). Moreover, she increasingly views her prisoner less in terms of an intellectual puzzle which she must solve, and moves towards a final view of the entubada as a living, suffering human being. Her motivation also changes radically; at the outset she only wishes to close the file and continue her career as a successful technocrat:”todo andaría mejor si ella entendiera de qué se trata todo esto y que lo que le conviene es hablar, y convertirse cuanto antes en expediente” (327).  Later, as she comes to know and appreciate the entubada and as she starts to find traces of her own family history among the documents she inspects, her attitude changes. She begins to take risks:


Usar las costosas entretelas para hurgar en el propio expediente, ¿dónde se ha visto? Invertir el orden, abrir en lugar de cerrar, destejer la trama. No hay duda de que la infracción es grave, […] corro el riesgo no ya de sumarios y fojas feas, sino de expulsiones, más o menos temporarias del sistema. Sin embargo, estoy serena, aireada. (205)


And yet, “estoy serena”, for the first time.

 The oficiante has changed sides by the end of the novel. In the final scene, as the archangels launch an attack which will surely culminate in the entubada’s death and at the very least the oficiante’s expulsion from their world, the oficiante reaches up to the platform on which the entubada is restrained, and seeks out her prisoner’s caress. The novel ends with the entubada stroking the oficiante’s hair and telling her a story, urging her to resist.

The oficiante’s rejection of her role as detective involves a conscious sorting through of the values which that role embodies. She does not reject the use of reason out of hand, but she does reject its service to a power structure which is inherently abusive and dismissive of human life. She also rejects that portion of the role of detective which assigns value to individual and isolated action, in other words the cowboy incarnation of the detective exemplified in the hard-boiled variant of detective fiction. She chooses solidarity over individual heroism. (Not that individual heroism could have saved either her or the entubada in any case.) This process of sifting and sorting through particular qualities, this questioning of whether a particular way of thinking or course of action in fact fits the reality of who she considers herself to be at any particular moment characterizes the search for identity of both protagonists.

In the case of the entubada, the role of the criminal is forced upon her, so that her adherence to or deviation from the expectations surrounding that role are less indicative of her choices. Moreover, although she mentions her “crime” on several occasions, it remains unclear just what this crime might have been, and whether, in fact, it is perhaps just a fabrication which the archangels utilize as one of their random acts of terror. The commission of a crime (3) generally falls under masculine code of conduct, with the criminal both flaunting and hiding his (again, the use of the masculine pronoun is intentional) agency.  But, as we do not witness the commission of the crime, nor do we have any certainty that the entubada has committed an act which either she or we might consider criminal, we have little ground for analysis of her participation, or not, in the role of the criminal. What we do have is the entubada as prisoner and victim, regardless of whether she has committed a crime.

I would now like to comment on the binary torturer/victim as personified by the oficiante and the entubada. As Amy Kaminsky points out, this dyad represents “a grotesque limit case of patriarchal hierarchy (leaving aside the actual sex of the victim, who is gendered feminine by virtue of being the prisoner)” which “creates a monstrous caricature of ordinary restraints on women” (59). We will first examine the entubada’s role as victim.

 As the victim of torture, the entubada, willingly or not, embodies a feminine role. Although it would be hard to imagine a more restricted set of circumstances, the entubada manages to make some choices about the way in which she responds to this role which has been physically forced upon her. As has been noted in the case of slaves, prisoners, and victims of domestic violence, one way for the person in the powerless position to exert a bit of control over her/his circumstances is through a passive/aggressive stance. In the case of the entubada she pretends to collaborate with the oficiante in the course of the investigation, but in reality eludes her pursuer at every step. In the course of her first utterance in the novel she pretends to agree to the rules of the game, “yo estoy aquí para contar mi crimen y usted para tomar nota, hasta cerrar el expediente” (9). Yet from here her tale opens into a labyrinth which includes stories told to her by a childhood friend, the mention of a photograph and a discussion of the nature of memory. The purported crime appears nowhere.

 In order to discuss further the manner in which the entubada acts out or acts against her role as victim of torture, I would like to refer to Elaine Scarry’s elucidation of the elements of torture. Scarry has concluded from her study of numerous incidents of political torture, taken mainly from the testimony of victims of authoritarian regimes during the 1970s, that torture has a clearly-defined structure. That structure is “based on the nature of pain, the nature of power, the interaction between the two, and the interaction between the ultimate source of each—the body, the locus of pain, and the voice, the locus of power” (51).

There are three identifiable steps to the process of torture, as ascertained by Scarry:


First, pain is inflicted on a person in ever-intensifying sways. Second, the pain, continually amplified within the person’s body, is also amplified in the sense that it is objectified, made visible to those outside the person’s body. Third, the objectified pain is denied as pain and read as power, a translation made possible by the obsessive mediation of agency. (28)


When viewed from this perspective, the entubada’s actions clearly speak of her resistance to the role of powerless victim. Undeniably, she is the victim of monstrous abuses. The evidence of the infliction of physical pain appears over her entire body: “las llagas se endurecen, los bordes se resquebrajan, se desflecan, se los ve opacos, agrisados, una cáscara irregular les endurece el filo” (48). Toward the end of the novel only her head and her left ankle remain intact. Further, the oficiante blandishes the instruments of torture in an attempt to frighten the entubada into proceeding with her story, although she never actually uses them. And, finally, we come to “the question”.

As Scarry makes clear, an interrogation is an integral part of torture, not an occasional accompaniment. This verbal act


consists of two parts, “the question” and “the answer,” each with conventional connotations that wholly falsify it. “The question” is mistakenly understood to be “the motive;” “the answer” is mistakenly understood to be “the betrayal.” The first mistake credits the torturer, providing him with a justification, his cruelty with an explanation. The second discredits the prisoner, making him rather than the torturer, his voice rather than his pain, the cause of his loss of self and world. The two misinterpretations are obviously neither accidental nor unrelated. The one is an absolution of responsibility; the other is a conferring of responsibility; the two together turn the moral reality of torture upside down. (35)


I quote Scarry in order to clarify some of the larger issues at stake in the conversations between the oficiante and the entubada. The oficiante’s insistence on assigning blame for the crime and closing the file is in fact her formulation of “the question”, that act which allows her to justify the horrific treatment of her victim. The entubada’s refusal to supply “the answer” constitutes her strongest resistance to the regime.  As mentioned above, she feigns at formulating “the answer”; however, she shifts and dodges and dances around the edges of her testimony in such a way that she never formulates a direct answer. Even in their opening exchange, the entubada equivocates. (I use the term “exchange” in a very loose sense. The entubada speaks to the oficiante, who never directly responds. We, however, read what she writes on her computer, which includes both her reaction to and analysis of what her prisoner says, as well as information sent by her informants.) After declaring her understanding of the situation, the entubada immediately slips away onto a tangent:


Ya sé que a usted le interesa la culminación, el desliz, la foto, que las cuestiones preliminares la impacientan y la atrasan, pero creamé que no va a tener más remedio que demorarse en el umbral, […] Y no es que me quiera escabullir, sucede que estoy buscando […] y cuando se busca no siempre se encuentra.” (9)


Rather than the oficiante forcing her into her scheme of guilt and punishment, the entubada begins the process of drawing her inquisitor into her tale, presenting her with just enough relevant information to maintain her interest.

The entubada clearly understands the stakes of her inquisitor’s game. The final outcome is never in doubt; her lacerated body will be consigned to the ovens which incinerate the traces of finalized interrogations and her testimony/story will be frozen in a file, buried in the labyrinth of the archangel’s archives, as dead as its author. Although the prisoner cannot hope to survive, she can attempt to ensure the survival of her story, if only for a while, by drawing her captor into its elaboration, and leaving her with the compulsion to continue its telling. Further, she avoids the spurious charge of betrayal by not answering “the question”. Moreover, she consciously fights against being reduced to the “mute facticity” of her tortured body by speaking, and speaking in her own terms.

Both women understand the importance of controlling the story; both know that power is the fundamental issue at stake. Should the oficiante fail to separate, isolate and categorize her prisoner’s story she will not only be held personally accountable, but her failure would also underscore the inherent weakness of a system which only manages to stay in power through such extreme measures. 

As Scarry explains, through torture the voice of the victim is turned against her; her response to “the question”, which is meaningless to her when faced with the enormous and overwhelming reality of her pain, becomes all important to her torturer.

As the victim’s world shrinks to confines of her tortured body, the torturer’s world grows; he objectifies the components of his prisoner’s pain (the instruments of torture, her own body, his voice, her voice, the room in which the torture occurs) and translates them into a sense of power (56).  However, when the victim, as is the case with the entubada, refuses to answer the question, refuses to allow her own voice become part of her victimization, refuses, in fact, to play the game, the mechanism of the translation of the prisoner’s pain into the torturer’s power breaks down.

We shall return to the question of voice below, but first I would like to examine the oficiante’s performance of the role of torturer.  Over the course of the novel her attitude shifts from that of embracing to rejecting this role. Initially the opportunity to advance in her career as well as her sense of contributing to the preservation of a rational ordering of the world provides her motivation. Her first words in the novel, “[m]e preocupan los controles”, testify to her obsession with order and control. Further, in all but her final session with the entubada, she plays the part of torturer physically as well as mentally. She dresses in a variety of disguises, all designed to intimidate her prisoner, as well as to separate and protect her from her victim, providing that critical distance which allows her to objectify her prisoner and ignore her humanity. The oficiante constantly wears a surgical mask, surgical gloves and a protective helmet with a visor. On occasion she puts on a second, or even third, pair of gloves to protect herself from the contamination of the indeleble.

However, even as the oficiante pushes the entubada to answer “the question”, even as she attempts to intimidate her, even as she inspects and measures the depth and diameter of her victim’s wounds, she stops short of the defining element of the torturer – she refuses to employ the instrument of torture. Further, her refusal is not unique to this victim. As she states, since her time as a student at the training academy, “todos conocen mi profunda aversión por los anzuelos” (137). What are we to make of this refusal? On the one hand, the oficiante willingly participates in the economy of torture. Her victim is immobilized, her body perforated by tubes and covered with ulcers and wounds. Someone other than the oficiante committed the atrocities to which the entubada has been subjected; the oficiante, however, accepts her prisoner’s condition as necessary.  Moreover, she threatens torture by blandishing her instruments. And, most importantly, she poses “the question”, thus setting in motion the series of events designed to translate her victim’s pain into a symbol of the regime’s power.

And yet, we have here a torturer who does not inflict physical pain. Nor is hers an exquisite form of psychological torture – she threatens and seeks to intimidate, but she is less than successful in her efforts. Rather, the entubada comes to dominate in the latter sections of the novel. Perhaps what we witness in the oficiante is a deep-seated reluctance toward the infliction of physical pain that forms the basis for her eventual rejection of the role of torturer altogether. For she does reject the role, completely. At the end of the novel the oficiante now sees the entubada as a human being; on entering the cell for what will be her final session she thinks, “[v]olver hoy ha sido un esfuerzo. Podría haberlo evitado, […] Pero no quise. Pensé qué va a ser de mi entubada, sola dos veces” (347). Further, in a clear refusal of her role as jailer, and in a transparent demonstration of her valoration of the entubada’s abilities as a teller of tales, she appears as Scheherazade: dressed in veils, shoeless, no helmet, no mask, no gloves. The lacerated body of her victim, which she initially viewed with contempt and revulsion, now becomes the site of her resistance and strength: “Aunque calada como está, sin cuerpo casi, barrida por el viento, llagada, con el aire ese de las grietas que se le mete por todos los costados, en el borde mismo del expediente, resista todavía (¡resiste!)” (349). In fact, she becomes a model of resistance for the oficiante to emulate.

If the oficiante rejects the role of torturer and all of its components, if she rejects parts of the role of detective, how, in fact, does she then define herself? In order to answer this question we must examine the next two related binaries, that of speaker/mute and mind/body.

With reference to the first of those binaries, it becomes evident early in the novel that voice is the site of the most urgently fought conflict between the protagonists. Although the oficiante never directly addresses the entubada, her presence in and of itself impresses upon her the urgency of “the question.” Moreover, her insistence upon the entubada giving her “the answer” becomes all the more sadistic as “the question” is never voiced, but must be interpreted as having been voiced by the victim. At this point, the oficiante allows her body to speak “the question” which the state must at all costs insist upon.  The oficiante as an individual human being, as a woman, allows the state to speak for and through her, and in the process, at least initially, silences her own voice. Moreover, although she appears in the cell for the final session dressed as Scheherazade, in an obvious valoration of the entubada’s story-telling ability, she still remains silent. I posit that she does communicate with the entubada, in a number of ways, but she does not utilize her voice for that communication.

The entubada, on the other hand, utilizes her voice first, foremost, and always as a means of resistance to the system which subjugates her. She clearly understands the dynamic by which a torturer seeks to turn his victim’s voice against herself, and resists the oficiante’s best efforts to do so. The one thing which she can control is her story; she derives the strength to continue from the telling of her story, and telling it in her own manner. A childhood friend who was a masterful storyteller appears frequently through the entubada’s narrative. From the moment of the earliest memories which she recounts, the entubada emphasizes the power of tale telling:


A Chochi le gustaba empezar a contar cuando estábamos con las polleras bien alisadas y en silencio. Las primeras palabras no le salían demasiado bien. Un poco rajadas, temblonas, como si le diesen miedo. A mí también me daban miedo, pero igual escuchaba, porque más miedo me daba el silencio. Ella empezaba a contar y yo me agarraba con fuerza de las palabras, para no caerme. […] Estaba tejiendo la red, ¿se da cuenta? Y al rato ya no sentíamos más miedo de caernos. (10-11)


The fear of silence which the entubada mentions could be explicated in a number of ways. One interpretation which suggests itself here, however, is that the fear of silence in the world which the entubada inhabited as a child may be an expression of fear of isolation and separation from the community which surrounds her. Story telling in her world emerges as a group project; the very coherence of the community hinges on its shared historias (4).  I will return to this point below.The entubada also clearly understands the power of her narrative in her present situation. Giving voice to her historias offers her the only means of resistance available. Moreover, speaking her story has immediate physical effects on her which even the oficiante notices. (Her wounds begin to heal over as she focuses on her stories and begin to open and ooze when she falters in her narration.) Narrating, however, also has its dangers. As she explains to the oficiante:


[s]i uno no cuenta, se muere. Y para contar hay que cavarse agujeros, y entonces también se muere. Los que cuentan van entre dos muertes, de un lado está la muerte por no contar, y del otro lado la muerte de estar contando. Todos los que cuentan cuentos tienen que ir por el filo de las dos muertes. (46)


As always, the entubada speaks in a highly coded fashion. “Cavarse agujeros” could signify exposing, uncovering that which is hidden, which could refer to anything from personally shameful memories to politically dangerous speech or activities. In a similar manner, “la muerte por no contar” could signify both lack of personal self expression or the social death of the community which comes from not speaking (up) in the face of abusive political policies or actions directed at the citizenry from those in power.

Closely related to the concept of voice and narrative in the entubada’s mind is the construction of memory. In her world the community jointly assembles the past, its past, through a social process. When family members arrive for a visit, for example, she recalls how “[í]bamos armando el pasado entre todos, como un rompecabezas, y fijesé que cada vez nos sorprendíamos con algo, algún detalle del dibujo que para nosotros no había existido pero que de todos modos siempre había estado” (18), so that the historia, in both senses of the term, is built by the community. Truth, in this context, is situational: “[a]hora ya pasó tanto tiempo que no sé si esas cosas serán ciertas. Tampoco queda gente que se siente a partir arvejas o a hablar de la decencia. Pero eran ciertas entonces, servían para explicar lo que nos pasaba, y entonces eran ciertas” (17).

For the entubada the recuperation of memory, both personal and collective, constitutes a major element of her sense of self. Further, she examines memory in a manner which the oficiante can only aspire to emulate. Speaking of her relationship with a childhood friend, the entubada states:


[e]lla me entrega con una sonrisa sus recuerdos, que son como paquetitos de papel floreado, con cinta, nunca los abre. Yo, en cambio, los abro enseguida, en cuanto me los da, porque no sé hacer otra cosa con los recuerdos, tengo que abrirlos. Y ya vio lo que pasa. Cuando uno los abre se rasga la gelatina y empiezan a manar jugos y algunos olores ácidos. (21)


This “manar jugos” forcibly reminds us of the forbidden substance which the archangels seek to control, and which threatens their power.  The entubada seems anxious to discover its secrets.

We will now examine the mind/body binary and go on to discuss its relation to the other binaries. It would appear initially that the oficiante occupies the masculine role of the mind and the entubada represents the “mute facticity of the body”. However, as we shall see, Montes constructs a much more nuanced interplay between the two elements of this binary.

 We have seen how the oficiante initially represents the rigid rationality of the classical detective role. She characterizes the structure of the system to which she adheres as “nuestros sistemas binarios. At least initially, any way of understanding the world outside of the binary oppositions lies beyond her capacities. Her extensive training prepares her only to function within the proscribed limits of the archangel’s controlled universe; as she moves beyond its boundaries, both through the entubada’s narrations and through her official investigative trips to the periphery of the system, she finds herself lacking the tools she needs to comprehend what she sees and hears. The oficiante prefers to see her world painted in stark black and white; shades of grey confound her. For this reason, it seems to her that the convoluted narrative of her prisoner “está siempre en el borde y oscila peligrosamente” (31).

 Additionally, the oficiante wishes to deny the very existence of corporeal bodies, beginning with her own. She greatly resembles Poe’s detective, who is, in Irwin’s words, “the image of a man of whom one could remark that what he does is the sum total of what he is”. The oficiante denies her corporeality repeatedly, in differing ways. As we have seen, she shields herself from the corrupting influence of the entubada (both her narrative and her body) by the use of a sort of body armor. In fact, on one occasion she nearly suffocates after putting on a new protective helmet and discovering that she cannot remove it – she has to call the paramedics for assistance (119). Her body armor serves not only to protect her from the entubada’s corruption; it also conceals the evidence of her own corporeality. Further, denying the entubada her voice is also part of her denial of her corporeality.

As the novel opens, the oficiante complains of the entubada’s attempts to force her captor to become more than a disembodied presence: “[i]ntolerable el modo en que la entubada me reprocha, me interpela, me pide que viole el reglamento, que le dé palabras” (25), “trata de atravesar mi protección con sus palabras” (70),  and “me encara y me reclama el cuerpo” (26). It seems that she has cause to fear these attempts, as it is precisely through the rediscovery of her body and the entubada’s narrative that the oficiante begins to examine her allegiance to the system.

The first indication that the oficiante has begun to cross beyond the boundaries of officially-sanctioned behavior comes in one of her investigative expeditions. On encountering an empty plaza in the late afternoon she thinks, “[e]l puro espacio, aunque acotado, me intoxica: me sorprendo mirando el sol sobre el poco pasto, sintiendo la tibieza, alegrándome incluso de que haya llegado por fin el otoño” (124). In a later excursion she allows herself to buy a packet of chocolates, and experiences an orgasmic sensation of delight as she eats one (255).

This indulgence in sensual pleasures also has sexual overtones. The oficiante maintains a series of electronic conversations with someone whose nickname is Zonda. We, and presumably she, do not know whether Zonda is a man or a woman. Her description of their conversation takes on a markedly erotic tone:


El que irrumpe en tercer lugar es (no necesito verlo) Zonda. Admito que a esta altura de mis peripecias ya añoraba su brío, su ferocidad narrativa. Palpita la cintura excapular. Late el oído. No puedo evitar el flujo que se me precipita hacia las yemas, que incluso caliento el mouse, imagino, a través del guante. (237)


Cibersex, anyone?

The oficiante’s relationship to the entubada also includes a physical element. Whereas initially the oficiante found her prisoner repulsive, she comes to admire her courage. During an examination of the entubada’s ankle, the only part of her body which remains intact, this ankle becomes the nexus for the oficiante’s discovery of her own body:


Siempre me sorprende ese tobillo. Verla a ella ahí, ligada a ese tobillo, ocupando un lugar, aunque menguado y menor, en el estrado. Que un cuerpo taladrado así (la fibrilación se ha ido trasladando poco a poco a todos los jirones) aún persista. […] Sin embargo, todo se demora. El cuerpo aún está, eso es lo que dice el tobillo. Sigue estando. Lo miro y digo: tengo un cuerpo. (324-325)


Further, it is through the entubada’s caress and her story telling that the oficiante manages to maintain her resistance through the archangels’ attack. The final lines of the novel recount the protagonists’ unity in defiance of their attackers:


tengo miedo. Sin despegar los dedos de las teclas empujo el taburete hacia atrás, vuelco la nuca y apoyo la cabeza en el estrado. Necesito ayuda. El tobillo de la entubada me acaricia el pelo. […]Ella me consuela. Se corre para hacerme sitio. Me dice que no tenga miedo, que me va a contar un cuento. Yo la escucho. Las dos ahí, para siempre en el umbral, sobre el filo del silencio. (382-383)


We shall return to this caress below, but first we shall examine the entubada’s role in the mind/body binary.

As the victim of torture, the entubada’s would seem to embody “the mute facticity of the feminine”. Undoubtedly, her body represents the battleground on which the war between the regime and its citizens is being fought. Her wounds and ulcers speak, scream even, for themselves. Yet, as we have seen the entubada cannot be reduced simply to her body. Her voice and her narrative form as important a part of her identity as does her body. There is another side to the entubada’s corporeality, however, which stands in contrast to the role assigned to her as victim. As evidenced in many places through her narrative, the entubada consciously experiences the world through her senses. For example: “[y] ahora ¿ve? es el turno del ojo. Porque la mano ya no se acuerda. Ahora el que se acuerda es el ojo” (14). I would argue that this seeming disconnect between mind and body is in fact a manner in which the entubada incorporates both into her way of perceiving the world.

For the entubada tactile sensations play an important role. She describes with great detail the erotic sensation caused by running her arm along the beaded fringe of a lamp in a neighbor’s room, and recalls her reaction when she first heard this future neighbor, and relative, speak: “sentí que me atravesaba una espada de miedo y que al mismo tiempo, mire bien lo que le digo, me humedecía de gusto” (38). She comes to describe her relationship with the oficiante in similarly erotic terms:


Hasta deseo, le confieso, que me toque. Ya sé que eso es imposible, antirreglamentario sobre todo, y fantasioso. Le digo más. Sé muy bien que es mentira que los cuerpos se toquen, que sólo se tocan los cuentos, y eso apenas, a veces nomás. Pero igual, le confieso, cuando siento su aliento sobre los bordes cada vez más desflecados de mis agujeros, me agarra esa especie de nostalgia. Ahí es cuando quiero que me toque, y me acuerdo de los caireles y también de otras cosas. Siempre esas ganas. Siempre. (314)


The entubada makes explicit the link between cuerpo and cuento. For her, both body and voice serve as a bridge out of the silence she fears.

I would also like to point out that the entubada in expressing her desire for erotic union with another woman, and the oficiante in her response to the entubada’s caress, explode another fundamental binary, that of sexuality as exclusively male/female.

On that note, I would like to return to a discussion of the construction of identity of these two characters, and the manner in which expectations about the construction of gender inform their choices.

Throughout the novel the entubada shows a much greater consciousness about the choices she makes in her construction of self. These choices, which many times represent much more nuanced views of the world than those made by the oficiante, tend to incorporate elements from both sides of the binaries we have discussed, rather than the acceptance of one element and the rejection of its seeming opposite. The oficiante eventually comes to a similarly nuanced view of the world, and of herself, principally through her interactions with the entubada and the elements of her historias.

From her earliest memories of the stories her friend Chochi related, the entubada understands the divide between mind/body as false. If the stories, the words, belong to the world of the mind and the masculine, her way of understanding and Chochi’s way of narrating both incorporate the body and the feminine. The entubada relates how the girls believed that they must sit in a particular place, el umbral, and experience a particular physical sensation, that of the coolness of the marble doorstep against their backsides, in order for the stories to unfold properly. Moreover, as the entubada tells the oficiante, one of her principal difficulties in remembering the events in question is that “[e]s difícil contar para atrás porque uno tiene sobre todo palabras, pero perdió los cuerpos” (20), and the bodies are part of the story.  

Her personal historia also contains elements from both sides of the masculine/ feminine divide. When she describes her mother, grandmother, and three aunts, she calls them “las cincomujeres” (64). This undifferentiated female group, las cincomujeres,

eran un animal tibio y blando. Flexible. Húmedo, que respiraba lentamente, siempre se lo oía respirar en la casa. […] Lascinco eran una sola en realidad. Con cinco voces que se mezclaban siempre y que las distintas gargantas intercambiaban según el día. […] El mismo olor. Los mismos jugos. La misma saliva. (64)


By way of contrast, her father, Rafael Montino, “era un animal duro. A veces, frío, a veces caliente. Que estaba acá o estaba allá. Gritaba. Golpeaba la mesa. Rugía. Echaba carcajadas”. They were, in essence, “Rafael y las cincomujeres. Las cincocunteiras y el montino” (64). The entubada, however, defines herself apart from this differentiated male/ undifferentiated female binary, “[e]staban Rafael, lascinco y yo, que nací Montino”. She obviously sees herself as occupying a third category, neither that of the fierce male, nor that of the soft and indeterminate female, but as participating in some way in both. Although she is biologically mujer, she is also a Montino, closely related to that other Montino. Far from this causing her consternation, she seems to relish the in-between role. We see evidence of this in the tale where she recounts how her father smuggled her into the print shop where he worked, where women were forbidden entry: “[l]o que hacía Rafael, llevarme a ese sitio, era algo prohibido, y eso es algo que yo le reconozco, siempre le voy a estar agradecida” (97).

Perhaps the most profound change which occurs in the novel is the oficiante’s abandonment of her view of the world as a place defined by binary oppositions, and her acceptance of a more fluid reality. By so doing, she rejects the guiding concept of the archangel’s system, that of the division and parceling off of reality. It is more than coincidental that the substance which flows outside of the control of the archangels is called jugo, and that this term suggests the messiness of corporeality – as in blood, sweat, semen.

The relationships between the two protagonists constantly evolve and mutate. These relationships do not solidify over time but rather continue to evolve. As an example, one of the relationships between the two could be seen as a maternal relationship – however, the terms change with the situation. When the oficiante leaves the cell on one of her investigative missions, she connects a cordón which will keep her in contact with the entubada and will assure her that her prisoner is tranquil – dare we suggest cordón umbilical? At the end of the novel, however, it is the entubada who takes on the maternal role, suggesting to the oficiante that they await their fate “yo sentada y usted refugiada en un hueco de mi regazo. No importa que ya esté crecida, igual puedo acunarla. Podría peinarla también, si me consigue un peine, acomodarle los pliegues de las mangas del disfraz, contarle un cuento” (372).

The entubada starts from and the oficiante comes to a refusal of the splitting of their world into opposing binaries, and the freezing of identity into a single role. The relationships between them follow this logic. They slip into and out of a sense of erotic connection, the above-mentioned maternal relationship, and an attitude of solidarity in the face of a common enemy. There is, however, one overarching figure which distills many of the common factors in their understanding of each other. The entubada describes a fountain topped by a female figure, a mermaid. She describes the figure:


Hay que ser muy valiente para animarse a echar agua hacia arriba porque sí, por el gusto de detener el tiempo, por un instante de gloria. Es por eso que la que mira desde arriba, que es mujer y está desnuda, parece tan feliz, tan joven y sorprendida. (133)


 At first the oficiante is taken aback: “no hay programa de estudios que abarque esa clase de flujos” (142). When she comes across the fountain, however, during one of her official excursions, she remembers having seen the figure during her childhood. The oficiante describes her: “es mujer y está desprendiéndose de algo, saliendo de algún sitio y queriendo entrar en otro que debió ser hermoso, se la ve confusa y esperanzada. Me digo que no es la única, que más allá hay otra fuente” (281). The first clause of the sentence, me digo que no es la única, refers us back to the oficiante herself, who at this point may well feel confusa y esperanzada. Moreover, as the oficiante continues to explore the surrounding area she encounters a second fountain, also topped by a female figure, although this second statue is quite decrepit. She comments, “[b]usca a su hermana, es evidente” (284).

The oficiante responds on a visceral level to the sight of this decaying mermaid who seeks her sister. We see a fundamental transformation in her in the lines which immediately follow:


RESET, ESCAPE, no hay salida, vuelta a la celda. ¿Para qué? ¿Para qué todo, el esfuerzo? ¿De qué sirven estos GOTOs que por mucho que se extiendan, malditos reverendos, turros de lata, están siempre volviendo al centro? Maldita sea la hora, maldito sea mi oficio. Malditas sean las teclas, los cursores siempre hambrientos, el agujero que llenar, la boca esa, siempre abierta. ¿Quién me mandó a mí?, me pregunto, ¿por qué estoy yo en mi consola y ese cuerpo ahí, en el estrado, descoyuntado, torcido, titilando también, asquerosamente expuesto? ¿Quién nos mandó? ¿Quién nos enseñó el juego de creer que se llena lo que, de verdad, se va vaciando? (284)


What she sees in the fountain shakes her badly. She must retreat to her cell, but it offers her no comfort. She curses her profession, and begins to ask herself the most fundamental of questions: why is she at the controls and the entubada on the platform? What does it all mean? Even more significantly, we witness the evolution from “¿Quién me mandó?” to “¿Quién nos mandó?”, that is, from a solitary position to a position of solidarity.

Scarcely a page later the entubada tells the oficiante, “hay veces en que podría hasta llamarla mi hermana” (286). If there is a single relationship which incorporates all the others and organizes the protagonists’ understanding of each other, perhaps it is this, that of sisterhood. This relationship can encompass the maternal, the erotic, the affective, the familial, and the political. It involves both history and story.

I do not wish to imply, however, that the use of the term sisterhood as an organizing metaphor for the relationship(s) which define the protagonists should be construed as a simple reversal of values from the masculine to the feminine. The choices made by the protagonists as they take on and cast off the different roles which they choose and which are imposed upon them are much more nuanced than that. The oficiante, who eventually rejects the role of detective in its insistence on restoring power to those who already possess it, does not reject the use of reason that also defines that role. She utilizes all the tools of reason at her command to uncover, not the entubada’s supposed crime, but rather, her own family history, and the manner in which it intersects with that of the entubada. The entubada, while celebrating the solidarity and communion growing out of her sisterhood with the oficiante, nonetheless rejects the sisterhood of the cincomujeres as too confining.

In the final analysis, the decisions about construction of identity taken by the protagonists tend toward a fluidity of choice based on their circumstances and desires at a particular moment. The protagonists construct their sense of identity, which is highly relational, by exploding the binary structures which form the base of the highly authoritarian, masculine world which surrounds them. They choose the freedom to borrow from, or reject, either or both sides of that binary world. It is precisely this fluidity which most exemplifies the particular sense of the feminine embodied by the protagonists.





(1). I approach this task with an awareness of the difficulties which the use of the English word “gender” provokes when utilized in the context of a category of analysis of a Latin American cultural artifact.


(2). See González for an in-depth treatment of the novel’s commentary on the Proceso.


(3). In Spanish the word crimen, used in the novel by the entubada to describe her supposed transgression, in general signifies a violent crime, not a misdemeanor nor a crime against property. In this sense, then, the word crimen denotes a masculine action, springing from the violence related to masculine agency.


(4). The word historia in Spanish has two equally common translations into English: story and history. Thus, construction of historias can and should be interpreted to mean both tale telling and the construction of a common history.






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Gomel, Elana. Bloodscripts: Writing the Violent Subject. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003.


González, Gail. “Con voz y vísceras: oposición al estado totalitario en El umbral porGraciela Montes.Romance Quarterly

 53:4 (Fall 2006): n.p.


Irwin, John T. The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytic DetectiveStory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins  University

Press, 1994.


Kaminsky, Amy. Reading the Body Politic: Feminist Criticism and Latin AmericanWomen Writers. Minneapolis: University

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Montes, Graciela. El umbral. Buenos Aires: Mondadori, 1998.


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