Finding a Voice,
Discovering a Body: Towards the Construction of a Gendered Identity in
Montes’s El umbral
University of Wisconsin-Parkside
1998 novel El umbral Graciela
Montes presents readers with an in-depth treatise on the issues
construction of gender identity, particularly for women, in
Argentina.(1) In a narrative that opens in the
style of a
detective novel and continues through a series of events which seem
appropriate to a work of science fiction, the dueling protagonists take
cast off a variety of gender-specific roles with notable ease and
Throughout the novel the construction of personal identity
entangled in questions of political solidarity, personal desire and the
for an authentic narrative voice.
this work I will examine the way in which Montes approaches the
female identity through her characters’ struggles toward a more
expression of selfhood.
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
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
novel opens with remarks made by the entubada
that would seem to indicate that the action will center on the
the details of a crime: “La pantalla ya se encendió y nos vamos
tener que ocupar del
lo que dice el reglamento, yo estoy para contar mi crimen y usted para
nota, hasta cerrar el expediente” (9).
Her meandering story, however,
does not lead us to any greater clarity about either the commission of
crime, nor, indeed, of its nature.
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
beings called archangels.
this world is an Orwellian landscape where the computers spy on
ensure their loyalty to the archangels and their system it is also
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
As her title indicates, she fulfills this task as a sacred duty.
if on the one hand the oficiante
and her keepers form part of a nightmarish future world which is
machinery, on the other hand the oficiante
serves the structural function of the detective in the rigid economy of
of detective fiction. In the
of the detective novel (whether of the classical mode, hard-boiled, or
the more current variants such as Pyrhönen’s metaphysical
story or Gomel’s investigative dystopia) we find three necessary
elements: the commission of a crime, usually murder; the figure of a
the person who sorts through the evidence in an attempt to name the
and the presentation of all evidence, clues and red herrings to the
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
the stories of the accused, and attempts to assign responsibility for
the oficiante and the
entubada play the parts of detective
and criminal on one level, on another level, readers, particularly
readers, also easily identify them with a different, much too
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.
for her part, denies the entubada the
use of a blanket, inspects and measures her wounds, and attempts to
details of a confession. She
hand, but never uses, instruments of torture.
apparatus of the state controlled by the archangels functions in a
totalitarian mode; further, its efforts at complete control of the
are carried out in a manner which directly parallels the operations of
juntas which governed Argentina during the dictatorship of 1976-1983,
variously as the Dirty War and the Proceso. Whereas
the larger picture of a state-directed campaign of terror against the
could point toward any one of a number of totalitarian states of the
century, there are numerous more subtle indications which lead us to
identification of the state controlled by the archangels with that of
juntas of the Proceso. (2)
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
novel as a series of parallel monologues.
narrators also serve as protagonists of the novel. Their conversations, which are not
at all in a conventional sense, consist largely of a struggle for
voice, body and memory.
characters enter the novel, principally through the entubada’s
It is, however, through and around the conflict between the narrators
Montes presents to readers a series of possibilities for the
various roles which the protagonists play at different moments in
the novel, the most striking can be characterized as a series of
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
where this gendered division of roles begins to break down. I will base my analysis of the
gender in the novel on an examination of these binaries and the manner
the characters accept, reject or modify them.
Although these different binaries overlap, in some cases to a large
will treat each in turn, starting with a gendered analysis of the
of the form of its current incarnation, all detective fiction
necessarily springs from a construct first and most famously
Poe, based on an understanding of the world anchored in Enlightenment
principles. In John Irwin’s
analysis of Borges and Poe he posits that the figure of the detective
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:
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
with the most titles listed or the most copies printed in any given
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
mastermind Dupin, Poe gave us at once the most appealing format and the
glamorous mask for mental work and the mental worker.
[…] But we should note that in creating the detective story Poe also
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
one could remark that what he does is the sum total of what he is, a
foreshadows our present world in which the manipulation of electronic
takes the place of thought and in which machines are all too often more
than people. (xvii-xviii)
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
relative invisibility of women.
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
from an opposing masculine subject” (37).
If this is the case, then the role of the detective is extremely
bringing to bear as it does both an absolute certainty about the
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
societal expectations of her gender?
outset of the novel the oficiante
attempts to bring order and the use of reason to her task of completing
strict Cartesian understanding of her world and the rules which govern
task, to the point of complaining about her prisoner’s lack of
“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
incapable of irony.
archangel’s society operates and maintains it power by
separating and isolating its neighborhoods, people, and the histories
citizenry. There exist a
opponents against which the regime defines itself, labeling them
heretics, bomb throwers. The
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
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
cercado” (238). She
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
control she takes comfort in her profession, “¿qué
hay sino el oficio, la gran colcha de retazos, [...] el mester de entendería”
adherence to the system, however, springs as much from fear as from
a reasoned acceptance of the benefits which accrue to her via her
in the system. Her fear,
originates not only in her knowledge of the consequences of
also from a sort of existential terror of the unknown.
She feels most at ease when the world surrounding her cell conforms to
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
vórtice del abismo?” (238). Such is her need to
understand the universe as an orderly system which can be made
by the course of studies she has followed, that when she begins to
fissures in the edifice she convinces herself that she is
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
está todo perfectamente calculado, etc.
etc. (el Comité
ceder a esos caprichos). (91)
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
begins to ask questions, the reader witnesses her transgressing some of
minor rules imposed by the archangels.
The evolution of the oficiante’s
understanding of her role has everything to do with her questioning the
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
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,
explained by Reddy:
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
possible, to banish or to destroy disruptive social elements, and that
greatly to be desired continuation of bourgeois, patriarchal society
upon general acceptance of the control of a masculine authority figure
alone capable of explaining the world satisfactorily.
The oficiante initially accepts
the masculine role of detective in a piece of classical detective
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
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
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
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
afoul of the system and been ejected.
The archangels, although capable of maintaining the computer network,
incapable of directing the most minor of tasks in other areas. Her cell is never cleaned and old disks,
consoles, papers, and cables clog it to the point that she can barely
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
in the use of reason. Or,
she does not abandon the use of reason, but begins to supplement it
ways of knowing, which include the physical and the relational.
listens to the entubada’s
seemingly incoherent stories and as she travels in the world which
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 profession she begins to experience reality through the lens of her
(more about this below).
she increasingly views her prisoner less in terms of an intellectual
which she must solve, and moves towards a final view of the entubada
as a living, suffering human
motivation also changes radically; at the outset she only wishes to
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:
entretelas para hurgar en el propio expediente, ¿dónde se
visto? Invertir el orden, abrir en lugar de cerrar, destejer la trama. No hay duda de que la infracción
[…] corro el riesgo no ya de sumarios y fojas feas, sino de
más o menos temporarias del sistema.
Sin embargo, estoy serena,
And yet, “estoy serena”,
for the first time.
oficiante has changed
sides by the end of the novel.
the final scene, as the archangels launch an attack which will surely
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.
rejection of her role as detective involves a conscious sorting through
values which that role embodies.
does not reject the use of reason out of hand, but she does reject its
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
the cowboy incarnation of the detective exemplified in the hard-boiled
of detective fiction. She
solidarity over individual heroism.
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
fits the reality of who she considers herself to be at any particular
characterizes the search for identity of both protagonists.
case of the entubada,
the role of the criminal is forced upon her, so that her adherence to
deviation from the expectations surrounding that role are less
her choices. Moreover,
mentions her “crime” on several occasions, it remains unclear just
what this crime might have been, and whether, in fact, it is perhaps
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
hiding his (again, the use of the masculine pronoun is intentional)
as we do not witness the commission of the crime, nor do we have any
that the entubada has committed an
act which either she or we might consider criminal, we have little
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.
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
of patriarchal hierarchy (leaving aside the actual sex of the victim,
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.
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
the entubada manages to make some
choices about the way in which she responds to this role which has been
physically forced upon her.
been noted in the case of slaves, prisoners, and victims of domestic
one way for the person in the powerless position to exert a bit of
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.
course of her first utterance in the novel she pretends to agree to the
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
her by a childhood friend, the mention of a photograph and a discussion
nature of memory. The
crime appears nowhere.
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
her study of numerous incidents of political torture, taken mainly from
testimony of victims of authoritarian regimes during the 1970s, that
has a clearly-defined structure.
That structure is “based on the nature of pain, the nature of power,
interaction between the two, and the interaction between the ultimate
each—the body, the locus of pain, and the voice, the locus of
are three identifiable steps to the process of torture, as ascertained
pain is inflicted on a person in ever-intensifying sways. Second, the pain, continually amplified
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
made possible by the obsessive mediation of agency.
viewed from this perspective, the entubada’s actions
clearly speak of her resistance to the
role of powerless victim.
she is the victim of monstrous abuses.
The evidence of the infliction of physical pain
over her entire body: “las llagas
se endurecen, los bordes se resquebrajan, se desflecan, se los ve
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”.
Scarry makes clear, an interrogation is an integral part of torture,
not an occasional accompaniment.
This verbal act
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
cruelty with an explanation.
second discredits the prisoner, making him rather than the torturer,
rather than his pain, the cause of his loss of self and world. The two misinterpretations are obviously
accidental nor unrelated.
The one is
an absolution of responsibility; the other is a conferring of
the two together turn the moral reality of torture upside down. (35)
Scarry in order to clarify some of the larger issues at stake in
the conversations between the oficiante
and the entubada.
insistence on assigning blame for the crime and closing the file is in
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
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,
what she writes on her computer, which includes both her reaction to
analysis of what her prisoner says, as well as information sent by her
informants.) After declaring
understanding of the situation, the
entubada immediately slips away onto a tangent:
sé que a
usted le interesa la culminación, el desliz, la foto, que las
preliminares la impacientan y la atrasan, pero creamé que no va
más remedio que demorarse en el umbral, […] Y no es que me
escabullir, sucede que estoy buscando […] y cuando se busca no siempre
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
The entubada clearly
understands the stakes of her inquisitor’s game.
The final outcome is never in doubt; her lacerated body will be
the ovens which incinerate the traces of finalized interrogations and
testimony/story will be frozen in a file, buried in the labyrinth of
archangel’s archives, as dead as its author.
Although the prisoner cannot hope to survive, she can attempt to ensure
survival of her story, if only for a while, by drawing her captor into
elaboration, and leaving her with the compulsion to continue its telling. Further, she avoids the spurious charge
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
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
inherent weakness of a system which only manages to stay in power
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
becomes all important to her torturer.
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,
voice, the room in which the torture occurs) and translates them into a
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
refuses, in fact, to play the game, the mechanism of the translation of
prisoner’s pain into the torturer’s power breaks down.
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
as well as her sense of contributing to the preservation of a rational
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
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
as well as to separate and protect her from her victim, providing that
distance which allows her to objectify her prisoner and ignore her
humanity. The oficiante
constantly wears a surgical mask, surgical gloves and a protective
a visor. On occasion she
puts on a
second, or even third, pair of gloves to protect herself from the
of the indeleble.
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
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
hand, the oficiante willingly
participates in the economy of torture.
Her victim is immobilized, her body perforated by tubes and covered
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.
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.
we have here a torturer who does not inflict physical pain. Nor is hers an exquisite form of
torture – she threatens and seeks to intimidate, but she is less than
successful in her efforts.
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
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
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
no mask, no gloves. The lacerated body of her victim, which she initially viewed
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
If the oficiante rejects the
role of torturer and all of its components, if she rejects parts of the
detective, how, in fact, does she then define herself? In order to
question we must examine the next two related binaries, that of
reference to the first of those binaries, it becomes evident early
in the novel that voice is the site of the most urgently fought
between the protagonists.
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
silences her own voice.
although she appears in the cell for the final session dressed as
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
The entubada, on the other
hand, utilizes her voice first, foremost, and always as a means of
to the system which subjugates her.
She clearly understands the dynamic by which a torturer seeks to turn
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
continue from the telling of her story, and telling it in her own manner. A childhood friend who was a masterful
appears frequently through the entubada’s
narrative. From the moment
earliest memories which she recounts, the entubada
emphasizes the power of tale telling:
empezar a contar cuando estábamos con las polleras bien alisadas
silencio. Las primeras
le salían demasiado bien.
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,
caerme. […] Estaba tejiendo
red, ¿se da cuenta? Y al rato ya no sentíamos más
of silence which the entubada
mentions could be explicated in a number of ways.
One interpretation which suggests itself here, however, is that the
silence in the world which the entubada
inhabited as a child may be an expression of fear of isolation and
from the community which surrounds her.
Story telling in her world emerges as a group project; the very
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
speaking her story has immediate
physical effects on her which even the oficiante
notices. (Her wounds begin
over as she focuses on her stories and begin to open and ooze when she
in her narration.)
however, also has its dangers.
she explains to the oficiante:
se muere. Y para contar hay
cavarse agujeros, y entonces también se muere.
Los que cuentan van entre dos muertes, de un lado está la muerte
contar, y del otro lado la muerte de estar contando.
Todos los que cuentan cuentos tienen que ir por el filo de las dos
always, the entubada speaks
in a highly coded fashion.
agujeros” could signify exposing, uncovering that which is hidden,
could refer to anything from personally shameful memories to
dangerous speech or activities.
similar manner, “la muerte por no contar” could signify both lack
of personal self expression or the social death of the community which
from not speaking (up) in the face of abusive political policies or
directed at the citizenry from those in power.
related to the concept of voice and narrative in the entubada’s
mind is the
construction of memory. In
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
sorprendíamos con algo, algún detalle del dibujo que para
nosotros no había existido pero que de todos modos siempre
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
o a hablar de la decencia.
ciertas entonces, servían para explicar lo que nos pasaba, y
eran ciertas” (17).
For the entubada the
recuperation of memory, both personal and collective, constitutes a
element of her sense of self.
she examines memory in a manner which the oficiante
can only aspire to emulate.
of her relationship with a childhood friend, the entubada
con una sonrisa sus recuerdos, que son como paquetitos de papel
cinta, nunca los abre. Yo,
cambio, los abro enseguida, en cuanto me los da, porque no sé
cosa con los recuerdos, tengo que abrirlos.
Y ya vio lo que pasa. Cuando
abre se rasga la gelatina y empiezan a manar jugos y algunos olores
“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
now examine the mind/body binary and go on to discuss its
relation to the other binaries.
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.
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
oppositions lies beyond her capacities.
Her extensive training prepares her only to function within the
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
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).
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.
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
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
denying the entubada her voice is also part of her
denial of her corporeality.
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
the entubada’s narrative that
the oficiante begins to examine her allegiance
to the system.
first indication that the oficiante
has begun to cross beyond the boundaries of officially-sanctioned
comes in one of her investigative expeditions.
On encountering an empty plaza in the late
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).
indulgence in sensual pleasures also has sexual overtones. The oficiante
maintains a series of electronic conversations with someone whose
Zonda. We, and presumably
not know whether Zonda is a man or a woman.
Her description of their conversation takes on a markedly erotic tone:
tercer lugar es (no necesito verlo) Zonda.
Admito que a esta altura de mis peripecias ya añoraba su
ferocidad narrativa. Palpita la cintura excapular.
Late el oído.
No puedo evitar el flujo que se me precipita
yemas, que incluso caliento el mouse, imagino, a través del
relationship to the entubada also
includes a physical element.
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:
ese tobillo. Verla a ella
ahí, ligada a ese tobillo, ocupando un lugar, aunque menguado y
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:
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:
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
return to this caress below, but first we shall examine the entubada’s
role in the mind/body
victim of torture, the entubada’s
would seem to embody “the mute facticity of the feminine”. Undoubtedly, her body represents the
on which the war between the regime and its citizens is being fought. Her wounds and ulcers speak, scream even,
themselves. Yet, as we have
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
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
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,
“sentí que me atravesaba una espada de miedo y que al mismo
mire bien lo que le digo, me humedecía de gusto” (38). She comes to describe her relationship
with the oficiante in similarly erotic terms:
confieso, que me toque. Ya
que eso es imposible, antirreglamentario sobre todo, y fantasioso. Le digo más.
Sé muy bien que es mentira que los cuerpos se toquen, que
tocan los cuentos, y eso apenas, a veces nomás.
Pero igual, le confieso, cuando siento su aliento sobre los bordes cada
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.
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
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
note, I would like to return to a discussion of the construction
of identity of these two characters, and the manner in which
the construction of gender inform their choices.
the novel the entubada
shows a much greater consciousness about the choices she makes in her
construction of self. These
which many times represent much more nuanced views of the world than
by the oficiante, tend to incorporate
elements from both sides of the binaries we have discussed, rather than
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
principally through her interactions with the entubada
and the elements of her historias.
earliest memories of the stories her friend Chochi related, the
entubada understands the divide
between mind/body as false.
stories, the words, belong to the world of the mind and the masculine,
of understanding and Chochi’s way of narrating both incorporate the
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
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
pero perdió los cuerpos” (20), and the bodies are part of the
personal historia also
contains elements from both sides of the masculine/ feminine divide. When she describes her mother,
three aunts, she calls them “las cincomujeres” (64). This undifferentiated female group, las cincomujeres,
y blando. Flexible.
Húmedo, que respiraba lentamente, siempre
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)
of contrast, her father, Rafael Montino, “era un animal
frío, a veces caliente.
Que estaba acá o estaba allá. Gritaba.
Golpeaba la mesa. Rugía.
Echaba carcajadas”. They
in essence, “Rafael y las cincomujeres.
Las cincocunteiras y el montino” (64).
The entubada, however, defines
herself apart from this differentiated male/ undifferentiated female
“[e]staban Rafael, lascinco y yo, que nací Montino”. She obviously sees herself as occupying a
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,
to relish the in-between role.
see evidence of this in the tale where she recounts how her father
into the print shop where he worked, where women were forbidden entry:
“[l]o que hacía Rafael, llevarme a ese sitio, era algo
y eso es algo que yo le reconozco, siempre le voy a estar agradecida”
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
of a more fluid reality. By
doing, she rejects the guiding concept of the archangel’s system, that
the division and parceling off of reality.
It is more than coincidental that the substance which flows outside of
control of the archangels is called jugo,
and that this term suggests the messiness of corporeality – as in
relationships between the two protagonists constantly evolve and
mutate. These relationships
solidify over time but rather continue to evolve.
As an example, one of the relationships between the two could be seen
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
Podría peinarla también, si me consigue
un peine, acomodarle los pliegues de las mangas del disfraz, contarle
The entubada starts from and
the oficiante comes to a refusal of the
splitting of their world into opposing binaries, and the freezing of
into a single role. The
relationships between them follow this logic.
They slip into and out of a sense of erotic connection, the
maternal relationship, and an attitude of solidarity in the face of a
enemy. There is, however,
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:
que ser muy
valiente para animarse a echar agua hacia arriba porque sí, por
de detener el tiempo, por un instante de gloria.
Es por eso que la que mira desde arriba, que es mujer y está
parece tan feliz, tan joven y sorprendida.
At first the oficiante is taken
aback: “no hay programa de estudios que abarque esa clase
she comes across the fountain, however,
during one of her official excursions, she remembers having seen the
during her childhood. The oficiante describes her:
“es mujer y está
desprendiéndose de algo, saliendo de algún sitio y
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
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:
hay salida, vuelta a la celda.
¿Para qué? ¿Para
qué todo, el esfuerzo? ¿De qué sirven estos GOTOs
mucho que se extiendan, malditos reverendos, turros de lata,
siempre volviendo al centro? Maldita sea la hora, maldito sea mi oficio. Malditas sean las teclas, los cursores
hambrientos, el agujero que llenar, la boca esa, siempre abierta. ¿Quién me mandó a
me pregunto, ¿por qué estoy yo en mi consola y ese cuerpo
ahí, en el estrado, descoyuntado, torcido, titilando
asquerosamente expuesto? ¿Quién
nos mandó? ¿Quién nos
enseñó el juego de creer que se llena lo que, de verdad,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
intersects with that of the entubada. The entubada,
while celebrating the solidarity and communion growing out of her
with the oficiante, nonetheless
rejects the sisterhood of the cincomujeres
as too confining.
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
by exploding the binary structures which form the base of the highly
authoritarian, masculine world which surrounds them. They choose the
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
(1). I approach
task with an awareness of the difficulties which the use of the English
“gender” provokes when utilized in the context of a category of
analysis of a Latin American cultural artifact.
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
crime against property. In
sense, then, the word crimen denotes
a masculine action, springing from the violence related to masculine
(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
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the
Identity. New York:
Bloodscripts: Writing the Violent Subject.
Columbus: Ohio State
“Con voz y vísceras: oposición al estado totalitario en El umbral porGraciela Montes.”
Irwin, John T. The Mystery to a Solution: Poe,
Borges, and the
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
Kaminsky, Amy. Reading the Body Politic: Feminist
and Latin AmericanWomen
of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Montes, Graciela. El umbral.
Pyrhönen, Heta. Murder from an Academic Angle: An
to the Study ofDetective
Reddy, Maureen T. Sisters
in Crime: Feminism and the Crime Novel.
NewYork: Continuum, 1988.