M. Edurne Portela.  Displaced Memories: The Poetics of Trauma in Argentine Women’s Writing. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2009, 202 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8387-5732-1.


Literary representations of traumatized memory, both personal and collective, remain the object of study in M. Edurne Portela’s Displaced Memories: The Poetics of Trauma in Argentine Women’s Writing.  The author examines the works of three Argentine novelists—Alicia Partnoy, Alicia Kozameh and Nora Strejilevich—who write of their gendered experiences of imprisonment and torture from the dislocated space of exile.  These authors, according to Portela, remain triply marginalized as politically deviant, female writers of prison literature. Their testimonial narratives, selected for “remembering and telling of a carceral experience lived by women under a repressive military regime” (28-29), are shown to illustrate the relationship between violence, gender oppression and self-representation. She argues that the writing of these texts serves to combat terror, resist oppression and defy an imposed silence while enabling the reconstitution of traumatized subjectivity. 

Portela divides Displaced Memories into two distinct parts. The book opens with a pair of introductory chapters that provide historical and theoretical foundations for the in-depth literary analyses that follow. The remainder of the text is comprised of individual chapters dedicated to detailed critiques of Alicia Partnoy’s La Escuelita, Alicia Kozameh’s Pasos bajo el agua and Nora Strejilevich’s Una sola muerte numerosa.  A brief, three-page conclusion considers these prison testimonies together. Portela quickly reiterates that each of these texts reveals writing to be a performance or an “acting-out” of trauma that can work to overcome authoritarianism, fear and silence.

The first chapter of Displaced Memories offers a succinct yet thorough overview of the legacy of Argentina’s last military dictatorship and spans three decades, from 1976-2006.  This broad historical framework includes the fall of Isabel Perón, the era of repression known as the  Process of National Reorganization” or El proceso, the transition to democracy, the Menem era with its pardons and impunity laws and, ultimately, the results of their recent derogation. This thirty-year timeline remains anything but arbitrary. It opens, appropriately, with the year of the military coup and closes with a date marked by three significant recent events: in 2006 the term genocidio was used for the first time in the Argentine court system to describe the atrocities committed under military rule, a key witness and torture survivor in this same trial (Julio López) disappeared before being called to testify, and, more optimistically, testimonial works by Alicia Partnoy and Nora Strejilevich finally saw publication within Argentina. 

This historical synopsis is complemented with a comprehensive and up-to-date survey of theoretical approaches to both prison literature and trauma writing. This second chapter summarizes theories of the female body, prison space, torture and involuntary exile while elaborating a genealogy of trauma theory from Sigmund Freud to Ruth Leys. Significantly, Portela (following Leys, Dominick LaCapra and Amy Hungerford) does not subscribe to Cathy Caruth’s understanding of trauma as an “unclaimed experience.”  The author explains that she rejects the notion of trauma as an overwhelming event that the subject fails to grasp and which therefore remains beyond representation; instead, she contends that one’s traumatic past can be accessed through memory and that language provides a form of control. In her view, the writing of literary texts serves as an “acting out” or a repetition of past trauma as well as a way to “work through” and ultimately claim this experience (39). Specifically, as Portela herself elucidates, “instead of providing an interpretation of trauma that considers writing a literal embodiment rather than a representation of the traumatic experience, I suggest an analysis of the symbolic uses of language that communicate the traces and/or symptoms of trauma” (40-41). This theoretical positioning informs and shapes the literary interpretations undertaken throughout the rest of the book. The author believes that the writing process can be a cathartic exercise that provides a space for the traumatized subject to confront and come to terms with the past.

Portela’s literary analyses begin with Alicia Partnoy’s canonical The Little School (La Escuelita), a text described as a work of grief. In “Re-enacting Memory, Reconstructing Resistance,” as suggested by its title, Portela examines the structure and content of a trauma narrative that recounts a crisis of death yet simultaneously reveals a “hidden transcript” (81) of active resistance. Like many critics before her, Portela reads The Little School as a redemptive narrative that highlights the prisoners’ dignity, disobedience and survival. That is, writing, which bears witness to abuses and recovers lost voices, brings order to a chaotic world and makes trauma readable. What Portela adds to the large body of existing criticism of Partnoy’s text is a discussion of the revisions made in the 2006 Spanish version (including changes to the subtitle, the introduction, the appendices, and the placement of illustrations). She notes that the more recent Argentine publication emphasizes the political aspects of the work, consciously recuperating the discourse of 1970s leftist militancy and privileging the collective over the personal.

In contrast, Displaced Memories delivers a startlingly pessimistic interpretation of Alicia Kozameh’s Pasos bajo el agua, a text that despite its autobiographical attributes is appropriately labeled a fictional testimony. Portela’s study encompasses both the verbal and the visual elements of the novel while maintaining a particular interest in figurative language. Portela points to the singularity of Kozameh’s text whereby the traumatizing event is not incarceration but rather the moment of release and freedom, the reality of which remains overwhelming and incomprehensible to the protagonist, Sara. As Portela’s chapter title “Uncanny Returns” anticipates, encounters with familiar, everyday objects (such as cats) remain frightening and disorienting after imprisonment. Similarly, the circularity of the fragmented text, in Portela’s estimation, represents a traumatic loop from which Sara is unwilling and unable to escape. The protagonist is shown to be fixated on the past, to suffer survivor guilt and to long for the bonding and solidarity fostered by incarceration. Freedom, insists Portela, is felt to be a betrayal. Furthermore, in this overtly self-reflexive text the protagonist fails to find liberation or comfort in the writing act. Ultimately, Portela concludes, Pasos suggests that the attempt to engage and work through trauma via the written word remains not merely difficult and problematic, but nearly impossible.

Portela’s study of the relationship between trauma and writing culminates with an examination of Nora Strejilevich’s complex autobiographical tale, Una sola muerte numerosa.  This novel, more temporally distant, reflects society as a whole in its representation of the dictatorship and its aftermath. In her analysis, Portela first traces the destruction of the body and concomitant devastation of the family; she then focuses upon the subsequent reconstruction of individual and familial identity through memory work.  In contrast to Pasos, Portela discovers in Una sola muerte numerosa a representation of the writing process as a refuge whereby literary representation becomes both a political act and a vital component of the mourning process. Again, the chapter title, “From Victim to Agent,” aptly reflects the author’s interpretation of the text.

In short, with its comprehensive summaries of historical, theoretical and critical approaches to literary representations of Argentina’s “Dirty War,” Displaced Memories: The Poetics of Trauma in Argentine Women’s Writing serves as an excellent introduction for the initiate. M. Edurne Portela seems to anticipate a reader unfamiliar with trauma literature when she warns that her book might disturb, cause nightmares, and depress.  Likewise, the author’s final message—a firm reminder that these literary works merit a committed response from the reader—seems directed to an audience not already engaged in human rights issues. This accessible text will be of particular interest to those who wish to broaden their knowledge of women’s prison narratives, trauma literature, Argentina’s post-dictatorship literary production, and contemporary Latin American (women’s) novels more generally. 


Janis Breckenridge

Whitman College