Each morning the newspaper contains a litany of personal tragedies. All death, even when it’s the result of a mass conflict or event, happens at a personal level. One of the hardest and scariest aspects of living right now is the challenge of learning to care about the deaths we see in the newspaper or online. It’s the war deaths, the mass-scale disasters that appear alien. This is the blasé lens of modernity. Too real, and hardly resistable.
My mother passed away in 2000. And even as the years pass, I still think about her every day. We had a photo of ice skaters on the Lincoln Park Lagoon that hung outside her study. It’s gone now, but after all these years I can still imagine it. We carry images and sensations for years.
Orhan Pamuk, winner of the Nobel Prize, wrote about the physical memory of loss, and the way disappearances can come to evoke phantom limbs. In an essay entitled “My Father,” he writes:
When I was a small child, I loved to climb on his lap or lie down next to him, smell his smell and touch him… I remember how…he taught me how to swim: As I was sinking to the bottom, thrashing wildly, he would grab hold of me and I would rejoice…because I could wrap my arms around him and, not wishing to sink back down to the bottom, cry “Father don’t leave me.”…Now I catch myself imitating him. This is not because my arms, legs, wrists, or the mole on my back resemble his. It is something that frightens—terrifies—me and reminds me of my childhood longing to be more like him. Every man’s death begin’s with the death of his father.
Each life bears witness to disappearance and loss. It’s the most common thing there is. But “uncommon” events of state violence often appear inscrutable. Thinking about all of this, the necessary linking between the personal and the wider violence that comes out of institutions, I’ve looked through some memoirs of disappearance. With the hope that by engaging with these ideas on a personal level, the anecdotes and histories of artists and poets, we can get to a place where we can move against shared violence.
2.) Anna Akhmatova, Requiem (Translated by Sasha Soldatow)
Akhmatova lost two husbands and a son to the Stalinist purges. These were the state sponsored abductions, executions, and imprisonments that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths at the end of the 1930s, even before the Soviet Union formally entered the Second World War. The purges targeted leftist dissidents in wide-scale violence that culminated in Stalin’s organized famines. These purges, and the accompanying state realignment, established the bureaucracy that Trotsky described as a fundamental betrayal of the revolution:
The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all. When there is enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When there is little goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy. It ‘knows’ who is to get something and who has to wait.
The movement towards the politics of consensus forced Akhmatova, and many of her artistic contemporaries, like Dmitri Shostakovich, Vasily Grossman, Victor Serge, and Ossip Mandehlstam, into a deep silence.
Requiem is Akhmatova’s cycle of ten elegies written between 1935 and 1940 as she bears witness to her loved one’s sacrifice to state violence. The language is spare and somber and wholly resonant, evoking the deep currents of mourning.
Madness with its wings
Has covered half my soul
It feeds me fiery wine
And lures me into the abyss.
That’s when I understood
While listening to my alien delirium
That I must hand the victory
However much I nag
However much I beg
It will not let me take
One single thing away:
Not my son’s frightening eyes —
A suffering set in stone,
Or prison visiting hours
Or days that end in storms
Nor the sweet coolness of a hand
The anxious shade of lime trees
Nor the light distant sound
Of final comforting words.
3.) Hisham Matar, Anatomy of a Disappearance
In his 2011 Viking Press novel, Matar tells the story of an Egyptian Royalist in exile during the 1960s. His government was replaced by a republic, and his former status dissolved. Abroad, he seeks to gain support for a counterrevolutionary project, until he’s abducted in the night. Told from the point of view of a son, Anatomy of a Disappearance outlines the way political and personal always overlap, and how certain people come to represent entire lost worlds. Matar writes:
There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest. Other times I can barely recall the exact features of his face and must bring out the photographs I keep in an old envelope in the drawer of my bedside table. There has not been a day since his sudden and mysterious vanishing that I have not been searching for him, looking in the most unlikely places. Everything and everyone, existence in itself, has become an evocation, a possibility for resemblance. Perhaps this is what is meant by that brief and now almost archaic word: elegy.
4.) Kürşat Başar, Music by My Bedside (Translated by Cigdem Aksoy Fromm)
In a similar echo, Başar’s epic Music by My Bedside, published in 2013 by Dalkey Archive, revolves around a woman’s love affair with a doomed Minister of Foreign Affairs in a modernizing 1960s Turkey. Fuat, the Minister in an increasingly authoritarian regime, represents a sort of Kennedy era masculinity. The novel is funny, and sexy, and full of ambivalence, especially as the narrator comes to terms with her desire to live in an extra-marital relationship with Fuat, and the misogynist power structure she cannot evade. Başar is great at describing the very strong conflicting passions that the narrator experiences, and her deep love, right up until the inevitable disappearance. She loves a man, and hates everything he stands for. In one of the most striking passages of the novel, a whirlwind of circumstances, leading up to the final rupture (the death of Fuat), allows a moment of ecstatic transgression:
As I sat in front of the mirror, I suddenly decided what to do. Tonight was mine. Maybe for the first time in my life, when no one knew where I was, I had reached one of the biggest milestones of my life, alone in a small hotel room…
If we stop and think about it for a while, I had a husband who was at a loss as to what he should do. His life was in pieces because of me, but I knew very well that he would find a way to pull himself together again. I had a lover who did not understand what I was thinking after a strange phone call we made and who perhaps did not know what to do with his own life. I had a good friend who was far away, somewhere I have never seen, digging into the earth to find out about the kings of a distant past…
I put on my bright red lipstick, gathered my hair, put on some mascara to reveal my long eyelashes and wore violet eye shadow. Then I put on my dark blue dress with white dots, slipped on my dark blue shoes, and picked up my matching handbag…
It was stil not dark when I went out. The cafes along the street were full of people. Many people couldn’t find anywhere to sit and youngsters were either standing and waiting or sitting on the sidewalks and chatting…
I went into a restaurant overlooking the street and ordered a glass of white wine. I lit a cigarette. I picked up a newspaper and began reading the “What’s on tonight” column. The new movie of a new blond sex symbol had begun. Under the caption “B.B.—the new star all the men are crazy about,” there was a photograph of the actress wearing a bathing suit and placing one foot on a colorful beach ball.
“My wife won’t let me go and see that movie,” the elderly waiter complained as he filled my glass. “Can you believe it?””
5.) Horacio Castellanos Moya, The She-Devil in the Mirror (Translated by Katherine Silver)
Reviews have called The She-Devil in the Mirror, published by New Directions in 2009, alternately funny, hilarious, dark, and terrifying. And Horacio Castellanos Moya pulls no punches with the story of Laura Rivera, an upper-class Salvadoran narrator with a voice pulled from reality television, who investigates the murder of her dear friend Olga Maria during the last days of the Salvadoran civil war. Laura could be straight out of Clueless, but her unthinking complicity only makes the novel scarier. It’s pitch perfect, and the political violence that Castellanos Moya holds up here is sad, and sadly familiar. He returns to many of the themes of Senselessness and Tyrant Memory. And the most disturbing aspect of the novel is the way it shows violence that is ambivalent, without narrative, without reason, petty, and yet executed with impunity.
Wait, wait a second, mama’s talking to me. She’s telling me to turn on the television, there’s a report about the Olga Maria case on the news. Hold on a minute, it’s on Channel 2. I hate watching the news: all they ever do is talk about politics. What a bore. But ever since what happened to Olga Maria, I’ve got my ears glue to every word. There it is. Are you watching it, too, my dear? Look at that animal: he’s really got the mug of a criminal. The more I look at him the more he looks like a murderer to me. They caught him in Soyapango, in a major operation. He’s an ex-sergeant from the Acahuapa Battalion. They identified him thanks to the girl’s description: there aren’t too many soldiers in this country who look like RoboCop. Bastard, creep. Too bad there’s no death penalty. They should execute him like they do in Guatemala—did you see on television the last time they executed an Indian there?
6.) Juan Gelman, Dark Times Filled With Light (Translated by Hardie St. Martin)
For Argentine poet Juan Gelman, the state sponsored campaign of violence, beginning with the 1976 military coup, destroyed his life. He lost his son, his daughter-in-law, and his unborn grandchild. He was forced into exile. The poems of Dark Times Filled With Light, published in 2012 by Open Letter Books, arrive as fragments, and dispatches from this history.
Early on the soul begins to hurt/ pale/
in the wavering light it explores your not being here/
the heart rises with misgivings/
goes over the sky like the sun
in daylong search/ day in day out/ it burns
freezing/ as if its bones thrown out
of joint/ or like an unsaid word
where I try to march against death/
soul you harmonize harmonies that barely
make it across the world’s width/
broken/ it broods over
what you left me/ night on its feet
Foreign dissidents, or writers who experience censure and exile, bristle at the notion that the violence they experience is somehow removed from America. As we know now with certainty, the history of 20th century U.S. foreign policy is a history of explicitly anti-populist actions. The U.S. backed authoritarian governments, from Iran, to the Congo, to Vietnam, to Chile, to Angola, to Guatemala, to El Salvador, and on and on, in explicit insurrections and campaigns. The Argentine poet Juan Gelman was victim to a state violence, sanctioned by the United States. Too often “global” violence is very American.
7.) Patricia Smith
Patricia Smith, a poet and scholar from Chicago, reminds us that the literature of state violence is our literature. She reminds us that our sons are dying. And just as the United States government sanctioned Latin America’s terror, the CPD and FBI conducted an infamous campaign against the Chicago Black Panther Party, assassinating Fred Hampton in his bed. So none of this is incidental, and the violence is against our children. As James Baldwin drives home in his canonical “Letter From a Region of my Mind,” racial equality is not a “black issue,” persistent institutional racism keeps all Americans from living as we should.
In this incredible performance, Patricia Smith assumes the identity of the mother of the unarmed men killed in police violence. This is the epidemic of institutionalized racism, state violence, that spurred the Black Lives Matter movement. She writes, “I am the mother/ stooped/ an accidental saint.” Her poem highlights the incredible and uncanny island of police reports, where men resist, attack, choke, and draw weapons…all with their hands handcuffed behind their backs. The Black Lives Matter movement crystallizes an urgent need for real reform. And Smith’s work, wholly resounding this clarion, allows a place for empathy. It adds the aspect of personal, physical loss to political violence.
In the wake of Robert Bales’ terrible massacre of Afghan civilians in 2012, a farmer who lost his entire family said in a radio interview, “I loved them all like they were parts of my body.” This kind of statement personalizes anonymous terror. It counteracts the damning blasé lens. Too often, state violence is serialized and dehumanized. This radical literature of disappearance interrogates our violent status quo, and directs the conversation towards change.