We burned and buried our own books.
At the height of the terror, all objects were incriminating. A book, a diary with an inconvenient name in it, any item that might indicate the ideology of its owner, could become the ticket to torture and to death.
Under these circumstances, many of us found ourselves obliged to burn our books, bury them, or dump them in garbage bags on some street corner, for fear of being discovered with them in our possession. We, the generation that lived through the dictatorship, burned our own books, a part of our identity.
There is a well-known piece of film footage that shows the Nazis burning books in a pyre on the Kristallnacht (the Broken Crystal Night) in Berlin. In Argentina, it was not necessary for others to burn our books (something they did anyway). We burned them ourselves, out of fear.
These four books were buried during the military dictatorship. They stayed under ground for nearly twenty years, in the garden at Nelida Valdez and Oscar Elissamburu’s house in Mar del Plata, a city on the Atlantic coast of Argentina.
It was a dignified burial, a privilege that too few of the dictatorship’s victims had.
Today, unburied by their children, the books are a testimony to what we had to go through. These books cannot fulfill the purpose for which they were conceived. Their pages, words and signs have been transformed into the memory of what they were, and into a testimony salvaged by a new generation.
Facsimile of Nelida Valdez’ testimony, Mar del Plata, July 20, 1999. Books buried in 1976. Unburied in 1994 by Leonardo (16 years old) and Javier (13).
“When we told our children that we’d buried books in 1976, they were amazed we hadn’t unburied them yet.
Leonardo asked us if they could look for them. We were very pleased that they would be so keen on finding THE TREASURE.
We remembered the books were between two poplar trees, but we didn’t know which. So our sons started digging, driven by the challenge of finding them.
They kept it up every day after school, unflagging. Then, after digging several pits, two or three days into the project, they found them.
The joyful shouts that our sons let out when they found the books contrasted sharply with the image of the ruined volumes and everything they represented.
I gave thanks the books had occupied that place, and not us”.
These texts rescued from oblivion can be read in many ways, like a Hopscotch taken –with Julio Cortázar’s* permission– from the tomb. They are silenced words that have returned to see the light of day and attempt to maintain their meaning. Legible in spite of it all, recomposed, they search once again for a reader, after their abandonment, resurrected from the earth.
* Julio Cortázar (1914-1984), Argentinean writer author of the novel Hopscotch among many other books.
Feria del Libro I y II:
In October 2000, the Fondo de Cultura Economica (the “Economic Culture Fund,” a publisher) invited me to present “The Wretched of the Earth” at their booth in the Buenos Aires’ Book Fair. The Fondo and Siglo XXI (Twentieth Century) –two Mexican publishing houses, widely read in the 1970s– had published some of the books that my installation included. The Fondo’s logo is clearly visible on the scraps of unearthed paper.
Feria del Libro (IIIa) y III(b):
The books remained on display for the duration of the Fair, and they had an impact on many of its numerous visitors. I decided to photograph the spectators as they looked at the installation and painfully remembered the books from their own libraries, which they had buried, burned, or abandoned in the street.
I was particularly struck by a moment between a father and son, in which the father described why he had buried his books, perhaps a difficult explanation for a child to understand.