Violence, Politics, and Complex Destinies

ARGENTINE Luisa Valenzuela and Chilean Isabel Allende are Latin America's best known and most widely translated women writers.

Valenzuela comes from a literary family (her mother, Luisa Mercedes Levinson, was a distinguished writer of prose) and is used to dealing with the intricate complexities of language as well as Argentine politics. She has written five novels and five collections of short stories, as well as numerous journalistic essays. One recurrent theme in Valenzuela's writing is contemporary politics, especially that of her native Argentina. Another is the use, misuse, and abuse of language in order to oppress, contro l, and censor thought at both the personal and political level.

Valenzuela has been praised for her talent of combining the political, the fictional, and the real. Most of her novels take place in the city of Buenos Aires, where lonely inhabitants are victims drowning in their country's violent political history. But her latest novel, "Black Novel (with Argentines)," takes place in New York City with all its magnificence, poverty, and violence.

The plot deals with the murder of Edwina, an actress, by an Argentine writer in exile, Agustin Palante. The novel describes Agusts crime, committed apparently for no reason, except perhaps because he owned a gun. Yet, the whole narrative speaks of his consciousness after his crime, his guilt and his seclusion with his friend Roberta Aguilar - another Argentine writer who only knows the partial truth about the murder and Agusts fabrications of what could happen to him for a crime that has left no traces.

Parallel to Agusts story and the crime he committed is the story of Roberta, who becomes so involved with trying to understand and save Agustin from despair that the novel she is writing becomes his story.

On one level, "Black Novel (with Argentines)" offers a highly provocative plot similar to a detective story. But Valenzuela is also speaking about the recent political history of Argentina, a history of violent dictatorships and the wholesale murder of innocent people. Edwina has disappeared without a trace just as 30,000 people disappeared in Argentina under the dictatorships of the 1970s. One may see Agustin as representing the henchmen of the dictators and Edwina's murder as the story of the disappear ed. At one point, Roberta speaks to the question of a writer's task to bear witness and to understand what is happening in their respective nations, yet Agustin replies: "Your country, you mean. I no longer have a country."

The novel concerns the individual's personal and political consciousness. But it also concerns the mysterious nature of humans, which can drive them to commit violent crimes for no apparent reason. Agustin came to New York seeking political asylum and yet committed the same crime he was trying to escape. Once again, Valenzuela has portrayed the complex destinies of human beings as well as that of their nations.

This remarkable, lyrical novel does not allow readers to sit back passively observing the tribulations of Agustin. Rather, it draws them into the plot to share his ordeal, his senseless crime, and his neurotic existence trying to hide the crime. The novel makes clear that life and literature are inexorably woven together.

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