God’s Punishment

                                                For Héctor Schmucler

Let’s say the protagonist of this story is General Pompeyo Argentino del Corazón de Jesús González, announces Toto Spinetto the night he arrives in Resistencia after getting out of the joint.

He was inside for eight years, they dragged him through all the prisons in the country, and now, as though nothing had happened, he’s here with us at the same old table at La Estrella.

Let’s say, too, that the protagonist’s name is a fictitious construct, one that I believe still has the power to represent certain names held very dear by members of the military community, Toto adds in his flowery style, a legalese rhetoric that mucks up everything he writes, and which—oddly enough—remains unchanged.

We’re talking about the end of 1976 now, in Córdoba, and this General González commands battle units in that same Mediterranean province. He’s a man of firm convictions, a sort of crusader who genuinely feels a remarkable calling for warfare and a clear anti-subversive zeal. He stands out, not only for the efficacy of his repressive methods—which have brought him fame within, and especially beyond, the rank and file of the armed forces—but also because ideologically he’s one of the most classic examples of the simian species looming over civil society at the time, says Toto, peering at us over the bifocals he now uses—a time that was diametrically different from the incipient democracy in which we now live, or rather, I would say (he says), the opposite, sensu perfecto.

A son and grandson of military men, he is married to his first and only wife, a Cordoban society lady, and his progeny consists of four males between the ages of three and fifteen. He’s one of the youngest generals in the nation (quite a distinction, if one considers that at the time, as now, there are nearly a hundred of them active), and the international press describes him quite accurately as the tacit leader of the so-called “hard” faction of the armed forces.

An ardent Catholic, a friend of the Cordoban bishop and of the Cordoban bishop’s friends, he’s a conspicuous member of the local aristocracy, by which I mean the élite of Córdoba la Docta, where our story takes place and in whose penal unit the undersigned—id est, yours truly—was then lodged, his reputation now whitewashed following a period that, begging your pardon, embarrassment compels me to gloss over, and besides, it has nothing to do with our tale, Toto concludes, gesturing to Don Terada by tapping his right index finger on his glass a couple of times to indicate he’s run out of gin.

As the old man tears himself away from the little flag with the Rising Sun on it, grabs the bottle of Llave, and walks slowly toward our table, Toto launches another rocket of verborrhea , saying that on more than one occasion General González, assigned by the Military Junta to command units of the Third Army Corps in that Mediterranean province, has had to make excuses to the Catholic hierarchy of that province for the brutality of his subordinates’ methods, a fact that nonetheless hasn’t precluded his being admired, respected, and feared.

A political man, surprisingly adept given his military condition, a former Liberal Party senator once told the undersigned—says Toto, who at this point seems to be taking great pleasure in certain expressions—that General González can be credited with the following words, pronounced before several ex-congressmen from his party during a discreet meeting that was, of course, declared off-the-record to the press: “We are in the middle of a Dirty War, gentlemen, and I, as General of this nation, know only that I must win it; and if to do so I have to kill a thousand innocent people in order to unearth a single guerrilla, I will, because on that action rides my commitment to the restoration of peace to my country.”

An ideologue among his peers, a student of national history and of the casus belli of the world in general, a promoter of family life and lover of a good libation, General Pompeyo Argentino del Corazón de Jesús González is, by the end of ’76, an ascetic soldier who collects combat medals, one whose name is beginning to sound like that of an eventual President of the nation, one for whom the sacrifices of his profession seem to promise a brilliant personal future, just as soon as the right people notice his repressive implacability and the triumphs he reaps weekly in the annihilation of his enemy as it sinks inexorably into paralysis and chaos.

But suddenly—says Toto, lighting a cigarette butt with my lighter as we all watch him attentively, most of us fascinated, and I, meanwhile, size up Docabo’s wife’s legs—with the infallibility of certain facts of life, on one particular day in 1976, that fateful year for all of us, an unfortunate event crosses the path of our stern general: his younger son—let’s call him Juan Manuel (he says)—suddenly falls ill. A very serious heart defect leads him to death’s door.

Following the first symptoms, the family pediatrician, alarmed and without euphemisms, announces that the boy must undergo surgery as quickly as possible. A medical team determines that the patient—admitted to the Córdoba Military Hospital—must be operated on that very night. With the permission of his father (accompanied by some of his peers, the prayers of his wife and other children, and the comforting presence of the ecclesiastical hierarchy), young Juan Manuel is wheeled into the operating room as dawn breaks.

Nearly three hours later, the medical colonel in charge of the team walks out of the operating room, his face ashen and his forehead beaded with perspiration. He explains to General González that his own professional ability and that of his colleagues have reached their limit.

“We’re not going to proceed because we can’t guarantee our efforts will be successful, General,” he says gravely and ceremoniously, says Toto, making his voice graver and more ceremonious in imitation of the medical colonel. “Here in Córdoba there’s just one specialist that might save your son, by performing an extremely delicate operation. Not even in Buenos Aires is there anyone more suitable for the job: I’m referring to Dr. Murúa. An eminent cardiac surgeon, as you know.”

“Call him, Doctor,” says the General, moved. And then he adds, with a humility that reveals his enduring Christian faith: “Please, let him save my son, if it’s God’s will.”

“General: I’ve been calling Murúa all afternoon and I haven’t been able to find him. I can only promise you that we’ll keep on doing everything in our power, but I can’t guarantee anything after mid-morning. Meanwhile, it would be a good idea for your forces to work together to locate Murúa.”

At this point, says Toto, tossing the gin down his gullet and making another sign to Don Terada, who’s still standing beneath his little flag, reading those newspapers with their indecipherable writing—at this point General González calls his assistant and orders a commission to be dispatched to Dr. Esteban Murúa’s home (and obviously, Toto explains, as you’ve probably already noticed, the doctor’s first and last names are as fictitious as those of the main character of this story), to explain the seriousness and urgency of the case to him and bring him back without delay.

The assistant stands at attention before his superior, hesitates for a second, and says:

“There’s a problem, General.”

González looks at his subordinate, let’s say (Toto says) a first lieutenant, with the exact same look we give an imbecile that’s just made a tasteless joke, and with a frown and a slight nod, invites him to continue.

“Murúa’s two children are subversives, General,” announces the first lieutenant, contritely but firmly. “One of them was arrested three weeks ago in Villa María, and the younger daughter is a fugitive . . .”

“Go on, son,” González urges, stony and unflinching before the hesitating subordinate.

“Dr. Murúa is a fugitive himself, General. His house was raided after the operation in Villa María, but no one was found there.”

“Has he left Córdoba?”

“We can’t be sure, General.”

“Fine: inform the intelligence service and the federal and provincial police. Have them search for him among his family members and friends, and have them offer all kinds of guarantees. Order them to find that surgeon before 9:00 a.m., as a priority mission. And, as I said, with all guarantees.”

Naturally, the privacy in which an Argentine army general lives doesn’t permit us—civilians like us—to be familiar with the minutia of his family life, says Toto, snorting from the tension of his own story. But it isn’t too difficult for us to imagine the hours of anguish and the anguish of the hours endured by General González. We can picture the distress of all those around him, his wife’s misery, and the innocent stoicism of his other children.

Toto pauses as he speaks, inducing us to imagine what he’s describing in that measured, rhetorical style that I find a little annoying, but the fact is, he has his audience mesmerized: the Docabo chick’s eyes are as round as two coins; Spencer’s lower lip protrudes as he nods his rhythmic affirmation; and so with all of us. At all the tables in La Estrella, it seems as if everyone has stopped breathing. One might assume, however, Toto continues, that in the solitude of his bedroom or in meditation at his desk, General González now wonders about the macabre tricks of fate—though he would call them the will of God—and, perhaps even about the limits of his power. One might also assume, on the other hand, that if his present distress and his youngest son’s misfortune can be attributed to anything or anyone, his war would be the target of his wrath, just as the rebels’ activities would be the primary reason for his finding himself in such an unexpected, insoluble situation.

Toto falls silent after the last full stop, as though to allow all of us at the table to ask ourselves the same questions. Docabo’s wife realizes I’ve been ogling her stems and nervously tugs her skirt toward her knees without looking me in the eye. With the same right index finger he had used to summon the Japanese barman, Toto now stirs the ice cubes floating in his glass. Then he clears his throat, lights another cigarette, and goes on to say that, presumptions aside, the next morning the unequivocal negative of all the reports arriving at his home office finally shred the very last hopes of General Pompeyo Argentino del Corazón de Jesús González. Toto pronounces these words with a pomp and circumstance worthy of Handel.

The doctors brusquely explain that his son needs a transplant without delay, but that he will not survive the trip to Buenos Aires and possibly not even a second surgical procedure, which in any case would be highly risky. And they emphasize a paradox, which, like all paradoxes, is cruel: that same morning an unfortunate auto accident has resulted in a brain-dead, comatose boy whose heart, however, is healthy and could be implanted into Juan Manuel. They explain that with each passing minute, Juan Manuel, whose damaged heart is plagued with defects, grows weaker. And they declare that only a miracle can save him, for Dr. Murúa is the only cardiac surgeon in all of Córdoba able to successfully carry out such a complex operation.

Having heard this, the General, drawing strength from his religious faith and his military restraint, and with all the grave responsibility imposed on him by his career as an unconquered soldier, in a barely controlled voice, asks:

“Then the alternatives are either to let him die or to have you gentlemen attempt a transplant with no guarantees, is that correct?”

The reply garnered by his words is a resounding, brutal, affirmative silence, explains Toto. Seconds later, the General orders:

“Try it anyway.”

And at this point Toto introduces an even longer silence. He takes another sip of his drink, brushes his hand across his forehead, now dotted with little drops of sweat, and looks at us, one by one, as if apologizing for the anxiety he’s caused us. Then he arches his brows, sighs deeply, and says that, predictably, the boy died during the operation. By noon the tragic news was circulating throughout that Mediterranean city like a trail of gunpowder, he says, along with another astonishing announcement, one that all of you no doubt recall and which permeated the entire country: on that very same night, in El Chaco, very close to where we are now, in Margarita Belén, the army had shot some twenty prisoners, claiming they were trying to escape.

Toto says this in a much hoarser voice, emphasizing the full stop. We all respect the silence, as if it were a lead cloud that we needed to keep afloat in the air, and I concentrate on Docabo’s wife, her eyes now grown wide and her mouth gaping open like a dead fish. And at that very moment we begin to hear the bass drums of a propaganda demonstration by the Liberals, who are badmouthing Alfonsín and the Peronists in the plaza, and it seems to me that the pounding of those drums is like the distant beat of a secret heart.

No sooner had the news of the demise of General Pompeyo Argentino del Corazón de Jesús González’s son’s become public, concludes Toto Spinetto, readjusting his bifocals on his nose and in that unrelentingly flowery style of his, that legalese rhetoric that mucks up everything he writes, one which—oddly enough—remains unchanged despite so many years in the joint, than two observations spread through the prison: on the one hand, that the event had so shaken the chief of the Córdoba garrison that he might never again be the same (whether that was good news or bad, no one could say); and on the other, that he had brought upon himself one of the most unprecedented and coherent of God’s punishments.

As I was later able to verify incontrovertibly, says Toto Spinetto, before rising from his chair and gesturing to Don Terada for the check, that Sunday, in all the prisons throughout the country, there were more masses than usual, and they were uncommonly well attended.

 

Translation of "El castigo de Dios.” © Mempo Giardinelli, 1993. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2010 by Andrea G. Labinger. All rights reserved.