Sincronía Winter 2005


Frida A. Oswald

(Traslation by Pedro da Costa)

"The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against oblivion." Milan Kundera

The word "art", in general, is associated with beauty, form, color, nature, love, kindness or subtlety - all positive terms. However, the opposite can also be part of the art of literature or the art of communication, and is often inspired by man’s social and human struggles. The type of writing that depicts anguish and pain, the grotesque and dark side of the executioner’s spirit, the evil and cruelty that destroy and humiliate the essence of man, is also made present as a form of art. This type of literature is converted into the mirror that reflects the life and social reality of a people. Furthermore, it is a testimonial of denunciation, where the word becomes the pointing finger that accuses torturers and perpetrators of genocide, who, without concern, stifle any voice of protest that comes their way, and murder citizens with impunity - simply for having different ideologies.

During the socio-historical and political period that was witnessed by Bolivia during the military dictatorship of General Hugo Banzer Suarez (1971-1978), many were captured, tortured, murdered, exiled or simply vanished. The year of 1976, in particular, was ocular witness to the physical torture of Victor Montoya, and this narrative documents the existence of an organized repressive system, where the violation of Human Rights and impunity existed as a socio-historical reality of that period. With this series of short stories, the moral duty to confess what was lived in the flesh is fulfilled, and at the same time, a bond is established with the reader as confidant, while the truth is revealed. Silence is broken and the memory paints torture in all its forms, as a bloodied watercolor that emerges as a reminder of a collective anguish, expropriating ideals and destroying spirits. The words of Montoya are his voice multiplied many times over against a government that utilized torture techniques, in order to survive and stay in power.

The author’s style is characterized by a descriptive language that is both: visual and direct, and whose fictionalized characters are based on real people, where the omnipresent physical violence is the common and repetitive theme around which other happenings occur. There is a sort of chain of ongoing events that associate with and complement themselves, in order to denounce the atrocities, while taking hold of the reader’s mind, through the description of visual and linguistically tangible images. It is as if each word already came loaded inside a photographic film, in form, color and size, recorded within a predefined time and space. Each description and each detail define a denunciation, as if the author’s fingerprints were engraved in his mind, impregnating his memories and taking over his voice, in order to transfer the oral-mental to the written-visual, much like an individual-collective confession to an attentive reader who listens and reads.

Through his writings, Montoya, consciously or unconsciously, searches for the therapy that will cleanse and restore him, approximating him and providing identity to his original interior-anterior "self", prior to the torture he suffered – in an attempt to reintegrate himself with his own personal history and to find himself. Moreover, this narrative fulfills the function of resisting and challenging the official repressive discourse. While being a literature of exile, the common theme of the short stories is inevitably intertwined with repression, centered in a universe where the multiple faces of torture, far away from the place of the happenings, live in the author's memories, impatient in the attempt to be heard. Consequently, this literature breathes and surfaces with the oxygen that the author lacked when he was caught in the midst of the events. His voice no longer suffers the threat of being silenced or censured and gone is the fear of being killed, making it genuine and free. Its importance within socio-historical parameters is immense because it represents the collective human pain, under the iron hand and domination of a dictator - hidden by the official story. With this information, the reader’s consciousness is raised, allowing him to unite in solidarity and make a better critical and comparative judgment - not only of Bolivia’s history - but also of other nations in the southernmost region of South America, under similar circumstances. The reader’s position is that of a listener, confidant and psychotherapist, because he reads the stories as if he was listening to what is being spoken, feels the anguish expressed, and observes the pictures that are so graphically described in the stories.

"Death’s chessboard" begins in an allegorical manner, relating the oppressor-oppressed relationship through a game where "checkmate" is ever present. It incorporates a historical background that reflects violence, death, betrayal, abuse, and violation of Human Rights.

"Enter the bloody letter" is a real story, where the stylistic talent of the author manages to use the Mother image metaphorically in a symbolic triad of the dictatorship: the biological mother, whom one loves and obeys, the second Mother, the teacher who disciplines with violence, control and power, and a third Mother, who has total power of action over every individual. The images of the first two mothers converge towards a permanent one that becomes a third Mother - the Motherland- where the three represent, almost in association, a unitarian form of authoritarianism, power and violence; it is a symbolic critique of the repressive dictatorial system of the time.

"The hooded one" is a small sample of the internal interrogation system’s action dynamics that was practiced in the regime's detention cells against the political prisoners. It depicts the torturer-tortured relationship, where the "hood’s function is to assure a dark world of anonymity for the torturers, quite characteristic of the collective silence and darkness of all dictatorships that existed in the southernmost region of South America, during that same period.

In "The death of Carmelo" we see the reflection of the commitment to the opposite of life, where a simple object, the revolver, has absolute power to define lives and deaths, presents and futures - entire lives that could be silenced in a moment. The author combines the referential with the symbolic when he describes the dramatic capture of Inti Peredo, right after the failed guerrilla movement of Che Guevara.

"The program" is a short story that serves as an introduction to the plight of the miners in the following story. It exposes, in a critical manner, the lack of a centralized goal and concomitant lack of an effective plan of action, which is well coordinated, and ultimately leads to the desired results.

"Miners’ massacre" exposes the massacre of the night of San Juan, an historical event that took place in the early morning of June 24th, 1967. The government sent its armed goons and wiped out, in a brutal and massive manner, the mine workers - killing innocent people whose only crime was to demand better conditions of life. The author goes back in his remembrances to the time when he was nine years old, to search for the early foundations of his experiences in the mining district during the twentieth century. He happened to be an ocular witness of the genocide, in which death - through massacres - was bonded to life, as an unstoppable hurricane.

It is important to establish that, with the publication of these short stories, Montoya demonstrates that history is cyclical and that the same events have been repeating themselves throughout the years as it happened in 1967, during the military government of René Barrientos Ortuño. It is from that period of time on that Bolivia’s social problems intensify even more, coinciding with the capture and death of guerrilla fighter Ernesto Che Guevara.

In "Confessions of a fugitive", Montoya demonstrates his true creative and literary capacity, as he presents a story based on situations that came to his knowledge through other victims of torture. The writer has incorporated them in order to narrate the stories in the first person, giving them cohesion and establishing a unifying theme that reflects logical coherence within the context of its history and significance. Based upon this information, the writer connects three parts, asking the reader permission in the second one to describe the methods of torture. It is an allegory of the vehement desire for the death of the dictator, as well as the idealized and hoped for escape; both wishes taken to fiction. This narrative is also representative of parallel and similar events taking place in the neighboring countries of Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil. It does, nevertheless, have a happy ending.

"Facing the firing squad", criticizes the imposition of the State of Siege, a decree that was utilized as an excuse to assassinate people in cold blood. It allows us to observe the unique monopoly of violence allied with death’s global nature, as a means of repression and silencing dissent that was practiced at the different spheres of the country.

"They may murder me, but I will not die" is centered around the savage, human-animalized torture, taking the graphic descriptions way beyond the reader's imagination. Rituals of martyrdom are repeated in scenes where the female image reaches very low levels of humiliation and disregard, as she is raped by a man and by a dog. The image of "man's best friend" is robbed of its virtue, as it is associated and equaled to the animal image of "man, enemy, murderer". The terms dog and man become synonyms of domesticated bestiality: the dog towards his master and man towards his superiors, in positions of authority and power, just following orders to practice torture and horror. On the other hand, this narrative also represents the attachment to the ideal and desire to avoid losing one's personal identity, even though the body may die. It is the triumph of the human spirit and of ideological fortitude over the material destruction of the physical body, while time is presented as an existential factor that embraces remembrances, revives memory and connects events.

"Days and nights of anguish" is the most extensive of this selection. It was awarded the National Short Story Prize, given by Universidad Técnica de Oruro (UTO) or the Technical University of Oruro, Bolivia, in 1984. It describes the dramatic story of the Bolivian miner in all its aspects and his relationship with death as an inevitable companion. Death constantly darkens the life of the miner: home-delivered homicides, death as the daily companion in accidents and death by the inevitable silicosis. Once again, we are presented with an atmosphere of massive killings, blood, machine guns, and terror as an unavoidable fate. In the midst of a living memory that drags bloody and violent images from the past, the monstrosity of torture and genocide with impunity arise, with no concern, as a direct response to the miner's hunger. As in the previous short story, here you can also witness the real and genuine value of man's ideals over his own life, as is evident in Pablo's response to the question by his torturer:

And you, Pablito, when are you going to snap?

What can I do at this time, captain? I'm committed to my ideals and I don’t fear death... if this happens to be the best answer to my struggle - he said. (84).

These words represent the rhetoric of death as a form of liberty and, likewise, the end of enslavement. It is as if the miner – paradoxically – united life with death, in order to fulfill his ideals. He loses patience with his subhuman lifestyle of extreme poverty, until his ideology, solid and firm, is converted into one of a life of freedom, or death, as another form of liberation, both of these possibilities quite valid and real. It is also the reconciliation of the miner's commitment to death, where the risk of being murdered is as powerful as life itself.

As Montoya concludes this series of short stories, he places in the hands of the reader, a literature that causes one to think about the necessity of committing to a social cause that fights directly an oppressive system practicing savage violence, in an attempt to stay in power. The importance of this narrative is that it is centered in man's conscience, who comes to know over time and in an intimate way, how pervasive repression and impunity can really be. The reader understands that, if death by hunger and genocide is the fate of the miner, the factory worker, the university student and the exploited Bolivian in general, then the risk of dying is almost a duty and a real path to liberate oneself from a modern and static form of slavery. The reader, not only is informed, but also becomes a witness much better equipped to join the challenge to the official story, for knowledge is also a form of power and strength.

To finally understand the real importance and the great contribution of Victor Montoya's work, within the context of Bolivian history, it is recommended that one revisits the general theme of the Violation of the Individual's Rights and remembers the contents of the Bolivian State's Political Constitution. In the section regarding Rights and fundamental duties of the individual – articles 6 (I, and II), 7 (a,b,h), and in the section regarding Guarantees of the individual, in articles 9 (II), 12, 13, 16 (I and II), 21, 34 and 35 - show very clearly, among other rights, freedom of expression, the expressive prohibition of torture, any type of actions against citizens, or any form of physical or moral violence. Consequently, it is quite fortunate to have in our hands this work, as faithful proof that these principles were not respected or kept, and of the impunity and immunity with which such crimes against humanity were practiced. To read and understand the true meaning of all this is indeed an act of faith on the part of the reader.

As silence is broken, the content of this series of short stories closely represents the author's self therapy, since his scarred memories left by torture provide a sort of direct confession, as the author, with great relief, is able to bare his soul to a conscious reader who is also a patient and attentive listener to a somber reality. As he breaks the silence, he fulfills the duty of presenting a type of literature that does not lie, and even more importantly, he offers the reader a story of real life that provides the personal satisfaction of establishing a healthy and positive author-reader relationship within himself.

On the other hand, the simple act of writing fills a void and produces a historical reality from the past that had not been rendered true justice before. It is a form of existence, a form of life, an attempt to get even with history, in order that in this manner, darkness can be erased and purified and that we may see life through this filter that Montoya provides; it is also another way of bringing justice to the past. His confession also becomes a powerful antidepressant, an enticement for us to live in the here and now.

Ultimately, it is hoped that, with the death of General Hugo Banzer Suarez, divine justice will indeed take on the task of considering the physical, psychological and spiritual destruction of every citizen who was a direct victim of this repressive period in Bolivia's history.


Department of Hispanic Studies

University of California, Riverside




Víctor Montoya was born in La Paz, Bolivia, in 1958. He is an author, a cultural journalist, and an educator. As a result of his political activism in 1976, he was pursued, imprisoned, and tortured. One year later, he was freed from prison and granted asylum in Sweden, thanks to the efforts of Amnesty International. Some of his significant publications are: Huelga y represión (1979), Días y noches de angustia (1982), Cuentos Violentos (1991), El laberinto del pecado (1993), El eco de la conciencia (1994), Antología del cuento latinoamericano en Suecia (1995), Palabra encendida (1996), El niño en el cuento boliviano (1999), Cuentos de la mina (2000), Entre tumbas y pesadillas (2002), Fugas y socavones (2002) y Literatura Infantil: Lenguaje y Fantasía (2003). He is a member of The Swedish Writers Society as well as The PEN Club International. He is an active writer for publications in Latin America, the United States and Europe. He currently resides in Stockholm, Sweden.



Pedro Da Costa has been, for the past thirty years a teacher, a journalist, poet and translator (among other endeavors). His love for English composition and literature inspired him to create a Creative Writing course that he once taught at UCLA to incoming freshmen students. He majored in Spanish Literature and Latin American Studies at California State University Fullerton in 1975 and did his graduate work at UCLA and San Jose State University. He has written extensively for various publications in Portuguese, Spanish and English, and many of his poems, essays, and articles have been published in various anthologies as well.

Pedro has translated a variety of literary and technical books and other works in English, Spanish and Portuguese, in which he is fully fluent. He is currently working on a book that narrates his travels and experiences throughout the Americas, over the past four decades. He is also an award-winning professional speaker.

As a side note, Pedro comments that he did the translation and adaptation of "Silence is Broken" at his family's three hundred year old home in the island of Terceira in the Portuguese Azores, in the same room where Almeida Garrett, one of Portugal's literary giants, probably wrote some of his works. He felt that the atmosphere was quite inspirational and conducive to the work.

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