The library in the torture centre
Books and the written word have always invoked fear in dictatorial regimes. Martin Ezpeleta visits the Library of Forbidden Books in the Argentinian city Córdoba, and reminds us of one of the military regimes greatest fears: children’s books.
In Cordóba, the second largest city in Argentina, there is a library of forbidden books Thirty years ago one risked harassment if caught handling any of the hundreds of books now lining the walls of the library. As in the novel The Name of the Rose one might even have risked being killed. The library is housed in an abandoned prison and concentration camp known as D2, where, during the latest dictatorial military regime, people were tortured and killed. It is situated right next to the Cathedral just a stone’s throw from the San Martin Square, which constitutes the city centre. Every day thousands of pedestrians pass by the rather bland building unaware of the fact that it has recently been used as a notorious prison.
Today the D2 functions as a museum. Artefacts from the epoch have been either saved or recreated in an ambitious attempt to reflect the years of dictatorship. Photographs on the walls depict some of the nearly one thousand prisoners who were kept within its walls. Most of these were tortured; very few survived. For many years this historical period was not remembered. Nobody talked about these events. The dictatorship became a blank space in the school syllabus; amnesty laws protected the regime that in fact was responsible for the disappearance of thirty thousand people. However, as from 2003 this state of affairs has changed remarkably. In 2005 the laws regulating amnesty were changed and the military regime was brought to trial. Hundreds of military have now been imprisoned and many more await their verdicts from courts of law all over Argentina. This makes Argentina a unique country on the continent—no other country in South America has in this firm manner tried to come to grips with its bloodstained history. The concepts verdad, justicia y memoria (truth, justice, and memory) have been the cornerstones in this process. Besides the legal proceedings, the Government has also chosen to open up the former concentration camps to the public in order to reveal what had formerly been concealed.
Anthropologists, architects, and cultural workers, about a dozen people, work at the D2. They organize tours in several languages, exhibitions, and lectures. The former prison cells are left in tact—so are the torture chambers. On the walls there are moving inscriptions left by the prisoners such as: “Pedro, te amo.”
One room especially draws my attention. Unlike the others it is not depressingly grey or bare. Instead it is full of colour and of books. This is The Library of Forbidden Books—a library that since 2007 collects and systematizes the books formerly banned by the military regime. Here one can find almost everything: fiction and non-fiction, children’s books, newspapers and magazines, encyclopaedias and more. Today the library functions as a dynamic meeting place. Moreover, one tries to tell the history of the book—its provenance—how it came to survive the raids and the book burnings. These are often the stories of the relationships between people and their books. If there was anything the regime despised more than the common people it was the literature of the people. To exterminate people did not suffice; their worlds of thought must be also be extinguished. So-called ‘dangerous’ and ‘anti-patriotic’ symbols, pictures, discourses, and traditions were thus targeted.
In 1976, Luciano Benjamin Menendez, general and head of military operations in Córdoba, organised an enormous book burning at the upper secondary school Manuel Belgrano. On the school premises a mountain of books was amassed and set fire to. Books by Karl Marx, Pablo Neruda, Sigmund Freud, the Cuban resistance poet José Martí, and many books by other writers were burned to cinder. The message was clear: books are dangerous. To be found carrying a used copy of the Communist Manifesto, full of dog’s ears and under-linings, was deemed as threatening as carrying a sharply loaded pistol. However, despite the fact that the ‘wrong’ book could transport you to the D2, many people would still hang on to their books. It was unheard of for the educated middle classes to throw away books—let alone to burn them. So the books were either hidden away, buried underground, or camouflaged in the shelves.
In 1971 when my father was imprisoned during what is now known as ‘the soft dictatorship’—to distinguish it from the period of violence that began in 1976—he had been warned as to what was about to happen. Despite the warning he could not bear to rid himself of his books on the class war, on materialism, and on revolution. Instead he organised a decoy: he put a copy of the war strategist von Clausewitz’ classic On War on his bedside table. So, when the soldiers searched for ideologically incriminating evidence in his home they first set eyes on the military classic. On seeing my father’s bedside reading they would nod contentedly amongst themselves and wholly bypass Lenin’s complete works towering triumphantly above in the bookshelf. Thanks to such stubborn and highly inventive lovers of literature many books survived this period.
A quick scan of the titles in the Library of Forbidden Books shows the enormous span of the censored books—a span that surprises me. The military regime certainly seemed to have suffered from intellectual paranoia. For example, one of the junta’s leaders, Emilio Massera, in a renowned article from 1977, complained about the crisis pertaining to morals and mores. According to Massera, three people were held responsible for the crisis: Karl Marx, who in Capital “questions the stability of a private economy;” Sigmund Freud for having “attacked the holy and intimate sphere of the individual” in his The Interpretation of Dreams; and last but not least, Albert Einstein is held accountable for having caused a crisis in connection to “the static and dead structure” of the material world in relation to his own relativity theory.
Quite expectedly, Marxist literature was the main target of the military regime. General Cristina Nicolaides was so convinced that communism was a serious contemporary threat that he even believed that it had threatened humankind throughout history since 500 years B.C. The great fear of collective theories even led to the banning of modern mathematics at the universities; set theory—this mysterious capacity the elements have of forming larger collectives—was disapproved of. How subversive!
Despite these comical and bizarre examples of an irrational censorship, there was still a sort of logic behind military censorship. A logic that the Catholic Church actively supported in its Holy Trinity consisting of God, the Family, and the Fatherland. Books that in any way questioned these cornerstones of conservatism were forbidden. Against this backdrop it is not at all strange that the controversial Charles Bukowski with his questionable morals did not fit the ideology of the military regime. His book Women can be found on a shelf in the Library of Forbidden Books. The same goes for Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince—the children’s book about the little prince from planet B612 in which one learns that “all the important things are invisible to the eye.” Children’s books were certainly targeted by the militia. A correct ideological fostering of the young was deemed important. Schools were necessary but did not necessarily suffice. The libraries too should be in line with the prescribed cultural project. Books that refused to respect authorities or that questioned the unit of the family were not regarded as suitable for children. The popular writer of children’s books, Laura Devetach, was censored and forced to go in hiding as her books were thought of as being informed by an “unlimited imagination.” It was hereby implied that the imagination and dreams needed to be curbed and controlled. It is not hard to guess what the Argentinian military regime would have thought of Pippi Longstocking.
Since 1983 Argentina is once more a democracy. Books and the written word can now be freely exchanged. Writers are no longer forced underground and there are no more government officials signing documents to forbid undesirable books. Nevertheless, the period of dictatorial rule has made an indelible imprint on cultural life in the country. Censorship and harassment forced the publishing houses to close down and fewer people took to writing. The book market has still not fully recovered and the Argentinian people still do not read as much as before the rule of the military regime. The idea that books represent a potential threat has been deeply ingrained and is hard to overcome. Therefore, self-censorship has become one of the former regimes main legacies. In order to overcome this legacy the Library of Forbidden Books has set itself a goal: to stimulate reading—especially among young people. Books should not be seen merely as artefacts in a museum that cannot be handled, but rather as entities to be read, passed around, and discussed. What was the aim of the censorship? What does it mean to us today? These are a few of the questions being asked at the library in an attempt to link our contemporary time to our history.
Every day school classes visit the library in order to read and discuss the books that only thirty-five years earlier could have led to the torture of somebody right here on the very spot where young people today cosily sit on cushions engaged in stretching the limits of their imaginations. In the final analysis reading has the power to become an antidote to totalitarian thinking in all its forms. Hence, the Argentinian military regime was once at least partly correct in assuming that books are dangerous.