Éster Terracina

From the translator’s note: The biographies that make up this collection are a blend of history and fiction. They all contain events and people that have existed, or could have existed.  They are not easy; Davide uses a challenging and unconventional vocabulary . . . The stories in Città distrutte: Sei biografie infedeli deal with difficult themes: loss, failure, love and worlds with immigration, war, dictatorships but they do not lose their sense of humor. When a character like Éster exaggerates, when she holds a funeral for Che Guevara, as readers, we can smile, not laughing at her, but understanding her radical heart.

from Città distrutte: Sei biografie infedeli: 

Éster Terracina (1951-1976)

I love the words of the philosophers. So here is a chance to use them: Patrice Vuillard calls them “strings of coincidence” (Dynamique des abandons, Paris 1983, p. 54). Words so powerful they push those stories deserving a place in history into memory. They are bound with an “invisible glue” (Id., Regles, Paris 1992, p. 123) or better yet a series of “hidden chains” similar to “psychohistoric seeds” (Jakob Daniel Wegelin, Briefe uber den Werth der Geschichte, Himburg, Berlin 1783, pp. 127-128) connected to human actions, apparently intertwined unwittingly in a meaning that could only have been established in hindsight. Oppressed by the misfortune of having happened, the story begins like this: and no one would call it “chance!” In the past century, on the last day of ’51, Ernesto Guevara commences his journey while in an apartment in Once, a neighborhood in the center of Buenos Aires, Éster Terracina lifts herself up from a velvet pillow and takes her first steps. [blockquote align=left]I looked all around wondering: who will come to destroy my elation? Today little Éster walks. Another reason to be happy: to have put a woman on this earth.

Her mother notes in her diary: “I looked all around wondering: who will come to destroy my elation? Today little Éster walks. Another reason to be happy: to have put a woman on this earth. Alberto came home and embraced us. Will I be able to sleep tonight?” The euphoria that Norma Terracina would experience from the first elections in Argentina because of universal suffrage was a mere month away; it explains the exuberance in her writing. I would like to thank historian Guillermo Viera of the Universidad Nacional de Jujuy for having suggested this interpretation of the text. Like many of her compatriots at the ballot for the first time Norma has no doubts: she leaves the nation in the hands of the Perón matrimonial alliance. Her sister-in-law Graciela writes about her in a letter addressed to their cousin Iginio Malinverno. The message reads (preserved at the private archives of the Malinverno family in Rosario): “The idiot voted like she said she would. She’s infinitely grateful. All she talks about is Evita. It gives me a headache. Fortunately the slut will die.” Graciela’s political sympathies for the Unión CÍvica Radical of Balbín and Frondizi, for which her husband Fernando is an activist, motivate and spur her crude words. Who really knows if rancor can also incite affection. Is hate contagious? If there is a scientific answer it ought to be made public. As for me, I cannot stop thinking of little Éster who on that last day of ’51 took her first quick-footed steps. I wonder to what extent her aunt’s sentiments, along with Guevara’s journey, had an influence on the following events.

[blockquote align=right]Those who have preceded Éster guide her onto a new path. She is immediately master of her actions, though her blood is impure. An inheritance. A memory. A distant, antiquated sling holds her upright.

Those who have preceded Éster guide her onto a new path. She is immediately master of her actions, though her blood is impure. An inheritance. A memory. A distant, antiquated sling holds her upright. Her gait recalls the memory of strolls through her grandfather, Giacomo Terracina’s, books. Bruna’s husband, Alberto’s father, the man who had a premonition one year before Mussolini’s Race Laws went into effect. He closed the legal bookshop in San Pantaleo, their neighborhood in Rome. The event didn’t go unnoticed but Terracina had made up his mind, he took the family and decided to leave. In Napoli they boarded a steam liner. In ’39 the port of Riachuelo awaited them, as did a row of shacks. Years of thankless toil. In ’44 he opened a printing press in Corrientes, in ’46 he handed it over to his son in order to dedicate himself to his true passion: botany. His soothsaying powers, however, are transmitted only in part to Éster: when ’76 arrives she will stay in Buenos Aires.

When at nineteen Alberto arrives in Buenos Aires he is already someone else, melancholy is now part of his genetic code. He works construction, he works on the Jose Amalfitani Stadium, opened for Velez in ’43; in ’44 he begins working at his father’s printing press and marries Norma Reyes, in ’46 they have their first son Mario Roberto and in ’51 Éster. Alberto likes to fall asleep in his chair with his daughter in his arms, he reads about Italy in the papers, he pines for his native land. His wife describes him in her diary as “somewhere between indignant and nostalgic;” so as not to contradict her, he also supports Perón.

And what of Norma Reyes, born and raised in the Liniers neighborhood amongst the shops of the old station and the stops of Rivadvia. Alberto met her recovering at the Hospital de Agudos after a shoulder injury he procured while working on the stadium. (Norma, on the other hand, was there visiting an aunt.) From her very first months Éster reproduces her mother’s exuberant voice along with many other characteristics, but it is the voice that stands out. Norma and Alberto date for a year and then marry. Norma converts to reform Judaism and the bourgeois ways of the Terracina family. Despite all of this there is an unpredictable pulsing in her womb, passed down from her mother María Teresa Reyes Sulewski, militant of the Federación obrera argentina, close friend of Radowitzky and in-demand explosives expert. Éster would find refuge with her grandmother when it was her turn to fight.

[blockquote align=right]Secretly her classmates fall in love with her, the girls offer either friendship or envy (at that age no feeling comes watered down).

This is Éster’s gift, which only grows with time. The rapidity of this development is thanks to the marvel of narration. The first thing to go is the velvet cushion. Arms and legs lengthen, in ’59 while Guevara enters Havana she climbs atop a magnolia tree in Plaza San Martín and falls, passes a month in a cast, in 1960 she gets the chickenpox, in ’61 the measles, a scar remains on her forehead, then her “swan neck” grows long (as her mother comments in her diary in ’62), her breasts bud, her hair grows long, her face seems sculpted from soft caresses, freckles from the fingertips of a god who has shown her favor, her voice blushes a bit, the look in her eyes is touching. It all happens suddenly. In ’63 she passes through the gates of the Colegio Nacional where no one dare give her bad marks. Secretly her classmates fall in love with her, the girls offer either friendship or envy (at that age no feeling comes watered down). In ’66 she joins the Perónist Youth, her mother, disheartened by Perón’s fall approves the choice in her own political sadness, but her aged father looks upon her with caution and suspicion. On June twenty-eighth of that same year she discovers with her own eyes the meaning of a coup d’état and writes to her friend Penelope Di Castro while on vacation in Mar del Plata, (Di Castro has preserved the letter): “So finally I have seen it: the liturgy of the uniforms, the violence of the words. The lies found therein! Onganía gagged on them and spoke of revolution! Listen to me Penelope: we must stand up. Remember our conversations from last summer? Let’s begin from there, from Cuba and General Perón. I am not sure how to explain it, but I believe those two paths must meet.” “They don’t seem like the words of a fifteen-year-old girl,” comments Penelope Di Castro in her memoir Calle azul. Una vida entre revolucion y repression (Buenos Aires 2002, p. 34).

A month later there are military raids at the university, a friend loses an eye in the fighting and Éster’s anger hardens. A year from then Guevara is killed, she sees a photo of him dead in the newspaper, the stupor of the mouth agape and the puffy eyelids, as if the corpse were still in protest asking: this is what you do to me? Éster organizes a wake at her grandmother’s house, where no one present can hold back tears.

[blockquote align=left]A family dinner: the elderly parents caressing their daughter who they haven’t seen in over a year and lavishing the young man, who could be her boyfriend, with attention.

The following year she enrolls at the university where she meets Julio Mattucci, bartender by night and student by day, obstinate at the desks of the bourgeois. Julio sympathizes with the Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadors of Mario Roberto Santucho, whose collected works he gives to Ester; thus Éster moves closer to Guevarism and to Julio. But really, what brings them together is the bed. On Julio’s mattress, in a one room apartment in Barrio Sur. Éster will write to a friend who wishes to remain anonymous: “It was like we had discovered a new continent.” From that night forward they are inseparable, together they participate in the Marcia silenziosa in ’69. The federal police break up the crowds and Julio gets a rubber bullet to the stomach; seeing him collapse to the ground, Éster, standing beside him, learns what it means to be close to death. A few months later they marry, they go to live at Villa Soldati; marriage does not placate Éster’s rage.

In 1970 Giacomo Terracina dies (he was strolling through the garden when he collapsed at the foot of a palm tree). Alberto closes the printing press, sells the house in Once and moves to the countryside with Norma.

In the summer of ’71 Julio and Éster leave for Misiones. One day in San Ignacio Mini, treading on the rust-colored earth that inters the Jesuit city, Julio confesses to her that he has become a guerilla fighter. Éster tells him he’s crazy; she ponders suicide. They return to Buenos Aires where they face days of violence.

[blockquote align=right]She takes refuge in the country with her parents, a wrinkle forms on her cheek, it crosses vertically and like a curse appears only when she laughs…

Éster and Julio pass many hours at home lavishing one another in tenderness. After a long hibernation I add new soil and manure to a peach tree I keep, the pot is filled to the brim: Julio accepts Éster’s overflowing attention and yet, he saddens. At the beginning of June he leaves without saying where to. A few weeks pass. Éster learns that his group has been massacred; Julio does not return.

She takes refuge in the country with her parents, a wrinkle forms on her cheek, it crosses vertically and like a curse appears only when she laughs; she spends time with her father’s citrus trees and takes hot baths. Because of psoriasis she cuts her hair short, she wears long-sleeved men’s shirts and white cotton underclothes, she has lots of time to read and falls in love with the work of Mario Benedetti. She sleeps long hours, twelve a night; getting out of bed is tiring, she laments the cruelty of never having given Julio a child, but that is the savagery of time. We look again to the diaries of Norma Terracina, which I quote here: “She didn’t rise all day from that chair in the garden, not even to eat or use the toilet. She seemed dead, a seated cadaver; she stared at the leaves of lackluster laurel trees. In the kitchen I found Alberto crying, he passed those tears to me.” She lives a year in mourning only broken by her deep desire for danger. “During those months, along with her suffering, a new path to militancy emerged,” explains her friend Penelope Di Castro. “I know it may seem callous, but it was as if each of her actions and thoughts were the product of exacting calculation.”

[blockquote align=left]She sleeps long hours, twelve a night; getting out of bed is tiring, she laments the cruelty of never having given Julio a child, but that is the savagery of time.

She returns to Buenos Aires in ’72, she studies to become a teacher and makes a living as a substitute, she lives in a single room in the Barracas neighborhood. Éster serves in the PRT-ERP. She isn’t a guerilla fighter but works at El Combatiente, the party’s secret newspaper, printing and paginating, embracing the trade her grandfather brought from Rome. Again Penelope remembers: “We distributed the paper in the factories and poor neighborhoods; if they found a copy on you there was the risk of prison or worse. But this didn’t scare Éster, actually, it seemed like she looked for danger; she went around with a whole stack of the Combatiente under her arm! That’s what makes me say she wasn’t quite human.”

She satisfies any sexual needs that arise with party comrades but she never gets attached to anyone and can’t even recall their names. Anyhow, regarding these matters I haven’t any testimonies, only assumptions.

In October of ’73 Éster returns to her little ones at Villa Soldati and starts her language courses again, in January of ’75 she participates in the robbery of a supermarket in Guaminí; in June they show her the remains. Amongst the dark, clay covered scraps found in the earth they dig up a skeleton and she recognizes the lily-printed handkerchief of Julio Mattucci there in the dirt. A few days later Perón dies, they watch the funeral on television, her mother sits beside her, speechless; she has another attack of psoriasis that forces her to hide behind a mask of cotton, she will only defeat it later, in the first months of ’75.

[blockquote align=right]She, who had always had the most transparent prose, now alludes to “lost love” and “unhealed wounds,” she justifies her escape by claiming “an urgent need to reflect” yet she juxtaposes it with a “definitive need for action.” Penelope Di Castro would state that now she was humanized.

Of this next period there remains only a series of confusing traces, she falls into an abyss along with the country she inhabits, leaving only the echoes of a biography. Éster leaves her job and her room in Barracas, she writes her mother a senseless, unclear letter. She, who had always had the most transparent prose, now alludes to “lost love” and “unhealed wounds,” she justifies her escape by claiming “an urgent need to reflect” yet she juxtaposes it with a “definitive need for action.” Penelope Di Castro would state that now she was humanized. For some Éster has vanished while others claim to see her in various locations. For example her former colleague Horacio Pucet maintains that she went to work in a cafeteria in Balverana. By another account ERP militant Arturo Coloccini swears to have run into her in Salta: “She worked in the café at the Hotel Continental,” writes Coloccini. “I remembered her from Buenos Aires and I recognized her immediately. We chatted for a few minutes without going into who I was or who she might be, never taking the rules of militancy for granted. I asked her if she had enough to eat and she said yes. I offered her a beer which we drank sitting at a table in the open square, where she told me she loved Salta because each day was sunnier than the last” (Arturo Coloccini, Cartas desde el norte, La Plata 2006, p.134). The policeman Arturo Corrente, however, has verbally contradicted these reports in his testimony, arguing that he arrested the beggar Éster Terracina Mattucci only a few meters from the Obelisk, smack in the middle of Buenos Aires, on the fifth of September in ’75, and to have kept her in a holding cell overnight.

She reappears in Buenos Aires during the first days of ’76, shortly after the dismantling of the ERP in Monte Cingolo, but nothing links the two events. She finds hospitality with her grandmother María Teresa Reyes Sulewski who immediately tells her own daughter, though Éster has explicitly told her not to do so. She contacts the few comrades that remain. At the Confitería Ideal she encounters one of them, Aurora Maturáno. Éster asks her if she can join her faction and the other responds that she will need to talk to her superiors. She refuses to meet with her parents. On the 30th of March, six days after the coup d’état, she receives a telephone call, not from Aurora Maturáno but from a friend who warns her: Aurora has been abducted, she will be tortured. She might give them names. It could be a false alarm but she decides to hide in a closet in the wall, deep behind the winter coats and sweaters.

[blockquote align=left]One afternoon, exhausted, she sneaks into a wake, she sits beside the grieving women to rest, but her eyes, instead of closing, swell with tears. The women, who do not recognize her, look at her sobbing but feign normalcy and pretend that she is part of the family, like this Éster can finally grieve.

Grandmother Sulewski brings her food twice daily, she has a basin and a plastic container for feces; before sunrise, and no more than once a week she leaves the closet to bathe. When she presses her ear against the piles of garments to listen for what his happening outside she hears nothing. She fears everyone is dead, that a cloud of poisonous gas has exterminated all of Buenos Aires save only herself, and she asks herself if she ought not to go out and look around if only to be certain (for Éster’s impressions during the days in the closet see the interview with Elena Tamburini in ¡Habla Argentina! 2 June 2011). Her grandmother has a coughing fit that startles and assures her: life goes on. But so do the killings. One night there is a break-in, Éster hears everything: they tear the house apart looking for her, they threaten her grandmother, she hears Sulewski’s cries, then a man’s voice, full with pummeling violence. Who knows why they don’t open the closet but they go. The next morning she decides to leave, even if her grandmother begs her not to; she wanders for days between cafés and shopping malls, she sleeps in a movie theater, between the docks of Puerto Madero, behind the bushes of the Recoleta, she is startled by every uniform she sees. One afternoon, exhausted, she sneaks into a wake, she sits beside the grieving women to rest, but her eyes, instead of closing, swell with tears. The women, who do not recognize her, look at her sobbing but feign normalcy and pretend that she is part of the family, like this Éster can finally grieve (again refer to the interview with Elena Tamburini for the full episode).

They sequester her during a routine check on a bus, exhausted she trusts the soldiers, she claims she just wants to sleep while they take her to the Centro Piqué detention facility where she will meet her torturer: Juan Guzzetta. The criteria of subjection are included in the proceedings at Piqué and they are not particularly different from methods used elsewhere. That said, I will not elaborate further on the combinations of electric shock with barbed hooks, of asphyxiation and drowning in fecal liquid, or go into the endless inventory of psychological cruelty that is well known to everyone. Guzzetta tortures her himself while simultaneously feeling a certain attraction (he will admit to this at the tribunal); it is this very reason that keeps him from killing her. He rapes her often, demanding silence in exchange for her life. He speaks to her as one would a lover. He says that in his family he feels misunderstood, given that his wife is an idiot only good for reading fashion magazines and his sons are two imbeciles; it is only with Éster that he is able to speak in a common language. During Guzzetta’s visits inexplicable things happen. It is difficult to judge the feelings that develop in the torturer, whether to catalogue them into the vast index of monstrosities or to extract a fossil of affection: one day he brings her flowers and therefore owes it to himself to tie her to the bed and spread open her thighs. Another day, knowing that she loves Benedetti, he gives her a collection of his stories, but it is not an unconditional gift, the minutes that follow the literary offering go to show that.

[blockquote align=right]Weathered and chiseled she makes even more of an impression: the years of sacrifice on her shoulders and full knowledge that more would lie ahead, wasted blood from every wound and scare, lessons learned, landscapes that live only in memory, the body’s emotions, she annuls the very act that gave her life, she sacrifices her mother and her father.

On the tenth of August in ’76 he brings her new clothes and make-up, he informs her that she has been admitted into a rehabilitation program and she will be able to leave the Center. Éster asks to visit her parents. Guzzetta decides that he will accompany her himself. On the eleventh of August, as the magnolias and Chilean pines along the access road begin to blend into the evening sky, Juan Guzzetta’s car stops in front of the Terracina family home. “I feel like I can trust this young man with kindness in his eyes,” notes Norma Terracina in her diary. “After dinner I took him aside and explained how Éster had always been a good and polite girl. An idealist cannot do damage to the fatherland. He agreed with me, and when he asked to see her old photo album, I knew he would bring her back to us. Alberto said he had the same impression: Éster is in good hands.” A family dinner: the elderly parents caressing their daughter who they haven’t seen in over a year and lavishing the young man, who could be her boyfriend, with attention. Éster didn’t give them anything to be suspicious about, her clothing hid the bruises, her smiles disguised the rest, Guzzetta behaved like someone else completely; after dinner they have a drink by the fire, upon leaving Guzzetta receives hugs and handshakes, as though touching his body were a stamp of faith. They kiss Éster, her mother scolds her for cutting her hair so short. Norma and Alberto Terracina watch the car as it drives down the road. Back at Piqué, Guzzetta beats Éster with more unseemliness and violence than usual. Can one speak of passion? When he leaves the cell Éster crouches over shivering.

[blockquote align=left]A family dinner: the elderly parents caressing their daughter who they haven’t seen in over a year and lavishing the young man, who could be her boyfriend, with attention. Éster didn’t give them anything to be suspicious about, her clothing hid the bruises, her smiles disguised the rest.

The first of October in ’73, “due to guilt and a desire for justice” (his own words as spoken at the trial) Guzzetta informs Éster that he has obtained her transfer to the prison at Villa Devoto, which for her was like passing from darkness into light, from non-existence to visibility, by earning habeas corpus her parents could demand a trial and get her a lawyer: salvation. An extraordinary decision for a torturer and it deserves a bit of elaboration: for a month Guzzetta had stopped beating Éster, he allows her body to heal, inflicting her only with sexual abuse (the only abuse, of course, which could never heal) taken methodically every other day. Searching for any desire for justice within Guzzetta will bring us off track. To find the actual truth one need only look a few cells down from Éster, where the ERP fighter María Ines Caciotti had recently arrived, not just any militant but one of the orchestrators of the revolution and therefore a priceless victim for the oppressors. Not only that, but she is beautiful, famous in fact for her beauty “that paralyzes you just walking by her, if you make eye contact you’re set ablaze” (Osvaldo Perlizzi, Recuerdos de la voluntad, Barcelona 1993, p. 44). So Guzzetta decides to personally attend to her and the cries that come from María Ines’s cell, alternating cries of refusal and then suddenly the silence of shock, attest to the torturer’s new commitment. Éster is no longer the favorite: herein lies her salvation. Guzzetta decides to send her off in surprisingly bloodless fashion and here we can accept the thesis that his guilt was mixed with some mysterious element, that “unexplainable, remote yet present seed” (Wegelin, op.cit.) that lies in the subconscious of human behavior.

[blockquote align=right]Éster’s new cell-mate is unable to sleep, instead she consecrates the night with her cries and by day she bears the tortures as a pittance, when they are alone she thinks of her son aloud in quivering yelps. Éster is unable to calm her and perhaps witnessing her torment leads to her next move.

And now the end. (Arbitrary and unnatural, considering Éster’s age.) The twentieth of October ’76 they bring a her a cell-mate, Elena Tamburini, who looks like her in surprising ways (same size, identical haircut, even the voice and the eyes). She carries, of course, her own painful story, not coincidentally she passes hours crying and scratching at the walls: not the weary resignation that so many militants and their friends and family often have after they’ve been captured. Elena seems like an insect snatched up by a sparrow at the edge of a flower; unexpected. She howls. What happened to her? It is she herself who explains it all in a letter to the military Junta and from the very beginning oozes with naivety. Addressed to the “illustrious President Jorge Rafael Videle, the compassionate General Ramón Agosti and the generous Admiral Eduardo Emilio Massera,” she clarifies immediately to her eminent readers who they are dealing with: “It is a mother who writes to you,” she explains and adds: “I do not know what I am doing in prison” and she asks for “clemency” from her oppressors and defends her innocence, never having been implicated in political activities, simply taken from her work as a hairdresser and from caring for her six-year-old son, now abandoned, at home with neither his mother nor his father. Then the story of her capture: September fifteenth, as usual at work in Carlos Encinas’s shop, Elena has the misfortune to find herself washing the hair of a wanted woman (an aside: the woman is María Ines Caciotti). She had just washed out the shampoo when the oppressors burst in and sequester both of them, the hunted and bystander. Taken away by violent and dark individuals, strapped in the car for hours, she will recount on the television program ¡Habla Argentina! in 2001, I was shaking and I could only think of my little Raúl who I had left at home. They bring her to Piqué and they torture her in an underground cell, afterwards when they don’t know what to do with her they transfer her into Éster’s unit. During the pauses between the terror she wrote to the Junta, but I doubt if her letter ever gained much attention. (The text is cited from a conference on prison letters recently published.) Éster’s new cell-mate is unable to sleep, instead she consecrates the night with her cries and by day she bears the tortures as a pittance, when they are alone she thinks of her son aloud in quivering yelps. Éster is unable to calm her and perhaps witnessing her torment leads to her next move.

Here I will pause to examine Éster’s decision. Weathered and chiseled she makes even more of an impression: the years of sacrifice on her shoulders and full knowledge that more would lie ahead, wasted blood from every wound and scare, lessons learned, landscapes that live only in memory, the body’s emotions, she annuls the very act that gave her life, she sacrifices her mother and her father. I don’t know how to explain it. Willfulness does not leave marks on history, it only has effect, but for whatever memories of that time are worth, after all those years, Elena remembers it as such: She was always smiling, she offered me part of her food rations and consoled me, I could not imagine the gift she was to give me, but she had already begun to save my life.

[blockquote align=left]Elena becomes Éster and Éster, Elena. The exchange is remarkable, the neon light bouncing through the darkness helps, the rashness of the action gains plausibility by the mere fact it has occurred in this place where everything is permissible and reality unravels.

Everything rushes forward. The twenty-third of October Juan Guzzetta learns of his own transfer, the new torturers arrive, the destination of Guzzetta and his group is unknown, he has forty-eight hours to tie up loose ends, he dedicates that time to Caciotti and ascertains Éster’s move. On the twenty-fifth they communicate that they will soon be picking her up and she should be ready, but on the twenty-sixth it is Guzzetta who is the first to leave, he finds within himself the decency to depart without a farewell. The night of the twenty-sixth, awaiting Elena’s usual havoc, Éster proposes that they switch clothing and therefore identities, that way Elena will be closer to freedom and to her son. Here is the choice. Without reflecting I said yes, remembers Elena, and we began to undress. They slide out of their paltry dirty clothes and stand there naked before one another, breasts bare in the shadows. A passage by the poet Julia Koenigsberg translates the intimacy of those two bodies into words: “So love has features! Our nudity its outline, we have nothing else to offer” (Enchangted Days, Edinburgh 1950, p. 75). For the first time since they have arrived at the center they strip of their own free will, not encased in violence. Éster raises an arm and passes her clothes to Elena who is about to do the same, but she stops: Only then did I realize it and I asked her why, but Éster responds only with a nod of the head and shakes the clothes at her. They dress. Elena becomes Éster and Éster, Elena. The exchange is remarkable, the neon light bouncing through the darkness helps, the rashness of the action gains plausibility by the mere fact it has occurred in this place where everything is permissible and reality unravels. The change is complete, Éster Terracina has given to Elena the only gift she has. Elena remembers having embraced her and having cried into her neck, then Éster stops her: now she lies down on the cot—also switched—and she doesn’t move from there, they should retreat to their respective corners, not speak a word, wait. [blockquote align=right]She gave of herself, she saved a child that was not her own, she watched the future and waited: the only traces that remain of Éster. Even if there had been something else (some bones, a skull) she would have remained anonymous: there were no surviving relatives.

Through the night they pretend to sleep. Elena upset by thoughts she will recall with furor over the course of her lifetime. Éster is already fixed in the trade (Elena claims to have heard her crying, but it is possible that in the exchange of identities she had also mixed up some ideas, thoughts: from whom did that cry come, the true or false Éster.) At dawn the next morning three soldiers come in and ask for Éster Terracina, Elena looks at her cell-mate on the bed: she is immobile, as if her name no longer belonged to her. Elena rises, they take her away, they guide her to a courtyard yet untouched by the morning sun, they push her onto a truck. That same day I was at Villa Devoto, my mother and son came to visit me, that way they knew I was safe, then I had a lawyer and I was granted freedom. Still today (looking directly into the television camera, in tears) I am so grateful to that woman.

She gave of herself, she saved a child that was not her own, she watched the future and waited: the only traces that remain of Éster. Even if there had been something else (some bones, a skull) she would have remained anonymous: there were no surviving relatives. Her story has become legend, which has been damaging in reconstructing the facts. There are those who say they have seen her in the center of La Cacha but it’s hard to believe. In fact, others even claim she lives in Catalonia. Illusions of hope. What really happened is that she died brutally. They discovered her deception, they took revenge.

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Translator’s Note

An editor friend asked me to read one of Davide Orecchio’s short stories and share my opinion.  She was looking for new Italian writers to feature in translation.  I remember reading that first story and feeling an immediate excitement, a connection with a new author I had never read before.  From that one story I wanted more and I read Davide’s other work and began soon after to translate his collection of stories, Città distrutte: Sei biografie infedeli.

The biographies that make up this collection are a blend of history and fiction. They all contain events and people that have existed, or could have existed.  They are not easy; Davide uses a challenging and unconventional vocabulary; translating his work has widened my understanding of the possibilities of the Italian language.  In fact, I don’t believe there is anyone like him writing in Italian today—he reminded me of some of my favorite writers: Borges, Calvino, Kiš, Sebald, while also being nothing like them.  The stories in Città distrutte: Sei biografie infedeli deal with difficult themes: loss, failure, love and worlds with immigration, war, dictatorships but they do not lose their sense of humor. When a character like Éster exaggerates, when she holds a funeral for Che Guevara, as readers, we can smile, not laughing at her, but understanding her radical heart.

“Éster Terracina” exemplifies the biographies in this collection.  She is the daughter of immigrants, a revolutionary, a poet, and she doesn’t always find success.  I admire Davide’s ability to deal with failure, to show triumph of character in strange ways throughout these stories.  This quality appears within the narrative and plot but also within Davide’s style.  Éster leads a life of passion and violence, interspersed with tenderness and pain; the rhythms of these emotions are found within the prose itself.  Translating this sense of urgency in the story-telling was a challenge and a goal in each draft.

I’ve always enjoyed the analogy of translation to a conversation and I’ve been in conversation with Davide Orecchio’s brilliant book for about two years now.  “Éster Terracina” is full of particular life experience and historical knowledge that I had to study in order to better understand and translate. These are stories that I would never have written and that is part of the beauty of translating.  I think this may be one of the main reasons I was drawn to translation in the first place: it is a form of extreme readership and I consider myself lucky to inhabit these stories and words, these phrases and characters, and bring them to new readers.

orecchio photoDavide Orecchio is a writer and journalist. He spent more than ten years studying history between Rome, Berlin, and Milan. In 2012, he published his first work of fiction: Città distrutte. Sei biografie infedeli, SuperMondello Prize. 2014 saw his new novel, Stati di grazia (il Saggiatore). He’s a member of the lit-blog Nazione Indiana.

 

 

Allison Donahue author headshotAllison Grimaldi Donahue is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in The American Reader, The New Inquiry, tNY Press Eeel, Omega Metatron, and The Diner Journal.  She has been an NEA fellow at the Vermont Studio Center and a Bakeless fellow at the Bread Loaf Translator’s Conference. She is the fiction editor at Queen Mob’s Teahouse. Allison lives and writes in Bologna, Italy.