BOOK REVIEW / There's an A in death

The Flight of the Tiger by Daniel Moyano, trs Norman Thomas di Giovanni, Serpent's Tail pounds 8.99
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2 The Flight of the Tiger by Daniel Moyano, trs Norman Thomas di Giovanni, Serpent's Tail pounds 8.99. The Argentine author Daniel Moyano is far too little known here, despite the publication of The Devil's Trill and The White Wall and the Spiders, an account of his experience under detention and psychological torture by the military regime that dominated his country from 1976 to 1983.

Perhaps the relative anonymity arises from the impossibility of simply categorising his work; perhaps from the fact that he was far from prolific as a writer, having spent much of his professional life as a violinist and professor of music at the Conservatory at La Rioja. All his writing relates closely to both musical structures and to that strange and mountainous western region of Argentina that possessed him even in his long years of exile in Madrid, where he died in 1992.

The Devil's Trill closes, after relating the picaresque travails of a musician's life, in silence. The Flight of the Tiger ends in cacophony. From the first page, when percussionists ride into the lost Andean village of Hualacato, to the last, when apocalyptic floods engulf even the words of the text, the reader participates in an astonishing feat of imagination, a masquerade of mythic and linguistic inventiveness.

The percussionists are the oppressors, resisted by the indigenous villagers who refuse to learn their tunes. Instead they switch instruments, change key and go underground to evade an imposed reality and protect their own increasingly unreal existence.

Just as Argentina's military dictators targeted intellectuals and artists among the 15,000 or more who disappeared in the "dirty war" of the 1970s, so cultural memories become the preserve of the oppressed who guard their rhythms and images in hiding. Photographs are a closely protected record that proves the disappeared actually existed. Examining the portrait of a dead child reminds the Abellay family that there is more to truth than its various versions: "Tito's a fact, the same as all this is a fact." Words are more malleable. Death is deemed an "ugly word... There's an A in death and an A in Nabu [the soldier who holds the family under house arrest]. Changing one letter and adding another, death could be health. Depending on how you look at it. There's an A in health and an A in Nabu... Get out all the pictures... Maybe they'll help me face up to what I was trying to forget."

Grandfather Abellay, the story's intermittent narrator, provides a parable of an ending, but not before all parables are drowned in a storm of biblical dimensions. "People lifted their gaze to see words flying past like sheets of zinc or garments torn by a gale from a clothes line."

The source of snatched phrases like lime pits, three hundred and volunteers to dig, a maze of cellars without entrance, is uncovered, and a stream of hobbling, emaciated prisoners emerges. "As they came out of the cavern, the prisoners shot lizard-like looks at each person they saw, but they did not open their mouths..."

After Argentina's secret detention centres were opened up, they were deemed as unspeakable as the Nazi camps. Ernesto Sbato, one of the country's most prominent novelists, switched to compiling fact - the report from the National Commission on Disappeared People called Nunca Mas (Never Again). It is a measure of Moyano's skill that he conveys, with all the vivid intimacy of an oral storyteller, the power of that reality in its legendary dimensions.

Amanda Hopkinson