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Book review: Operation Massacre, By Rodolfo Walsh, trans. Daniella Gitlin

This powerful testimonial of state terror is relayed by a literary master who died writing

Argentina was not an easy place to be in the mid-1950s. In 1955, the populist dictator Juan Perón was deposed by a military coup that put another general, Aramburu, in power. Even the mention of Perón's name was outlawed and terror reigned, a precise intimation of what was to follow Perón's brief return to power in 1972.

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Movements opposed to Aramburu's putsch adopted elements of Peronism to maintain momentum, fracturing into the militant Juventud Perónista (youth-student movement) and the Montoneros (guerrilla). Rodolfo Walsh's most famous work is not only a meticulous quest for first-hand testimonies to the armed forces' Operation Massacre, but for the reasons behind it. So on to his own raison d'etre as an established author forced into militant action. It opens in June 1956 when Walsh witnessed the opening shots of the Peronist General Valle's failed rebellion in an assault on the police department. "I haven't forgotten how, standing by the window blinds, I heard a recruit dying in the street who did not say, 'Long live the nation' but instead: 'Don't leave me alone here, you sons of bitches.'"

There followed the round-up and secret execution of 18 unarmed civilians. Walsh acknowledges his reaction: "I'm not interested in Valle. I'm not interested in Perón. I'm not interested in revolution. Can I return to playing chess?"

He is not to be let off so lightly on learning there were one, two ... finally seven severely injured survivors of the botched execution. They shared a status of "zombies", and a reluctance to be interviewed. Walsh tracked and traced each to provide this detailed reconstruction of facts according to journalism's best answers to the four elemental questions "Where? When? What? Who?", in this decon-struction of lies voiced by military dictatorships.

His book is also a vindication of that most original and significant of Latin American literary genres, often lost in the welter of fuss about magical realism (although Garcia Márquez rated Walsh as a key writer) – that of testimony. Walsh's evidence is drawn from survivors and witnesses, among whom he temporarily counted. He died on 25 March 1977, four years after joining the Montoneros, one day after posting the manuscript to his Open Letter to the Military Junta, addressing General Videla, initiator the infamous "dirty war".

Or rather, Walsh was murdered, in broad daylight and on a public city street, by soldiers. As Walsh accurately described the actions of a clandestine firing squad as a massacre, we are morally obliged to reciprocate with like recognition. Walsh died as he wrote, committed to match words with deeds and so give meaning to lives robbed. It is a powerful assertion of the force of testimonial writing relayed by a literary master. Read it and weep.

More importantly, to understand how terrorism functions in the hands of the powerful, as an instrument of indiscriminate State manipulation, even massacre, perpetually dictated by the supposedly paramount demands of "national security".

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