In June 2015, thousands of Argentines took to the streets of Buenos Aires to protest against gender violence. The demonstrations had been called by reporters and activists, rallying around the slogan #NiUnaMenos (Not One Less), a call to stop the almost daily murders and disappearances of women and girls in the country.
In April that year, the novelist Selva Almada (b. 1973) published Dead Girls (Chicas muertas), a chronicle of three femicides that occurred between 1983 and 1989. The dates are important. Almada has spoken in an interview with Silvina Friera of Página/12 of the personal impact that one case had on her as a young woman growing up nearby. Andrea Danne was stabbed through the heart in her bed in November 1986, at the age of 19, in the town of San José, Entre Ríos province. What’s more, the killings show that the phenomenon being protested today is not new.
These cases also predate perhaps the most infamous femicide avant la lettre in Argentina, that of María Soledad Morales in Catamarca in 1990. The seventeen-year old student was drugged, tortured and killed, before her body was mutilated and dumped. The culprits were two young men linked to the highest echelons of political power in the region. Almada stated that the María Soledad case marked a watershed in Argentina. Even so, it took the intervention of the Church and mass rallies for a proper investigation to take place. And at the time, as much was reported about the victim’s lifestyle as about the crime itself.
It is a cliché to blame machismo for these killings, but Almada’s book reveals pervasive and deep-rooted attitudes and behaviours that are sexist and objectify women. Almada conducted fieldwork, interviewing friends and relatives of the victims and the accused, in small provincial towns. She portrays a world in which women are often denied agency and the border between sex and violence is fragile. It is not just many men in these towns who display objectionable attitudes towards women; in all of the cases, some degree of victim blaming can be heard in male and female voices: “she was a whore,” “she went out with older men,” or “she looked down on everyone else.” All, it seems, acceptable justifications for a murder.
Economics plays a part too. One of the victims worked as a prostitute. Another had started her first day as a maid. In both cases, in different ways, this exposed them to the risk of violence. In Almada’s chronicle, women put up with exploitative and abusive relationships, at least in part out of financial need. Such was the case with Sarita Mundín, who disappeared in March 1988, leaving behind a four-year-old son. Mundín’s mother alleges that Sarita was the victim of a network of human traffickers, and may have ended up captive in a brothel in Spain.
Class is also a factor. Almada has stated that less importance is given to the death of a girl from a poor background than of one from a family with means. The case of María Soledad Morales was investigated in part as a result of her family’s local standing. One must recall another book depicting femicides, Roberto Bolaño’s 2004 novel 2666. The first time the police take concerted action over a string of killings is when the victim is the daughter of a powerful man. Those imprisoned, and then grotesquely murdered in jail, have most likely nothing to do with the crime in question.
At the heart of the matter, Almada reveals a justice system that is generally incompetent and often corrupt. In some cases it’s not easy to tell which. After Andrea Danne’s killing, the young policeman at the scene allowed her bedroom to be cleaned and her body to be moved, apparently because the floor was muddy. The usual suspects are rounded up. Information is lost. Investigating officers bark repeatedly up the wrong tree, and then go back years later to bark some more.
In the first case, María Luisa Quevedo, a 15-year old girl found dead on wasteland in Chaco province, police appointed under the brutal 1976-83 dictatorship were responsible for (unsuccessfully) investigating the crime. Years after the initial investigation into Sarita Mundín’s murder, it was discovered that the remains found were not even hers. What’s most chilling is that a body turned up that no one was looking for, or whose loved ones had given up as lost, or about whose disappearance they were too frightened to speak.
In Dead Girls, Almada is the narrator and also a principal character. But she is not a heroine. One gets a sense of the pointlessness and boredom of much of her investigation: cross-country bus rides; standing outside a closed travel agency waiting to interview a relative; killing time watching the locals at a small-town carnival. But this banality conveys an uncanny menace, a constant threat. As in much great crime writing – both true, as in Rodolfo Walsh, or fictional, as in María Angélica Bosco – one fears for the narrator. Of course we know, given the existence of the book, that she survives. In her interview with Silvina Friera, Almada spoke of her connection to the victims. This risks triteness, but her point is a simple one: as a teenager in a small Argentine town at the time of the killings, she could too easily have become another dead girl.
Above all, perhaps beyond the particular true stories that it tells, Dead Girls is so arresting because of its tightly-crafted structure. The three killings are weaved together, in part through the figure of a medium, whom when at a loss the narrator consults. This sounds corny, and also echoes a subplot of Bolaño’s 2666. But the medium is a popular figure in rural Argentina, who operates less through supernatural powers than by insight and close attention. We shift between the past of the 1980s and the present of the investigation. Almada’s prose is sparse, but the details count. Her ear for dialogue and especially gossip is pitch perfect. Her eye for detail is hawkish. There are telegraphic little sentences, especially in the dialogues, in which one hears laconic people talking about things they’d perhaps rather not recall.
There is an urgency about this book. Almada’s epilogue lists in one paragraph the ten women killed in the first month of the year, as she finished its writing. Yet the author hunts for a ray of hope on what is otherwise a bleak horizon. It comes in an anecdote, again from the 1980s. Almada’s aunt tells her the story of how she fought off an attempted rapist – her own cousin – and escaped probable death. Later, when their grandfather found out, the attempted rapist was given a thorough beating, and by all accounts never laid an ill-intentioned hand on another woman in his life. It’s only partially reassuring, relying as it does on a narrow escape and an old-style thrashing.
Almada’s work shows the effectiveness of creative writing that wields the tools of fiction for political denunciation and activism. The #NiUnaMenos campaign has continued to mobilise, not just around femicides but also over the rise in homo- and transphobic attacks in Argentina. Dead Girls is act of homage, a funeral rite for victims of violence, and a denunciation of the system and culture that allowed their deaths.
Ben Bollig teaches Spanish at Oxford. His translation of Cristian Aliaga’s The Foreign Passion is published by Influx Press (London). His book Politics and Public Space in Contemporary Argentine Poetry: The Lyric and the State is published by Palgrave Macmillan later this year.