Last month I had the honour to launch a book in Culturlann on the night that unfortunately clashed with a meeting in the Ulster Hall suddenly called by Sinn Fein in the aftermath of the British government’s suspension of the Assembly. As a result, fewer people than might have been expected turned up to hear the author, Michael McCaughan, explain his fascination with Rodolfo Walsh, an Argentinian revolutionary, who was assassinated by state forces in March 1977.
The book, ‘True Crimes – the life and times of a radical intellectual’, published by Latin American Bureau, is the best I have read this year, for it is a biography, a love story, a literary study, a documentary, a history, an analysis, and, indeed, a breathtaking journalistic tour de force.
As his name suggests, Walsh was of Irish extraction, the great grandson of Mary Kelly and Edward Walsh who fled famine and repression in Ireland in the
nineteenth century and settled in rural southern Argentina. Rodolfo was born in 1927 and his first job was as a proof reader in a publishing house in Buenos Aires, before going on to become a translator and editor and finally a published writer of crime fiction (extracts from which are ingeniously juxtaposed in this book with real life events). Politically he first supported the emerging, charismatic leader Juan Peron, but turbulent events were to transform him.
One night in 1956 he was playing chess in a café where six months earlier there had been a shoot-out at the time of a failed Peronist rebellion which left twenty-seven people dead, eleven of whom were unarmed men, uninvolved in the uprising They were taken away by the military to be summarily executed before martial law had been formally declared. A man approached Walsh in the café and whispered, “One of the executed men is alive.” Walsh immediately investigated the events of that night and interviewed one of the seriously-wounded men who had escaped and gone into hiding. The resulting book, ‘Operacion Masacre’, an indictment of the military authorities, became a best-seller and changed Walsh’s life.
He went on to chronicle the forgotten people of his country, told the stories of those who were tortured, or ‘disappeared’, wrote about a leper community, and the lives of poor farmers. In one piece of investigative journalism, which he published as a story, he interviewed Moori Joenig, the army colonel and necrophiliac who kidnapped Eva Peron’s body.
Walsh married in 1950 and had two daughters but he was a husband who strayed and stayed away a lot as he was smitten with the bug of revolution. He believed in the transformational possibilities of journalism, says Michael McCaughan. “Events are what matter these days,” said Walsh, “but rather than write about them, we must make them happen.”
In 1959 he moved to Cuba and helped launch Prensa Latina, an international press agency set up to counter the pro-US bias of international news agencies. It was Walsh, as an amateur cryptologist, who decoded intercepted CIA messages detailing plans for the Bay of Pigs invasion, thus giving Castro crucial warning of the impending aggression. He moved back to Argentina to pursue his writing career but after the death of Che Guevara in 1967 he decided to join the action and after a period in different organisations he joined the Montoneros which were engaged in an armed struggle and he quickly rose through the ranks to become an intelligence officer in charge of infiltration of agents into the army and government.
In 1976 he was dealt a crushing blow when his daughter Vicki was killed whilst engaged in a gun battle with the army. Rather than suffer capture and torture she took the cyanide pill prescribed for all members of the Montoneros. Six months later government forces tracked down Rodolfo Walsh. Twelve agents were sent out to take him alive but he fought back and was shot dead. They took away the corpse, burnt it and dumped it on waste land. Earlier that day he had just posted a letter challenging the authorities.
Military rule ended in 1983, and in 2001 the government of Buenos Aires approved a city ordinance which directed all schools to read out Rodolfo’s “Open Letter from a Writer to the Military Junta” every year on March 24th, the anniversary of the 1976 coup.
Walsh had a bias towards what he called ‘useful literature’, by which he meant novels and stories which were politically instructive. When asked to pick a short story for an anthology he chose, ‘The Wrath of an Individual’ by an anonymous Chinese author because it offered a perfect demonstration of the relationship between power without limits and the individual. I’ll finish on it.
The king of T’sin sent word to the prince of Ngan-ling: “In exchange for your lands I want to give you another property ten times bigger. I beg you to accede to my demand.” The prince replied: “The King bestows on me a great honour and an advantageous offer. But I received my land from my princely ancestors and I wish to keep it until the end. I cannot agree to the exchange.”
The king became furious, so the prince sent T’ang Tsu as an emissary. The king said to him: “The prince is unwilling to swap his land for another one ten times greater. If your lord still has his little holding when I have conquered great countries, it is because up until now I have considered him a venerable fellow and I haven’t taken any interest in him. But if he turns down what’s good for him now, then he’s making a mockery of me.”
T’ang Tsu replied: “That is not it. The prince wants to hold on to the legacy of his forbears. Even if you offered him lands that were twenty times bigger than his own he would still turn down the offer.”
The king grew angry and said to T’ang Tsu: “Do you know how the wrath of a king is?”
“No”, said T’ang Tsu.
“It is millions of corpses and blood flowing like a river for a thousand leagues,” said the king.
T’ang Tsu then asked, “Does your majesty know how the wrath of a mere individual is?”
The king replied, “It is like losing the badge of dignity and walking barefoot while banging your head on the ground.”
“No,” said T’ang Tsu, “that’s the wrath of an ordinary man, not the wrath of a man of courage. When a man of courage finds himself forced to become angry, there will be no more than two dead bodies and the blood flows only a few feet. Yet all China will be in mourning. That day has arrived.” And he rose and unsheathed his sword.
The king’s expression suddenly changed, he made a gesture of humility and said: “Master, sit down. Why take things so far? I have understood.”