June 20, 2013
Homage to Di Benedetto challenges all journalists
The nightmare story he could never write
In the spring of 1977 we met the great but then not widely known Argentine writer Antonio Di Benedetto for the first time. Maud and I had invited him to lunch in a quiet celebration of his release from prison. Before he left our home, he gave us a copy of El juicio de Dios (God’s judgement), his last book before his forced descent into hell.
He dedicated the book to us in such laudatory terms that modesty prevents me from quoting them. The dedication was written with great care. We watched as he wrote 17 lines of sonorous prose poetry that I cannot read without feeling unworthy. But I can quote the last lines:
thank you Maud for receiving me so
finely and sensitively
and (for) this fortifying meal today.
And I will quote the lines in between:
The name of this man
will be written in the story,
that I will never write, of my life.
His words were prophetic. Di Benedetto, already the author of four novels and six books of short stories when was taken away on the very day of the March 24, 1976, coup published one more novel and several books of short stories after he was released 18 months later. But he never wrote the story that he told us he would never write.
That story has now been told in a superb book by Natalia Gelós. a young journalist who entered the world of Di Benedetto when she was a student in the School of Communications and Social Studies at the University of La Plata. She was 20 when she read La fuerza de Zama, which had such an impact on her that she plunged into Los suicidas and El silenciero. Gelós speaks of the strength of Di Benedetto’s prose. Juan José Saer, who was also “discovered” late in his career, http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2005/jun/20/guardianobituaries.argentina says that Di Benedetto’s literary style is “as immediately recognizable as a painting by Van Gogh.”
Some years later, when she began studying for her master’s degree in journalism, Gelós realized that Di Benedetto’s journalism, a largely unknown aspect of his career, was a subject that would have more lasting value than an academic treatise. She told me, “I felt that it was time to investigate the journalist who had been obscured by (Di Benedetto’s) brilliance as a writer.”
Antonio Di Benedetto Periodista (published by Capital Intelectual) tells the whole story of the life of Di Benedetto. I am honoured to be one of the names mentioned in this enthralling story of a man of enormous talent and astonishing courage who was almost destroyed by injustice, petty spitefulness and vicious cruelty.
Di Benedetto was abandoned and left to his fate during that terrible silence that followed the military takeover. In the subtitle of her book, Gelós issues a challenge by calling it “a story that puts the role of the (journalistic) profession on trial.”
I came into the story because I was the editor of the Buenos Aires Herald at the start of the Kafkaesque Proceso de Reorganización Nacional, which I now believe was an attempt at a Nazi re-run. We helped launch a local and international campaign to save Di Benedetto from “‘disappearing” and, later, to secure his release.
Di Benedetto was working in his office at the newspaper Los Andes when the military came to get him. I didn’t know him personally but I knew that he was the deputy editor of the oldest established, highly respected newspaper in Mendoza and that he had been detained by the military. It didn’t make sense, so I began making inquiries. I was fortunate to come across a US exchange student in Buenos Aires who had worked under Di Benedetto. He told me his mentor was a marvellous person who not only taught and guided him as a journalist but also shared his love of literature.
Rumours abounded. Because Di Benedetto had travelled to Europe to receive a number of literary awards, it was banded about that he was a spy for the communist regime of East Germany. The only rumour that was believable to me was that he had upset the garrison commander. That may have been true. Gelós discovered that Di Benedetto had been the opposite of tactful in dealing with the army officers he met, offhandedly referring to them as “brutish.”
The owners of the newspaper abandoned him and humiliated him. The day after the coup, the headline in Los Andes was; “The country is living and working normally.” The newspaper did not report that Di Benedetto had been detained and never mentioned him the entire time he was in prison, first at the military college in Mendoza and later at the infamous Unit No. 9 of the La Plata penitentiary.
Further humiliation came when he was dismissed for “activities incompatible with the function of a journalist.” He was handed his notice when he was behind bars: “The paper, with a text prepared for my signature was passed to me in my cell by a guard with the advice that if I signed, the economic situation of my wife and daughter would be alleviated.” In fact his family received nothing, neither help nor money.
Gelós reveals that it was his activities as a journalist that prompted the military’s vengeance. Before the coup, Di Benedetto cautiously but courageously reported the activities of the “Triple A” death squads, exposed a group of Chilean rightwing extremists planning an assassination to spark the takeover by dictator Augusto Pinochet and published the names of people who had been kidnapped, thereby saving their lives.
Di Benedetto’s natural modesty did not help him. Although he did say that he thought it might have been “my journalism that they didn’t like” he continued to wonder why he was seized by the military. “My suffering would have been less if they had at least once told me why they imprisoned me, but I never knew. And that uncertainty is the most horrible nightmare.”
Di Benedetto managed to make a life for himself, both when he went into exile a few months after he came to lunch with us and in the two and a half years he spent in Buenos Aires upon his return to Argentina in 1984, a few months after democracy was restored.
Gelós writes that Di Benedetto once asked himself: “What would I have done if I had been free? I don’t know if I would have agreed to be a journalist under the Proceso living the daily lie and dissimulating. I do know newsmen who pretended ignorance, sometimes to keep in with their employers. Now, in democracy, they can’t look the victims in the face — they didn’t say a word about their imprisoned colleagues, even cooperating in silencing their names. Today they are enjoying freedom which they have done nothing to deserve.”
The challenge to journalists today is the same as it was under the dictatorship. Never again must journalists live with lies and pretended ignorance. Di Benedetto survived torture, bestial treatment and psychological trauma. Although his novels and his stories have earned him a place alongside the greatest Argentine writers, he was never the same man again after that “horrible nightmare.” In essence, he gave his life defending freedom of the press. In telling the story of Di Benedetto Journalist, Natalia Gelós has paid just homage to a great man and opened all the doors into a life we can all learn from.