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Tale of life under South American dictatorship

Mothers and Shadows, by Marta Traba. Translated by Jo Labanyi. Columbia, La. (Box 959): Readers International. 178 pp. $14.95. Marta Traba, the Argentine author who died in a 1983 plane crash, was one of Latin America's most outstanding intellectual figures.

Traba belonged to those Spanish-American authors who are deeply rooted and involved in the political issues of their countries, and she spoke out with great ardor against the violation of human rights, particularly in her native Argentina. As with her cultural interests (before becoming known as a writer she distinguished herself as an art critic, and founded of the Museum of Modern Art in Bogot'a, Colombia, in the late 1950s), Traba's political concerns were not limited to one country or even one continent, but were worldwide.

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``Mothers and Shadows'' (the Spanish title is ``Conversaci'on al Sur'' -- ``Conversation in the South'') is the first of her novels to be translated into English. For ``Las ceremonias del verano'' (``Rites of Summer''), written in 1966, she won the distinguished prize of the Casa de las Am'ericas in Cuba; it was the first of her seven novels.

Although the background and theme of ``Mothers and Shadows'' are political, it is not a dogmatic political novel; on the contrary, it is a lyrical work of fiction that shows with great skill and subtlety how the political life of a country affects the intimate lives of ordinary people, how everybody is drawn in and becomes involved in one way or another. Traba demonstrates in a totally convincing fashion that, in a dictatorship, there is no neutral ground.

The novel begins in 1968 and ends in 1973, when the three countries of the Southern Cone -- Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay -- were all living under military dictatorships. (Of these three, at the present time only Chile remains undemocratic. The one other dictatorship on the South American continent at the moment is that of Paraguay, Argentina's neighbor to the north.)

``Mothers and Shadows'' consists of a conversation between two women who meet again after an interval of five years. The women are Irene, a famous older actress, in whose apartment in Montevideo the conversation takes place, and Dolores, an aspiring writer who is younger than Irene by a generation. The two come from very different economic and social backgrounds, but their lives have met and diverged on a number of occasions in the past. Through their intense conversation, which lasts throughout the night, the political realities of life under the dictatorships is brought to light. They tell each other what has happened to them and those close to them in the past five years; they mingle their remembrances of shared moments in the past, but mostly speak of how their lives have been affected by political events. They tell of disappearances, imprisonment, torture, and the death of friends and relatives.

The reader is slowly drawn into the nightmarish atmosphere of suspicion, fear, and terror. Above all, ``Mothers and Shadows'' reflects the feeling of uncertainty and the unsettling fear that becomes all-pervasive under an authoritarian regime. How to live one's everyday life, how to survive political violence, physically and psychologically, are constant themes in this conversation.

The two protagonists have chosen opposite paths as a means of survival. Irene withdrew and tried to remain indifferent to the political circumstances of her country, while Dolores became an underground political activist. She was arrested, imprisoned, beaten, and mistreated to the extent that she lost her unborn child. Her companion and father of her child was killed while in prison.

The conversation, vivid and often eerie, keeps the reader's attention from beginning to end. By means of it we become aware that through remembering and writing, the women are defying the imposed silence, censorship, and repression under which they live.

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``Mothers and Shadows'' is very well written, and its high pitch of emotional intensity is sustained throughout. Harsh realities are confronted head on; we witness scenes of torture and hasty nighttime burials of prisoners said to have ``died'' while in custody. We participate in the weekly vigils of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo -- mothers of the ``disappeared.'' Fiction and reality are marvelously merged in this book, making it a powerful, important work.

As a dedication to this book Marta Traba wrote, ``Lest we forget.'' She tells us that forgetting would mean acquiescing, allowing the terror and the violence to go unchallenged; it would mean final victory for the purveyors of death and misery. Anyone who takes part in the conversation in this book will find it hard to remain indifferent, and impossible to forget. `Mothers' excerpt No sooner have we got ourselves out of one minefield than we land in another. It's not so much a conversation as an excavation. If only I knew what we're trying to unearth. But she doesn't know the answer to that, nor do I. When she comes back she'll ask me to tell her what happened that night when they separated us in that freezing police station. And suddenly I realise all I can tell her are trivial details. I'll never forget; I can see myself standing, livid with rage, in the middle of that dingy office, while they were spirited off down the far corridor.

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