BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Life under fascism is laid bare in "77," the new novel by Guillermo Saccomanno (translated from the Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger and published by Open Letter Books). Saccomanno is the Argentinian author of several previous novels, one of which, "Gesell Dome," was highly praised in these pages. Both "Gesell Dome" and "77" were awarded the Hammett Award by the International Association of Crime Writers.

"77" is code for 1977, when Argentina was suffering under a military dictatorship headed by General Videla, a Hitler clone who ruled with brute force. Backed by the USA (Kissinger advised "a swift extermination of the insurgency"), Videla created a totalitarian state which tried to control every aspect of life. With the complicity of Argentinian business, labor and political organizations, Videla and his secret police infiltrated the press, schools, churches and the arts, crushing all signs of free-thinking and dissent.

Saccomanno focuses on a small group of citizens caught up in this right-wing holocaust. The book's protagonist is Professor Gomez, a 56-year old scholar who has written extensively about Oscar Wilde. Gomez is also sensitive, gay, and thinks of himself as above the political fray, though in fact he has been terrorized by the forces of repression and suffers from insomnia and "obsessive wandering syndrome," a disease that impels him to roam the streets of Buenos Aires from dusk to dawn.

Gomez discusses his problems with Doctor Joseph Lutz, a mentalist, who tells him that he's got death in his soul, adding that "it's understandable."

Gomez tries to heal but it's almost impossible considering how shot through with death is Buenos Aires itself, with its heavily-armed police patrolling the streets in ubiquitous green Ford Falcons, ready to pounce on anyone deemed suspicious, rob and beat him unmercifully, and then "disappear" him.

Having terrorized the populace, Videla and his cohorts can rule as they see fit, plundering the nation's wealth and resources. It's against this hellish backdrop, with gunfire and explosions everywhere and winter rains pelting down, that Prof. Gomez does what he can to stand up to evil.

A reluctant hero, but a hero nonetheless, one who battles desperately "to keep a callus from forming over his heart," he befriends a young radical couple on the run from the police, and also volunteers to try and track down one of the disappeared, the son of an upstair's neighbor. Although he thinks of himself as just a witness, someone "merely interested in finding out how stories work out," he ends up risking his life on behalf of his fellow citizens.
Saccomanno doesn't sentimentalize Gomez's bravery. The professor pays a price for his actions, which end in failure and death (for all concerned), but as sad and painful as the conclusion to "77" is, I came away feeling good about the author and his gutsy defense of liberal, human values.