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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Collateral damage, September 30, 2009
This review is from: Departing at Dawn: A Novel of Argentina's Dirty War (Paperback)
Well written historical fiction can better inform our understanding of the world's workings than simple history, and Gloria Lisé has cast a clear and gripping light on Argentina's recent history. The "dirty war" claimed 30,000 lives in a period of government-sponsored terror and the cross-fire between Peronist factions. Lisé's novel follows the life of a young woman, herself effectively non-political, who becomes a target by association with an activist lover.

The novel is comprised of vignettes, some tracing Berta's experience and flight, others relating family ties and cultural history, bits revealed in personal letters and verses from song or poetry, and still others in personal musing or quiet observation. A med-school student, the protagonist's hard won progress through college and university is cut short when she sees her lover thrown to his death from a balcony, killed not by the opposition but by his former allies who decide his path of compromise is betrayal. Soon Berta is hunted, not by her lover's killers, but by government forces who believe she has absconded with money her lover may or may not have hidden at the time of his death.

Altogether the story is compelling and believable, showing how the innocent can be drawn into the whirlpool of political chaos, their lives changed forever or sacrificed in the name of causes to which they have no allegience. And withal it will help those unfamiliar with recent Latin American history gain a clearer understanding of the militaristic juntas and revolutions that shaped the 20th century.

Translator Alice Weldon deserves credit as well, for her sensitivity to the unspoken cultural information so necessary to real understanding. Words and phrases have meanings and references that are not immediately apparent, and parsing those subtler shadings and loads can either deepen our experience or block it. Weldon has succeeded admirably in her task.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding novel which avoids cliches, September 22, 2009
demerson19 (Michigan, USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Departing at Dawn: A Novel of Argentina's Dirty War (Paperback)
In an extremely well crafted first novel, Gloria Lisé has put a human face on the story of 30,000 "disappeared" people who lost their lives from 1976-1983 in Argentina. The military government which took over Isabel Peron's country proceeded to eliminate anyone felt to be a threat to their position. A lawyer and professor, Lisé must have been tempted to add yet another non-fiction account to a historical tragedy, but in this finely tuned work of fiction she manages to show the impact the government's hunting of dissenters has on one family and as a result show the human toll that numbers cannot reflect.

We follow the incidents surrounding Berta, a young woman studying to be a doctor who watches her lover thrown to his death from a balcony. A union organizer, he was rumored to have money set aside and government officials think Berta may have it and she is forced to flee her family and city to go to relatives she barely knows in the country. Where Lisé avoids another hero/heroine surviving the chaos of the times is by placing her main character in a serene, slow-paced setting. While all around her the country reels, in her ancestral home she finds safety and at times peace.

But of course, no family is without history either, and here Berta learns more of where she has come from and how she fits in her own tradition. She does not escape her own tainted past as she meets the Indians her family has forced into a small area of existence. She sees other current concerns as she travels with the Armenian midwife and learns of the miracle of birth in an area with little access to medicine. She learns of the personal failings and misfortunes of her own family, placing her own struggles in perspective.

Lisé's style is sparse, clean, and confident. She trusts her story enough to avoid creating judgments, instead letting the reader draw their own conclusions. At times the chapters seem to jump, but it becomes clear she is creating a backdrop for the world in which Berta finds herself. Early on we get a chapter entitled "This is My Family," and these are augmented later by character sketches in "Aunt Avelina," "Tristan Nepomuceno," "Lusaper Gregorian," and other chapters. Lisé brings to these characters a believable fullness which shows the lives of others trying to survive in a world turned upside down. Many of them survive quite well since they are comfortable with themselves and have seen other difficult times. Lusaper Gregorian, the midwife, is a refugee from the Turkish massacre of the Armenians, so her take on what is occurring is always influenced by what she has survived. These people also create a context for Berta and for how we view Berta.

The novel also succeeds because Berta is such an identifiable victim. She was not involved in any "subversive" activities herself, but the fact that her lover was makes her guilty. She does not face the government and become a martyr, but understandably runs for her life. Berta's time with her new family is slow and probably at times quite boring. While others may be looking for her, she is simply biding her time for approximately two years, waiting to know what to do next. But of course, this is the most important type of hero. An everyday person caught up in the midst of madness and making whatever rational decisions so she can to survive until another opportunity arises.

Lisé herself was 15 when the overthrow occurred, so she lived through this time and likely saw many such simple heroes. By creating a novel following the story of one person she has managed to make the tragedy of the government known while not letting us get lost in facts and numbers. In a similar vein Vietnam veteran Tim O'Brien has taught more about the realities of the war through his fiction than many non-fiction books have ever succeeded in doing. One hopes the Lisé will continue to use the novel as a vehicle to express her knowledge, since she does so powerfully.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Argentina's Dirty Past, December 11, 2010
Jim (Illinois) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Departing at Dawn: A Novel of Argentina's Dirty War (Paperback)
Argentina's coup of March, 1976 begins the first page of this historical novel, and we witness Atilio Sandoval a leftist being thrown from a balcony and shattering on the pavement. The life of Berta his lover and a 20 year old medical student suddenly changes.

The following dawn Berta is on her way out of Tucuman, Argentina while the country is departing from democracy into a brutal regime run by a dictatorship of three generals. This is story as much about Argentina as it is about Berta's trip. We learn about Argentina's repeated coups-five of them since 1930-followed by brief periods of democracy followed by another coup. The 1976 coup was the most brutal and repressive of them. To escape, Berta begins a journey to physical safety and in the process rediscovers family roots. Her inner journey leads her to question Argetine society and culture. She hopes escape until the violence subsides but learns that the brutality only increases and she has become a personal target of the military.

We learn about the 30,000 Disappeared, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the repression and the fear of Argentines, the many political organizations that balkanized Argetine politics and in some ways triggered the coup.

I was interested in this subject, because I dance Argentine tango as a social dance and I wanted to learn more about Argetina's history. During the period of this coup, tango milongas were repressed. Tango dancers were culturally associated with Peronists. When the presidency of the widow Isabel Peron was overthrown, gatherings of dancers were forbidden, and they were arrested if they gathered for milongas.

This novel left me with a sense of the catastrophe that the coup represented for all of Argentina. Written in 2005, it is clear that twenty five years after the end of the junta, Argentina is only now beginning to account for the abuses...the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo continue to march embracing the pictures of "disappeared" family members much like the melancholy of the music.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Democracy at all costs, October 1, 2013
francesco borghese (short hills, new jersey USA) - See all my reviews
,We must all read this book before thinking that democracy is easy to obtain.
Education,passion sacrifice,. endurance are all necessary tools
I think that the Argentine experience is a teaching experience.
The book is wonderfully descriptive.
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Departing at Dawn: A Novel of Argentina's Dirty War
Departing at Dawn: A Novel of Argentina's Dirty War by Gloria Lisé (Paperback - August 1, 2009)
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