The Technology of Barbarism by Jorge Majfud

Uncle Caíto was about thirty years old when they took him in 1972. They said that he had collaborated with some Tupamaro guerrillas who were running loose in the countryside where he worked.

I remember him as balding and with a big mustache. He still stuttered whenever he was nervous.

If he were still alive, we would probably fight a lot, due to political disagreements. Why did you get involved in that? How could you not realize that the Russians had their dictatorship too, their own crimes, their own injustices, their own excrement?

Of course, it’s easy to think that now. It’s easy to solve the problems of the past. If we had only seen where we were going with the same clarity with which we look behind us, where it is too late for us to do anything. But that’s the human condition: we learn at the same rate that we cease needing to learn. We learn to raise a child when that child has already grown or we truly understand a parent when he is already an old man or is no longer with us.

They took Uncle Caíto in a field in Tacuarembó, Uruguay, and they dragged him behind a horse as if his body was a plow. They tried to drown him several times in a creek. He was not able to confess anything because he knew less than the soldiers who wanted to know something, and to have a little fun as well; because the days were long and their salaries were meager.

Maybe Caíto made up a name or a place or some detail to make things easy on himself for a moment.

He had to spend some time in prison. One visiting day he confessed to his mother that he had become a Tupamaro there inside. At least from then on the military dictatorship had a reason for holding him.

Military justice must have had other reasons for using pleasure and entertainment through the suffering of others, the way respectable spectators receive pleasure from the torture of an animal in a bullfight.

The military personnel at that time were quite ingenious when they were bored. I have proposed several times the creation of a Museum of the Cold War, as a monument to the human condition. However, I have always been told that this would be somewhat inconvenient, something that would not promote understanding among all Uruguayans. Maybe that is why there are so many museums about the Charrúa indians where pottery and little arrows from those sympathetic savages is collected, but not a single one about the Charrúa holocaust carried out by some of those heroes who still gallop like multiplied ghosts on their bronze horses through the streets of many cities. I am certain that the material of such a museum would be diverse, with so many declassified documents here and there (those sterile psychoanalytical confessions that democracies make every thirty years to relieve their existential conflicts), with so many sexual toys and other curiosities so instructive for students and scholars.

For example. One day the soldiers punished a prisoner and pretended that they had castrated him. Then they came by Caíto’s cell and showed him a kidney-shaped surgical basin filled with blood.

“Today we castrated this guy”, said one of them. “Tomorrow it’s your turn.

The next day Caíto’s groin was monstously swollen. He had spent the entire night trying to hide his testicles.

I heard this story from some of those who had been imprisoned with him. That was when I remembered and understood why my grandmother Joaquina had told someone, secretly, that they had not been able to find her son’s testicles. When I was little I had imagined that my uncle suffered from a congenital defect and that was why he had never had children.

They told his wife, Marta, something similar:

“Today we castrated him. Tomorrow we shoot him.”

Of course, the soldiers of the fatherland did neither of these things. They didn’t go to such extremes because in Uruguay the disappearances were not as common as in Argentina or in Chile. We Uruguayans were always more moderate, more civilized. More subtle. We always felt so small between Brazil and Argentina, and always so relieved and so proud of not engaging in the barbarities practiced by our stepbrothers. At the end of the day, if one does not speak of such things, they do not exist, like in García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba: “silence, silence, silence I said…”

In those days my brother and I were in our grandparents’ house in the countryside. I was three years old and my brother almost doubles that. We were playing on the patio, next to the wheels of a wagon, when we heard a very loud noise. I remember the patio, the wagon, the tree and almost everything else. We went running and were the first to arrive at Aunt Marta’s room. Our aunt was laying face up on the bed, with a hole in her chest.

An adult immediately dragged us outside to avoid the inevitable.

The assumption was we would be traumatized, turned into delinquents or something of the kind.

I don’t know about the trauma, but I can testify that the most outside the law I have been in my life was when I was five years old. I climbed the control tower of a prison and set off the alarms. After the commotion of security guards chasing after me, they brought me down hanging from one arm.

Caíto died not long after being set free. This is an ironic manner of speaking. He was held in the largest prison for political prisoners, in a town called Libertad

If he were alive today, we would be arguing all the time about politics. I would be throwing his mistakes in his face. He would be calling me “petty bourgeois” or something equally deserved. Or maybe I’m wrong and we would continue being the good friends we were until he died.

Because ultimately what matters most are not political arguments. The sadism they practiced on him has no ideology, although eventually it may serve left-wing or right-wing dictatorships, democracies of the North or those of the South.

The Caítos and the Martas of Uruguay are not considered very important. They weren’t disappeared, and they died of natural causes or committed suicide. On the other hand, those soldiers with a sense of humor who played at castrating prisoners today are probably poor little old men who make sure that their grandchildren don’t watch violence on television, while they explain to them that violence is a lack of morality in today’s society, and has resulted from a loss of fundamental family values.

Jorge Majfud is a Uruguayan writer who received his Ph.D. from the University of Georgia, and who currently teaches at Lincoln University of Pennsylvania. His essays, story collections, and several novels have been translated into Portuguese, French, English, German, Italian, and Greek. His latest novel is The City of the Moon (Baile del Sol, 2008).