Hamlet and the Disappeared

'Hope is the most terrible of sentences...' Carlos Gamerro explores why so many young Argentinian writers, children of the disappeared, write in the shadow of Shakespeare

If ever there were children that had to grow up in the shadow of phantom parents, it is the sons and daughters of Argentina’s disappeared. Dead men and women who are nowhere and consequently everywhere; murdered, if they are dead – but then, maybe they aren’t dead: there’s always the hope they’ll reappear and, as we all know, hope is the most terrible of sentences. So it’s no accident that the literature of many of these young people, burdened as they are with the explicit or unstated imperative to avenge their ghost parents and bring hidden crimes to light, has been written in the shadow of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

The eternal question ‘Why does Hamlet doubt? Why doesn’t he wreak his revenge without further ado?’ is, of necessity, begged in today’s Argentina by another one: why, when there were thirty thousand disappeared in our country and no shortage of murdered bodies on display, when justice was kept waiting in the wings for nearly twenty years until people thought it would never come, why was not a single act of personal revenge perpetrated against those directly or indirectly responsible, who, unlike King Claudius, made no bones whatever about their crimes, and that without a trace of remorse?

A first, rushed response was that this demonstrated how absolute the victory of the military had been: they had taken away our will to fight and broken us as they had the kidnapped in the torture and extermination camps – a response that Shakespeare’s work anticipates, and questions, in the unfair self-accusations and self-flagellations that Hamlet inflicts upon himself.

Another, less pessimistic, possibility would be to suppose that we learned something from it all, as individuals and as a people: not so much from the dictatorship itself but from the time leading up to it, when the logic of revenge dominated much of political life, in an escalation of violence that, if it did not lead directly to the military regime, nevertheless armed it with an argument and an excuse, and helped to breed in broad swathes of society acquiescence or indifference to the systematic murders of its members. If the logic of revenge had paved the way to dictatorship, it could hardly be deployed again in order to unpave it once a line under that period had been drawn.

Like Antigone, Orestes and Electra, Hamlet is a recurrent figure in the writings of the children of murdered or disappeared Argentine militants. In his ‘Letter to My Parents’ – an allusion to Franz Kafka’s famous ‘Letter to His Father’ – Nicolás Prividera[1] refers to the Generation of ’90, which ‘grew up literally in the shadow of its (symbolically or literally) defeated parents, unable to live down a tragedy that had already been played out in an earlier scene. […] A symmetrical gulf thus opened up between those who (without critical distance) took up the father’s godforsaken voice and those who (with post-modern frivolity) avoided his martyrological history. And so they both confronted their unalterable Hamletian fate: how to be or not to be without falling under the ubiquitous shadow of the (dis)appeared?’

The ubiquitous Prince of Denmark also crops up in the title of an anthology of ‘poets born on the near side of the ’70s’: If Hamlet Doubts, We’ll Kill Him. In the foreword – ‘To Be or Not To Be (Hamlet)’, signed by Julián Axat and Juan Aiub[2] – the extreme Jacobinism of the anonymous banner (‘we don’t know where it came from or who delivers it’) takes on overtones of provocation or even impugnment: ‘That was how our parents thought. What do we think?’ Emiliano Bustos[3], in another text from the same anthology, entitled ‘Confetti, Kerouac and Hamlet’, feels obliged to construct a more positive image of the prince’s doubt: ‘The story of Hamlet is a tough one, as we all know. […] His father was murdered. The murderers and traitors and all those concealing the truth are walking about, free of guilt, as functioning members of the kingdom, yet Hamlet doubts. Any great power system can, as we know, function with both murderers and victims, yet, as part of that system – as a potential part of it – Hamlet doubts. He constructs – justice, truth, revenge – by doubting. And his memory is always, relentlessly, at work.’

In the anthology’s afterword, entitled ‘The Anti-Hamlet’, Nicolás Prividera writes: ‘Hamlet bodies forth the contradiction: he feeds revenge and, at the same time, the deliberation that inhibits it […] If, by doubting, he becomes an accessory to the status quo, by acting he merely embodies a dead conscience. And, trapped between the ghost’s imperative and the acceptance of reality, between past and present, between memory and forgetting, Hamlet loses every time – whether he acts on the imperative or rebels against it. Which is why all he is left with is doubt.’


[1] Nicolás Prividera is the director of M, a documentary on the forced disappearance of his mother Marta Sierra on 30 March 1976.

[2] Julián Axat’s parents, Rodolfo Jorge Axat and Ana Inés della Croce, were kidnapped by the dictatorship on 12th May 1977 and remain disappeared; Carlos Aiub, Juan Aiub’s father, was disappeared on 10 June 1977.

[3] Emiliano Bustos is the son of the poet Miguel Ángel Bustos, kidnapped and disappeared by the dictatorship on 30 April 1976.

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About the Author

Carlos Gamerro b w web shotCarlos Gamerro is one of the best-known and most highly-regarded contemporary Argentine writers. Born in Buenos Aires in 1962, he has published six works of fiction, including the novels The Islands (And Other Stories) and An Open Secret (Pushkin Press).  The Adventure of the Busts of Eva Perón has just been published by And Other Stories.  He adapted The Islands  for a major theatrical production in 2011 and writes influential works of criticism. In addition Gamerro, who was brought up bilingually in English and Spanish, has translated Shakespeare, Auden and Harold Bloom.

About the Translator

Ian Barnett has lived in Buenos Aires since 1991, translating and promoting many Argentinian and other South American writers. He has translated Carlos Gamerro’s novels The Islands, An Open Secret and The Adventure of the Busts of Eva Perón. Reviews of The Islands often made a point of praising his inventive, athletic ‘feat of translation’ (Observer). Barnett was chosen by the Argentinian government to translate an anthology of ‘disappeared’ authors, presented at the 2010 Frankfurt Book Fair, where Argentina was the Guest of Honour.

Additional Information

The Adventure of the Busts of Eva Perón is available to buy from Foyles.

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