Robert Birnbaum spoke to Englander about the aftermath of Argentina’s Dirty War, his intense writing process, and the 75 pages of questions he felt he had to answer before his epic was finally done. — Izzy Grinspan
[Laughs] I knew that might come up. Not much else. Oh, there's the novel. There's that.
When we spoke in '99, you mentioned a novel set in Argentina. At that time you were planning to go back there.
I went to Argentina in 1991 for friend's wedding and fell in love with the place, but it wasn't any sort of Michener love. When it was time to write this book, I had all these ideas about community, identity and government—really, governments gone awry—and as that all coalesced, Argentina seemed like an excellent setting. But I actually hadn't been back until last month.
You hadn't gone back since we spoke?
I think sometimes knowledge is a dangerous thing for me. It’s limiting in a sense. I really wanted to build my own Buenos Aires. I had these nice vague memories—a feel of wide avenues, or a memory of eating in this restaurant, or seeing this old man—and that really was enough for me. I didn't want to go back until I was done. I do an extreme amount of research after the fact.
You check your composition against facts.
Yeah. There are certain things that I stand by, and one is that anything that book demands becomes true by virtue of its necessity to the fictional world. So the Ministry of Special Cases, the building itself, it is. It exists in my world and hopefully in others’.
Is there actually a part of the bureaucracy named the Ministry of Special Cases?
No. If I needed to put Argentina north of the equator I would have. But then I go back and I want it all exactly right. If a character goes fishing off the pier, I want to know what they fish with. It's really an insane process. The book is basically done and then I am changing details. If the fiction does not demand it, then I want to be exacting.
First of all, why did you write this book?
[Laughs] That's a good first-of-all question.
It's not an easy question.
It’s a gigantic question. If I step back, I can see the bigger ideas: my Argentine friends, or having been to Buenos Aires, or how we are shaped by politics or identity. But it can also be as simple as living in Israel and seeing the obsession with bones, with crossed-border stuff, where soldiers disappear and Israel is fighting to get them back or Hezbollah wants their own soldiers back. There’s this Jewish idea of having something to bury that goes back to the Holocaust. It’s these very primal things for me.
The Ministry of Special Cases starts with something ostensibly funny, though it devolves into the harrowing world of the Dirty War. There’s a split in the Jewish community between the seamier tawdry element and the middle class strivers who are now interested in repudiating their pasts. How much of that was historically true?
One element that fascinated me about the setting was that South America is so rich but so poor. Then again, come to Manhattan; it’s turning in to the same thing. But that's what drew me to Argentina: Part of its strength, what has held it all together through all this stuff, is that it is a country of the middle class. What do middle class people do? They want to hold on or move up. And at the turn of the century when all the Jewish tailors were coming over to New York and Buenos Aires, they had a little problem with white slavery and Jewish whorehouses. The community was deeply, deeply ashamed of them, and what interested me was the idea of what’s sacred and what’s profane and who points a finger. Newt Gingrich just admitted he was a having an affair during the Clinton impeachment—that idea of deep hypocrisy.
Those kinds of stories move me deeply in terms of how we relate to each other. Women who were either tricked or sold into white slavery—this idea that they were Jewish and wanted to be buried as Jews. That’s how the novel starts: The other Jews wouldn't have the children of prostitutes in their cemetery. I’m interested in this idea that somebody could stand in judgment of somebody else and say you can’t be buried among us. When I heard these graveyards exist and they are indeed locked off or in disrepair, I became obsessed with this idea of eternal punishment.
By reputation, the Dirty War is a matter of great shame. People actively deny it, and they don’t talk about it out of guilt or for fear of some kind of reprisal.
I have a theory. Here’s the best way to ruin a novel: Put in all these theories that you are so proud of. But I’ve lived in Israel, where every ten feet there is a wall, there are names. I heard there’s a memorial in New Jersey of September 11, and some families didn’t want their names on it, and there’s fighting about the one downtown. In the US and Israel, we memorialize. And then in Buenos Aires you have the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who have marched every Thursday for twenty-five years against a government that’s long gone.
You do see this in Latin America—in Nicaragua, curbstones have memorials to fallen heroes of the revolution, car accidents and so forth.
Yeah, yeah, there will be a basketball where there was a car accident because the kid liked basketball. In a city that so loves its dead, that has built its whole social life around this cemetery, that has these giant statues everywhere, it is interesting to me that the mothers are absolutely the biggest living sign of the Dirty War.
Did you go see them when you went back? Was there an audience?
Yeah. It wasn’t big, but there were people there every week. What must it be like to pass these same ladies every week for 25 years?
I asked my Argentine friend Jessica, “Is it hidden here?” She said without pause, “It’s alive for us. We know it exists.” It’s not prominent in the way it would be here, but Argentina is such a polite society. That part was taken advantage of by the junta, and when you are hyper-polite a lot of stuff doesn’t get said.
Everybody I asked responded that way: “We know and we have not forgotten.” And it’s a living thing. That was the other point Jessica made that I thought was excellent. She sent me the YouTube for this commercial they had on the air last year. It shows a kid on the beach. In Argentina, when a kid is lost on the beach, you pick up the kid and everyone claps until the parents are found. [The junta] stole a lot of children and gave them away for adoption. This ad used the beach as a metaphor: If you don’t know who your parents are, we are looking for you.
There is nobody who doesn’t know. I am wondering how they are going to deal in the future, since the mothers are old.
There are trials now, yes?
I had this metaphor in my novel about habeas corpus. Now that the reviews are coming out, suddenly I learn that I have a political book because we have actually suspended habeas corpus in America. When you start taking away rights, the citizenry doesn’t notice. It’s not even a slippery slope; it’s a crossing of the line. People mark the start of the junta from the start of the coup—say March 24, if that’s when the coup was successful. Well, it was still happening the 23rd. It started long before it made history. Isabel Peron was arrested in Spain in January and that was unbelievably moving to me—she needed to be arrested.
I am fascinated by the stories, factual and fictional that are based on victims meeting their torturers.
Yes, there are all kinds of stories like that—being on a bus and just looking over.
That’s such a loaded moment. Nothing needs to be said. This tactic of disappearing people is very cruel, perhaps the cruelest thing to visit on a family. I think the Guatamalan military were the first to employ this. I wonder if we can trace these things back to the US Army’s School for the Americas at Fort Benning, where many senior military officials from around South America were taught so-called “counter-insurgency tactics.”
Them’s fighting words.
Okay. Who decided how to disappear people?
I can’t even touch that. There are things that I can’t even touch for my own ignorance. With the School of the Americas, I’m interested in the Kissinger years, America’s connection with Chile and stuff like that. But how much of America was I going to put in the book? At the end of the research stage, one of my Argentine friends said, “You’re not damning enough about the United States.” Which was interesting, but it was not of this world that I was creating.
I am not suggesting that the book was obliged to deal with any of these hot-button topics.
That’s why this ended up being a ten-year book. At different times I have been obsessed with every one of these threads.