By E.A. Barrera
The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan developed a tri-level frame for the human psyche in which he described three separate orders: “The Imaginary”, “The Symbolic” and “The Real.” In Luisa Valenzuela’s novel “The Lizard’s Tail”, these orders become representative of the depiction of Argentina’s history of political corruption. The “Sorcerer” of her novel, a fictionalized look at the life of Isabella Peron’s henchman, Jose Lopez Rega, embodies all three of Lacan’s stations in a wonderful swath of literary magical realism.
In Western cultural tradition, it is the mother who provides love and the father who provides security. During the middle decades of the 20th Century, there was never a better manipulation of this tradition than the reign of Argentina’s Perons. Juan Peron and his second wife Evita practiced a form of governmental parenting in which the poor were allowed to organize and given a beautiful “mother” figure to adore and worship, while “the father” installed a military and security apparatus to establish order.
A welfare state was created by the Peron regime. It offered close ties to the labor unions and it maintained a powerful authoritarian presence. The similarities to the political revolutions and reforms around the world during this period could not be missed. From the benign, necessary programs of Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” in the United States, to Adolph Hitler’s diabolic perversion of the welfare state, called “National Socialism”, the trend in securing and maintaining power was clear. There must be a sublimation of tensions in the poor and working classes. A nationalism must be created which offers the state as both provider and protector. Peron used his wife’s beauty and charisma to bless his totalitarian rule. Thus, like a King of Arthurian legend, he created a political system based on personality worship rather than political ideology.
When Isabel Peron (third wife to Juan) succeeded her husband upon his death in 1974, she appointed Jose Lopez Rega as her “Minister of Social Well-Being.” Like a character from George Orwell’s novel 1984, Rega’s duties and practices were anything but concerned with “social well-being.” The whole history of Argentina’s “Dirty War” during the 1970s, is a horror tale of government abducting, torturing and killing the very people it was supposed to protect.
Relating this terror in fictional form is the strength and beauty of Valenzuela’s work. For in her writing, she is able to portray the inherent madness of a murderer as the logical process his mind creates. In this novel, the “Sorcerer” would create his own progeny through the hermaphroditic impregnation of his third, feminine testicle (who he also considers to be his sister), and this would be a perfectly normal way for one such as he to control his future.
”I am illusory. I am the father-mother neuron. I am also my eminent destiny...”, concludes the “Sorcerer.”
“The Lizard’s Tale” is the depiction of the corruption which seeks power. What is the mind-set which believes it has a right to rule another? Is it essentially mad? Does it come from an internal sense of righteousness which sincerely believes there is no alternative? And is the power corrupting, or is the person corrupt who wants the power?
Valenzuela links governmental torture and oppression with the act of ruling as the product of a mentality that wishes to play the role of the creator in all its forms. “The Sorcerer” is determined to corral and maintain power through the use of violence - the power of life over a nation just as he is determined to corral his own power of life, and control its outcome. It is incest at a level beyond comprehension to all but the character.
Valenzuela once said, “Magical realism is a beautiful resting place, but the thing is to go forward.” She writes of a place where power and madness are indistinguishable from one another. Together they create a religion of corruption that has no benign god, but simply gallery after gallery of rogues fooling their subjects and themselves into believing their insanity.
The return of the “Sacred Mother” is evidence of this blend. Based on the 1974 return of 2nd wife Eva Peron’s body from where it had rested in Madrid, Valenzuela satirizes this raving exploitation of “Evita” for the purposes of political power. The real Jose Lopez Rega is said to have “virtually handled the return of her body alone.” In the novel, this return is depicted as the province of the “Sorcerer”, who sees it as a culmination of secret messages:
“We have been receiving this last month, the ones that reach us subliminally through regular radio programs, come from Her”, says the “Sorcerer.”
This incident of occultism and communion with the dead is itself based on much of the image and history of Jose Lopez Rega. A man, who in his time was given the sobriquet “El Brujo” (male witch), Lopez Rega was described as a “warlock” who used his influence on Isabella Peron to worm his way into her confidence, a confidence that would later become a dependency.
He became the founder and patron of the “Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance” which was commonly referred to as the “Triple A death squad.” Rega is said to have remarked that “the violent left had such hard heads that hammers should be used on them.” Compare this with the recurring theme of Valenzuela’s “Sorcerer”: “A river of blood will flow. Instigated by me. The sluiceways that I open... will in reality be the veins of my enemies”.
Jose Lopez Rega - like an Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin or Pol Pot - are the evil actualized, which man has tried to simply mythologize. It is an incomprehensible evil. Yes, on a surface level one can look at the political environment and academically explain an act of annihilation as a political or military tool designed to achieve certain goals. But once one thinks about the betrayal involved - the taking of life so as to propagate something so transitory as political power - it is nightmarish.
The “magical realism” that accompanies Luisa Valenzuela and other Latin American writers is born of a betrayal and misery few North Americans or Western Europeans can grasp. It is the history of the oppressed - “the other” as William Shake-speare would describe in “The Tempest”. Valenzuela seeks to create a world in which the author is not an omnipotent creator of her work, but rather an active participant, and thus an active victim of its twists, turns and truths. She has seen the corruption that power creates. She has seen that corruption become a killer with no sense of wrong. The corruption is not immoral, but amoral, and thus far more dangerous. The corruption does not see the value of humanity, but rather the value of order and supremacy. It sees itself as not of this world, therefore not of the masses.
Jose Lopez Rega took the reigns of power and used them to destroy his own. Like the “Sorcerer” of “The Lizard’s Tail”, he was a man demented by his own narcissism. What Luisa Valenzuela has accomplished through her novel is to ask a simple question: What is reality, when the real is so unbearable that sanity can not recognize its appearance?