Book Review: The Duke: Memories and Anti-Memories of a Participant in the Repression by Enrique Medina
JUDGE (impatiently): Did you know that your rival was in bad shape when
you hit him at the end?
WORLD BOXING CHAMPION: (haughtily): Your honor, my job is to
leave my adversaries in bad shape.
To the man with fists, everything is treated like a punching bag. To a man oppressed, everyone is treated as the enemy. To the government with a junta, everything is treated as a target. (Apologies to Abraham Maslow to riff on his original phrase).
The Duke is a short and brutal book. The Duke, an ex-boxer and focus of the book now makes his living as part of an assassination trio as we learn in a couple of ways. The Duke reminisces in an unpunctuated stream of consciousness while he talks to his friend ratty, a rat that inhabits The Duke’s hiding place. Alternating chapters are scenes and interviews by those who knew him, who are more or less talkative, depending on the drinks provided and their willingness to divulge. The novel thus is an interesting polyphonic narrative if short on plot.
Think of the book as a few three minute rounds of boxing. The Duke, we learn, has an apparent ability for boxing, a love for cigarettes, and a history of odd jobs — from working in an abattoir to digging pipe ditches. Described:
“Always elegant, with a unique style, incomparable, inimitable. The best….Him. The Duke. Him who’s never been ko’d.”
Controlling in the ring, The Duke learns that not all problems are solved. He learns that when you can solve them, some are solved with fists and gloves, others are solved with guns and silencers. Typical: He takes his sweet time lighting a cigarette that will drop to the gasoline poured over the crime scene. We can trust what The Duke tell us because as he says to his friend ratty rat, The Duke doesn’t lie.
Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert remarked, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” Not always. Not The Duke. The Duke, as a characterization of power shouldered by poverty and stupidity, lacks eloquent rhetoric.
In contrast, Enrique Medina is able to carve fiction from reality with the gleaming edge of a poetic knife. As Sebastián Abdala points out in his interview with Enrique Medina on his blog Maculaturas, “Ahora, entrando en el estilo de la novela, si bien es una narrativa cruda y directa, no pierde esa cuestión de cierta poética en las descripciones y en el modo de transmitir sentimientos.” [Although it is a raw and direct narrative, it does not lose that question of a certain poetics in the descriptions and in the way of transmitting feelings.]
In my view, a great writer can see the poetry in any circumstance. Here it appears that Medina recognizes the fact that the same society that treasures the creation of the most beautiful arts is also the society that values devastation. This view occasionally enters The Duke’s thoughts, in the few instances he turns pensive.
During the first few chapters, I thought this would be one of the most brutal books I’d ever read, but as I continued, the graphic descriptions generally disappeared and the violence was left to the imagination. That said, beware. On the Mohs Scale of Violence Hardness, a sort of wiki project, I’d situate parts of the book at 7 out of 10, ten being the most graphic.
Now forty years after The Duke was written there are perhaps two directions we can look to situate it.
Looking Back: Medina’s father had been a boxer, although it seems Median didn’t know him. Even so we can speculate he knew of him through family lore. Medina said he’d paid attention to the writings of Bukowski, Burroughs, and Céline and he seemed to hold the same goal, to keep his writing grounded in a rough reality. Medina was also a friend of Cortázar, which might be an interesting book topic for anyone interested. I haven’t seen anything that demonstrated Medina knew of the works of Robbe-Grillet but I find similarities in the free indirect style.
Looking Ahead: There have been many novels with polyphonic narrative, or a counterpoint structure (Kundera’s term), such as The Unbearable Lightness of Being and more recently the great novel A History of Seven Killings by Marlon James that in addition to its polyphony also matches the brutality.
So we learn that The Duke hides visited by his whiskered pal ratty rat. Nothing has gone right. Does anything in this book? Maybe rats will inherit the earth as the rat in the eponymous novel by Günter Grass’ predicted or maybe they already have, seating themselves into chairs of power much in line with an Orwellian dystopia. The Duke certainly doesn’t know. But the rat might. It’s appearance seems to portend or reflect, or maybe it appears in the sense of the Indian Puranas where Ganesha uses it as his transport to his final incarnation, as a signal that The Duke will soon head toward his finality. Or maybe the rat is just a rat. Hard to tell.
Cooler and more sadistic than The Duke is his friend Sorel, that is if killers are able to have friends. Sorel’s fondness for painting landscapes from postcards is matched only by his love of atrocity. Once he unleashes his fury, he comments in a manner known in the film world as soundtrack dissonance. A widely known example is found in the movie A Clockwork Orange where Alex does an a cappella Singin’ in the Rain while he and his droogs administer beatings and trash the writer’s house. Sorel, at the end of a particularly gruesome scene remarks, “Esthetics. That’s the theory of sensitivity. The science that deals with beauty and the feelings that give rise to beauty in us.” Then, following the murder of a family while he helps trash their home, Sorel takes time to admire modern paintings before smashing them to bits. Once the house is on fire, Sorel, says, “Such a pity…they seemed like a nice family.”
Yes, most of the victims in the novel die for little reason: cows ignorantly arrive at the abattoir, an innocent cat is tied to a train track, a mother and daughter simply look out of a window. Sorel shoots up a merry-go-round and when asked why answers, “I don’t know. I haven’t the faintest idea. Maybe just a change of pace…” While The Duke might attempt, if pressed, to invoke the Eichmann defense of ‘just doing my job,’ or ‘following orders,’ Sorel seems to enjoy inflicting pain upon the innocent. What a metaphor for the political climate.
The Duke was published on the eave of the Argentine brutality called Processo de Reorganizacia Nacionale, more colloquially known as the Dirty War that lasted from 1976–1983. On March 29, 1976, when the military junta took over power, everything was out of control. The economic state was a mess, left wing guerrillas were rampant. The junta closed the National Congress, it banned trade unions, it enforced extreme censorship, it tortured and killed thousands upon thousands of dissenters and their friends. The junta’s solution to previous unjust violence in turn became a mirror image of that unjust violence.
In confronting the brutality, Medina did not write an obvious diatribe, rather he encased into his novel violence as arbitrary, situational, and convenient. He equated murderous intent with capriciousness. Medina’s friend Manuel Quiñoy wrote, “Obviously, The Duke was banned.” Medina continues to hold the bleak title of Argentina’s most banned author.
To press a little more. Philip G. Zimbardo, known for the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, wrote in an important paper on the psychology of evil, “the line between good and evil lies in the center of every human heart.” The Argentine heart during the Dirty War is filled with Black Bile. In The Duke, life takes place on a Tarantino turntable, round it goes playing songs of viciousness and melancholy. Yet the novel is, to borrow a phrase used by critic John Sturrock when writing on author Alain Robbe-Grillet, “neither subjective nor objective, but both.” It is designed to produce a “change in the structures of consciousness rather than any direct change in this or that institutional practice” (The French New Novel).
Zimbardo, in serving as an expert witness for an army reserve guard on trial for the horrible events at Abu Ghraib, asked the judge to consider evidence in three domains, which I mention here because they provide lenses through which we can examine the book and I find evidence in the book that Medina considered the situation of Argentina from all three positions:
Dispositional: The disposition of the Duke for violence, sadism, cigarette smoking that ruined the lungs of a boxer, as well has his rueful qualities;
Situational: The events in life that caused his fall from the boxing ring and fame;
Systemic: The nature of power and leadership in Argentina during the Dirty War that allowed for guerrillas and then the military junta.
In the novel these all relate in a hierarchical causal manner: The larger political system causes situational strife, that has the potential to exacerbate the negative traits of one’s disposition. It’s no wonder the Argentine government banned the novel that eventually blamed violence on organization and system, read this as the government. In such a system according to The Duke, “blood as the saying goes it rises to the wound without being called.”
Speaking to a less structural level, Zimbardo has said, in relation to Hitler’s plans, but applicable in the Dirty War as well,
“this institutionalized evil has spread pervasively and insidiously by perverting education away from critical thinking exercises that open student minds to new ideas and toward thinking critically and close-mindedly about those targeted as the enemy of the people. By controlling education and the propaganda media, any national leader can produce the fantastic scenarios depicted in George Orwell’s…frightening novel, 1984.”
I am entirely outside of historic Argentine politics and culture, so it is difficult for me to see the danger found specifically in The Duke for the society terrorized into silence. Duke says, “I felt a bit of satisfaction with myself how great it is for an entire neighborhood to stay silent about a crime.” It’s hard for me to grasp the pervasive terror, but I can imagine the impossibility of expression in a climate where dissidents disappear.
Behind the scenes in the novel, the uncontrolled mayhem begins to look like the entire scenario of persecution was premeditated or at least that it evolved in a predictable manner. The Stanford Prison Experiment as well as the abuses at Abu Ghraib have shown us how things can so easily go wrong. Zimbardo points out, the system is as much if not more to blame than the person and this theme is embedded in throughout the book.
I also found myself thinking about the book from another point of view, as related to Emile Simpson’s influential work, War from the Ground Up. Simpson writes, about how war is a political instrument. It acts as a framework designed to promote an outcome. He says, “force is simply another way to communicate meaning, another language.” For Medina, although the connection is subtle, force communicates political intention, and literature can make this clear. Simpson continues,
“Once seen as a form of language, force assumes the same properties of language in terms of the capacity to transmit meaning. The critical convergence of language and the use of force is that the ‘meaning’ of an action, including violent actions — like the meaning of the spoken or written word — is not self contained.”
Meaning must be interpreted. This is perhaps why Medina was perceived as dangerous, he is superb at taking events and interpreting them through novelistic form, in a manner certainly unsuited the government’s intentions.
Medina stated in the same interview with Abdala that he structured The Duke on Orson Welles’ movie Citizen Kane, meaning he used the technique of telling a life story through the eyes of others. In doing so we feel the cogs of the creative process here, a click-clicking as the structural links found in the staccato chapters of hyper-violence glossed with eloquence come together in the overall design. This is a very special and focused space, also found for example in A Clockwork Orange, the novel by Burgess this time. But unlike Burgess there is no redemption, no interest in behavior modification on a personal level.
Precious little is to be found on Medina and his works across the internet and this is a poor testament to a very fine writer. I would think that in a US political climate where, as Sorel says, “if you are not on my side, you are against me,” that Media would be of great interest. From the position of a writer, I watch in disgust as businesses in the United States censor based on whimsey and political aims. Isn’t the climate perfect for republishing The Duke in English and wouldn’t it be strategic to do so?
As a final though, I kept thinking of the famous quote found in in Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, that I present at length because it is so apropos,
“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” (The Incommodities of Such A War)
Yes indeed. The Duke’s life is nasty, brutish and short. And yet, somehow, culture flourished, as Medina proves.
Abdala, S. (October 14, 2017). An Interview with Enrique Medina, Prolific and Brutal Argentine Writer. Retrieved from http://maculaturalineal.blogspot.com/2017/10/una-entrevista-enrique-medina-prolifico.html
Hobbes, T. (1651). Leviathan. Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3207/3207-h/3207-h.htm
Simpson, E. (2012). War from the Ground Up: Twenty-First-Century Combat as Politics. London: C. Hurst & Co., Ltd.
Sturrock, J. (1969). The French New Novel. London: Oxford.
Zimbardo, P. G. (n.d.). The Psychology of Power and Evil: All Power to the Person? To the Situation? To the System? A modified version of his presentation for the DHS course, The Psychology of Terrorism, organized by the faculty of the National Center on the Psychology of Terrorism. Retrieved from http://pdf.prisonexp.org/powerevil.pdf