A “Mobilizing Memory” working group I participate in decided to go to Villa Grimaldi while we were in Chile, and I asked Pedro Matta to walk us through. After a back and forth on how much we would pay him, he greeted all thirty-five of us at the gates. Teresa Anativia joined us. The question, again, was what language he would speak. The group decided that he should speak in Spanish, and I volunteered to translate for the rest.
Again, we started at the model, the explanation of how Cuartel Terranova had worked, and then we started the walk around the Villa.
At first, the translation was easy—Matta transmitted facts, and so did I. Here this happened—back then, to them. All distanced, all third person.
We walked to the locked entry gate, and then the first torture chambers. Gradually, as before, Matta’s pronouns slipped. They tortured them, became they tortured us. The words gnawed into me.
They tortured us, I had to say, they strapped me down here, put electrodes to my genitals, to my temples, in all my orifices. My body arched with the shock. I sweat so much I was at risk of electrocuting myself.
As I said these words, my body began unconsciously to take on Matta’s gestures and movements. His pauses became my pauses. My body became the medium. It happened gradually, imperceptibly, the further we got into the past that was not past, the torture that had never stopped or gone away. I lost my distance. I followed him there, to that place. I accompanied him, my voice an echo of his.
This is not the place, I reminded myself. This is not happening, now, to me. But as I said the words, I felt it was the same place, just not in that time. The materiality was transformed—the earth, the gate, the ceramic shards had gone through change. But they were the same earth, the same gate, the same ceramics.
Against my wishes, I began to embody the pain. My throat tightened. I felt the words violating my body, my resentment growing even as I said the words. Why me? Why don’t these people learn Spanish? [IMAGE] I pushed my anger down, into my stomach. He kept telling his story in a low, undramatic way. He used no adjectives, I realized now that the words were in my mouth. My senses locked down, focusing only on what he was relating. Translating became interpreting and then inhabiting, identifying with him and what he was recounting. I didn’t want to be there. But maybe I was also channeling his feelings of not wanting to be there either.
Anger became my distancing device. At the end of the trajectory, I handed Matta the money, promising myself I would never come back again. He might be a professional survivor but I am not a professional observer.
And yet, of course, I am.