May 30, 2012 by markstani
Shortly after Argentina’s military junta seized power in 1976, it was responsible for the abduction of 10 high school students, alleged members of a left-wing guerrilla group, in an act that became known as ‘The Night of the Pencils’. Six were never seen again: it took until 2011 for the survivors to see justice.
This gruesome episode is covered indirectly in Martin Kohan’s School For Patriots (pub. Serpent’s Tail; trans. Nick Caistor): his novel is actually set some six years on, in the midst of the Falklands War, but the terror inspired by such a heinous act still lingers.
The National School of Buenos Aires prides itself on being a pillar of Argentinian patriotism, an integral part of the nation’s moral fibre, responsible for moulding pupils who will be uniquely qualified to serve the fatherland.
The school’s assistants’ supervisor, Senor Biasutto, is a man feted for his key (though never specifically determined) role in ‘The Night Of The Pencils’: his record inspires fear and admiration in equal measure, not least in the young, naïve assistant, Maria Teresa, who is ensnared by Biasutto’s power, and becomes obsessed with pleasing him by uncovering acts of ill discipline, however small: according to Biasutto, such rule-breaking amounts to ‘spiritual subversion’ which, if left unchecked, will spread like a cancer to once again threaten the nation.
It is against this dark backdrop that Maria Teresa starts her campaign to catch students she is convinced are smoking in the boys’ toilets, and thus achieve the respect from Biasutto she craves. She hides in a cubicle and in the course of her investigation finds herself experiencing a kind of personal awakening: she is a virgin who lives at home with her ageing mother; her conscripted brother sends blank postcards back from his way to war.
[Senor Biasutto] informed her, amongst other things, of the best attitude to adopt to keep a close eye on the pupils. It was no easy matter to achieve what Senor Biasutto referred to as the ‘ideal stance’. The ideal stance to keep the closest watch. An attentive gaze, taking in every detail, would mean that no misbehaviour or violation of the rules escaped her. But precisely because she was looking on so attentively, this would serve as a warning to the pupils. The ideal stance required a gaze that surveyed everything, but which itself was able to pass unnoticed. The teachers were well aware of this; that was why, whenever there was a written test, they stood at the back of the classroom, so that they could see without being seen. Any sideways glance inevitably betrayed a pupil attempting to copy from a neighbour. The school assistants had to acquire a similar expertise if they wanted to be as relentlessly alert. Not ‘staring into space’ as an absent-minded person might do, but seeing everything while giving the impression of not looking at anything.
‘School For Patriots’ is an extremely clever novel which resists the temptation to delve directly into the nation’s tortured recent history, content to convey its turmoil through a subtle, under-stated build-up of tension and paranoia: through hair heading millimetres too long towards collars; fingertip stances and undone top buttons.
Kohan has crafted all this cliffhanger atmosphere from the most incongruous of settings: it is, let’s face it, a book about war and oppression set predominantly in the school toilets. But that’s it’s genius: the true horror is all the more tangible precisely because it is left to lurk, literally at times, on the other side of the bolted cubicle door. In that respect ‘School For Patriots’ has similarities with Marcelo Figueros’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize-shortlisted ‘Kamchatka’ – another intelligent, immersive piece of under-stated Argentinian fiction.
Moreover, ‘School For Patriots’ proves especially powerful because Kohan has managed to rekindle acute memories of schooldays familiar to us all – we all recognise Maria Teresa’s sense of helplessness when she realises she is cornered in the cubicle – but in Kohan’s book the repercussions for being caught red-handed are amplified a thousand times: for us it might have meant detention or the cane; for students in Argentina it could mean disappearance and death.
‘School For Patriots’ is published on June 21