From the Archives: Prisoner Without a Name

One night  in prison

Jacobo Timerman, a prominent Argentine journalist and publisher, was arrested in 1977 by state military officials and subjected to torture and imprisonment for two and a half years. When Argentina’s Supreme Court ordered his release on the grounds that formal charges had never been laid against him, Timerman was nevertheless exiled from Argentina and sent to Israel. In 1981 he published Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, an account of the Dirty War in which he and thousands of other Argentines were persecuted and disappeared by the country’s military government. The following extract appeared in the 1996 International PEN anthology This Prison Where I Live  and was reprinted in PEN Canada’s December 1996 newsletter.

Jacobo Timerman

Tonight, a guard, not following the rules, leaves the peephole ajar. I wait a while to see what will happen but it remains open. Standing on tiptoe, I peer out. There’s a narrow corridor, and across from my cell I can see at least two other doors. Indeed, I have a full view of two doors. What a sensation of freedom!

The light in the corridor is strong. Momentarily blinded, I step back, then hungrily return. I try to fill myself with the visible space. So long have I been deprived of a sense of distance and proportion that I feel suddenly unleashed. In order to look out, I must lean my face against the icy steel door. As the minutes pass, the cold becomes unbearable. My entire forehead is pressed against the steel and the cold makes my head ache. But it’s been a long time — how long? — without a celebration of space. I press my ear against the door, yet hear no sound. I resume looking.

He is doing the same. I suddenly realize that the peephole in the door facing mine is also open and that there’s an eye behind it. I’m startled: They’ve laid a trap for me. Looking through the peephole is forbidden and they’ve seen me doing it. I step back and wait. I wait for some Time, more Time, and again more Time. And then return to the peephole.

You blinked. And that flutter of movement proved conclusively that I was not the last human survivor on earth amid this universe of torturing custodians

He is doing the same. And now I must talk about you, about that long night we spent together, during which you were my brother, my father, my son, my friend. Or, are you a woman? If so, we passed that night as lovers. You were merely an eye, yet you too remember that night, don’t you? Later I was told you had died, that you had a weak heart and couldn’t survive the “machine”, but they didn’t mention whether you were a man or a woman. How can you have died, considering that night we conquered death?

You must remember, I need you to remember, for otherwise I’m obliged to remember for us both, and the beauty we experienced requires your testimony as well. You blinked. I clearly recall you blinking. And that flutter of movement proved conclusively that I was not the last human survivor on earth amid this universe of torturing custodians. At times, inside my cell, I’d move an arm or a leg merely to view a movement that was nonviolent, that differed from the ones employed when I was dragged or pushed by the guards. And you blinked. It was beautiful.

You were — you are? — a person of high human qualities, endowed certainly with profound knowledge of life, for you invented all sorts of games that night, creating Movement in our confined world. You’d suddenly move away, then return. At first I was frightened. But then I realized you were recreating the great human adventure of lost-and-found and I played the game with you. Sometimes we’d return to the peephole at the same time, and our sense of triumph was so powerful we felt immortal. We were immortal.

A few days later, when taken for a session with the “machine”, I heard one guard comment to another about his having used your crutches for kindling. I’m sure that you’re aware, though, that such ruses were often used to soften up a prisoner before a “machine” session — a chat with Susan, as they called it. And I didn’t believe them. I swear to you I didn’t believe them. No one could destroy for me the mutual immortality created during that night of love and comradeship.

You know how dismal it is to be in a cell and cry hoarsely, wretchedly, heedlessly. That night, you taught me how we could be comrades-in­-tears

You were — you are? — extremely intelligent. Only one possible out-going act would have occurred to me: looking out, looking, ceaselessly looking. But you unexpectedly stuck your chin in front of the peephole. Then your mouth, or part of your forehead. I was desperate. And frightened. I remained glued to the peephole, but only in order to peer out of it. I tried, I assure you, even briefly, to put my cheek to the opening, whereupon the inside of my cell sprang into view and my spirits immediately dropped. The gap between life and solitude was so evident; knowing that you were nearby, I couldn’t bear gazing back toward my cell. You forgave me for this, retaining your vitality and mobility. I realized that you were consoling me, and I started to cry. In silence, of course. You needn’t worry. I knew that I couldn’t risk uttering a sound. You saw me crying, though, didn’t you?

You did see that. It did me good, crying in front of you. You know how dismal it is to be in a cell and to say to yourself, It’s time to cry a bit, whereupon you cry hoarsely, wretchedly, heedlessly. With you I was able to cry serenely, peacefully, as if allowed to cry. As if everything might be poured into that sobbing, converting it into a prayer rather than tears. You can’t imagine how I detested that fitful sobbing of mine inside the cell. That night, you taught me how we could be comrades-in­-tears.

A few days later a guard came to my cell to soften me up. He gave me a cigarette: it was his turn to play the good guy. He advised me to spill everything, told me that he’d had plenty of experience and that a person my age winds up dying in Susan’s arms because his heart can’t withstand the electric shocks for long. And he informed me that you’d been “cooled out”. This is how he put it: “Look, Jacobo, the only obligation you have is to survive. Politics change … You have children. In the cell facing yours there was a crazy guy. We cooled him out. Look, Jacobo …”

I didn’t believe him. If I was able to withstand it, certainly you were. Did you have a weak heart? Impossible. You were strong-hearted, generous, brave.

They had orders to get me to confess because they wanted to build a big case around me. I wasn’t any use to them dead

Do you remember when I got a cramp in my leg while they were torturing me and suddenly my outcries ceased? They thought I had ‘gone’, and were alarmed. They had orders to get me to confess because they wanted to build a big case around me. I wasn’t any use to them dead. Yes, I was paralysed for a moment due to the cramp. It’s curious how one can experience pain and joy simultaneously. Although my eyes were blindfolded, I sensed their fear — and rejoiced. Then I began moaning again on account of Susan.

No, I don’t think you remember this, though I tried to tell you about it. Yet your eye was much more expressive than mine.

My friend, my brother, how much I learned that night from you. According to my calculations, it must have been April or May 1977. Suddenly you put your nose in front of the peephole and rubbed it. It was a caress, wasn’t it? Yes, a caress. You’d already incorporated so many levels of experience into our captivity, yet persisted in the restoration of our humanity. At that moment you were suggesting tenderness, caressing your nose, gazing at me. You repeated it several times. A caress, then your eye. Another caress, and your eye. You may have thought I didn’t understand. But we understood each other from the start. I knew clearly you were telling me that tenderness would reappear. I don’t know why you felt the urgency that night to affirm the equal importance, or even greater importance, of tenderness over love. Is it because tenderness contains an element of resignation, and perhaps that night you were feeling resigned? Is it because tenderness is consoling to someone already resigned? Tenderness is indeed a consolation, whereas love is a need. And you assuredly needed to be consoled. I didn’t understand that, but you, my brother, my friend, my comrade-in-tears, were you already aware of this and resigned to it? If so, why and for whom am I uttering all these inanities? Am I babbling to myself like a fool? Is there really no eye gazing at me?

Source:  The 1996 International PEN anthology This Prison Where I Live (pp. 27-30, translated by Toby Talbot)

Photo credit: Argentines holding photographs of relatives who were disappeared during the Dirty War (Marcos Brindicci/Reuters)