Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
During the last quarter of the 20th century, as South America became a cold war battlefield, a new phrase entered the lexicon of political terror: ‘the disappeared’. Thousands of men and women, and several hundred children, were seized in the street, abducted from their homes or kidnapped from their workplaces, never to be seen again. Some were members of armed guerrilla groups fighting the military juntas that had taken power by overthrowing elected presidents. Most were nonviolent members of trade unions, student organisations, political parties or progressive churches, who believed in democracy and a fairer society. In some cases the crime was simply to be the mother, brother or child of a disappeared dissident, and to want to know what had happened to them.
I was a member of an ecumenical group called the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights in the Southern Cone, known as CLAMOR. It was set up in 1978 under the auspices of the archbishop of São Paulo, Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, to help political exiles and denounce the repression taking place in the region.
It was very similar to the group described in the second chapter of K – ‘The Vortex’ – and referred to elsewhere.
Human rights groups in Argentina, Chile and other countries began to publish appeals to the authorities for information, accompanied by ever longer lists of those who had disappeared. As we received list after list, we decided that it was important to show that each of the thousands of names referred to an individual – a husband, a daughter, a son. We ended up with a list of more than 7,200 names.
In K, Bernardo Kucinski goes further by turning the anguish of the families of the disappeared into a powerful work of literature. By imagining in detail the day-to-day struggle of one man to find his disappeared daughter, the frustrations and incomprehensions, the occasional short-lived glimmers of hope, he is also telling the story of thousands of others who, against all odds, fear, intimidation, lies and deceit, never gave up the search for their loved ones.
He shows how the burden of proof was shifted by the authorities to the families, who had to prove over and over again that the disappeared person actually existed. The burden of guilt also became theirs, the endless ‘ifs’ – if I had spoken to so and so, if I had tried this, gone there, done that, maybe I would have found him or her.
Just as remarkably, Bernardo Kucinski also gets into the minds of the armed-struggle protagonists. He recreates the drama of those so deeply involved in the clandestine struggle that dying for the cause became a matter of loyalty rather than a rational choice. He depicts the terror of a young, uneducated woman who ends up working in a house where torturers inflict unimaginable horrors on the disappeared.
He tells the extraordinary – and true – story of a woman who seduced the most powerful man of the political-repression apparatus to save her brother and then, against her will, fell head over heels in love with this monstrous man, with disastrous results.
All 28 chapters of this book, written in sparse, contained language, may be read separately. Together they add up to an extraordinary account of what political repression means for those involved in it, a compelling tale that is hard to put down. It presents one of the best pictures I know of the ways the dictatorships in South America distorted and undermined so many aspects of life, not only for the victims and their families, but for everyone who lived through it. The stories resonate beyond Brazil to every country that has experienced political repression.
‘I looked after the prisoners, I cleaned the cells, I tried to get friendly with them. They were in a terrible state. Their eyes bulging. Trembling. Some of them spoke to themselves. Others seemed to be half dead, they were in a kind of stupor.’
‘You said that after a few days the prisoners disappeared. Where did they go?’
The young woman doesn’t say anything.
‘You were starting to tell me about this other place, right at the bottom.’
Jesuína seems to be in a world of her own, almost talking to herself:
‘One day a lovely looking boy arrived, he was thin, delicate looking but, poor lad, one of his legs was bleeding heavily, an enormous wound, it was doing him in. But, instead of treating it, they put salt in the wound . . . He stayed in the cell for three days before they took him downstairs . . . I’ll never forget him, so delicate, so handsome, his leg just one huge wound. This one I really tried to help, I wasn’t putting it on, but by the end he couldn’t even talk any more . . .’
. . .
‘Do you know what they did with the prisoners in that room?’
Jesuína didn’t seem to hear. The therapist repeats the question more forcefully.
‘What did they do to the prisoners down in that room, Jesuína?’
Jesuína puts her head in her hands as if she’s trying to stop the question reaching her ears, remains like this for a while, and then pulls her chair close to the therapist and whispers, as if she’s telling a secret:
‘Once I was alone in the house for almost a whole morning. The PM mineiros [military police] had left early in the pick-up, saying that they’d run out of canvas sacks, that the shop where they bought them was a long way away, that they wouldn’t be back for quite a while. Dr Fleury had already left for São Paulo in the early hours of the morning. I was alone, in charge. I went down to the backyard to see for myself. The garage didn’t have a window. The door was locked with a chain and padlock. A wooden door. But I could peer in through the hole they’d made in the door for the hosepipe. I saw some butcher’s hooks Just as you’d see in any butcher’s shop, and a big table and butcher’s knives, saws, hammers. It’s this that gives me nightmares. I saw pieces of bodies through this hole. Arms. Legs, all cut up. Blood, a lot of blood.’
Jesuína gives a deep moan and begins to cry. Soon her crying takes her over and she starts to have convulsions, slowly slipping from her chair. The therapist catches her before she reaches the floor, pulls her up and hugs her. They both stand there, crying.
Translated by Sue Branford, published by Latin America Bureau. K is available from Central Books
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook
‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali
Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.
Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite