Mothers and Shadows by Marta Traba (1981)

Mothers and Shadows centres on a group of women involved in the movement to quash civil-military dictatorships in Latin America’s Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile and Uruguay) during the 1970s/80s. Traba – who died in a plane crash alongside her husband and other prominent Latin America authors in 1983 – opens her tale with a meeting between student activist Dolores and actress Irene, to discuss the day they were arrested during a political protest, and the fate of their comrades.

Stories unroll – how Dolores lost her fiance and their unborn child to the torturers; the disappeared ‘aristocratic revolutionary’ Victoria and her mother Elena’s search for her; and Irene’s niggling worries about her son’s involvement with Chilean revolutionaries. Each is peppered with unthinkable details, including the announcement of deaths of ‘enemies’ (i.e. missing activists) on national television, the Kafka-esque labyrinths of state bureaucracy, and the torture (which Traba handles non-gratuitously).

Thus we are exposed to the quotidian horror of existence under these regimes, where blind compliance becomes the natural sister to all-pervasive fear. The following scene makes perfect sense when you consider that ‘any trivial act, such as taking the same bus twice…was liable to be regarded as highly suspicious’:

I start to look at the kids around me; they’ve all got little flags, badges, T-shirts, caps saying I LOVE ARGENTINA, WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS…’Do you like football?’ I ask a little girl who can’t be more than eight. ‘Hate it,’ she says, screwing up her face rudely, ‘but we’re the champions.’ ‘Champions at what?’ I ask, to stir things up a bit. But I can feel everyone fall silent around me. ‘Champions at everything,’ one of the mothers replies, with a taut smile.

And human interaction is predictably skewed under such circumstances. The nurse who tends to Dolores after her ordeal offers a ‘sympathetic hand’ but ‘if any of the hospital staff come in, she drops my hand as if it were a hot brick’, as, on a wider scale:

The brutes have been so successful because they’ve managed to convince the majority of people that, in addition to the human race, there exists another race that is not human, and which threatens their existence… It’s them or us.  If that’s how you see things, you consider you’re acting in legitimate self defence.

However, what elevates Mothers and Shadows beyond the standard ‘gosh dictatorial regimes are rather yucky, eh?’ is Traba’s portrayal of Motherhood as a force to be reckoned with in the face of such barbarity. The grief of mothers searching for the children the regime has ‘disappeared’ due to their political intransigence is married with an incredulous anger that the State dare steal a child from its mother:

Irene thinking my son, my beloved son who is mine alone and must go on being mine alone and no one can take him from me; and Victoria’s mother going on about my precious daughter who they dragged away from my penthouse … and whose existence they dare to deny as if I’d never given birth to her, nursed her, brought her up, taught her good manners.  In the end it always boiled down to a matter of private property.

This primal instinct inspires the novel’s most moving scene: the description of the ‘Madwomen of the Plaza de Mayo’, the mothers who gathered weekly at the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires in front of the Casa Rosada presidential palace, desperate for and demanding information about their missing children. As their chanting begins, Elena, mother to missing Victoria, shocks Irene with a display of ‘the grief that words could not convey’:

I’d grown up with her but she was a complete stranger to me. I wish I could forget that twisted face, that gaping, howling mouth and, even worse, her skin, that delicate skin of hers, discoloured with purple blotches.

These women continue to protest, even when the regime seeks to reduce their power by labelling them ‘las locas’ (the madwomen) and ensuring other citizens avoid the Plaza de Mayo during their demonstrations. Mothers’ love emboldens and unites women from different backgrounds into a tenacious fighting force. I can’t recall a novel that has portrayed Motherhood in this way (although I hope there is one, and am happy to be corrected…I have a 9 month old and haven’t slept properly since July 2017 so may well be having a mind blank) and this carries Mothers and Shadows’ impact.

So far Motherhood has merely emboldened me to negotiate myself and Rufus, pram and all,  on to a packed rush-hour train from London Victoria by pleading with disinterested commuters that ‘I have to get my boy home for his tea!!!’ and I hope that it never gets more drastic than that. I salute the brave mothers of Plaza de Mayo, and other mothers across the world currently campaigning to create a safer environment for their children: a quick google perusal shows how mothers are uniting to end gun violence, tackle gang participation, prevent deaths by drink driving, and more.  Women are amazing whether they become mothers or not. But I’m learning that the emotions of Motherhood come from a mysterious core and are not to be messed with. So just so you know, world: don’t mess with my boy Rufus!

P.S. Dads are ace too. But that’s for another post 🙂




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