Kathleen Wheaton’s new collection, Aliens and Other Stories, would be best described as a romance with Spanish-speaking countries; its tales of relationships hop from Buenos Aires to Madrid. Even those set in Bethesda, Md., depict displaced Argentines, people who escaped to the United States’ East Coast from the junta’s dirty war against leftists, whose 30,000 disappeared—tortured in underground prisons, pushed into the South Atlantic from airplanes, their bodies exhumed in mass graves—haunt this book, victims of Latin American fascism in the 1970s and early ’80s.
Some of Wheaton’s tales are frankly suburban. In “Aliens,” a divorced Bethesda housewife attempts to normalize relations with the woman who replaced her. Also set in a D.C. suburb, “Do Not Call” portrays a wife rather coldly using her lover to repair her marriage to a famous Argentine writer. These family members reappear in several stories, giving the collection a novelistic tint. But then it veers off again, into disparate tales, located in Mexico, Manhattan, and elsewhere.
“Buenos Aires 1984” deals with the tens of thousands of students, journalists, labor unionists, teachers, and activists murdered by the junta. Democracy was restored in 1984, and people began demanding accountability: One character, watching the ex-generals on TV says, “‘Those sons of bitches will go to jail.’ He shrugged. ‘They’ll say, Prove there are desaparecidos. And nobody can. Because they have disappeared.’” The brutality of Latin American history is practically inescapable. The young woman, home from the States, notes “the equestrian statues to the heroes of Independence and Indian extermination.” She considers breaking off her engagement to remain in Buenos Aires, demanding justice for her disappeared cousin. Also specifically Argentine is the last story, “The Nazi Wife,” about a Buenos Aires couple with German émigré neighbors, the husband a former low-level Nazi. Their years of discomfort and avoidance, sharing an apartment building with these Germans, are very well-drawn, while the ex-Nazi’s wife does not swing into focus until the end. The coincidence of European fascists escaping to Latin American countries that later, in the 1960s and ’70s, became fascist themselves, lurks like an unquiet ghost in the background.
These stories subtly clarify this fascist resurgence in Latin America decades ago, as real, violent, and brutal as its European predecessors in the 1930s and 1940s, partaking of the same hideous, dehumanized evil. It is no accident that so many of the disappeared were Jewish—the generals of the junta were overtly anti-Semitic; and just because the killings were on a smaller scale does not negate their atrocious and hateful nature. It brings to mind the anti-fascist novels of Hans Fallada, where the only truth at the story’s end, be it his Every Man Dies Alone or Wheaton’s “Buenos Aires 1984,” is that government-sanctioned murder of civilians has happened again and again and will probably continue to happen if citizens don’t actively fight it. Wheaton’s distanced evocation of the junta’s atrocities is her strength; how she weaves it into stories of ordinary lives is her book’s contribution.