Edgar Brau - The Key
A number of guerilla fighters have been captured. Their leader, Lieutenant Horacio, has been taken away to be tortured while the others wait in a shed, unsure of his or their fate. One thing is certain – their resistance against the Argentine government is likely at an end. Death in battle is a glory, perhaps, but there is no glory in torture, none in starvation.
Edgar Brau's short story, The Key, is set during the Process of National Reorganization (1976-83) in Argentina, when resistance groups appeared in the hope of overthrowing the military junta that had taken over following the death of Perón. The story's setting, however, is hardly emphasised – instead, this is a story of the brutality by man on his fellow beings, an examination of the depravity to which men may descend when violence becomes the only power, and all activities are sanctioned to protect the ruling class and ensure its grip does not falter.
For the time being, they were taken to an eight-by-eight-foot corrugated metal shed, where their feet were clamped into a rudimentary pillory. The stock, formed with two iron beams joined by a hinge on one end, was secured on the other with a large padlock that, within reach of the prisoners but beyond any possible manipulation, seemed to have been placed there with the sole purpose of tormenting the men.
The stock was perpendicular to the door, close to the wall, and could immobilize up to six men. The shed was damp and oppressive; a rank odor, perhaps a mixture of sweat and dried blood, emanated from the cracked cement floor. The only opening to the outside was the peephole in the door.
The men are forced to wait in terrible conditions for the Lieutenant to return, and when he does his mind has become soft, his body ravaged with burns, cuts and scrapes, and his beard has had hairs pulled out of it to make the shape of a cross on his face. He speaks his name and little else, and in his imbecilic face the other prisoners see a stranger to them, and not the man they once knew.
But there is one thing he remembers – that a lock by necessity is matched to a key, and that this key might save his men. When the Lieutenant is taken away for more torture he instead steals a gun and shoots and runs about until he is killed – and now the key is missing. None of the army men know where, and of course the prisoners have no idea.
As an act of revenge against the Lieutenant the army men place him with the others in the shed:
The two soldiers returned immediately, carrying the body of Lieutenant Horacio. They deposited it on top of the planks, with the head nearest to the wall with the door. They pulled off his trousers and went out. The body had begun to stiffen. The eyes were open and the expression on his face, exaggerated by the tightly compressed lips, was one of desperate determination. On the side of his neck was the hole made by the bullet that ended his life and that had exited through his throat. In the calf of one leg could be seen the wound caused by the first shot.
We are now about halfway through the story, and here the tone shifts. Previously, Brau was content to describe the situation of the prisoners in an effectively colourless manner, using a narrative tone that wasted little time on excessive description or the internal thoughts of the characters. In fact, the narration was somewhat bland, even boring, in stark contrast to the actual events of the story (murder, the military, violence, torture), which were anything but ordinary. But now, with the dead Lieutenant in the shed with his men, the narration unfolds, becoming dilated and expansive. Brau luxuriates over the description of decomposition and the effect it has upon the mean, extending sentences and paragraphs in an effort to fully capture the sickening situation.
After two days, none of the prisoners had any doubt about the nature of their situation. For the first day and on into the second one they had continued debating (curiously switching from one position to the other) over the possibility that what was happening was just one more form of torture. But in the presence of the cadaver, which, aided by the heat and the humidity, had begun to become bloated and give off an unmistakable nauseating odor, ended up convincing them that death was all that awaited them, that there was no other outcome possible. Every grimace of desperation on their faces, every spasm of fear or even each twinge of hope, was all part of the inevitable outcome. And that corpse, swollen and naked, was the symbol of the dominance of death; that grimly shut mouth a sign of the inescapable fate that they faced.
The men, of course, find themselves gripping to the edges of their sanity, and what's worse, the army men refuse now to feed them, hoping perhaps that they will be forced to chew on their Lieutenant. Instead, they take turns chewing their clothes, and they watch with a hungry eye the gathering swarms of flies, maggots, cockroaches and rats. They are to “die of death”, as they have been told, and though they didn't know what was meant to begin with, they do know – they will die of nausea, of starvation, of terror, while all the while the Lieutenant's body will rot and fester in front of their eyes.
To the enhanced physical descriptions Brau adds a psychological edge, dipping in to the minds of his characters as they progress from healthy but battered, to sickness and exhaustion. Everything remains in the immediate, however – we never learn the names of these men, their wives, their friends, or the dimensions of their dreams – the suggestion is that there is nothing left but “now” to them, and as horrible as their “now” may be, it is deserving of examination because it is all they have remaining to them.
The man closed his eyes and tried to replace that image with something distracting. He forced himself to think of pleasing memories of several years earlier and his head began moving slowly from side to side. When it finally came to rest on a shoulder, he opened his eyes and now saw only the feverish actions of the rats and the spreading concentration of dark insects. He changed his position, shut his eyes and tried to sleep. But the images of what lay before his eyes remained. He desperately sought distraction. But though he managed to doze off now and then, something always wakened him. He would sit up, his mind in a stupor, muddled by the mixture of the images present in the shed and those retrieved by his straining memory. Dazedly, he gazed about and fell back into a state of lethargy.
Brau's ending is satisfactory, and though it perhaps requires too much suspension of belief, it reinforces the camaraderie of the prisoners, and the nobility of the Lieutenant. They key is found, and the men (perhaps) escape. In writing such an ending, Brau has firmly placed himself on the moral side of the prisoners, which is unsurprising when one considers that the junta is called la última junta militar, or “the last junta” - indicating that, for Argentina, this will not happen again. War is messy and violent, and dictatorships are worse again. Stories such as these do not surprise, but they can inform.
By removing most of the specifically "Argentine" aspects of both the military and the resistance (though these references exist, they are just not strong), The Key is able to confidently comment upon all military misdeeds, to identify the commonality of violence amongst all soldiers. Brau's willingness to take the reader to the far reaches of a government's ability to engage in torture, sadism and brutality has resulted in a particularly engaging story with a strong moral and a stronger aesthetic sensibility.
The Key by Edgar Brau is a short story from Words Without Borders' October 2010 edition, Beyond Borges: Argentina Now issue. All of the work reviewed is freely available online.
Other stories from the Words Without Borders October 2010 edition, Beyond Borges: Argentina Now issue include:
---Bettencourt, Lúcia - Borges's Secretary
---Bizzio, Sergio - Magic!
---Delaney, Juan José - The Two Coins
---Giardinelli, Mempo - God's Punishment
---Martínez, Guillermo - The “I Ching” and the Man of Papers
---Schewblin, Samanta - Preserves
---Shua, Ana María - Octavio the Invader
Also of interest: Index of short stories under review