An ’80s’ movie etched in my memory is Costa-Gavras’ chilling Missing, the story of an American family’s search for their journalist son who had disappeared in post-coup Chile. The 1973 toppling of Chile’s first democratically elected Marxist president, Salvador Allende, ushered in an era of bloody repression under the CIA-backed military dictator General Augusto Pinochet. The Palme D’Or-winning Missing centred on the search for left-leaning reporter Charles Horman by his businessman father Ed, played by the legendary Jack Lemmon, and Charles’ wife, played by Sissy Spacek. Ed at first blames his son but slowly discovers the complicity of the American Government. The Chile coup shocked many Australians, maybe because Gough Whitlam’s Labor Party had recently won office after 23 years of Liberal-Country Party Government rule.
Three years later Argentina suffered the same fate as its western neighbour when a military junta ousted Isabel Peron. Argentinians woke up to find their parents, sons, daughters, husbands, wives – everyday men and women – “disappeared”. These commonplace tragedies are given ongoing focus as now-grandparents continue to search for missing grandchildren, many of whom have ethereal status without a confirmed existence. I have just put down the gripping 2016 novel The Memory Stones by Australian journalist-turned-author Caroline Brothers, a fictionalised telling of one such generational search. Brothers worked as a foreign correspondent for media organisations such as the International Herald Tribune, including stints in Mexico and Central America. She told an Avid Reader gathering last year she chose a fictionalised format for Memory Stones because the non-fiction version had “already been told” through extensive reports over decades in the foreign media.
The choice of style was effective: fiction allowed the creation of characters who brought life to the events of the period and allowed the reader to suffer the anguish of all those who experienced devastating loss, through disappearance and death. It’s estimated that between 1976 and 1983 up to 30,000 Argentinians vanished or were known to have been killed. The book also brings life to the courage, tenacity and ingenuity of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo – the Asociación Civil Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo – which still works relentlessly to find the the babies born to “disappeared” or executed young mothers and adopted out to junta officials. The abuelas’ efforts have recovered 122 grandchildren, seen 1000 of the dictatorship’s torturers tried and 700 sentenced. No stone unturned indeed.