For this short story, let us ask questions. Deep thinker questions. Really get into the heart or gut of the story questions. Structural questions. Reason questions. Character questions. Title questions. Yes, questions.
The right questions are keys to life. Properly sculpted, they can release, renew, and build.
EX: Why didn’t the inspector just have all the townspeople murdered? Why would he trust them?
Go to Vast DB. You know the drill.
1, Ask your penetrating question NO DUPLICATES
2. Reserve to answer a peer’s question. One student per question.
3. Answer a peer’s question. If the answer is obvious, was it perceptive? Or are you missing something? Ponder. You could mention your concern nicely as you craft your response. Do you need to ask another question of your peer? Do you need to respond to your peer? Then do so. Third person.
I expect you contribute in a measured, thoughtful manner. This is not a fifteen-minute neglect of responsibility.
The Vast Hell
Here is a living Argentine who leaves the literary mold aside because he earned a Ph.D. in mathematical logic and worked in the field for two years. Then an acclaimed novel, The Oxford Murders, and his life direction changed.
Argentina in 1976 experienced political control of the country in order to counter left Wing terrorism. Gross civil rights violations followed. Martinez includes in this story a reference to the disappearance (“desaparecidos”) of people, political enemies of the state. Most often their bodies were never found. At times, shallow graves were discovered to reveal bodies thrown into a hole in similar manner to Nazi Germany’s approach to those who endangered the Reich. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo was formed by mothers who sought the return of their children.
The New York Times Apr 27, 2009
Guillermo Martinez short story, Vast Hell, appears in the current (April 27th) issue of the New Yorker. It takes place in a small town by the name of Puente Viejo; which means “small bridge’ in Spanish.
The first person narrator, clerking in a grocery store, is having a day so slow that he can hear the “buzzing of the flies”. I think the whole town can hear those flies. He is thinking about a scruffy young man, a stranger, who had pitched a tent at the edge of town. He hit town in the spring…as if unkempt young men were seasonal.
The grocer refers the kid to the newer of two barbers in town, Cervino’s rather than the more remotely located Old Melchor’s. We hear a lot about the rivalry between these two hair-shredders. It’s sort of like a clash of the titans only they’re barbers. Cervino has a hairdressing diploma and uses vegetable extracts. Melchor counters with porno magazines and a T.V. tuned to soccer matches.
But Cervino, shy to the point of virtual non-existence, has his secret weapon wife, “The French Woman”. I guess that just means she’s exotic…we don’t know if she’s actually French…doesn’t matter. She has the habit of appearing in her husband’s shop with limits on the clothing she’s wearing. She checks herself out in the mirror. She looks in your eyes. Do you want to look back?
Here’s where you decide if this story’s for you or not. Have you ever had the experience of looking at someone who was so beautiful…or better…so hypnotic in their effect…that at first you wanted to be around them and then you just wanted to run away because you couldn’t take it any more?
Wow…the male ego…what a piece of work. At first the French Woman makes Cervino’s popular. You never know when she might turn up and put on a show. But she ends up driving customers away. It’s those eyes…like she’s looking down on you…making you feel you’d never be up to the job.
Our now better groomed young man and the French Woman both disappear at the same time.
Crevino says his wife’s gone to the city to look after her sick father. The young man’s tent lies abandoned at the edge of town.
Readers think what they like. But what makes a story is what the characters think. And there’s a nut job of an old harridan, Espinosa’s widow, who’s busying herself digging up the dunes near her house, looking for the bodies.
GM asks a lot of our imagination. He asks you to feel your way into this town’s psychology: feel their boredom, their confusion, their oblivion…and their resulting illusions. Are they your illusions also? Ask yourself that question.
The Vast Hell (Translated, from the Spanish, by Alberto Manguel.)
The Short Story Club
Welcome again to the Short Story Club and the premiere (on ShelfActualization.com) of Guillermo Martinez's story " Vast Hell ." (full text of the story can be found here) I first happened upon this story in The New Yorker a few years back, and I remember liking it. Upon re-reading it now, I realize it is a surprisingly simple story, by which I mean that the story maintains good inertia until the finish, without deviations or tangents or overly-cooked rhetoric. It's just simple. Martinez is good at lacing into the story "significant moments" that give the story its inertia. Moments such as "suddenly, it had all become true" on the penultimate page, or "then the inspector shouted that he'd hit something" on the last page. Simply put, there is no drag to the story. It moves, and moves quickly. What I love most about the story, though, is the ending (which in my opinion is often the hardest component of a story to execute well). In this case, "The French Woman returned a few days later: her father had completely recovered. We never mentioned the boy again. The tent was stolen as soon as the holiday season started." The whole story is one huge crescendo (an erotic affair!), and then more crescendo (disappearance of the lovers!), and then even more crescendo (they're dead! buried on the beach!) and then CRESCENDO (there are dead and mutilated bodies all over the beach!), and then that last line, which is the equivalent, of a big "Never Mind." It's clever.
Well, Mayberry RFD it is not.
No Floyd the Barber here. No Barbara Eden as the manicurist in the NC male bastion.
But the town does boast two barber shops which seems to be one too many. They vie against each other to attract customers. One has the French Woman who entices and then mocks. The young man is smitten and comes every day to the shop. He is the only one who is not deterred, and then he goes missing
Remember the woman in When Black Men’s Teeth Speak Out? It is almost as if her sister lives in this town. This woman’s expertise is gossip. Small towns have an association of everyone knowing everyone’s’ business. The curiosity is that there is an unknown mass grave until this woman seeks the body of the French Woman
When there is nothing to do, head noise happens. The widow makes it happen. The French Woman by being a challenge to the other women in the town is the widow’s attachment – living or dead. It matters not.
The backdrop is the Dirty Wars where people are disappeared. Irrevocably. If they ever reappear, it is large groups of bones and mutilated flesh. The French Woman disappeared only to reappear. No harm to her. Her husband is exonerated. The young man disappeared, leaving behind his housing. That’s final.
So, the gossip damages. It is like the media (of any kind) story that is not complete or errs. The first chance at truth taking root is offset. The concept of There is only one chance to make a first impression can apply here. Then when error is drilled in further by small nails and then larger ones, truth may never be heard unless there is evidence to the contrary.
Parallel this to why the actual deaths do not receive attention beyond their discovery. These are missing persons. These are family members and friends of whom? From where? Who are they? Why the brutality? Surely, they are missed.
And then the forced “no discussion” or the would-be gossips shall meet the same fate.
So, gossiping would seem to be controllable after all.
The Vast Hell
t At the end of the story the town is searching for the French woman and the young man, but end up digging up a mass grave. This grave was most likely the result of a dictatorship where a community was slaughtered in order to “keep the peace.” The people of the town ended up reburying the bodies and agreeing to never speak of the grave, which leads us to believe the Dictatorial administration is still in power trying to control the populace.
There are reports of dictators in South America preforming acts of terror in order to stay in power and continue to suppress the people. There are stories of people being kidnapped, tortured, imprisoned and of people being taken never to be seen again. An example of a Dictator who was known for doing such acts was Jorge Rafael Videla. Jorge was also known for imprisoning pregnant women and taking their babies and having people from his military adopt them. Many people like Jorge have been in power all over the globe, using force to suppress the people and resorting to violence if anyone speaks out.
This shoe box contains sand representing the area near the town in the story that the bodies were found. In the sand is a collection of hearts that represent all the people that have been lost as a result of these cruel acts. If you look and interact with the box you will notice that only 4 of the hearts have something attached so you know where they are, and you can pull them out. What you do not see are all the other hearts buried in the sand that are unknown, these represent those lost that were never found.
Authoritarian Argentina as Shown in Vast Hell
Word Count: 924
In the 1970’s, the country of Argentina experienced incredible political upheaval. The “Argentine Nationalists” were on the rise and attempted to reconstruct a government that represented conservative authoritarian government. This uprising resembled the movement led by Franco during the Spanish civil war (Rock). Argentinian Nationalists believed that they were the opponents of capitalism and communism; their belief concluded that the modern age was entrapping human beings to become “automatons” (Rock). However, with this movement came extreme violations of human rights and tens of thousands of Argentinians disappeared. These people are introduced in Vast Hell, by Guillermo Martinez, a short story about the atrocities.
It was apparent to the United States government that before March of 1976, the situation in Argentina was deteriorating. Political instability was rampant; on March 24th, 1976, the Argentine military junta forcefully removed Isabel Peron from power (Thomas). Furthermore, developments of human rights issues were occurring within the country. The American embassy in Buenos Aires continued to collect information regarding human rights abuses and was documenting 9,000 kidnappings and disappearances (Thomas). The military dictatorship called themselves the “Process of National Organization”, or “Proceso”. This conflicting time in Argentina’s history is known as the Dirty War. Citizens suspected of alignment with socialist or leftist ideals were incarcerated, tortured, or ultimately murdered during this horrible period. An estimated thirty thousand Argentinians were kidnapped and disappeared by the military junta (Blakemore). In Spanish, these people became known as “desaparecidos”. Family and friends were searching desperately for their loved ones; the disappeared included children and pregnant women whose babies were forcefully taken (Blakemore). Other targets of the military junta included social workers, students, writers, journalists, artists, and suspected left-wing activists. Their outcome, if not murdered, were left detained in secret concentration camps throughout Argentina to silence the political dissidents (Hall). This was not a just war; the acts committed by the military junta were human rights violations and complete negation of the rules of war.
During this time in history the Marxist and Leninist ideals were popular. The military junta’s mission was to preserve Argentina’s “national being” against these leftist ideals (Gugliotta). Even after the military phase ended the commanders retained much of their power over the people of Argentina. The military commanders envisioned themselves as crusaders among the country’s people and were rescuing them from the horrible ideals of the leftists. These commanders set the precedence for the disastrous of the Falkland Islands in 1982 which concluded with the collapse of the Argentinian “Dirty War” (Gugliotta).
An Argentinean proverb claims “A small town is a vast hell.” The title of the short story, written by Guillermo Martínez, is set in a small town named Puente Viejo. Guillermo Martínez’s story leaves one with perplexing questions. Puente Viejo is a sleepy and boring small town. This story highlights the negative aspects of the aftermath of the military junta. At first glance, Puente Viejo seems like a normal and quiet place to reside; however, through deeper analysis and more reading, the town has dark secrets from its past. The reader is introduced to a character known as the “French Woman” who becomes the town gossip. When the “French Woman” departs the town to tend to her father’s illness and should return in one week. The French Woman is an incredibly intriguing character to the inhabitants of the small town. She dresses scandalously and is described as “not wearing a bra”. The French Woman symbolizes sexuality and attractiveness. The men in the town lust for her intensely. She is seen as “unholy” in their eyes because of her beauty and acts with the unnamed boy. She represents sinful nature to the small town. Furthermore, the reader is allowed to explore their imagination to analyze the French woman and Puente Viejo. It is possible that the townsfolk of this small, boring town are delusional and are creating illusions for themselves.
The ending of Vast Hell is incredibly dark and perplexing. When the French Woman has not returned in time from tending to her father, rumors begin that she may have been murdered. Rumors begin to flow around the small town as to the disappearance of the French woman. Villagers begin to dig in the sand dunes not too far from the small town; they discover something so horrible and gruesome from the country’s past just below their feet. Bodies began to emerge from the dedicated digging of the small-town folk. Closer analysis from the townsfolk revealed that some bodies had bullet holes, and one was even blindfolded. Then came the realization of what was unfolding in front of them. The detective that was with the townsfolk hurried back inside Puente Viejo to receive instructions; the dog continued to bark and make unnecessary noise. The detective killed the dog with his weapon and instructed the townsfolk to bury the dog. It was clear that this act was a warning to everyone witnessing that this was the outcome if anyone discussed the raising of the bodies.
The country’s past still resonates with the members of Puente Viejo; the past was literally and figuratively buried. The “Dirty War” ended in 1983 when democratic elections resumed after the military junta embarrassingly surrendered power. Furthermore, the legacy of horrendous human rights abuses and violations continue in the everyday and small townsfolk alike in Argentina. Although Authoritarian Argentina has ended, many people that went missing are remembered by their loved ones who are depicted in Vast Hell. “A small town is a vast hell” reigns true for Puente Viejo because of the horrid buried past.
Blakemore, Erin. “30,000 People Were 'Disappeared' in Argentina's Dirty War. These Women Never Stopped Looking.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 7 Mar. 2019, www.history.com/news/mothers-plaza-de-mayo-disappeared-children-dirty-war-argentina.
Gugliotta, Guy. “Argentina's Dirty War.” Alicia Patterson Foundation, 2011, web.archive.org/web/20170129015852/aliciapatterson.org/stories/argentinas-dirty-war.
Hall, Nigel. “Social Work Action.” International Federation of Social Workers, 23 Apr. 2018, www.ifsw.org/argentina-and-los-desaparecidos/.
Martínez, Guillermo. “Vast Hell.” The New Yorker, 2009, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/04/27/vast-hell.
Rock, David. Authoritarian Argentina: The Nationalist Movement, Its History, and Its Impact. University of California Press, 1993.
Thomas, Michael D., and National Intelligence. “Argentina Declassification Project: History.” www.intelligence.gov/argentina-declassification-project/history.
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