Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number.

Argentina has three main enemies: Karl Marx because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of society Sigmund Freud because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of the family; and Albert Einstein because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of time and space - one of the ideological defences offered by the military

The election of Pope Francis has added oomph to the interest in Argentina’s Dirty War. It is a thorny issue for the Catholic Church, and given the military extolling of Christian virtues any division between junta and hierarchy is blurred by both having drawn from the same ideological well and sharing the same religious opinion.

I began reading this book quite a few years ago while on a bus to Coalisland in Co Tyrone. My reason for going there was to speak to a meeting of prisoners’ families, which seemed fitting given that this work by Jacobo Timerman is acknowledged as one of the classics to have emerged from the dark days of military rule in Argentina.

The floor of the cell is permanently wet. Somewhere there’s a leak. The mattress is also wet. I have a blanket, and to prevent that from getting wet I keep it on my shoulders constantly.

What former blanket prisoner could fail to identify with that? The protests in the H Blocks were ongoing while Timerman and others were undergoing their horrifying ordeal. While there was daily brutality on the H Blocks it did not approach the extremes that prisoners of the Argentine military experienced. And the bulk of us held came out the other side intact if not always completely so.

This is not to be explained on some spurious grounds of the British state having a respect for the rule of law or being smitten by any human rights concerns. As Ian Cobin points out in his book Cruel Britannia, torture by British state security personnel is as British as red post boxes.

Jacobo Timerman has been described by fellow journalist Andrew Yoll as wicked and witty. He had a reputation for being a hell raiser. In his own work on the dark days of military terror in Argentina Paul Lewis raises questions about the openness of Timerman, suggesting that he was closer to the guerrillas than he cared to admit and also that Timerman focused on his Jewish identity in this book to explain the hatred of the Nazi imbued Argentine military rather than its detestation of David Gravier, supposedly the guerrillas’ banker to whom Timerman was linked. Moreover, Timermann had actually supported the military coup of 1966, while a decade later his paper had certainly been arguing for a heave against the Peronist government which seemed incapable of anything other than being consumed in a cauldron of lawlessness and nihilism.

Yet this hardly detracts from the courage or tenacity that Timerman displayed both as a journalist and as a prisoner of the regime. With one constant unswerving ally in the Buenos Aires Herald, La Opinion, with Timerman as editor, challenged the junta, demanding habeas corpus on behalf of the tormented relatives that would turn up seeking information on their snatched loved ones.  The junta told Timerman that there would be no problem for him if he stopped demanding to know the fate of the disappeared. Yet, ‘the one thing that proved impossible was to shut your eyes.’

In the opening months of the coup the profession hit most was that of psychiatry because the military reckoned that psychiatrists must know lots of the private thoughts of those accused of being terrorists. Priests were regarded as being the only people to confide in not psychiatrists. Not surprisingly as on occasion priests would attend torture sessions to give the sadists spiritual solace as they went about their Christian mission.

So the President of the Argentine Federation of Psychologists could be dragged by the hair through the corridors of the hospital where she practiced by armed men so that she could have a chat with Susan, the military euphemism for electric shock torture, followed most likely by a helicopter journey to the sea. While Timerman does not refer to her by name she was Beatriz Perosio who remains unaccounted for, the military denying she was ever in its custody.

Arrested in April 77 by the First Army Corps Timerman was to undergo a brutal experience as he was constantly forced to chat with Susan. Yet in a world of ‘unceasing pathological obsession’ the worst experience of his time in custody was the torturing of families together, when the mother would be beaten in front of her husband, the daughter raped in front of her mother, the father kicked in the genitals in front of his entire family. The very title of this book projects a powerful image of the isolation that goes with being disappeared even in those circumstances where a nameless numberless prisoner is eventually freed.

When eventually released from military custody he was maintained under house arrest. The Minister of the Interior had stated that he was subversive but the authorities were unable to prove it. It was only after General Videla, the military president, threatened to resign in the face of international pressure if his fellow generals did not abide by a Supreme Court ruling to free Timerman, that he was eventually let go.  They unceremoniously kicked him out of Argentina from where he went to Israel only to cause consternation there by savaging the invasion of Lebanon.

For all his challenges to the right Timerman incurred the wrath of the Left. He often invokes the discourse of the ‘fascism of the Left and the Right’ arguing that both need each other. The Left tend to balk at the notion that they are in some way fascist. Yet so much of their behaviour has been classically fascistic if not fascist in the strict purist sense that the Left initially came to define it. There seems more that would unite totalitarian systems than could possibly divide them. The Popular Revolutionary Army, more often referred to as the ERP, once threatened Timerman that if he did not desist from referring to them as fascist and lunatic Left in his paper La Opinion he would be tried and most likely sentenced to death.

It was his rejection of the totalitarian mindset that led to him asserting that ‘only nations capable of creating a political environment that embraces multiple political solutions for any situation are able to escape Argentina’s violence’. Here he is urging not only pluralism in methods but also in outcomes, a diversity-informed flexibility that dictatorial rigidity could simply never peacefully coexist with.

Timerman’s work is a powerful timeless commentary on the ability of an individual prisoner to endure and survive the worst of deprivations. But not only is it a cutting indictment of the brutal violence of the terrorist state, it is a demythologising of the ‘eroticism of violence’ that came to be fetishised by the Left.

Jacobo Timerman, 1981. Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number. London: Penguin. ISBN 0140061649


  1. Have you finished it yet!??!?!?

    Seriously, that would have set the tone for your meeting with the prisoners families but then, in your day, you would have witnessed just as equal brutality and that wasn't under a dictatorship. Argentina / Israel, what’s the difference – was this guy on some sort of crusade?

  2. Niall,

    about 9 or 10 years ago I think it was when I finished it.

    The comparison between our experience and the Argentine one was vastly different. Thousands were disappeared by the regime in Argentina and it was much more brutalin both its torture and repression. That doesn't make the Brits decent but we are talking about a very different degree of repression and brutality.

  3. I agree that it was a a very different degree of repression. Take away the rape and the only difference in the brutalilty are numbers. Another difference beteween Argentina's Dirty War and the Dirty War in the North is instead of the State forces doing the disappering, it was comrades of some of the readers of the TPQ who done the disappearing.

  4. Frankie,

    so many numbers as to make the difference qualitative in my view.

    And of course your acerbic observation is no less true because of its wit.

  5. Years ago when I disovered the Blanket, I read Sowing Dragon’s Teeth .

    Estimates of paramilitary membership are difficult to make, but police statistics show that since 1972, over 17,000 people have been charged with terrorist offences, and it is likely that more people in Northern Ireland have participated in illegal paramilitary organizations than at any time since the United Irishmen rising of 1798 Once again, extrapolating these figures to Britain or the US show the intensity of the violence; shooting incidents alone would have numbered over 1 million in Britain, and over 5 million in the United States. Around half a million British people would have been charged with a terrorist offence, and nearly 2.8 million Americans. By any standards, what Ulster people euphemistically call ‘the Troubles’ is, in fact, a war.

    In the same way if the North and Argentina where the same size, population. There wouldn't be much difference in the numbers. JMO, I can't see the difference in a repulican or loyalist prisoner getting ten barrels kicked out of him or an Agentinian prisoner.

    As for the disappeared. Unfortunatly some will end up as victims of war and (JMO) not everone is going to be able to give their loved one a proper funeral or find out the truth. Balkans is the same. I'd hazzard a guess and say some of the PIRA who where involved in the disappearing and had information to locate some of the bodies are probably dead through natual causes or other.

    Will Pope Frankie do much about Argentina (apart from sound bites). No. He's Italian, he is Argentinian by proxy.

  6. Frankie,

    certainly an interesting take.

  7. Mackers

    I read this book and felt sickened by the sheer brutality of the junta. I am a firm believer in the rights of prisoners in any conflict to be treated with dignity and humanity. This surely comes from my own experience particularly in the H-Blocks. Even in the heat of battle human empathy must be present otherwise we succumb to our basest instincts.