by Erin Becker
Published by Other Press, 2011 | 237 pages
Victoria Donda, the author and subject of My Name is Victoria, is the daughter of two activists who were kidnapped and murdered by government forces during Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship. Known in Argentina as the “Last Military Dictatorship,” this regime was the most brutal of a series of military and authoritarian governments that led Argentina in the later half of the 20th century. Donda was born during her parents’ captivity and given to a conservative family who supported the regime, a fate 500 other Argentine babies shared. The family raised her as their own daughter, re-named Analía. Though she always had an inexplicable fondness for the name “Victoria,” Victoria Donda didn’t learn of her real family or identity until 2003. An association of grandmothers of disappeared children, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo (an offshoot of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) contacted her after a long investigation. After a photo comparison and, later, a DNA test, the results were undeniable. Donda is now a human rights activist and a legislator in the Argentine National Congress.
Though Donda gives away the ending from the start, her story is still the stuff of soaps and then some. In the memoir’s grisliest turn, Donda’s uncle – her father’s brother – is revealed to be responsible for her parents’ deaths. A right-wing zealot to this day, he tipped off the authorities to his brother’s revolutionary activities and worked at the same torture and detention center in which Donda’s mother was held. While researching her past, Donda came across anecdotes of her uncle boasting about his merciless attitude toward his own sister-in-law and brother while torturing other victims. The same uncle filed for and won custody of Donda’s older sister, taking her from her grandparents. After learning of her real identity and the existence of her blood sister, Donda reached out to her and tried to establish a relationship. Years of influence by the extremist uncle made this impossible. The sister wanted nothing to do with her and considered their biological parents criminals whose politics had been more important to them than raising their children.
Against the backdrop of one woman’s complex struggle to reconcile her own incongruous past and present, My Name is Victoria explores several substantial themes: political belief, identity, betrayal, and family. Politics, for one, is crucial to Donda’s personal identity, as well as to her public identity as an activist and a legislator. It is both her career and her link to the parents she never knew. Donda writes that her biological parents left an indelible mark of social consciousness within her, despite the fact she was physically with her mother for only two weeks after her birth. She notes that as she grew, she became more and more active in leftist circles and anti-impunity protests against the perpetrators of torture and kidnappings during the dictatorship. This contrasts starkly with her right-wing military upbringing. She muses:
It’s not that I believe we carry revolution in our blood, or that political beliefs can be inherited. But I do believe that my biological parents bequeathed me their character and way of being, their vision of reality and their need to do something to change it. […T]he three of us share the same point of departure: our refusal to accept a reality we feel is deeply unjust.
In poignant contrast with her sociopathic biological uncle, Donda still cares deeply for the guardians who raised her, despite the deception on which their relationship was based. “I love Graciela and Raúl,” she writes of her adoptive parents. “It’s not a love free of conflict, but it’s love nonetheless.”
My Name is Victoria is not a direct account of contemporary Argentine political history, nor an unbiased look at the nature of political involvement. More topical works of Argentine literature of the junta period are The Lizard’s Tail by Luisa Valenzuela, a feminine and grotesque take on the psychology and imagery of dictatorship, and Miguel Bonasso’s Memory of Death, which fictionalizes the Montonero guerrilla group’s time in prison and exile. My Name is Victoria is, rather, a memoir and exposé of one woman’s grieving. As she writes, “the best exorcism takes place through words.” Much of it reads like Donda’s personal meditation on the travails of her own composite life, which results in the occasional epigrammatic gem: “We are all several things at once.” Often this works beautifully, but at other times Donda can seem too dogmatic in her own ideas: “helping people doesn’t go far enough to bring real change […] actions have to go hand in hand with speaking out.” Must we all be politically outspoken? What about those who, for whatever reason, can’t speak? What of those who devote their lives to service or volunteer work? At times Donda takes as given what deserves further analysis.
Another thing My Name is Victoria is not: especially literary. The prose is clean and unadorned, but clunky at times. Anyone who has read Isabel Allende’s elegant The House of the Spirits, which Magda Bodin, Donda’s translator, also translated, will notice the difference in syntax and style. This is both a credit to Bodin’s ability to maintain an author’s original voice and a disappointment for anyone expecting beautiful prose. Additionally, Donda, in her earnestness, overlooks the benefits gained from the traditional narrative arc. She takes little artistic license to mold the story into something suspenseful or neat. In one sense, it’s comforting to hear Donda speaking directly and without embellishment. Yet the book is undoubtedly a political work, a means to bring about change, and, in this sense, less successful due to Donda’s refusal to use narrative structure and tension. For example, she declines to dramatize what would otherwise have been the work’s climax – the revelation of her true identity, the moment on which the book turns. Donda simply states that she can’t remember the conversation properly. It’s a deflating moment.
Despite its limitations, My Name is Victoria achieves beauty in another sense. Though the prose is not always eloquent, the message is: truth as the antidote to corruption and deception, reconciliation as the antidote to hatred. Donda writes: “To live will always mean to continue to fight for the truth.” Thus she tells her life story, which becomes a testament to the dignity of life itself.
Erin Becker is an English teacher in Santiago, Chile, a graduate of the English and Creative Writing program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Her interests include the relationship between propaganda and literature, writers during wartime, and contemporary media discourse.