Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Impossibility of Justice

In a world in which torture and murder have become commonplace, is justice even possible?

That's a question asked by a number of plays from Latin America in recent decades. Perhaps the most famous of these plays is Ariel Dorfman's Death and the Maiden. Though Dorfman was born in Argentina, he grew up in Chile. A cultural advisor to President Salvador Allende, he had to flee Chile after the coup. He lived in exile in the United States, and after the dictatorship fell, he wrote Death and the Maiden in English, only later translating it into Spanish.

Dorfman's Death and the Maiden tells the story of Paulina, a woman who was brutally tortured under her country's dictatorship. Now that democracy has been restored, her husband is put on a special commission that will account for those who were murdered by the old regime. Those who were raped and tortured but not killed will fall outside the jurisdiction of the commission, and it seems apparent that even the murderers will not be put on trial as the nation tries to preserve a fragile truce with the military.

Things change when Paulina's husband Gerardo gets a flat tire and is helped by a strange man named Roberto. Gerardo invites this Good Samaritan to his house, but Paulina is sure she recognizes his voice as that of a man who tortured her. When the man stays over for the night, Paulina ties him up and plans to force him to confess.

True justice might be impossible, but if she can get details down on tape, and then have him write out a confession and sign it, then she will be satisfied. Of course, if the confession is coerced, it might not be real, but this does not seem to concern Paulina.

Gerardo tells the stranger details of his wife's captivity and begs him to confess in order to save his own life. Eventually he does, admitting he was the one who tortured Paulina and providing the details related to him by Gerardo. Though the man thinks he will now be freed, Paulina informs him that she will now take justice by killing him. He says the confession was phony, the facts all related to him by her husband. Paulina is ready for this, however. She made certain changes to the story she told her husband, and Roberto has told the true story, thus proving he really is the torturer.

This would be a great twist if Dorfman were writing a thriller, but he's aiming at something different. Roberto tries to explain away the discrepancies, claiming he only changed the facts here and there to be more logical, and that he isn't the torturer after all. Preparing to shoot Roberto, Paulina calls out: "If only to do justice in one case, just one. What do we lose? What do we lose by killing one of them?"

But Dorfman's stage direction calls not for a gunshot but for the last, calm movement of Mozart's Dissonant Quartet. Did she kill him or not? The final scene does not answer the question. Instead, it shows Paulina and Gerardo at a concert where she sees Roberto. If she did not kill him, then she is going to have to live with the fact that her torturer is still at large, roaming free and attending the same cultural and social gatherings as she is. And if she did kill him, there is someone just like him still alive. Could she have killed the wrong man after all? Is the real torturer still out there?

Either way, justice has not been served. Paulina's question, "What do we lose?" remains hanging in the air. Perhaps by killing just one person, the victims lose quite a bit. Perhaps they lose their bearings entirely on the world around them, lost in a sea of moral uncertainty.

Just a few years after Dorfman penned Death and the Maiden, the Argentine playwright Ricardo Monti wrote another play as his own country was adjusting to its emergence from dictatorship. Monti's The Obscurity of Reason draws upon Greek tragedy to show a brother and sister who overthrow the violent and corrupt regime of their mother and stepfather. Though the brother, Mariano, is horrified by the deed he commits against the tyrants, his sister Alma rejoices in it, comparing her mother's blood to "red champagne."

Nor does Alma's thirst for justice end with a couple of deaths. She wishes to kill all the henchmen of the old regime, demanding "A knife / for the knifed, / jail / for the jailed." Alma's lust for blood seems unquenchable, and the play is only resolved by a dues ex machina bringing peace and showering Mariano with light. Heaven could be a substitute for earthly justice, but Alma rejects such an easy solution, choosing to remain a "dark ray" as the world is enveloped in "ever-growing light." Again, any attempt at justice fails.

Guillermo Calderon made the impossibility of justice a central theme of his 2011 play Villa. The play depicts three women, all named Alejandra, arguing over what to do with an old villa that was used as a torture camp in Chile. The villa could be preserved, but that would amount to a sort of Torture Disneyland. It could be replaced with a computer-filled museum, but a sterile museum would also be an affront to the real pain that happened there. The villa could be replaced with an empty field, essentially doing nothing in response to the tragedy, but this seems to be the worst solution of all.

In the end, the horror of what happened under the dictatorship is too great for any act to be the "right thing" to do. No justice can ever be possible. Villa does, however, offer one small consolation. Though the three Alejandras are unable to come to a decision, they do come to understand each other a bit more. Justice might be impossible, but community is not.