The dictatorship came to an end in 1983 but the "mothers" are still walking in circles in the Plaza de Mayo, the main square of central Buenos Aires. They gather on Thursdays outside the Casa Rosada, the seat of government, wearing white headscarves to symbolise the nappies of their vanished children. They walk anti-clockwise, as if to go back in time, demanding truth and justice for some 30,000 desaparecidos, the victims of the military junta that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983.
"Yes, we have democracy, but it is very young still," says the secretary of state for the arts, Jorge Coscia. "You'd be surprised at the ways the dictatorship still weighs on everyday life," says Eugenia Pérez Alzueta, a translator. She shows me a cutting from the daily La Nación, reporting that "la nieta 110" – a little girl who disappeared and was allocated this number – has just been found. The DNA tests are categorical. She really is the daughter of Liliana Acuna and Oscar Guttierrez, arrested on 26 August 1976 when Liliana was five months pregnant.
Almost every day there is a reminder of the dark years. And it seems that, rather like the Mothers on Plaza de Mayo, Argentinian literature circles endlessly round the black hole in its past.
In January the death of Juan Gelman opened old wounds. The poet spent 23 years looking for his granddaughter [and found her]. His 20-year-old son was murdered in 1976, then put in a barrel of cement and tipped into the sea. His pregnant daughter-in-law, 19 at the time, was abducted to Uruguay under Operation Condor, a campaign of political oppression organised by Augusto Pinochet of Chile and other Latin American dictators. She was killed, shortly after giving birth. "There was a sinister waiting list for each detention camp," Gelman once explained. "The military wanted the babies to be entrusted to families untainted by subversive ideas."
Violence and solitude were recurrent themes throughout his work, as was the case for Ernesto Sábato (1911-2011), Manuel Puig (1932-90) and Rodolfo Walsh (1927-77). "The wounds haven't healed," he said before his death. "They resonate in the basement of society like a never-ending cancer."
Understandably, this past that will not go away dogs the imaginations of contemporary Argentine writers, particularly as it was long repressed. "For many years authors didn't dare touch the subject," says Elsa Osorio. In 1998 she published A veinte años, Luz (My Name is Light), the story of an abducted girl who, after having her first child, starts a painful quest for her origins. "I wasn't the first one," she adds. "In 1984 Miguel Bonasso published Recuerdo de la Muerte [Remembering Death]. But none of the publishers in Argentina would touch Luz. In the end, it came out in Spain, 15 years ago. It had a real impact in Buenos Aires. Young people plucked up courage to start similar searches and several writers seized on the theme."
Since then many others have returned to the dark years, exploring a wide variety of genres: historical narratives but also novels, poetry, graphic novels and even books for young readers. From Alan Pauls to Lucía Puenzo, Martín Kohan to Félix Bruzzone, the questions raised by writers all touch on the central issue of the mark left by political violence. In Pequeños Combatientes (Little Combatants) by Raquel Robles, a son and daughter tell the story of the kidnapping of their parents, both Montoneros (revolutionary Peronists). "We've never had these stories told from the children's point of view," Robles says. "I wanted to portray fear and life in hiding as directly as possible. It's not just a matter of bearing witness but also of finding the right words."
By depriving their victims of proper burial, the killers did not just make grieving impossible – with their relatives clinging to hope they might return. "They also proceeded in such a way there would be no way of telling what happened in the days before their death," says Eugenia Pérez Alzueta. "That's why literary texts are so important, taking the place of an impossible account. When there is no way of ever knowing, fiction is the only resort."
The dictatorship still casts a big shadow, though sometimes indirectly, as in Sobrevivientes (Shipwrecked) by Fernando Monacelli. Twenty-five years after the war in the Falklands, a mother finds the frozen body of a soldier, her son, adrift in a lifeboat near the Antarctic. In other cases it is barely perceptible or merely metaphorical. Soy Paciente (Patient), a novel by Ana María Shua, tells the story of a man who goes into hospital, but its irony and black humour conceals scathing criticism of the dictatorship. Carlos Bernatek operates along similar lines. "The 1970s are lurking in all my novels," he says. "But I refuse to be over-explicit. I would rather the reader guessed." He pauses for thought, then adds: "As Argentinians we are still living with people who, though they may not actually have tortured anyone, were accomplices to torture ... If you add that to the memory of the [American] Indian genocide, during colonisation, and the fact that towns like Bariloche, in Río Negre province, welcomed Nazis on the run after the second world war, you begin to understand why Borges said that 'being an Argentinian is an escapable act of fate'!"
No doubt in an attempt to escape this fate, some authors have looked elsewhere for inspiration. They have fled in their imaginations to Mexico or France, as with Federico Jeanmaire in Vida Interior (Interior Life) or Pablo de Santis in El Enigma de Paris (The Paris Enigma). Others, such as César Aira and Sergio Bizzio take refuge in absurd, eccentric tales. Rodrigo Fresán and Leandro Avalos Blacha revel in fantasy, whereas Selva Almada moves to the country, in a deeply personal novel. In another form of flight, Damian Tabarovsky experiments freely in Autobiografia Medica (Medical Autobiography), combining a narrative form that defies classification with philosophical inquiry. So there is a lot going on and it is very diverse.
It would be a mistake to reduce the scope of Argentinian inspiration to painful memories of the past, but it is striking how soon such phantoms resurface in any discussion with writers in Buenos Aires. "And it certainly isn't over," says Tabarovsky. Since the turn of the century there have been a succession of trials for crimes against humanity, firing the imagination of authors too young to have known the dark years. The most recent one, in 2013, focused on Operation Condor. "With these trials and the opening of public records, writers have been given fresh scope for getting at the truth," says Robles.
Osorio shares this view. Her next novel will focus on the Centro Piloto in Paris, a public relations operation set up by the junta, which also spied on exiles. "I promised myself I wouldn't pursue the dictatorship theme," says Osorio with a wry laugh, "but it came storming back." It seems that, rather like the Mothers on Plaza de Mayo, Argentinian literature circles endlessly round the black hole in its past.
This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incoporates material from Le Monde