Countless aspiring writers get clubbed with the old adage "Write what you know," but sometimes the whole point of writing a novel is to find out the answers to questions that lay far beyond your experience. With The Army of the Republic, I wanted to answer some questions I'd had since my first travels in revolution-torn Central and South America twenty-five years ago. Not only the big questions, like Is it justified to kill for a better world?, but the smaller ones, like How on earth do a bunch of students and young professionals acquire the will and the skills to take on the state? So, it was this rather selfish journey of discovery that launched me into The Army of the Republic.
The research was as difficult and fascinating as the book's subject. I accumulated a shelf full of interesting books: how to form a new identity, improvise explosives, surveillance, and body-guarding. I talked to organizers of the 1999 WTO Protests, student activists, 1960s activists, CIA people, and assorted others. I read the biographies and memoirs of now-obscure revolutionary leaders whose exploits had once amazed the readers of newspapers across the globe. Still, I needed to learn more about the gut-level feeling of being inside an insurgency, and for that I needed to talk to people who had been through it.
It's not easy to find people with experience in a revolutionary group. Most of them are dead, and the living ones are far from the United States, and not always eager to talk. I chose to look at the experiences of urban guerrillas in Argentina, and flew to Buenos Aires to try to get to some deeper human heart of my story.
As a novelist, you have little to offer people: no fame, no money, no telling the world their true story. It's embarrassing to show up hat-in-hand and ask people to recount some of the most fearsome experiences of their lives. People, generously, talked, and sometimes the way they said things told me as much as what they recounted.
Fernando Vaca Narvaja, former officer of the Montoneros, the revolutionary group that rocked Argentina in the '70s, told me of the notorious mass prison break he'd helped plan and execute. Part Ocean's Eleven, part Mad Mad Mad World (at one point, due to crossed signals, dozens of escapees were calling taxis from a pay phone outside the prison), he recounted it in a voice that still reflected the exhilaration of the escape as they freed cell block after cell block in a mock military inspection. It ended with Narvaja and four others escaping to Chile in a hijacked passenger jet, followed, hours later, by the cold-blooded execution of 19 stranded guerrillas, including his wife. As we sat in a bar in Buenos Aires, two blocks from the tire store he now owns, he told me he'd lost thirteen family members in the war, including his father, whose head was discovered in a plastic bag by the railroad tracks. A detail like that tells you something about revolution, about its exultant victories and terrible costs, that a hundred books may not reveal.
There was horror, and there was whimsical horror. One militant, now a lawyer, told me how he and a friend had gone to a demonstration, a funeral march for the death of one of the guerilla leaders. They'd been marching, and he suddenly became aware of helicopters overhead and an intense police presence on all sides. "Che," he said, "let's split!" His friend, carrying the insignia of the Revolutionary Workers Party, protested: "But I was up until three in the morning making this flag with India ink!" Minutes later the police descended, and he never saw his friend again.
Sometimes the most interesting opportunities pop up when you're least ready for them. I was talking to man who was jailed as a teenager for murdering his parents, a complicated, politically-charged case that remains murky to this day. Suddenly, without warning, he motioned for me to stand up and ushered me into another part of the building and introduced me to Hebe de Bonafini, one of the founders of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a group that spearheaded the protests that brought down the Argentine dictatorship in 1983. Plain, heavy, in late middle-age, Bonafini is an extremely famous and controversial figure in Argentina, and I was utterly unprepared. I had my pad and pen, and I started to interview her with whatever questions I could come up with on the spur of the moment, silly-sounding inquiries about how she had started with the Mothers, things like that. But as she told me her story — the disappearance of her two sons, her fruitless search for them as she was misdirected from one military and police cartel to the next, and then the death of her husband — I felt myself tearing up and crying in front of her. It was unprofessional, but I couldn't react in any other way. I had no more questions.
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Stuart Archer Cohen lives in Juneau, Alaska, with his wife and two sons. He owns Invisible World, an international company importing wool, silk, alpaca, and cashmere from Asia and South America. His previous two novels, Invisible World and 17 Stone Angels, have been translated into ten languages. His extensive travels in Latin America proved part of the research and background for The Army of the Republic.
Books mentioned in this post
Stuart Archer Cohen is the author of The Army of the Republic