Jacobo Timerman’s Survival of Torture


Jacobo Timerman's account of surviving torture should be compulsory reading.

Jacobo Timerman's account of surviving torture should be compulsory reading.



I’ve just finished an utterly courageous, moving and haunting book: the late Jacobo Timerman’s Prisoner without a name, Cell without a number. 

I remember Mom talking about this work before her accident in 1986, when she was doing work with Amnesty International.

The book ostensibly tells the story of Timerman’s 30 months in detention in Argentine prisons during the late 70s.  A longtime journalist who founded a publication, La Opinion, to counter fascism of the Left and Right in the hope that bringing the truth to light might help his country to advance to a more democratic and open society. 

Timerman writes without pity about the torture he endured, the coping mechanisms he developed to get through-in one of the book’s most poignant passages, he writes about cursing his wife for a letter she wrote that punctured his defenses-the extinction of tenderness that the torturers sought to achieve, the complete disorientation one experiences, and the meaning one can gain from simply seeing another person’s eye through a slit in a door.  

Timerman is literate, eloquent and understated in his account of his own travails-an experience that he notes in the Epilogue that he refuses to tie up neatly because that is not how it lives in him.  

If it were only a recounting of his personal suffering, Prisoner without a name would be a remarkable book in its own right.

Fortunately for us and the world, it is far more than Timerman’s story.  

The book evokes the era during the 70s when thousands of Argentines were disappeared, often never to be seen again.  It dissects the thinking of the military leaders and their obsessive quest for a neat and orderly world.  It explores the links between Nazi ideology and that embraced by the generals.   It contains a deep analysis of antisemitism and its enduring appeal a generation after the Holocaust.   

Timerman brilliantly intersperses these reflections, analyses and assertions into the telling of what happened to him.

Beautifully translated by Toby Talbot, the result is a book that should be compulsory reading for all those concerned about human rights abuses. 

Timerman’s humility animates the book and gives it even more power.    Perhaps the supreme example of this quality come in the book’s final paragraphs, which contain at once a reminder of what he has seen, the duty he feels to those people and those memories, and the limitations of language, or any form of communication, to transmit others’ experience:  

“Have any of you ever looked into the eyes of another person, on the floor of a cell, who know that he’s about to die though no one has told him so?  He knows that he’s about to die but clings to his biological desire to live, as a single hope, since no one has told him that he’s to be executed.

I have many such gazes imprinted upon me.

Each time I write or utter words of hope, words of confidence in the definitive triumph of man, I’m fearful-fearful of losing sight of one of those gazes.  At night I recount them, recall them, re-see them, cleanse them, illumine them.

These gazes, which I encountered in the clandestine prisons of Argentina and which I’ve retained one by one, were the culminating point, the purest moment of my tragedy.  

They are here with me today.  And although I might wish to do so, I could not and would not know how to share them with you.”


One response to “Jacobo Timerman’s Survival of Torture

  1. Pingback: Top 10 Books of 2009 « Jeff Kelly Lowenstein’s Blog

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