The horrors of a dictatorship may never disappear, at least not for every victim. That is one conclusion drawn in The Blue Line, the first novel by Ingrid Betancourt. A former Colombian presidential candidate, Betancourt has previously written of her traumatic experiences as a six-year hostage of the FARC in the bestselling book Even Silence Has an End. In her latest work she chooses the Dirty War in Argentina as her setting, and this fictional account of what her protagonist Julia survives in that country’s secret torture chambers is absolutely harrowing.
Yet the novel doesn’t only explore the weight of the past: it also traces what happens to Julia, her husband Theo, her son Ulysses, her family and her friends several years later, as they grapple with the present. The story opens in Connecticut in 2006, when Julia begins to have a vision of a couple, a naked man and a beautiful woman who “is carefully applying her makeup, her graceful neck bent forward to bring her face closer to the mirror covering the wall.” The reader won’t understand the significance of this scene until many pages later, but through flashbacks one learns that Julia and her grandmother have the gift of the “inner eye.”
“Our gift lets us go forward or backward while everyone else is caught in the present,” grandmother Mama Fina explains. Betancourt writes these scenes so comfortably that the reader accepts this element of magical realism without hesitation.
Less understandable is Julia’s attachment to self-absorbed political activist Theo d’Uccello, whom she meets as a young woman in Argentina: “He had an opinion on every subject under the sun, because even when his knowledge of something was superficial, he could support it with convincing remarks.” Betancourt skillfully elaborates how Julia and Theo become involved in the opposition to Argentina’s military junta. Eventually, Julia and Theo are “disappeared” with other political prisoners. The author writes convincingly hellish scenes, such as when an officer nicknamed El Loco prepares Julia for electric shock by tying her toes with wires to a bed. Once the torture starts, “A black hole, and then her whole being shattered under the pressure of millions of needles speeding through her veins in an endless circuit running from her head to her toes and back again.”
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Although Betancourt’s captivity with terrorists in the Colombian jungle was not the same as Julia’s, the loss of freedom and control over one’s own body and movements certainly has parallels. That an author who underwent so many years of suffering would choose to immerse herself in yet another terrible chapter of human history is thought-provoking.
With more flashbacks and flash forwards, Betancourt creates a complex, often disturbing story. After they are released from prison and leave Argentina, Theo never tries to track down Julia — or their child. Years later, when father, mother, and son are together, Ulysses asks, “We’d like to know why you didn’t look for us. My mother spent thirty years searching the whole world for you.” But the real unanswered mystery is why an intelligent, astute woman like Julia would sacrifice so much of her own happiness to hunt for Theo and later reunite with him in an unhappy marriage. Her loyalty is repaid by Theo having an affair with the young woman from Julia’s vision, who turns out to have mysterious connections to Argentina. Out of that affair comes a cloak-and-dagger plot development that is unfortunately less convincing than the novel’s magical realism.
Readers expecting a note of redemption toward the end of the book will also be in for a disappointment. Haunted by his own torture and his brother Gabriel’s execution, Theo “had spent thirty years driven by hatred, obsessed with revenge. Even Julia hadn’t been able to set him free.” But despite any unevenness, the power of the book lies in Betancourt’s ability to remind readers of the real cost of atrocity, in this case perpetuated by the state, and to resurrect a sense of moral outrage. In the The Blue Line, freeing one’s self from past trauma often seems tragically out of reach.
Laura Albritton is a writer in Miami.