In that stock phrase “behind every successful man there is a woman,” the decisive word is the preposition – she can never emerge from the background or else we are talking about something else. Maud Daverio de Cox has somehow found a way of squaring that circle. Never attempting to share the fame won by her husband Robert Cox as the Buenos Aires Herald editor defending human rights against the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, she has instead done something he could never do (perhaps because he could only face the heart of darkness when real life obliged it) – namely, write books.
She has in fact written half a dozen of them, beginning with the original version of this book published as Salvados del infierno (“Saved from Hell”) at the start of this century. The obvious question arises – if this book has already been written (and indeed, it was even reviewed by this columnist back in 2001), why the rerun? After all, two more decades have now passed with the title of this relaunch further reminding us: “A 45 años de la dictadura argentina.” While there is not (nor should there be) any statute of limitations for crimes against humanity, some people might start wondering whether there is not a statute of limitations in real terms when a fossil of 94 years like the businessman Pedro Blaquier can be sent to trial.
Yet this reviewer would argue that the increased distance instead intensifies the need for this book. So much excess baggage has accumulated in the last 45 years (and especially during the two decades since the original version was written with much of the human rights movement co-opted into becoming the adjunct of a populist political machine) that there is a burning need to go back to the beginning and read the testimony of a direct witness. This relaunch comes reloaded (with eloquent words by Cox in both prologue and epilogue plus background information to assist fading memories) but the original narrative remains the main value of this book.
That original narrative was described by this reviewer in words picked up at the back of this book: “Without occupying the moral high ground as often with human rights writing, Maud Cox retraces her own evolution from the very beginning with a day-to-day account of events which were anything but day-to-day – all written from the perspective of a society lady and a mother of five” (the May 17 edition of the Buenos Aires Herald in 2001). Nothing that I could not repeat here.
The narrative reads far more like a personal diary than the pages of a newspaper, thus complementing her husband’s work. After setting the tone of horror by describing the 1976 murder of the Pallottine priests in Belgrano (one of the earliest and most shocking atrocities of the military dictatorship), the sequence is roughly chronological covering the years between the end of the previous military dictatorship in 1973 and her own brief return to Argentina in early 1980 following the Cox family’s departure into exile in late 1979. Yet within that broad framework there are plenty of the leaps typical of a stream-of-consciousness style and always rooted in personal experience.
According to this chronicle, each year begins with an idyllic family summer in the aptly named Highland Country Club, only to descend downhill into diabolical atrocities. Yet this stark contrast between happiness and horror does not distort the firm balance displayed in the coverage of the political violence, avoiding any degeneration into the simplistic clashes between good and evil to which military propagandists and political militants are so prone. True moral conviction need never fear the facts. Thus the slaughter of the Pallottine priests was preceded by a bomb planted in the canteen of the Federal Police headquarters two days previously, killing 27 policemen. Some might prefer to omit any mention in order to maximise the horror of the Belgrano massacre while others defend terrorist innocence, insisting that the police placed the bomb themselves (either due to infighting or to arouse public indignation and justify their illegal methods). With her neutral inclusion of this fact, Maud Cox gives the slaughter of Pallottine priests its psychological context without making it any less inexcusable.
This narrative of state terrorism retains an open mind on whether the military juntas could most accurately be described as dictatorship or anarchy – sometimes it seems one and sometimes the other. On occasion it seems that the Cox couple overdo the benefit of the doubt in favour of Jorge Videla as a well-meaning figurehead helpless to control the death squads running amok but to interpret everything as a genocidal master plan also appears over the top.
Along those lines, the name of the author of Salvados coincides with the surname of the first British ambassador after the restoration of relations in 1990, Sir Humphrey Maud. When I informed him that a local newspaper had misspelled his name as “Sir Humphrey Mud,” he replied: “Well, I suppose that’s better than being called Sir Humphrey Mad.” It is a moot point whether “mud” or “mad” is the better word for describing the 1976-1983 military dictatorship.
Rather than attempt any summary (although the book is not long), I would like to conclude by simply urging everybody to read a very human account of inhumanity.
* Two wrongs do not usually make a right but hopefully this is an exception. This column was suspended last November with the promise of its resumption in February after my return from Britain while the book here reviewed was launched (or relaunched) over two months ago. As it happens, I will have to return to Britain in the next week for family reasons so a continuous column will not be returning until late March – this tardy review fills that space today in a flawed bid to honour that pledge of a February return.
** MAUD DAVERIO DE COX. Salvados, A 45 años de la dictadura argentina. Voria Stefanovsky Editores, 2021, 171 pages.