Please note – this short story collection was kindly provided to me by Martha Bátiz.
In Paternity, Revisited, the protagonist, Paula, thinks back to a time when she failed to stop to help a dog that had been run over. It was clearly in distress, it was injured perhaps to dying, and because of an appointment Paula had continued on her way, hurried, rushing, agitated. An appointment. She thinks of it, we are told, often, and feels shame. “Does death by indifference,” Martha Bátiz writes, “have a name, other than murder?”
Paula, who has spent years of her adult life in Canada, has returned to a vaguely identified South American country, perhaps Argentina, perhaps Uruguay, and from the opening we are led to believe that she is here to visit an old flame, a spark dead but perhaps able to be rekindled. And perhaps not. Bátiz’s language choices makes it clear that Paula isn’t happy to be back ‘home’, but that she has been forced to for a certain unspecified reason. We can never escape our past because we take it with us, or more accurately – because it is us. Without our past we aren’t anything but sinew and white blood cells. But what Bátiz’s words don’t do is supply a reason or a clear explanation, or at least not at first – we need to untangle this ourselves.
Human beings are made up of 70 per cent water and 30 per cent of their past; what is done to them is indelible.
Paula smells a man’s cologne, and is transported to her eight year old self. “Adriana!”, he calls, and then much of the story is devoted to Paula, a grown woman, and an older man, an old man, who at first refers to her as ‘baby girl’, and then as it becomes clear he hasn’t earned the right to, protests instead the choices he has made of life.
A romantic lover? No, though that isn’t clear at the start. A father-figure, a stand-in for her real father. Paula, we learn, was twice abandoned, once when her parents were killed/disappeared/tortured (the history was murky, she was young), and then again when this man took her and raised her, for a time, before she was forced to flee the country. It’s complicated because it’s clear the man was complicit with some horrible activities, party to the affairs of a murderous regime, and that Paula has spent, now, her whole adult life thus far coming to terms with how she was raised, and by whom.
He wants absolution, to be forgiven. Paula – Adriana he calls her – is a stand-in for everyone, and if she can forgive him, then all of his victims can, too, and he can die at peace. He does not deserve peace. Paula sees herself as the spoils of war, a prize or treasure given to a corrupt doctor for following the government’s orders, killing and torturing as needed. Ah, but if you don’t actually kill, or don’t actually torture, but instead provide ministrations for the injured and weak, are you in fact evil? Yes, is Paula’s emphatic answer. Yes, is my answer. This man is not a good man, though he wishes now that he might be, and might have his adopted daughter back once more.
Paula has returned to her past in order that the perpetrators be made to come to terms with what they have done. In that, she is sacrificing herself, in a way, confronting her abusive past and causing the flare-up of her mental health (she has been pulling out her hair, she is clearly unstable and prone to excessive emotional outbursts) – because this is not pleasant for her. But evil must be made to see itself for what is is, and often that means an innocent person must suffer.
Paternity, Revisited considers how innocence comes to terms with the horrible aspects of mankind. How many murderers have children who have done nothing? How many soldiers kill and maim and then return home to work and feed their wives and family? How many generals order the deaths of faraway civilians and then laugh over wine and cheese at an event? The answer is, of course, all of them, but that does not mean that the families themselves are necessarily bad. Touched by evil, yes, and in some ways accomplices (I am thinking her particularly of older children and adult family members), but broadly speaking they have fallen into an abyss of horror akin to the victims.
I like the small touches that occur throughout the story. Bátiz often breaks away from the dialogue to comment on passers-by, dogs, the smell and feel of the park and the city they are in. These asides provide colour, yes, and a counterpoint to the conversation:
Here they were incapable of stooping to clean up [dog feces], utterly oblivious to what they were doing to their own hometown. A perfect reflection of what this country is about. Too bad no one else has realised that the greatness of a nation can also be measured by how many of its people are actually willing to clean up their own shit.
Paula has returned to clean up the mess her adoptive father has made. She’s a martyr, here, and it wouldn’t be too far wrong to say that, in part, she is attempting to find salvation of her own for the time she let that dog die. What other reason might she have to confront a dying old man? Why not just leave him be? But sometimes we need to be heard, to receive that rarest of all things – closure. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it can be very sweet, even if it means breaking an elderly man who simply wanted to see his daughter once more.
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