A novel without chapters, “259 Leaps, the Last Immortal,” by Argentine author Alicia Kozameh, seeks to give voice to the experience of political exile. As revolutionary as the writer, the novel’s innovative format is a fragmented poetic narrative of “leaps” that is never disorienting. Through the 259 leaps in the book, the reader is drawn into Kozameh’s beautifully articulated memories, anecdotes, flashes of nostalgia, and philosophical musings about life in exile. She self defines her method of expression in her 183rd leap as she writes, “There are so many simultaneous stories being told, building upon each other like apartments in the in the downtown of some large, complex city, sprawling and chaotic.” The novel, which is poetically dedicated “to the thousands of eyes that, floating on their ultimate exile, still give me light,” perhaps employs the best and only manner of storytelling possible to do justice to the immensity of experiences dealt with.
Through the fictionalized voice of Sara, “259 Leaps, the Last Immortal,” journeys through the labyrinth of the author’s political exile. Alicia Kozameh was a student of literature and philosophy at the National University of Rosario in Argentina before being arrested and detained as a political prisoner in 1975. Like many of her youthful generation in Argentina, Kozameh became intensely involved in social questions. For her, the desire to change the world in which she lived lead to her involvement in the Revolutionary Worker’s Party or as it is known by its Spanish acronym, the PRT.
After being arrested, Kozameh spent the next three years and three months of her life splitting her time in detention between the infamous Sotano police station basement in her hometown of Rosario, and the Villa Devoto prison in Buenos Aires. During her imprisonment, Argentina fell victim to one of the bloodiest and cruelest military dictatorships in recent Latin American history. At least 30,000 people were “disappeared,” when a right-wing military junta seized control of the country in 1976 and began its reign of terror over civil society. Human rights were routinely violated in the most debased of ways as political prisoners were tortured and murdered. Alicia Kozameh, victimized while bearing witness to the increasing horrors, escaped with her life after being released from Villa Devoto in 1978 due to a technicality coupled with pressure from human rights organizations such as Amnesty International. Narrowly escaping the fate of the disappeared, Kozameh left for Los Angeles, California as a political exile. It is at this point, with all the weight of what she had just experienced, where “259 Leaps, the Last Immortal” begins.
“You absorb not quite half. Less. Much less. You manage to absorb a sixth of what happens,” Kozameh writes in the novel’s first leap. “Your head, surrounded by a bright light, the bright light of Los Angeles, that doesn’t quite blind you, that surrounds your temples but doesn’t quite grab hold of them, your head deflects what’s going on to the right and left, letting everything that won’t be recovered escape into the shop windows along Santa Monica Boulevard. That first vision, the one that can never be recreated, fades as you move from place to place.”
Kozameh’s subsequent leaps takes the reader through her experiences making her way through Los Angeles as a “tried and true” revolutionary proving her “nerves of steel.” In one leap, readers learn of her time as a cleaning lady in a mansion in Pasadena. The rich family who employed her took notice of her affinity for literature and poetry and pressed to know why she came to the United States. As a servant, Kozameh spoke of her time as a political prisoner in Argentina while explaining the situation in her home country during a sit down dinner. The family she worked for was reduced to tears by Kozameh’s story as she recounted that “no one was eating anymore. And no one finished eating.”
The course of Kozameh’s story of exile returned her to Latin America, as she left Los Angeles behind for Mexico. The geographical leap is described by Kozameh as an “exile within exile.” That sentiment became more poignant as she recounts one of the more unwelcoming aspects of her stay. As a member of the editorial staff of a Mexican literary magazine, Kozameh solicited blurbs of praises on the occasion of its first anniversary. In one telephone conversation, Octavio Paz, author of “The Labyrinth of Solitude,” verbally accosted her saying, “All you Argentines should get lost, go back to your country and clean up the fucking mess you left there. Get out of here! Go! Leave us in peace!”
As is learned through the “259 Leaps, the Last Immortal,” Kozameh ultimately returned to Los Angeles from Mexico before leaving to Argentina. Kozameh came back to her mother country accompanied with her newly published first novel “Steps Under Water,” and her daughter Sara. With the military dictatorship no longer formally in power, she began to speak at a number of presentations for the book’s release. After one such occasion, two men approached Kozameh to intimidate her by threatening,” How dare you come back to this country and publish this pack of lies?” We’re going to make you shit your pants, bitch. Get out of here and take your daughter with you. This isn’t your country. Make no mistake. This is a country for patriots.” Dealing with the experience of political imprisonment, “Steps Under Water,” made Kozameh a target of members of the Buenos Aires police. She ultimately leaped back to Los Angeles in the summer of 1988 where she continues to live to this day.
A story such as the military dictatorship in Argentina during the late 70’s and early 80’s, is ordered through a chronology of events in the discipline of historiography. Often times, when the immensity of the historical experience is great, the student of the subject is left to ruminate about what its human ramifications must have been like. For the person who has experienced the immensity of that history, processing its depths is a life long journey. As a former student of Latin American history at the University of California, Riverside, learning about the tragedy of the 1976 military coup in Argentina and the horrors that followed was one of the most humanly incomprehensible gazes at the past I have ever undertaken. I readily identified with the victims of that history and since then have deeply mused about what the human experience of that time must have been like and what wounds people carry with them to the present. No political documentary, cinematic film, folk song, or even poem, approaches the clarity in which “259 Leaps, the Last Immortal,” helped me commune with the tremendous experience of political imprisonment and exile.