Once@9:53am: Ter­ror in Buenos Aires

  • Review
November 17, 2016

March 17 marked the 25th anniver­sary of the bomb­ing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, destroy­ing not only the embassy, but also a Catholic church and a near­by school. 29 peo­ple were killed, the vast major­i­ty of them Argen­tine civil­ians — only four of the vic­tims were Israelis — and 242 peo­ple were injured. It was the dead­liest ter­ror­ist attack in Argentina’s his­to­ry until two years lat­er a sim­i­lar attack on the AMIA, the Jew­ish fed­er­a­tion build­ing, killed 85 and injured over 300 people.

The lat­ter attack occurred in the neigh­bor­hood of Once (pro­nounced Ohn-seh) at 9:53 AM, which is also the title of a fotonov­ela, writ­ten by Ilan Sta­vans with pho­tographs by Marce­lo Brod­sky. The Span­ish term fotonov­ela describes a com­ic book with pho­tographs instead of illus­tra­tions. In Eng­lish, the ter­mi­nol­o­gy varies, but often the Ital­ian word fumet­ti can be found for this art form since it orig­i­nal­ly emerged in Italy in the 1940s. In the 1960s, pho­to comics became pop­u­lar through­out Latin Amer­i­ca, often in the form of movie adaptations.

Fumet­ti appear to be a to be an out­dat­ed, low-brow cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non, and so it is sur­pris­ing that the Mex­i­can-born aca­d­e­m­ic Sta­vans and Argen­tine pho­tog­ra­ph­er and artist Brod­sky use this for­mat to tack­le a trau­mat­ic his­tor­i­cal event such as the ter­ror­ist attack on the AMIA build­ing. But it’s even more sur­pris­ing that it works. Once@9:53am” is a fic­tion­al­ized account of the hours pri­or to the bomb­ing. It is an inti­mate homage to the Buenos Aires’ his­toric immi­grant neigh­bor­hood, com­pa­ra­ble to New York’s Low­er East Side, and its com­mu­ni­ties. It is a visu­al­ly appeal­ing count­down to the moment when the cat­a­stro­phe changed the face of the area forever.

The orig­i­nal Span­ish edi­tion of the book was pub­lished in Argenti­na in 2011. Penn State Uni­ver­si­ty Press now brings this fas­ci­nat­ing, out-of-the-box work to a North Amer­i­can read­er­ship, both in Span­ish and Eng­lish. The expand­ed edi­tion con­tains a new essay by Sta­vans, tack­ling not only Argentina’s com­pli­cat­ed his­to­ry of attempts at com­ing to terms with the ter­ror­ist attacks, but also putting the nar­ra­tive in the wider con­text of Latin Amer­i­can Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. This essay alone makes it worth pick­ing up the book. Once@9:53am” is a unique work in a unique form that should not be missed by any­one inter­est­ed in Latin Amer­i­can Jew­ish culture. 

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