My memory is as deep as this water, it lifts me, carries me, buries me … it saves me.
A boat travelling to Europe from Argentina is shipwrecked and a man and a woman find themselves alone, stranded in a lifeboat. The woman lost her 15- yearold daughter during the dictatorship, a so-called subversive whose fate was to be drugged and thrown out of a helicopter as it passed over the sea. The man, having tried to seduce the woman onboard the ship, is unmoved and indifferent when she tells him her story and it becomes clear that he is involved in the military, perhaps even in the episode with the helicopter which the woman describes. She is bound to remember, while he is intent on forgetting.
An Argentine man, Martin, and an Argentine woman, Elisa, find themselves in each other’s company on a cruise ship travelling from Argentina to Europe after the dictatorship ended in 1983.
The play begins with a stereotypical prelude to a romantic encounter - Martin returns Elisa’s handkerchief to her – and attempts to initiate a conversation. He invites Elisa to have a drink with him at the bar and she haughtily turns him down. He persists in engaging her attention, lamenting the slow pace of travelling by boat when compared to the speediness of air travel. Elisa tells Martin that the idea of flying brings back bad memories. The only thing travelling through the air which she takes pleasure in are ‘birds, seeds’. She then spots a flying fish in the water which captures her imagination. Martin doesn’t see it because he is looking at Elisa but then makes a strange reference to fish jumping out of planes. This provokes a harrowing association in Elisa. They continue talking about the fish which sink to the bottom of the seabed but with a sense that the subtext of this conversation is actually something quite different, and much more troubling. Then the two become aware that the ship has hit something. The siren is sounding and the surface of the deck is tilting so they have to evacuate.
Elisa is reluctant at first to take the situation seriously, and is more worried about her dress getting crumpled by the lifejacket she is wearing than the prospect of drowning. Martin becomes exasperated by Elisa’s resistance to him trying to help her safely off the ship and into a lifeboat. Once in the lifeboat, Elisa proceeds to talk continuously and it is Martin who becomes reticent and dismissive. Elisa confides in Martin that her daughter was killed, thrown out of a helicopter while passing over the River Plate. She was arrested at 15 for taking part in an innocuous demonstration about bringing down school bus fees. When Elisa says ‘it’s a dirty way to kill, don’t you think’, Martin responds by saying ‘I would say it’s quite a clean way to kill. Cleaner than burying.’ Martin begins to emerge as someone with some involvement in such atrocities, claiming ‘if anyone ended up in the sea or the river it was because they deserved it’. Martin becomes a much more menacing figure at this point. The other lifeboats have disappeared and he and Elisa are completely alone. When he tries to kiss Elisa and she tells him to ‘leave her alone’, his reponse is hostile: ‘Who do you think you are? Madam. What do you think it’s got to do with you? You get left alone when I leave you alone. When I want to leave you alone. Do you understand? When I want to.’ But Elisa refuses to be intimidated, she continues to question him and pose uncomfortable questions.
What is difficult to bear is that Martin has tried to save Elisa’s life, but there he is, right beside her, an accomplice to her daughter’s murder and he goes free and unpunished. Rescue arrives in the form of a boat and Martin’s ominous behaviour subsides and a more light-hearted manner returns as he tries to hug Elisa with relief. She recoils, unable to join him in his celebratory mood. ‘Nobody can save me from the shipwreck’, she says while for him the experience of being shipwrecked is already practically forgotten. He asks Elisa if she would like to spend some time in the country with him to recover from the trauma. She declines. He asks if he will see her again. She replies that he will never stop seeing her in a defiant conviction that he cannot deny the past and the part he has played in it.
Griselda Gambaro is a prize-winning playwright whose work is of international significance. She is generally considered to be one of the best living playwrights in Argentina.
Rea Boorman, Joan. 1978. ‘Contemporary Latin American Woman Dramatists’, Rice University Studies, 64.1, 69-80
Zandstra, Dianne Marie. 2007. Embodying Resistance: Griselda Gambaro and the Grotesque. Massachusetts, Rosemont Publishing
Entry written by Gwendolen Mackeith. Last updated on 5 October 2010.