Learning to Hear What the Dead Have to Say

STILL LIFE WITH BONES: Genocide, Forensics, and What Remains, by Alexa Hagerty

It is sadly appropriate that I was in Santiago, Chile, when I read Alexa Hagerty’s “Still Life With Bones.” This is a city where many of my friends disappeared during the 17-year dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Some of their bodies continue to be missing, but others, thanks to the forensic science that Hagerty explores in her affecting book, have been identified and restored to their families. Though Hagerty, an American anthropologist, focuses on Guatemala and Argentina, where she spent months being trained by forensic teams, the stories she tells — the grief, the quest for justice by relatives, the descent into the whirlwind of genocidal violence and terror — are, alas, all too familiar.

What is less familiar is the originality of Hagerty’s approach to her subject, the way in which she allows readers to accompany her on her journey and learn, along with her, what it means to exhume the dead and get them to speak from the other side of a mass grave into which they have been cast, supposedly never to be found, never again to be touched by human hands.

And yet, Hagerty’s very human hands will touch the dead and their bones. Those hands will dig deep into the earth, they will tremble with anguish and excitement when they come upon something hard that could belong to a man or a woman or a child, they will use a toothbrush to carefully clear the dirt and rescue a femur or a cranium, they will convey that slice of skeleton to a lab and assemble it with other pieces, they will register the find with numbers so its DNA can be matched and, perhaps, returned to a family that has waited decades for a fragment to bury, a ritual to be held, a simulacrum of closure.

Each bone surfaces with a story attached: the little girl who was identified because her dog had been buried with her; the eyewitness to the massacre of his family whose testimony is rejected by a bureaucrat because he is illiterate; a father reverted to his daughter over months, bit by bit; a woman whose husband appears in a dream to tell her he is buried near a ditch, and who is subsequently discovered in one; the mother who, upon receiving the remains of her son, begins to “kiss all his bones, touch him and caress him.”

Other hands have preceded Hagerty’s. Forensic scientists — her mentors and friends — have been trawling mass burial sites for many years, underfunded and threatened by perpetrators still at large. These experts teach her to interpret what they have recovered from pits and wells and fields: “Smooth, rough, pitted, granular, gritty, rugged, ridged, undulating, grooved, sharp, creased, curved — the shape and texture of bone carry messages for those who can read them. The art of forensic touch is honed through years of practice.”

The stories of these excavators of the past are told compellingly in “Still Life With Bones,” along with the stories of those willing, despite death threats and intimidation, to defy the authorities who abducted and murdered their loved ones. Hagerty understands that the bones of the violated dead do not murmur or sing to us unless the living struggle day after day against forgetfulness, against the impunity of other sorts of hands that also proliferate inher book. The hands that pulled the triggers, threw the babies against walls and crushed their skulls, the hands that applied electricity to the genitals and burned the skin, the hands that threw bodies into the ocean, drugged but still alive. Readers are invited to survey the history of the repressive regimes that carried out such mass atrocities: 200,000 butchered in La Violencia of Guatemala, as many as 30,000 desaparecidos in Argentina’s “Dirty War,” an onslaught that was enacted with the complicity of the United States.

Throughout this sifting of the tales of the deceased and their families, of the activists and the victimizers, and of the appalling history of these countries, Hagerty becomes ever more aware that one does not venture into the land of the dead without risks. The evil that she encounters erodes her faith in humanity and sickens her. Anthropology seems unable to offer her stability as she probes the victims for their secrets. Instead, she confronts one crisis after another, detailed in minute, lyrical ruminations peppered with allusions to Greek myths and Freud, to Hannah Arendt and Roland Barthes and Borges.

With such an array of subjects and perspectives, Hagerty has wisely opted to unravel her odyssey in visceral vignettes. Besides the advantage of freeing her voice to slip back and forth in time and space, her narrative, thus fractured, reproduces the traumatic, dispersed experience of the bones themselves, and the interrupted lives of the survivors. But such a strategy can also lead her to end some segments with more drama and metaphors than necessary: “A mass grave is a megaton detonation of grief. An impact crater of loss.”

These moments do not detract from the power of this haunted and fascinating book. What stayed with me when I finished it in my own city of Santiago as I mourned my own unretrieved dead were her ultimate words of consolation: “The dead whisper to me that it didn’t have to be this way. The massacres, secret prisons and hidden graves, all the terror and loss. Another world is possible.”

Ariel Dorfman is the author of “Death and the Maiden” and “Voices From the Other Side of Death,” and the forthcoming novel “The Suicide Museum.”

STILL LIFE WITH BONES: Genocide, Forensics, and What Remains | By Alexa Hagerty | 300 pp. | Crown | $28

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