Sunday, May 4, 2014

Dictators And Memories

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

Dictators hate memories.  History can be rewritten, dissent can be suppressed, but remembrance cannot be so easily eliminated. Many such memories, collective and individual, have provided fodder for novelists. In Latin America, there’s a long tradition of what’s called “the dictator novel”, in which real and fictional leaders are scrutinised, criticised or lampooned – notable among them Augusto Roa Bastos's I, the Supreme, Ramón del Valle-Inclán’s Tyrant Banderas, Alejo Carpentier’s Reasons of State, not to mention work by those such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.

This tradition of looking back at a troubled past lives on, with contemporary novelists trying to understand the role of their countries’ previous generation. Last year alone, there was Juan Carlos Vasquez’s The Sound of Things Falling, examining the recent drug-addled history of Colombia. There was Alejandro Zambra's Ways of Going Home, looking back at Pinochet’s Chile. And there was Patricio Pron’s My Fathers’ Ghost is Climbing in the Rain, which explores the lasting effects of Argentina’s last military dictatorship.

Pron’s novel is unconventional and memorable because of its style and structure. “Children are detectives of their parents, who cast them out into the world so that one day the children will return and tell them their story so that they themselves can understand it,” he writes, summing up this tale of a young Argentinian writer returning home.

The narrator, in Germany when the novel starts, travels back to Argentina upon hearing of his father’s sudden illness. He is a blocked and depressed writer, irresponsible, addicted to pills, besieged by dreams and distractions. Thus, the novel proceeds in very short chapters, with -- in the translation by Mara Faye Lethem -- long, looping sentences that carry the weight of thoughts as they take shape.

Once home, the writer spends much of his time visiting the hospital, watching movies on TV with his siblings, making lists of his parents’ books and, of course, taking his pills. His journey from numbness to awareness begins when he comes across a folder on his father’s desk containing several newspaper clippings as well as other details related to the recent murder of one Alberto Burdisso, “a Faulknerian simpleton” employed by a local club.

A section is now almost entirely given over to the reports in the folder, with people, places and proceedings laid out in meticulous detail, after which the narrator pieces together the reasons for his father’s interest in the case, as well as its connection with an earlier murder in his country’s history: “Nobody had fought, we had all lost and barely anyone had stayed true to what they believed, whatever that was, I thought; my father’s generation had been different, but, once again, there was something in that difference that was also as meeting point, a thread that went through the years and brought us together in spite of everything and was horrifically Argentine: the feeling of parents and children being united in defeat.”

It is towards the end that Pron reveals the reason for the novel’s mode of enquiry: the events of the book, he writes, are “mostly true”, although “some are the result of the demands of fiction, whose rules are different from the rules of such genres as testimony or autobiography”. Which of course leads one to ask, why not write it as testimony or autobiography instead? The answer is that by writing it as a novel, Pron can combine an individual sensibility, an interior life, with a larger historical context, and give the whole a shape that has a greater heft.  The result is a narrative in which “I would have to be both author and reader, discovering as I narrated”.

One of the writer’s tasks is to bear witness – to his or her own stories, to the stories of those close to them – and to record testimonies in the best way possible. In My Fathers’ Ghost is Climbing in the Rain, that is what Patricio Pron has admirably done.

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