Crying For Argentina

The Falklands War was the dawn of my social and political consciousness. I must have been twelve or thirteen when it happened, at an age when my dad and I both sat at the dining room table sharing the morning newspaper over breakfast. I was too young still to take in the wider background, but it was the first occasion where I had to grapple with the sense that my country was involved in a war and to wonder what that meant, what the consequences would be. I remember most of all the furore over the smallness, the seeming insignificance of the islands themselves, so many thousands of miles away, and all the jokes about sheep that arose, so disparate and confusing for a child side by side in the newspaper with the civilian and military death count. Perhaps that was what struck me most, at an age where growing was all about utter confusion; war, which was such a stark, terrible word, so brutal and fearsome, was about conflict at a profound inner level, this call for fierce emotions where before there were none at all, this sense of everything happening while nothing was happening, this profound confusion about where loyalties might lie, with people’s hostility turned in all directions at once, and this need for a profane levity about dreadful things, so it was hard to know where to pitch my feelings about them.

I hadn’t thought about the Falkands in years, though, not until reading Perla by Carolina de Robertis made me look up the history of Argentina’s so-called Dirty War. This was an ugly, drawn-out civil conflict over the 70s and 80s between the right-wing military dictatorship that was in power and the remnants of left-wing support for the Perón dynasty who had previously held office. The military dictatorship decided that all civil unrest should be avoided by eliminating any possible troublemakers, and they did so quietly, secretively and brutally. As ever, the numbers vary wildly, but between 9,000 and 30,000 people became the desaparecido, the disappeared. The Falklands War, in 1982, was a last-ditch attempt by the military to distract the population and bring them together against a common enemy. However, they came across Margaret Thatcher in fine warrior fettle, and 74 days later it was all over.

The eponymous Perla is the daughter of a naval commander who now, years after the Dirty War, turns out to have been on the wrong side. Clearly up to their necks in the military dictatorship’s atrocities, Perla’s parents remain proud and defensive, and very secretive. Perla undergoes her own epiphanies in early childhood, when a schoolmate she befriends, whose family has lost men in the war, realises who Perla’s father was and turns violently against her. Perla knows that something dreadful has been happening, too dreadful, in fact, to confront or understand, and so she falls back into silence and secrecy herself, learning quickly not to disclose her father’s occupation. Whatever her parents have done, they are still ordinary parents whom Perla loves. But as she grows up, so this veil of secrecy becomes ever harder to maintain. Perla falls in love with Gabriel, an investigative journalist who is loudly outspoken agains the deposed dictatorship, and her own relationship to her parents becomes ever more strained as they struggle to come to terms with the shift in power that has left them isolated, burdened with guilty and responsibility they cannot accept. This novel is an unusual Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age narrative, about a young women under terrible strain from the sins of her father, unable to find her real identity and conflicted by the demands of love for her family and the unpalatable truth of history.

For Perla’s existence is turned upside down. She arrives home from college one day to find a wet, naked man on the rug in the middle of her living room. At first the man can barely speak, and although he is thirsy, he cannot eat. Gradually Perla discovers that he exists in a limbo beyond death, and that he is one of the disappeared whose presence here in her house is connected to her in a surprising and personal way. The narrative perspective splits between Perla, who is forced to confront her past, and this magical realist ghost who needs to tell the distressing tale of what has happened to him. As both stories unfold, and each character grows in understanding and acceptance, so the narrative paves the way for an extremely moving and quite unexpected happy ending.

I had a rocky start with this novel as it coincided with a very busy patch of life, and it’s not the sort of book you can pick up and put down easily. Instead it rewards steady attentiveness and concentration on its exquisite prose. I also thought for a long time that it was a novel in translation, when in fact, it isn’t. But there is defininitely a faint exotic tang to the narrative voice that is not at all lyrical, just an injection of otherness. I thought the portrait of Perla’s parents was very well done, as they could so easily have descended into cariacature. I wondered how many novels out there attend to this delicate but fascinating topic: what must it be like to have been in power and now to continue with life forever stained and tainted by one’s past actions. And Perla herself is an intriguing creation, a woman locked in a false good-girl self, needing to live authentically yet ashamed of a past she had no control over. You have to be able to take a little magic realism to get on with this novel, but I felt it was well motivated. Magic realism was initially an invention of Latin America, as a way to give voice to the stories of the oppressed. The magical elements gave power of agency and transformation to people who had no access to even the most basic rights of humankind. It seemed fitting, therefore, that this disappeared ghost should sit centre stage, uniting the conflicted elements of a war torn country through the identity of a young woman. It is a novel of opposites, of beauty and ugliness, of truth and dissimulation, of love and brutality, and a vivid, sensitive tale well told.

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18 thoughts on “Crying For Argentina

  1. I’m interested in your comment about the purpose of magical realism. I am often bothered by magical realism because I feel like I’m being pushed to believe in supernatural/mystical elements. But maybe I’m just misunderstanding the role of those elements?

    • I think magical realism is a bit of a marmite thing – you love it or hate it. In the comment to Richard below, I wrote more about it, but wikipedia has a very good entry on it. The way the real blossoms into the marvellous arises from all sorts of different artistic ideas, some invested with a belief in the incredible richness of reality, some steeped in folklore, myth and superstition, some critiques of political situations, some come out of postmodern game playing. It sort of depends which book at which time and from which country! But I think to enjoy it, you have to want to go with the flow and just let the strange things happen in some sort of suspension of disbelief. If that doesn’t work for you, then it’s probably not something you could grow to love! :)

  2. I’ve seen this book on your sidebar for awhile and have been wondering what it is about. It sounds really good and what an interesting time and place to put the story too.

    • Oh poor Perla, she was stuck in that side bar for ages! But I’m glad I did get around to reading the book. Yes, I can see that this one might well appeal to you – if you’d like me to pop my copy in the post to you, you only have to say the word!

  3. The Dirty War background and your reference to the novelist’s “exquisite prose” momentarily made me think I might enjoy this, Litlove, but the magical realism elements and that airbrushed cover art now make me think not (esp. the magical realism, the use of which sounds like a commercial cop-out here). Although not a fan of magical realism at all, I’m curious about your statement that magical realism was a Latin American invention invented as “a way to give voice to the stories of the oppressed.” In particular, I’m curious to hear who you think “invented” magical realism and why you think it had to do with a literature of the oppressed. Cheers!

    • No, I don’t think this one is for you, Richard. It’s premise is interesting, but I don’t think it complicates it sufficiently to attract your attention, and the resolution is charming and sort of fortunate.

      As for magical realism, well, it’s not really ‘my’ line on it but what I thought was generally accepted. The first use of the term was by a German art critic, but I thought that Alejo Carpentier (who was very influenced by European art) and his idea of ‘lo real maravilloso’ was one of the first instances in literature, along with another guy, a Venezuelan writer, Arturo Uslar-Pietri who was more in the club of modernist experimenters. Although I think there’s also a bid for Borges to be one of the first magical realists, and there are lots of other Latin American authors like Carlos Fuentes, Isabel Allende, Juan Carlos Onetti, Jorge Amado and Gabriel Garcia Marquez whose writing displays similar features. It’s a huge genre now (is genre the right word? I’m not sure) and is woven into and out of all sorts of other movements like Surrealism and postmodernism. So its aims and intentions are broad. But one strand is political. Not that wikipedia always gets it right, but I found a useful quote there that says: ‘This is a mode primarily about and for “ex-centrics”: the geographically, socially and economically marginalized. Therefore, magic realism’s ‘alternative world’ works to correct the reality of established viewpoints (like realism, naturalism, modernism). Magic realist texts, under this logic, are subversive texts, revolutionary against socially dominant forces.’

      I didn’t want to go into much detail here, so I’m sorry if I used words that sit uneasily with you, or generalised too much about a complex artistic movement. I just felt this particular line on magic realism was appropriate for the novel concerned. A book I read on the subject that I found to be a good, clear guide was Magic(al) Realism by Maggie Ann Bowers. But perhaps if you don’t like it then you wouldn’t be interested in reading more about it.

      • Thanks for that very detailed reply, Litlove–I feel special now! Although I kind of take issue with the idea of magical realism as having been “invented” to provide a voice for the oppressed–which seems overly simplistic and almost stereotypical to me–I was primarily just interested in hearing your take on the matter as a particularly literate “colleague” of mine. For whatever it’s worth, I do think this is how most English-speaking/readers bloggers that I’m aware of think of magical realism in any event. For my part, though, I thought I remembered Carpentier’s preface to The Kingdom of This World talking about “lo real maravilloso” being a way to describe/reflect Latin America’s particular “historical realities” in more general terms–not necessarily as a way to represent the oppressed but as a way to differentiate Latin America from European or “western” traditions of reality. Borges, Onetti, and Juan Rulfo, quasi-magical realists in some regards or at least in some works as you point out, don’t really have anything to do with a literature of the oppressed in the sense that I thought you meant in your post–so I was just curious about what you meant by that “voice of the oppressed” thing. I haven’t read anything by Uslar-Pietri or much about the German artist who first coined the term, but as I might have hinted earlier my interest in magical realism is limited to a sort of know thy enemy type of thing (I’m not a big fan of fantasy either, ha ha). Anyway, thanks for the discussion opportunity and the bibliographical suggestions!

  4. I was a little too young for the Falklands, but a lot of what you said about your experience of it resonated with me from the first Gulf War (I suppose most generations of thirteen-year-olds have their wars, unfortunately). It is definitely a confusing thing, especially in an age where the wars are so distant and yet covered in such great detail, so that it does indeed seem to be “everything happening and nothing happening.”

    Anyway this book does sound fascinating – it’s always interesting to have people like this made real and given private lives and families. It’s easy to caricature them as evil, but much harder to make them human. This is not a novel I’d heard of before, so I’m glad you reviewed it. Made me think of the movie Death and the Maiden, which also covered the period of Argentina’s Dirty War and its aftermath.

    • Andrew, I am ashamed to say I knew nothing whatsoever about the Dirty War until I read this novel. But then that’s one of the great beauties of fiction – it can be extremely informative. I will look up Death and the Maiden now that you have mentioned it! And although it’s not a book I could really recommend (it’s a bit bonkers) Jean Baudrillard’s crit theory shocker The Gulf War Did Not Take Place is a very curious and intriguing explanation of modern mediatised warfare. Best to read about it in a summary somewhere, I’d say!

  5. My memories of the Falklands War are similar to yours. One of my little brothers loved playing games with his little plastic soldiers, but he was shocked to discover, via the coverage of the war, that people ‘really’ died in war.

    I am not at all averse to magic realism and I think this sounds a fascinating book. In poor, currently neglected Mulisch’s ‘De aanslag’, there’s a character whose father was a Nazi responsible for the deaths and deportations of many Dutch people. He has only appeared in one scene so far and I don’t think he’ll reappear, but how he had come to terms with his father’s actions was fascinating and sad. A book which explores such a relationship in more detail is definitely my cup of tea.

    • Oh yes! Of course, De aanslag would be a perfect companion book, as I get the impression from your excellent reviews of it, that it deals in very much the same sort of issues. And as for your little brother, isn’t it interesting how far apart fantasy and reality are for children? Whatever books, films and video games teach us, it is not directly transposed into action as there is a vast distance between imagining something and living it. If Stefanie doesn’t take me up on my offer for the book then I may well drop you a line to see if you’d like it, dear Helen.

      • That’s extremely kind of you litlove!

        I do agree about children’s ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality. I really wish that all adults could understand that. All too often there’s an insistance on children’s literature, at least, having a moral message. But exploring these possibilities in your imagination is surely a valuable part of growing up (as well as fun).

        My brother has grown up to be probably the gentlest and least aggressive person I know. My cousin denied her son toy guns on principle and he ended up using a small crucifix as a gun (!!!) – but he too has grown up to be a nice person rather than a psychopath…

  6. I’m intrigued by the fact that you thought it was a translated book. That’s really interesting. How did the author manage that or she is bilingual maybe.
    The Falklands War sure passed me by. I only recently really came to think of it when I compiled a list on movies on the Falkans War and watched the Thatcher movie. Her name will always be tied to that war. Coincidentally someone left a commnet on my blog yesterday on the movie “This is England” stating that the war had helped shape a better England. Duh.

    • Isn’t that interesting? I am pretty sure the author is biliingual, though and that might well account for it. I’m not at all surprised if the Falklands War isn’t well-known history around Europe. I’m half-tempted to watch The Iron Lady and then half not (although I think Meryl Streep does an amazing job of impersonating Thatcher – her voice is EXACTLY the same, it’s uncanny). As for that commenter, duh, indeed.

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