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.