“Fear had taken root in my own house, in my drawer, carefully folded, smelling of fresh laundry, nestling among the socks.” With these simple words, author Marcelo Figueras re-creates the opening days of a military coup d’état and its effect on a family of four.
Set against the terrifying backdrop of Argentina’s “Dirty War” — the military dictatorship that gripped the country from 1976 to 1983 — this luminous, deeply political novel explores the world of childhood and the family, the nature of love and loss, and what it means to be human in an age of repression. In telling the tale, Figueras weaves astronomy, physics, biology, ancient history and even Homer and Shakespeare into a rich tapestry. First published in 2004, Kamchatka was translated from the Spanish by Frank Wynne in 2011.
In the novel’s first pages, the young protagonist is surprised when his mother shows up unexpectedly to take him and his younger brother out of school. Fearing for their safety, the family drops everything and escapes to a quinta, or vacation bungalow in the hills outside Buenos Aries. Harry’s father is a civil rights lawyer, his mother a university physicist and trade unionist ultimately fired from her job because of her left-wing views. The family becomes fugitives when the father’s office is ransacked and his law partner “disappears.”
Once in the safe house, the family adopts new identities. The narrator gives himself the name Harry, after his idol, Harry Houdini. His younger brother, nicknamed The Midget, calls himself Simon, after his favorite character on the TV show The Saint.
Harry inhabits a world of comic books, super heroes and his favorite board game Risk, which he regularly plays with and loses to his father. It’s a game of strategy where the objective is to gain land held by your opponent by capturing his or her armies. Risk divides the globe into various territories. Kamchatka is the place a player can escape to and regroup after a defeat. In real life, Kamchatka is a peninsula in Siberia. Harry tells us it is “utterly inaccessible … a kingdom of extremes, a contradiction in terms.”
Harry and The Midget have a series of adventures, not least of which is their effort to rescue toads that are drowning in the decrepit swimming pool behind the quinta. Harry realizes the toads are hopping into the pool but cannot climb out again. So he constructs a “reverse diving board” and thrills when the frogs begin to save themselves.
During their stay, a young man named Lucas comes to live with the family. Harry sees Lucas as an older brother who takes Harry’s interest in Houdini seriously and teaches him how to condition his body and practice “escaping.” But Harry’s questions about Lucas’ real name and origins are always answered the same way: “Wrong question.” Accordingly, The Midget nick-names him “Lucas-Just-Lucas.”
Lucas’ mysterious presence is an indication of how much ordinary life has been disrupted. Harry observes the resulting stress, though as a child, he is unable to interpret everything he sees. The Midget begins to wet the bed again, his mother is chain-smoking and Harry is training as an escape artist and having nightmares.
Chapter by chapter, the reader absorbs Harry‘s sense of impending doom, a feeling that the net is tightening around Harry and his family, just as the ropes and chains were tightened around his hero, Harry Houdini.
In spite of this, the novel is full of humor and hope. Harry’s description of the family’s car, an aged Citroen, is priceless. “Most glaringly, our Citroen was a lime green colour which, on a cloudless day, could blind even the most experienced driver.” In a chapter titled “I Am Delivered up To a Tribe of Cannibals,” Harry describes a crash course in Catholicism that the boys are given by their secular parents so that they can blend into the village parochial school.
It would be wrong to regard Kamchatka as simply a loving portrait of family life set during a dark time, as do some reviewers. I think Figueras wanted to write a book about this period in Argentinian history for a reason — he had something to say about injustice, oppression and the human capacity to resist and survive. The fact that the narrator is a child, incapable of appreciating the full horror of the events he is describing, only underscores the danger.
For Figueras, love — the human ability to relate to and renew each other — is the key to resistance. In the end, the grown-up Harry tells us to “love one another madly, the people you know, but more importantly the people who need love, because love is the only thing that is real, it is the light, everything else is darkness.”
Editor’s note: On July 5, 2012, two of Argentina’s former military dictators were convicted of overseeing systematic abducting, torturing and killing pregnant left-wing women, then giving their infants to military or police couples.