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Book review: My Father's Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain, By Patricio Pron, trans. Mara Faye Lethem
Argentina's anguish frames a moving, thoughtful novel
Friday 23 August 2013
How we are haunted by the pain of the past is the powerful theme at the heart of this moving meditation on trauma, memory, and home, beautifully translated from Spanish by Mara Faye Lethem. The shadow of the 1970s Argentinian military dictatorship is cast over the life of the young, unnamed narrator, an Argentine writer who has tried to escape but is pulled back into his past when he travels to see his dying father, journeying from the "dark German forests" to the "horizontal Argentine plain", but also into the heartbreaking history of his family's underground resistance to the military regime. The urge to forget the past - yet the paradoxical pull to remember it - tugs at the heartstrings.
"Children are detectives of their parents", acknowledges the narrator, whose detective work involves piecing together the past through discovered documents telling the story of the mysterious disappearance. His urgent aim is to "try and impose some order on their story, restore the meaning" in order to protect and perpetuate it.
Stylistically, this non-linear, experimental narrative reflects the fragmented nature of memory, with short chapters filled with newspaper reports, dreams, hallucinations: "the question of how to narrate his story was equivalent to the question of how to remember it". The narrator has lost his memory through a combination of pills and pain, leaving him feeling "as if I am my own ghost". Yet it gradually, enticingly, returns, along with his humanity.
This poetic, atmospheric novel is filled with symbolic images: of relentless rain; of being lost in a dark forest. Lying beneath a tangle of hospital cords, the narrator's father looks "like a fly in a spiderweb", caught also in the web of the past.
It's through excavating tiny details that Pron reaches universal truths; through depiction of an individual life that he reflects on a generation's trauma. Throughout, lucidity is juxtaposed with opacity; the precision of his mother's recipes is for the narrator a welcome antidote to the bluntness caused by pain. The "tongue twister" jargon of the ill, the "jumble of words in a head that refused to function", is brilliantly depicted as Pron expresses inarticulacy with real eloquence.
For the peripatetic narrator, books are "the only thing that I'd ever been able to call my home", and this unfolds into a poignant disquisition on the powers of literature. "The true story of what I saw and how I saw it is after all the only thing I've got to offer," wrote Jack Kerouac, an epigraph to the novel, but our narrator's perception is skewed from memory loss. This philosophical novel, which probes the thorniest of ontological and epistemological questions, compellingly displays - as well as explores - fiction's power to unearth the most deeply buried emotional truths.
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