Atlantic, £14.99, 312pp. £13.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Kamchatka, By Marcelo Figueras, trans. Frank Wynne
Friday 24 September 2010
Argentina, 1976. It is a terrifying time for all with left-wing leanings and thousands disappear, many the victims of extra-judicial executions. A young boy is taken out of school and his family flee to a safe house in the secluded hills outside Buenos Aires. They adopt new identities and the boy names himself Harry after his hero Houdini.
In this brilliant coming-of-age novel, Marcelo Figueras does not offer a conventional portrait of Argentina's brutal past. Instead, he focuses on the personal rather than the political, from the perspective of a ten-year-old boy. Harry and his younger brother, nicknamed "the Midget'", are at first indignant at being removed so abruptly from their normal routine and forced to abandon their home, schoolfriends, favourite toys and magazines. They are equally horrified when they have to undertake a crash course in Catholicism so that their secular parents can send them to the local Catholic school.
Gradually, a sense of normality resumes. In the quinta in which they are staying, Harry discovers a book about Houdini and decides to train to become an escape artist. He continues to read his Superman comics, watch his usual television programmes, and play his favourite board game, Risk.
He also enjoys a new pastime rescuing kamikaze toads from drowning in the old swimming pool. Even when their lives are further disrupted by the unexplained arrival of 18-year-old Lucas, Harry is quickly won over by the teenager's athleticism and knot-tying skills.
But the noose is tightening around his parents' necks. Harry's lawyer father can only work underground defending political prisoners and his mother is fired from her job at the university. Eventually, the family are forced to separate for their own safety.
The Kamchatka Peninsula is situated in the far east of Russia: one of the many territories a player tries to conquer in Risk. It is the last word whispered to Harry as he parts from his parents. Only later does he understand the significance designated by his father: When your country is being torn apart, Kamchatka is a place "far from everything, unreachable", a refuge where you gather strength, "to survive the dark times".
Interweaving musings from Harry's childhood with reflections from his older self, Figueras covers a variety of subjects, from the life-changing to the banal, gradually drawing them together. By the end, we realise the hardest lesson Harry has learned is how to survive horror and bear loss: "Love one another madly," he tells us, "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".
TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies
Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 What happens to your body when you give up sugar?
- 2 Tourist films plane's descent just metres above packed Caribbean beach
- 3 World Book Day: Boy 'excluded' from school after dressing up as Fifty Shades' Christian Grey
- 4 Have sex with your iPad thanks to the new sex toy no-one asked for
- 5 GamerGate: developer Tim Schafer provokes rage with joke about online gaming activists at industry awards
Fifty Shades of Grey banned by Indian censors despite sex scenes being edited out
The 9 rules every Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoon had to follow are wonderfully pedantic
Toy Story 4: Pixar promises a romcom storyline 'separate' from the much-loved trilogy
India's Daughter: BBC Four documentary provokes outrage on Twitter
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut
Durham Free School: 'Creationism taught at' free school facing closure
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
Elif Shafak: Turkish author warns against rise of British nationalism
Ex-head of MI6: 'We shouldn't kid ourselves that Russia is on a path to democracy'
Most people think legal tax avoidance is just as wrong as illegal tax evasion, poll suggests