KAMCHATKA by Marcelo Figueras

Book Quote:

“Sometimes, as I remember, my voice is that of the ten-year-old boy I was then; sometimes the voice of the seventy-year-old man I am yet to be; sometimes it is my voice, at the age I am now… or the age I think I am. Who I have been, who I am, who I will be are all in continual conversation, each influencing the other.”

Book Review:

Review by Friederike Knabe  (JUL 11, 2011)

He calls himself “Harry” now, after his new hero, the famous escape artist, Harry Houdini, hoping that one day he, too, will be a successful escape artist. Discovering a book about Houdini, hidden in the room that will now serve as his bedroom, the ten-year-old boy finds a new source of inspiration. Only the day before, and without warning, his family had to leave their comfortable house in Buenos Aires with nothing but the bare essentials. An abandoned country house has to serve as their temporary shelter. Harry already misses school, his friends and his board game Risk. With his routines disrupted, his sense of dislocation is further heightened when papá tells him and his little brother that they all have to take on new names and forget their former ones: it is too dangerous. Set in 1976, against the backdrop of what has become known as Argentina’s “Dirty War,” that left thousands of people as desaparecidos – disappeared without a trace -, Marcelo Figueras takes us on a moving and intricate journey, through hope, devotion and betrayal, through human frailty and strength, through loss and perseverance.

By concentrating on the life of one family, in hiding and on the run, Figueras opens a narrow, intimate window into this traumatic reality. Young Harry, the primary voice in the novel, while trying to cope with the day-to-day challenges the family faces, is also living in a colourfully imagined world full of heroes and battles, and preparing for his own, Houdini-like, “escapes” from the dangers he senses around him. His depiction of his surroundings, descriptions of his encounters with the toads in the pool… are lively and endearing. These and others feel immediate and richly drawn; the voice of the child is totally convincing as it fluctuates between innocently funny to wisely inquisitive.

The novel opens with a decisive moment in time, before it rolls back to the beginning, prior to the events unfolding that led up to this point: Harry and his grandpa say goodbye to his beloved parents: “The last thing papá said to me, the last word from his lips, was ‘Kamchatka.'” Harry will never forget his father’s last word. In his mind, it is like a code word between father and son, a promise, a sign of eventual victory. Kamchatka, for him is a safe place, from where a temporary retreat changes into fighting back, moving forward to winning. Kamchatka is one of the “remotest territories waiting to be conquered” on the Risk board, the game he loves to play with his papá. He is a curious child, fascinated not only by Superman and famous battles and their historical heroes. His interests in the ancient philosophers, in biology, astronomy, and geography are just as strong. For as long as he can remember, he knows, for example, that the board game Kamchatka resembles – in its remoteness and its physical profile – the actual one in the north eastern tip of what was then the Soviet Union: “a frozen peninsula, which is also the most active volcanic region on Earth. A horizon ringed by towering inaccessible peaks shrouded in sulphurous vapors.” In his imagination the fictional and the real Kamchatka merge into one, a safe and beautiful place where he will travel to when the time comes…

The adult Harry is a constant companion voice to that of the ten-year-old, recalling vivid memories, filling in what his younger self didn’t know or couldn’t conceive and trying to make some sort sense of his life by reflecting on the games played by memory and time. “Time is weird,” he muses. ” That much is obvious. Sometimes I think everything happens at once, which is anything but obvious and even weirder.” Between the two voices the novel contains much more than the story of a young boy who desperately tries to maintain his playful childhood, his study, and his new-found friendship with the mysterious Lucas, while at the same time hoping to support his parents by “playing his role” in the family. He observes, more than he understands, and yet senses why the “uncles” have disappeared one after the other, why his adored and adoring mamá does no longer behave like the “rock” of the family, why the psychological stresses show on his parents’ faces. With great apprehension he watches them in their constant challenge to demonstrate the emotional strength needed to keep the family together as long as possible and to provide for Harry and his young brother the sense of safety and normalcy in a dangerous period of history. Yet, he does not dare to ask…

Beyond the child’s story, Kamchatka is also the adult’s multifaceted meditation on history, on learning about life and the universe, on time and memory. Figueras, in fact, structures his novel along the lines of school periods: Biology, Geography, Astronomy, Language and History.  In each section, young Harry learns at a child’s level and through observations and practical experiences what the older Harry then places into the respective context. The two voices are so intricately intertwined that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish which voice is speaking to the reader and affording young Harry maturity he cannot have had. As Harry later describes himself: “Who I have been, who I am, who I will be are all in continual conversation, each influencing the other.” For me, some of these “scientific excursions,” while interesting and valuable in their own right, can take the reader too far away from the essence of the story. They tend to turn, at times, the political and personal story more into a subtext than may be warranted given the overall direction of the narrative.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 6 readers
PUBLISHER: Grove Press, Black Cat; (May 3, 2011)
REVIEWER: Friederikie Knabe
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Marcelo Figueras
EXTRAS: Publisher page
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar

Bibliography (translated only):

July 11, 2011 · Judi Clark · Comments Closed
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, Latin American/Caribbean, South America, Translated, World Lit