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by Marcelo Figueras

Black Cat (Grove/Atlantic, Inc.) | 2003 and 2011 (English translation) | 309 pages

Reviewed by Janet Garber

marcelo Figueras


A 10 year old boy with a Tintinesque shock of hair standing straight up from his hairline, playing Hangman in class when he’s supposed to be watching an educational film, suddenly is yanked out of school midday by his mother and shuttled with his 5 year old brother to a ramshackle “safe” house, hours outside Buenos Aires.  Mama urges the boys to think of this stay as an island vacation.

Their father, who’s joined them, says, that like Batman, they’re going to assume new names and guard their secret identities.  They enroll in a Catholic school and start going to mass, but otherwise do not venture far from their “island.”  The boy, although very bright, chooses not to let in too much reality, instead immersing himself fully in childhood activities: reading and rereading a book about an escape artist, Harry Houdini, watching The Saint and The Invaders on TV, poring over Superman comics, coming to the rescue of drowning frogs, and facing off at Risk with his father who consistently wins by locating his forces on Kamchatka, the most remote and inaccessible spot on the board, and “the place from where you fought back.”

Yes, it’s 1976, there’s a military coup in Argentina, and 30,000 people over the next seven years are about to be kidnapped, tortured and “disappeared.”  Mama, a physics professor, heads up the trade union; Papa, a lawyer, defends political prisoners – both lose their jobs, but pop in and out of the safe house on mysterious and presumably dangerous errands.  The boy’s “uncles” vanish – one dies and the boy is astute enough to realize one doesn’t ordinarily die of natural causes at age 30.

The boy, who assumes the name Harry, practices holding his breath under water, learning sailors’ knots and how to wriggle free of them, and embarks on a physical fitness routine with a teenage lodger/babysitter.  Harry chooses to remain in a state of ignorance, but can’t help musing about lessons to be learned from biology, geology, language, astronomy and history – or perhaps this is just his older self looking back and reflecting on the events as he tells his story. He believes all time is happening at once, so his revisiting these events as an adult lets him edit certain scenes and add adult ruminations. We only know as much as the boy about the outside world, although we intuit a bit more.  We quickly understand why his gaze returns again and again to this period of his life.

For Harry’s family is a loving one, affectionate and protective.  His parents do their utmost to preserve some normalcy for the children as they struggle to survive.  His baby brother is more nervous and excitable and care is taken by all to soften the blows for him. The story focuses on the details of their daily rituals and the rhythms of their lives as exiles in their own country.

Harry’s grandparents play a pivotal role. They do not sympathize with their son’s choices in life, and they end up taking the boys in when the parents flee; the grandmother, a self-absorbed society lady, is transformed into one of the “abuelitas” of the Plaza de Mayo. She spends years circling the square, demanding to know what has become of her lost children.

Figueras’ decision to tell this tale in an oblique manner, filtered through a child’s half-understood consciousness and a grown man’s imperfect recollections, is what gives this book its power.  He knows we can look up the details of the Dirty War for ourselves.  He wants us to feel viscerally, as he does, that the personal is political, even though, scientifically, maybe we shouldn’t take it personally.  The pain and loss is palpable, though understated, and interspersed with children’s imaginative games, are Mama’s humorous and failed efforts at cooking milanesas (or anything palatable for that matter) as well as Harry’s friend’s mom’s, and Papa’s attentiveness and warmth.  Long before the end, we guess the outcome will not be a happy one, but Harry tells us that he’s hidden out in Kamchatka for years and now is ready to return – to life.  This act of remembrance is his memorial to all that has been lost, his wonderful vibrant family, and to the sheer feat of survival.  It’s finally safe to leave Kamchatka – he’s sorted out all the pieces of his past and understood “the meaning of all things: Man's need to create language to describe it, geography to describe his place within it, biology to remind him that he is a newcomer in this universe, and history because everything is written in the sky. . . intimate and extravagant stories, love and loss, the miniature and the epic" (p.264).

Marcelo Figueras lived through this epoch, smelling the fear in the streets, but not directly suffering any losses.  He now lives in Barcelona where he is a novelist, screenwriter and journalist.  For another take on the toll of the military coup on families, track down the movie, The Official Story (1985), with Norma Aleandro as the wife of an officer who learns her adopted baby was stolen from one of the desparecidos.  Or listen to the haunting melody, Abuelita, by Richard Shindell:

In a crowd, I don´t know which way to turn
I´m afraid I might not see you go by
But if I did, would I find the strength to speak?
And would you want to hear what a stranger would tell you?

That Soledad was your mother´s name
She fell in love with my Juan Luis
They may be gone
But I am still your Abuelita.

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