Kamchatka is a novel by the Argentinian writer Marcelo Figueras set in 1976, one year during a disturbing era of Argentinian history under military dictatorship, often referred to as The Dark Ages, a time when speaking out against the establishment gave rise to a terrible number of “Disappeared”.
Ordinary people vanished without trace, neither arrested nor imprisoned, there was no record of their detainment, they simply disappeared, believed to have been disposed off.
In an interview with Stu a huge reader of translated fiction who reviews at Winston’s Dad, Marcelo Figueras said this about his own experience as a child growing up in those years, words that are clearly an inspiration for the novel he has written:
“On the one hand, I was the typical boy on the verge of adolescence: shy, introspective, living in a bubble made of books ,music, comics, TV and movies. I played Risk a lot. I watched The Invaders. I enjoyed Houdini, the movie with Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, but rejected its sad, sad ending. I fell in love every day. I danced alone.
But on the other hand, I lived in fear. I knew nothing about what was happening, my family had always been apolitical. In spite of that, I sensed something awful was going on: it was everywhere, even in the air, atoms of fear mixed with oxygen and nitrogen.
That was one of the main ingredients of the military Junta’s perversity: they tried to keep the appearance of normality, Buenos Aires’ streets were calm and orderly (and filled with policemen), as if nothing out of the ordinary was really happening. But people were being kidnapped in the dark, locked in dungeons, tortured and killed, and their bodies hidden in massive, anonymous graves or dropped into the sea. So something wicked was indeed happening. And my nose picked it up somehow.”
The author goes on to say that the subject has been written about by many authors and in his opinion many of those stories follow a similar trajectory of a romantic young man or woman, their involvement in politics, a kidnapping occurs, torture, death and the law courts follow.
He wanted to do something different, to write about what those who were not kidnapped endured, a different horror. By making a 10-year-old the narrator of his novel, he puts the reader right into this fearful and confusing situation of sensing being in danger and yet understanding nothing about where that fear is coming from.
Early on in the novel, our narrator and his younger brother, whom he affectionately refers to as The Midget, are pulled out of school abruptly by their mother and they go on what she describes as a holiday, to stay in a safe house.
The boys are told to choose a name for themselves, to change their identity and after finding a book about Harry Houdini on top of a cupboard, our narrator calls himself Harry and decides he wants to become an escape artist, something he goes to great lengths to tell us is very different to being a magician.
“Since the uncertainties of the present weighed heavily on me, I had been spending a lot of time thinking about my future. The idea of becoming an escape artist struck me as clearly as a vision: once the notion was firmly planted in my brain, all my worries disappeared. Now I had a plan, something that would, in the near future, make it possible to tie up the loose ends of my circumstances. I imagined that Houdini himself had done much the same thing. ”
The stay doesn’t feel like a holiday to Harry, however he passes his time doing the things he enjoys, playing Risk with his father, a post colonial game of strategy to take over the territories of the world. Harry wants to conquer but he never does, his father believes it is important he learns how to win through continual practice, not to have victory handed to him.
Finally the match occurs where Harry begins to win, he pushes his father back, gaining all but one last territory, that last bastion of strength, Kamchatka. He fails to take it and from that moment on his fortune turns. Kamchatka is this place on the map that few have heard of, but it contains a hidden strength and it is both a figurative place Harry will return to in later years and a physical landscape of extraordinary elements that he will also visit.
Our Harry is very curious and intelligent and the book is structured into sections like lessons from a day at school. In each of these parts he reflects on philosophical ideas, covering subjects the book is divided into, biology, geography, language, astronomy and history. These reflections were one of the magical parts of the book for me, I recognise that beautiful curiosity of a young mind, trying to make connections between what he knows and what he thinks might be, growing his brain on the page.
“Sometimes I think that everything you need to know about life can be found in geography books. The result of centuries of research, they tell us how the Earth was formed…They tell us about how successive geological strata of the planet were laid down, one on top of the other, creating a modem which applies to everything in life. (In a sense too, we are made up of successive layers. Our current incarnation is laid down over a previous one, but sometimes its cracks and eruptions bring to the surface elements we thought long buried.)”
Most of the narrative takes place in this suburban exile for the period that the two boys are with their parents, during that time they invite their Grandmother to visit, a formidable woman who doesn’t get on with her daughter and whom The Midget plays a deathly trick on.
There is a swimming pool and often the boys find a dead toad floating within it, so they devise a method for the toad to escape, hoping to improve the genetic selection of toads, as only the intelligent will figure out how to escape. It is a child’s game invested with hope.
“The last thing Papa said to me, the last word from his lips, was ‘Kamchatka’.”
I thought this book was incredibly well told, the voice of the child narrator was so authentic and believable, his curiosity, frustrations and fear penetrate the pages and make the reader feel it all. You can’t help but read the book with a certain amount of tension, not knowing what the outcome will be. I was left wanting to read a sequel, to know how Harry coped and lived in the teenage years that would have followed, when life must have been so different to everything he and The Midget had known up until then.
A 5 star read for me, highly recommended.
The book was short listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2011.
A Note on That Place Called Kamchatka
In the easternmost region of Russia, eight time zones from Moscow, closer to Japan than most of Russia lies the region and peninsula of Kamchatka. A land of legends and a kingdom of bears. The region is stunning to look at and sees all the elements come together, snow topped hills, ramblings brooks, luscious greenery and volcanic vapours, yes there are frequent volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.
I realised some days after finishing this wonderful book that I knew about Kamchatka because some months ago my son made me go with him to see a stunning documentary at the cinema called ‘Terre des Ours’ which is set right on the heart of Kamchatka, a territory that is the home of brown bears, who only come out of hibernation for 3 months of the year and during that time they leave the snow topped mountainous regions and traverse the lava fields and go down to the river and lakes which are heaving with salmon. They must eat enough to get them through the next hibernation and the female bears have an even more challenging role as they have to catch enough for themselves and their offspring, while fending off the attentions of the lone male bears.
Below is a one minute trailer that show you a little of that magical world. The film is brilliant, sadly I don’t think it is available in English, the voice over is done by Marion Cotillard. But do watch this snippet, its magic.