The Rabbit House by Laura Alcoba tr.Polly McLean #WITMonth

Laura Alcoba was born in Argentina in 1968 and has lived in Paris since she was 10 years old, when she fled Argentina during the period in the country’s history from 1976 to 1983 when military, security forces hunted down any political dissidents and/or anyone believed to be associated with socialism, or the Montoneros movement. Her father had been imprisoned and her mother had already fled the country, a wanted woman.

Many that were targeted were from the church, labour unions, artists, intellectuals and university students and professors were targeted.  Pregnant women had their babies taken from them and then disappeared, many of these children were raised by military families, some of them today still have no idea of their origins, a few fortunate to be reaquainted with siblings or other family thanks to the tireless efforts of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. More than 400 children are believed to have been taken from political prisoners in Argentina during that era and the efforts of the grandmothers have reunited around 120 so far.

The Rabbit HouseIn The Rabbit House, Laura rarely refers to the political situation that forced them to live in hiding, resulting in her having to change her name and be extra careful about how she engaged with others, for it is written from the perspective of her 7-year-old self, exactly as she recalls the events and changes that occurred in their lives at the time, with little understanding of the cause of this sudden change.

After her father is imprisoned, Laura and her mother go into hiding in a house in the suburbs, they live with a young couple, the woman Diana was pregnant with her first child.

During the day, “the labourer” and “the engineer” arrive to build a rabbit house, a place where they are going to breed rabbits, a cover for the job to create an underground space in which to house a printing press, to print and distribute a banned publication.

This is because we are doing some work on the shed so we can keep rabbits in there. These visible sacks justify – we hope – the endless comings and goings of the grey van. In this way we flaunt the busyness and waste materials appropriate to a modest rabbit breeding project. But behind the rabbit breeding area is concealed a whole other building site, huge, on another scale entirely – because the house we live in was chosen to hide the secret Montonera printing press.

Though there are things Laura has been told she can and can’t do, this precarious life and it’s rules aren’t well enough defined to help her with every situation, some of which she recounts here, creating the acute tension under which she lived, terrified of doing something wrong and endangering all their lives.

EvitaMontoneraThe only people in the house are Diana, seven months pregnant, my mother behind the false back wall, and me.

Oh, and the rabbits. And the rolls of wrapping paper and ribbon. and the secret printing press and hundreds of copies of a banned newspaper. And also the weapons, for self-defence.

And the ferocious kitten.

We are very afraid.

A visit with her paternal grandparents to see her father in prison is organised in a clandestine manner, and is so traumatising she is physically sick and it is decided not to take the risk again, her fear clearly outweighing any benefit in seeing her father.

I was reminded of Marcelo Figueras’s book Kamchatka which I read in 2015, a novel also written from a child’s perspective, set in 1976. Figueras uses the novel form to inspire his storytelling, clearly drawing from his own memory and experiences of that same era.

The writing and narrating of Laura’s story is simplistic yet intense, she effectively portrays the sense of unease and desire of the child to not create trouble, but not knowing quite how, when the situations are complex and unknown,  she is destabilised by the visible fear of the grown-ups, demonstrated in how quickly they anger when they fear she may have crossed a forbidden threshold.

First read for me in #WITMonth 2016 – Reading Women in Translation.

KamcahtkaFurther Reading

My review of Marcelo Figueras Kamchatka

Argentina – A Terrible Period of State Terrorism/Genocide

Operation Condor conspiracy faces day of judgment in Argentina court

Madres of the Plaza de Mayo – Grandmothers of the Disappeared

How an Argentinian man learned his ‘father’ may have killed his real parents – Guardian 22 June 2016

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Click here to Buy a copy of The Rabbit House via Book Depository

Kamchatka by Marcelo Figueras tr. Frank Wynne (Spanish, Argentina)

KamcahtkaKamchatka 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.

HoudiniEarly 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. ”

Risk Map

The ‘Risk’ Map of the World

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.

And Kamchatka?

“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

Kamchatka landscapeIn 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.