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.

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

Nora WebsterSomething about the promise of Colm Tóibín’s new novel Nora Webster pulled me in right from the beginning, the cover with its familiar Irish landscape of boats moored against a grey sky, the less conspicuous protagonist, a 40-year-old housewife who doesn’t become the mother of a prophet, an oversensitive woman who rarely gives voice to the many thoughts that race through her mind as she tries to cope with the aftermath of her husband’s untimely death and the shift in relations with her four children.

We know little of her life with her husband Maurice, she doesn’t wallow in pity, though we know she neglected all else, including visiting her sons who were living with her Aunt, one of whom develops a stutter as a result, during those last months when he was dying.

“In these months, she realised, something had changed in the clear, easy connection between her and them, perhaps, for them, between each other. She felt that she would never be sure about them again.”

Nora Webster is a complex character whom few on the outside really understand, including her siblings, who despite their sister’s loss, well, according to Nora – seem to want to avoid her. Even when invited, she senses they wish her gone so they can talk about her. She behaves in a way to provoke them, ensuring they will have something to talk about, deliberately avoiding helping out, resolving not to do any washing up or to help in the kitchen.

“She wondered if she would ever be able to have a normal conversation and what topics she might be able to discuss with ease and interest.”

Set in a small town outside Dublin, in 1960’s Ireland, the novel charts a short period of time after her husband’s death in which Nora makes some important decisions such as selling the beach house and going back to work. She gets her hair dyed and joins the Gramophone Society. She takes singing lessons and following the advice of her Aunt puts her son into boarding school. She begins to create a life that would have been unimaginable in the past and becomes a woman she is comfortable with but surprised by, almost in spite of herself.

Colm Tóibín uses a particular narrative device that has a significant effect on how we see things. By writing in the third person limited perspective, we only ever see things from Nora’s point of view, there is little opportunity to see events in any other way, with the exception of the occasional insightful dialogue. This is the only time we hear what people have to say about Nora.

POVThe narrative perspective creates a narrow, introspective insight into her thinking, but also raises doubts as to whether what she thinks actually reflects reality, as she so rarely expresses her questioning thoughts and prefers to let them lie unstated, preferring to deal with the consequence of her silence. It made me want to shout  “Speak your mind Nora!”

She visits her sister who doesn’t offer them food after a long journey, Nora knows the boys are hungry and wonders if her sister believes they had already eaten, but says nothing.

“What was strange, she noticed, was that Catherine did not give her any opportunity to mention food; instead she spoke to her as though she were not really there. Once she noticed this, she found that she could notice nothing else….she had created an atmosphere in which Nora could have nothing to say.”

Nora has such powerful equanimity, that she rarely speaks, it is as if she lives continuously outside herself, observing herself and others in the situation and wondering many things that she will never utter. It is part of her character, accentuated by grief. To the point that when she does act and we see what she is capable of, it is a shock, it seems out of character. She is quite a force after all.

“She had trained herself not to ask any of the children too many questions. If she came home with a parcel of any kind when she was growing up, her mother would need to know what was in the parcel, or if a letter came for her, her mother would need to know who it was from and what news it contained. Nora had found this constantly irritating, and tried with her own children not to intrude.”

Nora Webster is a perplexing character and Colm Tóibín a masterful creator of character, deliberately using a narrative device that prevents the reader from feeling comfortable with her observation of reality, while forcing us to accept it. We too are trapped inside Nora’s mind, just as she is trapped inside her grief. We feel the need to escape, to shout, to ask someone what is really happening here.

“They did not have her way of watching every scene, every moment, for signs of what was missing or what might have been.”

I found the novel a compelling, albeit at times annoying read. I turned the pages hungry for more and found myself resenting the authorial control over the narrative perspective. I wanted to read a companion novel, the one written from the point of view of her son Donal or her daughter Fiona, I didn’t trust Nora Webster’s interpretation of people’s motives and although she knew people gossiped behind her back, I really wanted to know what it was they were saying and not just her wild, over analytic guess at what was passing through the minds of members of her family and community.

042512_1611_IntheSpring1.jpgNora’s grief is unique in that she very rarely dwells on the past and we aren’t sure whether the way she is now, is how she always was or how much of it is the result of her grieving.

One of the best novels I have read portraying a widow’s grief was Susan Hill’s astonishing, In the Springtime of the Year, which I highly recommend, her protagonist is equally displaced by grief and experiencing an existential crisis provoked by the untimely death of her young husband.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.