Discovering and losing the innocence of childhood

Kamchatka. Marcelo Figueras, Atlantic Books; €10.21

By filtering events through recollections and reflections of the older Harry, the novel achieves a brutally honest portrait of the violence and fear which destroyed so many Argentinean families

“I KNEW we were in some kind of danger,” says 10-year-old Harry, protagonist of this Argentinean coming-of-age novel, set during the country’s bloody coup d’etat of 1976.

With the military junta hunting down all those who oppose it, Harry’s left-leaning, intellectual parents are forced to uproot their family and flee to a safety of the countryside outside Buenos Aires.

They adopt false names, with Harry deriving his from a newfound hero, the magician Houdini, “who kept on going in spite of everything”.

It is an inspiration which Harry needs, for though he lacks any developed understanding of the machinations at work in his country, he is wise in his own way to the gravity of the situation.

“I knew straight off that things were going to get ugly,” he says. “The new president had a peaked cap and a huge moustache. You could tell from his face that he was a bad guy.”

Yet Kamchatka is not the story of Harry’s awakening political consciousness. If anything, it is the opposite, with author Marcelo Figueras tracing the boy’s prolonged innocence and his subsequent retreat to imaginative safe havens.

It is Harry’s love of the most ordinary things which blunt the horrors of the junta’s rule for him: Reading comic books where superpowered heroes triumph over evil and playing endless campaigns of Risk. Indeed, the novel takes its title from a territory in that game, the Kamchatka Peninsula which is “far from everything” and “unreachable”. For Harry, Kamchatka is not just the key to winning the game but also a mental refuge, somewhere he can “survive the dark times”.

With playtime as his lens, Figueras has done well in constructing a child’s perspective on the state-sponsored terror of the Dirty War. By filtering events through the recollections and reflections of the older Harry, the novel achieves a brutally honest portrait of the violence and fear which destroyed so many Argentinean families.

It is quite long, with many subplots left dangling at the end, but there is an affecting undercurrent of sorrow and loss which permeates all of Kamchatka.

As the novel progresses, it is heartbreaking to watch this infect even Harry’s love of popular culture, with Superman and Risk losing ground to the unsettling plots of Stephen King.

The result is a claustrophobic tale which exhibits real affection for its characters. A fine English language debut for Figueras — ably facilitated by Frank Wynne’s translation — Kamchatka is that rare novel with meaningful things to say about growing up.



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