Houdini of the hills

Kamchatka
Marcelo Figueras
Atlantic Books; €18.15

VIA the eyes, ears and inner world of a young boy in Buenos Aires, this powerful novel brings to life the atmosphere of desperation following Argentina’s military coup of 1976.

Our hero is 10 and lives in a world of superheroes, school lessons and games of Risk, trying to keep his troublesome little brother, the Midget, from breaking everything he touches, and playing Hangman with his best friend during biology class.

His playful father is a human rights lawyer, his mother a physicist who smokes Jockey cigarettes and possesses the superpowers of the Searing Smile, the Glacial Stare and the Petrifying Scream. Theirs is a warm, unruly home frequented by his parents’ politically engaged friends — until the day his mother interrupts lessons for an impromptu ‘trip’.

Fleeing to a ‘safe house’ in the hills, the family adopt new personae, acquire an enigmatic lodger going by the name of Lucas-just-Lucas and try to live quietly in their new home.

However, in Mama’s chainsmoking, the Midget’s bedwetting and vigils at darkened windows, the mounting pressures of this life reveal themselves. Papa’s new name, David Vicente, is chosen as a joke after the hero of a TV programme The Invaders.

The boy renames himself Harry in tune with his obsession with escape artistry. Not only does Harry practice releasing himself from ropes à la Houdini, but he and the Midget construct a ‘reverse diving board’, a plank dipping into the clouded swimming pool, so the toads they regularly find drowned there can be the authors of their own escape.

Although the novel’s subject is grave, there are many very funny scenes, especially those involving the Midget, who has a gift for mischief.

The chapter in which the Vicentes try to get to grips with Catholicism at their new school is entitled I Am Delivered Up To A Tribe of Cannibals and features the Midget free-associating saints’ names San Roque, San Atorium, San ChoPanza, San Itation, Saint Salive.

Interwoven with young Harry’s experiences are the musings of the man he became: learned brief discourses on astronomy, biology, language, episodes in classical history, myths, time and the foundation of Buenos Aires.

These are fascinating in themselves, but they also draw symbolic parallels with the tale. Themes of exile, power, escape, love recur in these interludes; it is very much as if the grown-up Harry, by telling his story, is finally making sense of the events of his boyhood and of a world that could permit such travesties.

Kamchatka is the last word Papa whispers to Harry at their farewell.

A remote, volcanic region of Siberia, it is also the last defensible territory in their fiercely competitive games of Risk, the place to go to ground and hold an aggressive world at bay.

Harry mentions the long years he spent in exile there, but his Kamchatka may be akin to King Arthur’s Avalon and Superman’s Fortress of Solitude — a refuge of the imagination.

A richly drawn, moving and memorable novel, this is also a fine tribute to ‘los desaparecidos’, Argentina’s ‘disappeared’.


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