The past is neither dead nor past in Marcelo Figueras' beautifully crafted Kamchatka.
The Kamchatka Peninsula is the northeastern-most part of Russia and the old Soviet Union. It is surrounded by the Bering Sea, the Arctic, and the Pacific oceans. It was a cold-forbidding place, one that served as the destination point for thousands of Soviet citizens sent to spend time in the Gulag. It is also one of geographic points of interest in the old military board game Risk. The idea of Kamchatka, as set out in the board game, as a place of exile, and ultimately as a place of refuge forms the emotional core of the book around which the story revolves.
Set in Argentina in 1976, Kamchatka is the story of a young boy and his family. Argentina in 1976 was a dangerous place. The regime of Isabel Peron was ousted in a military coup followed by some extraordinarily repressive measures against suspected opponents of the junta. Thousands of people disappeared and most all of them were murdered. Kamchatka is the story of one family. Kamchatka is told in the form of a memoir written by Harry as he is known to us. Harry was 10 when the story begins. His parents are opponents of the regime and in short order Harry and his family flee from Buenos Aires to a secluded `summer cottage' where they can, hopefully, survive until the troubles are over. The family all take new names, the boy chooses to become Harry in honor of his boyhood hero, Harry Houdini.
The act of memory, of remembering, is critical to the story-line. Early on Figueras writes that sometimes, "as I remember, my voice is that of the ten-year-old boy I was then; sometimes the voice of the seventy-year-old man I am yet to be; sometimes it is my voice, at the age I am now . . . or the age I think I am. Who I have been, who I am, who I will be are all in continual conversation, each influencing the other." In lesser hands this would be nothing more than literary boilerplate, a snippet of philosophy before the writer moves on to the `heart' of the story. Although most of the story is written through the eyes of a ten-year-old, Figueras manages to insert the narrator's other voices at certain points of the book and he manages to do it seamlessly. As I read the book I could hear the different voices but the transition seemed totally natural and unaffected to me.
The structure of the story reinforces the use of those differing voices. The story's first and last chapters tell the same story; an encounter between father and son involving the word "Kamchatka" serves (in a manner reminiscent of Orson Welles' Rosebud) as both the opening note and grace-note of the tale. But as the story ends that grace note carries a far different meaning and sounds to be from a far-different voice from the ten-years olds' first telling - - -even though the words are almost the same.
Aldous Huxley once said that "[e]very man's memory is his private literature." In this instance Marcelo Figueras has taken the private literature of young Harry and turned it into a beautiful public piece of literature. This is a book that really deserves to find a wide audience.