(4.5 stars) In this affecting and unusual metafictional novel, Patricio Pron describes his sudden return to Argentina in 2008, for the first time in eight years. Pron had left his home in El Trebol to work at becoming a writer in Europe. Now his father is ill, and though the family has not been close, he immediately returns home. What follows is a dramatic tale of fathers and sons, an examination of time and memory, a study of people who believe that a life without principles is not worth living, and a memory of good people who have been so traumatized by events from another time that they have little common ground for communication with other generations.
The speaker grew up during the 1970s, during which the military overthrew Juan Peron and installed a military dictatorship, but as a child, he was naïve to the horrors of their rule as they "cleansed" the country of all democratic and socialist elements. His parents, however, were both journalists and members of a Peronist group opposed to the military, and in their efforts to protect their children, they remained on a different plane, unable to communicate with them fully for fear of endangering them. Dividing the novel into four parts, the author describes his childhood memories in Part I (at least those that he remembers after eight years of heavy drug use in Europe); the disappearance and murder, just two months before his arrival, of a man who worked at a local club and knew his father; his decision to examine his father's personal files and to follow up on his father's investigation into this death and the long history which preceded it; and his discovery of who his father really is and how he is representative of other fathers whose actions and spirit should not be forgotten.
The novel which results from all the speaker's searches and discoveries is moving and even tender. Pron's honesty about his own history and his own problems suggests that despite a childhood spent without the loving guidance of the father he yearned for that he would ultimately make his own courageous choices and would connect with his family in new ways. Combining his relentless honesty with images which convey feelings in addition to pictures, he draws in the reader on several levels at once. His efforts to understand his father through the files he finds in his father's study allow him to share his father's thinking directly.
Though the novel takes place during a period of horrific abuses by a powerful and aggressive military, Pron's setting in El Trebol, where the streets "were like the streets in the small American Midwestern towns from the 1950s movies" makes the setting feel familiar and the abuses more horrific. His father's careful research into the fate of a "disappeared" friend in the 1970s and the discovery that she is the sister of the murder victim from 2008 allows the speaker to connect the present with his father's past in new ways. Ultimately, he recognizes that his "uncommunicative" father "would have liked not to be one of the few who survived [the military purges], because "A survivor is the loneliest person in the world," and he gains new understandings upon which to act in the future.
In a seemingly largely autobiographical work, the author describes his return to Argentina after years in Europe, living in a drug-fuelled state of forgetfulness. Just beneath the surface lurk hazy memories of life under the 1970s terror.
But as he visits his seriously ill father in hospital and trawls through his papers, he starts to unravel mysteries of their shared past.
As he observes: "Children are detectives of their parents, who cast them out into the world so that one day the children will return and tell them their story so that they themselves can understand it... they can try to impose some order on their story... then they can protect that story and perpetuate it in their memory."
The author does a convincing job of conveying the uncertain recollections, whether it's having missing chapter numbers or in quoting from a text where numerous words are illegible. The whole feeling of life during those years, and its legacy both on the adults and those who were just children, is dramatically captured.