Perla
Carolina De Robertis
2012, Random House

What a brave book!  Carolina De Robertis, widely celebrated for her first novel, The Invisible Mountain, has done something few novelists of any age are able to do: fully immerse herself in an empathetic investigation of real, near and painful events and write about them with enormous imaginative reach in stunning prose.

A ghost appears in a young woman’s house. Not the airy, transparent kind, or a table-rattling, door slamming kind.  One soggy and wet, one who can only eat water and who, once language arrives, begins remembering and leading them, and us, through a history many would like to forget, to knowing of lives lost and lives found.

Perla, of the title, is the young woman. We know her through a first person narrative, an “I” who tell us, and as it turns out, her about-to-be daughter, much of the story.  She finds the watery ghost in the home of her parents who are away for a few days.  We hear about her first impressions and the subsequent days.  She recalls her childhood and the rending of her first important friendship — over politics and families in terrible times.  We learn that recently she has broken off with the love of her life.

The ghost we know through the narrator’s omniscient, and impeccable language.  We read its thoughts in the third person, never an I in self reference — though sometimes in direct conversation with her.  We read his words to others –“that’s right, darling, don’t say a thing, sit still till it’s over…”  We read of his experiences, in the torture prisons of the Argentine military dictatorship, primarily in the weeks following the 1978 Soccer World Cup in Buenos Aires, his wife pregnant as the streets fill with celebrating fans; within days both are in prison.

The unfolding story sets up and solves the mystery central to the book, and to recent Argentine history — one of hundreds of such stories, the kidnapping, torture and disappearance of some 30,000 citizens and the distribution of infant children to supporters of the regime.

It is a story which periodically appeared in the news up through January of 2006 when the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo made their final March of Resistance, saying the enemy was in the government no longer.  Several films have been made of the events, both documentary and fictional.  Peter Sanders’, The Disappeared, interviews war criminals of the era while following the grown child of two victims.  The Official Story [Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1986.] by Luis Puenzo uses an adoptive mother’s suspicions to investigate the trade in babies, and Cautiva (2005) by Gaston Biraben, casts a young girl, who has been taken away from her adoptive parents and returned to her blood relatives by the newly constituted state, as detective of her own birth and parentage.  Interestingly, the age of Cristina/Sofia in Cautiva, and her birth during the 1978 Argentine World Cup championship, are almost identical with that of Perla in De Robertis’ imagining.

None of the films which I have seen, while all fine work,  come close to the delicately rendered power, and slow, shattering revelations of the novel.

De Robertis handles her mix of narrators wonderfully well. In her hands we transition easily from Perla’s telling of her own story, from a few days ago or six years ago, to the ghost’s memories, told in the third person, to details of his life and history of Argentina.

He was on the machine. The explosions were in his mouth and on his genitals.  And then they stopped, the hood raised up, he saw the composed face of a priest

Confess, my child.
Father.
You must cooperate

We learn of the ghost’s past, his wife, their love, the tenderness of the first weeks of pregnancy,  Gloria’s delivery of a child, while in chains, in prison…

Though De Robertis is clearly a daughter of Latin American magical realism in her use of the watery ghost to tell a story,  the power that carries us forward comes from the imaginative re-creation of a terrible decade of history, and what human beings will do to each other — not antagonists across tribal and religious chasms, but neighbors and citizens, whirled into madness by their own fears and beliefs and allegiances, and yes their hatreds and cruelties.

Her use of language borders on the spectacular, a few times inflating near to over-abundance but always backing into a sobriety which the narrative demands.

From the simple setting of time: “I was six years old. The democracy was about to turn one,’ to the intimate description inside a family, “I felt the heavy cape of their disapproval,” her language is precise and new; not a cliche to be be found, nor a stretch too far.

“I would always rise and polish the surface of myself, a gleaming, confident young woman.”

*

“I wanted to reach out to her, wherever she was, somewhere in the torn corners of the cosmos where our might-have-beens skulk through the twilight.”

*

“I wanted nothing more than to rip apart the self I had worn like heavy clothing that suffocates you but that you cling to for fear of the cold.”

She tells of torture so real it can hardly be read, and you stop for a moment.  How does such a young person imagine herself into the body of another like that?  [Why couldn’t the torturers, young people themselves, find a way?]

“…my ears were ringing with the sounds that were absent from the room, the soft whoosh of naked bodies falling and falling and falling. …  Suddenly the slide of metal, roar of air, and the hatch stood open to the sky.  The bodies drew back from the open door as if they were one body. … They fell down, naked humans, puncturing the clouds.  He is one of them, a drop of rain, it’s raining humans, naked humans, naked drops, below him white, around him wind, the whir and whip of air, his mouth hangs open and he opens his arms too, as if to fly…”

One of the most arresting of her image is not of death but of birth, “…the little body abandons her like a moth flying from its broken chrysalis.”

There isn’t a cautionary thing I have to say about the book, except that it will move you greatly.  You will be sorrowful, as I was, often with accusation at the perpetrators but at the end with the shock of understanding an enormous courage, and hope — in the woman of the fiction, but taken, verbatim, from others such as Perla herself, still searching through the disappearing memories of Buenos Aires.

 

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