Originally posted on my blog Guiltless ReadingA heartbreaking struggle for self-identity.
The book in one sentence: Perla struggles to reconcile her life as she knows it, with what it truly is.
My two cents: This is one of the most powerful pieces I have read in a long, long time!
Some things are impossible for the mind to hold alone. So listen, if you can, with your whole being. The story pushes and demands to be told, here, now, with you so close and the past even closer, breathing at the napes of our necks. - p. 3
With an opening like that, I'm on tenterhooks. Perla, Perla, who are you, and what is your story?
This is, as it claims, a story begging to be told. It is based on The Disappeared (Los Desparecidos), numbering some 30,000 people during the Argentinean The Dirty War in the 1970s. They were subjected to unspeakable atrocities by the government on suspicion of being revolutionaries. About 500 children of The Disappeared were birthed in detention centers and adopted and raised (even lovingly) by the very perpetrators of the crimes against their true parents. Such a paradox is difficult to wrap my brain around.
The story focuses on Perla's personal struggle to learn and come to terms with her true identity. It starts when one day, her parents away on holidays, she has a mysterious house guest -- a man who seemingly magically appeared on the carpet of their living room, with water just seeping out of him endlessly ... Who is this man? Why does he seep water? Why won't he eat? Why did he come to Perla's house; was it intentional?
What follows is the recounting of two lives that are linked by tragic circumstances, told in first-person.
Perla's life as she knew it is shattered as she discovers the true identity of the man. It becomes a heartbreaking struggle to remain loyal to her father, whom she loves deeply, despite knowing his tainted past. Pieces of her restless past slowly come back to her - why did she write an essay about The Disappeared as a young child? Why did she fall in love with a leftwing supporter? These pieces slowly fall in place and she bravely reconciles herself with what is the truth.
In parallel, the mysterious man's memories slowly come to him. As he revisits the unspeakable horrors he had faced, likewise he struggles with the impact of the truth on Perla.
I loved this book for so many reasons:
I learned about a part of Argentine history,which has many many counterparts in other countries, including my own. (The Philippines shares this dark past - see Filipino Desparecidos). Despite any attempts to cover up the truth, knowing the truth - however horrific - is the right thing and the only way to true liberation.
I am in awe of de Robertis's storytelling abilities. She has is able to bring a human face to the many different stories in the Dirty War. While it may seem logical to bring forth the story of the victims, it is more impressively able to bring an heartbreaking humanity to the perpetrators of the atrocities. Her writing feels very, very personal which is also probably why I felt so emotionally connected to Perla as a character, and the story overall.
With the languid, lyrical prose and with tinges of magical realism, the story just feels like a dream playing itself out in my mind. And I couldn't help thinking how similar it felt to reading Isabel Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
As with reading anything with magical realism, I feel that this book needs to be read when you're good and ready, or you may find this a little annoying. Coupled with the lyrical prose, there were some times when the words seemed almost florid.
Verdict: An intensely personal story about self-discovery, family and loyalty, told in lyrical prose with tinges of magical realism. The power of this story will stay with me for a long time. Highly recommended for lovers of historical fiction (Latin American history), lovers of magical realism, and those who like a heavy dose of reality.