“When the coup d’état came, in 1976, a few days before the school term started,” writes the narrator of the Argentine Marcelo Figueras’s Kamchatka (just shortlisted for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction prize), “I knew straight off that things were going to get ugly. The new president had a peaked cap and a huge moustache; you could tell from his face that he was a bad guy.” A prescient thought for a ten-year-old boy, and indeed things do get worse for his family. Various uncles will begin to disappear; his parents, vaguely left-leaning and opposed to the regime, will lose their jobs and be forced to take their two sons into hiding at a safe-house outside Buenos Aires. But if this sounds like a somber tale of Latin American repression and exile, it isn’t—or, at least, not entirely.
Like Carlos Eire’s wonderfully buoyant memoir of pre-revolutionary Cuba, Waiting for Snow in Havana, Figueras chooses to capture the drumbeat of history in the small, offbeat details of a boy’s life. The title alone, Kamchatka—a frozen region of Russia that represents one of the prized territories in the board game Risk—rings out with an exotic mystery far from the menacing air of 1970s Argentina. And that is just the beginning of the allusions to games and TV shows, superheroes and folktales, flights of fancy and imagination, that emerge as ripe metaphors for the characters’ sense of isolation and difference. Take, for example, the assumed identities the family must adopt for themselves: the narrator, who idolizes Harry Houdini, rechristens himself “Harry,” as he longs to become an escape artist in his own right.
As for “Kamchatka”—what more might that name represent? Taken from the epic battles of Risk between father and son during the months living outside time in the borrowed quinta, “Kamchatka” will be the father’s fraught last word to Harry before parting—a secret pact, a symbolic refuge, Harry’s own misty version of King Arthur’s Avalon. “For a long time I lived in the place I call Kamchatka,” he recalls as an adult, “a place that looks a little like the real Kamchatka (because of the cold, the volcanoes, the remoteness) but is a place that doesn’t really exist, because some places cannot be found on any map.”
So you get the sense, then, of the melancholy just below the surface—the deeper notes of dislocation and fear, separation and loss—that permeates this book, even as it flits from episode to episode in the adventures of the two brothers wrenched from their familiar routines and environment. The Houdini rope tricks and fevered schemes to save toads from drowning in the swimming pool, the fantasies inspired by TV shows such as “The Invaders” and the exploits of Superman and Batman—these are all tinged with a doomed innocence that comes shining through Figueras’s irrepressible telling (and Frank Wynne’s crisp, lively translation). Kamchatka is a colorful, unforgettable vision of a boy’s—and nation’s—attempt to make sense of a descent into darkness and chaos. It is also a moving attempt, as Harry ultimately realizes, to recapture the memory of the “disappeared”—a trick of fate that allows loved ones to re-appear by writing about them.