My Father’s Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain
- Patricio Pron, translated by Mara Faye Lethem
- Alfred A. Knopf
- 224 pp.
- Reviewed by Barbara Mujica
- June 7, 2013
A young writer estranged from his past wrestles with the suppressed truth of his father’s political activity during Argentina’s “dirty war.”
My Father’s Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain draws you in and holds your attention like a crime novel, and it certainly has its share of crime. But this absorbing new work by Argentine writer Patricio Prons is too complex to fit into any ready-made genre.
Largely autobiographical, the story revolves around a young Argentine writer living in Germany, estranged from his native country. Lost in a drug-induced oblivion, he is a drifter bereft of purpose and possessions. His memories of childhood are a fog — a family of plastic dolls from which the father was missing, a car accident that nobody wanted to talk about. However, his alienation begins to dissipate when, upon learning that his father is dying, he flies home to be by his side.
Now that the older man lies unconscious in the hospital, his memories irretrievably buried in his mind, the writer realizes that he hardly knows him and will perhaps never learn the truth about his earlier life. A journalist and a political activist in his younger years, the father, like the protagonist — and the entire country — has avoided talking about the past. However, while rummaging through his parents’ house, the writer finds a cache of documents — newspaper articles, photos, notes — that thrust before him his father’s past political commitment.
The documents report the murder of a certain Alberto José Burdisso, a janitor from the provincial town of El Trébol. Burdisso received reparations from the government for the death of his sister Alicia during Argentina’s “dirty war,” the period of state terrorism perpetrated by a military junta from the 1960s until the early 1980s. His murder seems to have resulted from a mundane scheme to cheat him out of his money. But why, the protagonist wonders, would his father be interested in the case?
The key turns out to be Alicia, whose story reveals the father’s role in the resistance against the military junta. The writer realizes that, in a sense, he and his siblings were actually “covers” for their parents, for as the junta tightened its grip, resisters had to blend into the social landscape to avoid being killed, and children conferred an air of ordinariness on a couple. With his father’s death, the story of his heroic struggle against tyranny will be lost. The father had always wanted to tell the story in a novel, and now his son will take up the task.
But it cannot be a genre novel because such novels require a pre-established structure, with pieces that fit nicely together and lead to a logical conclusion. Instead, this would be “a narrative in the shape of an enormous frieze or. . . of an intimate personal story that held something back.” That is the story we are now reading, in which memory and forgetting are engaged in a constant tug-of-war, and the account isn’t quite coherent.
The writer does not endorse his father’s cause. He recognizes that the brand of Peronism that his parents defended was deeply flawed and would never have led to the socialist utopia they envisioned. Instead, he celebrates the spirit of the men and women who defied the dictatorship and continued to struggle in spite of the storm that threatened to engulf them. Even after his father dies, that spirit or “ghost” will continue to climb in the rain.
Pron tells his story deftly, teasing the reader with enigmatic remarks that demand explanations that never come, or else come much later. For example, at the beginning of the book the narrator comments offhandedly, “I don’t like policemen. They’ve never gotten along with my family.” But it is not until the end that the reader begins to grasp the full meaning of that statement.
Pron conveys his protagonist’s struggle to remember and piece together past events through a disjointed narrative that skips from topic to topic without transitions. Fragments of memories sometimes reveal key information that will become relevant much later. For example, at one point the protagonist recalls his father cutting a puzzle up into tiny pieces to make it almost impossible for him to put together. The message the father is trying to convey is clear: The world is an incoherent and unintelligible place. Sometimes Pron skips or repeats a chapter number to further stress life’s incongruity: things just don’t follow a logical pattern. The elusiveness of truth is his overarching theme.
My Father’s Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain is a beautifully crafted novel, rich in metaphors and not devoid of humor despite its troubling subject. Pron paints a vivid picture of the aftermath of Argentina’s tortured recent history, of a family and an entire nation in denial about the horrors of the past. But if the father’s generation is reluctant to face its failures, the younger generation must seek and face the truth. At the end of the novel the protagonist throws away his pills. He will no longer see Argentina through a drug-induced haze. He and his contemporaries can no longer remain indifferent to the past.
Bárbara Mujica is a novelist and professor of Spanish literature at Georgetown University. Her latest novel is I Am Venus, based on the life of the Spanish painter Diego de Velázquez. She is also author of Frida and Sister Teresa, based on the lives of Frida Kahlo and Teresa de Ávila.