My Fathers' Ghost is Climbing in the Rain
Though far from the most convincing reason to read literature in translation, one common side effect is learning of another culture, of its history. Within that, and a stronger motivation to read, is the discovery of stories not possible within your own culture, or that live in a certain parallel universe version of a familiar story (yet another reason to read stories that follow common tropes, but come from a different culture or gender perspective). Nearly midway through his My Fathers’ Ghost is Climbing in the Rain (lengthy, obscure-poetic-sounding titles being a cross-cultural habit, apparently), Patricio Pron writes what could be found only in rare, specific cases in the US: “At this point, to put it another way, the inevitable shift occurred from individual victim to collective victim.” This idea comes to life in the US in social justice cases, in calls for a victimized group to speak together, to be heard, but in Argentina, for those living or raised in the 1970s, Pron sees an entire country as collective victim, an entire country that endured dictatorship, kidnappings, murders, executions—all falling under the catch-all “disappeared.” None of this is to say that this is a novel to read to learn a clear history of the Argentinean dictatorship and its aftermath; in fact, Pron makes no effort to over-explain references, and in her clear translation, Mara Faye Lethem makes no moves to insert awkward clarifications. Instead, knowledge is deployed as if we already understand, or are willing to do the extra work.
Structured into four sections, each broken down into micro-chapters (another cross-cultural, increasingly common, habit—one hopes for reasons other than making it easier to read), Pron sets out to understand how this collective victimhood works, how the silences of history, failures of memory, and personal losses, all become disappearances. The narrator is a drug-addled young man who has lived eight years out of his home country before returning to Argentina to be with his family during his father’s seemingly impending death, which suddenly, strangely, doesn’t happen. Once there, he begins the process of uncovering and recovery: of his self, the why of his memory loss that precedes the drugs; of his father; of the country’s victims, and how that victimhood infects everything it contacts. The heart and bulk—but unfortunately for the success of the book, not the soul—of this investigation lies in a collection of news reports and photos he finds in his father’s study, all pertaining to a man’s disappearance. Reading through, analyzing, the narrator wants to solve both the mystery of the disappearance and of his father’s obsession with it. Though it occurred after Argentina’s dictatorship, and so does not belong to the vast numbers of “the disappeared,” he becomes another victim because of that haunting past. This is that infection of collective victimhood, and what Pron wants to brave against.
The narrator eventually uncovers that the man’s sister was not only one of the disappeared, but was led by his father into political activism. The attempt to recover her by recovering her brother, this transference, has moved onto the narrator himself, now trying to prevent his own and his father’s disappearances. We see again that collective victimhood, swallowing anyone it can. The way this ghost of history and violence stalks through the novel is compelling, and at Pron’s most convicted and skillful, you can feel its encroachment. It is unfortunate that Pron suffers from uncertainty about how to move with a project he is obviously deeply invested in. Because he is dealing with history, both of the country and of his family, with the blend of fiction and non-fiction, there is uncertainty. It is not the uncertainty of the reader, or of a writer questioning how to blend the two, but the uncertainty of a writer unsure if he should. It’s one thing to blend fact and fiction to stare down a culture’s identity, and another to devote a work to questioning the morality of blending the two—but to be unable to choose and not center the complication itself, to want both, weakens to the work.
The collection of newspaper scraps, indented as long quotations and written in reportage style in a claim to non-fiction, make up the significant portion of the My Fathers’ Ghost and this too is unfortunate. They are not only less interesting to read—in fact boring, repetitive, at times—they don’t cut to the quick of Pron’s themes and concerns, precisely because verisimilitude lurks over them. Though they are a necessary core for the novel’s structure, Pron thrives, both in style and substance, in the rest of the book, where fiction takes over.
This structure, of a confused young writer obsessed with a crime and pouring over the evidence, any detail—the number of inhabitants of a town, latitude and longitude coordinates, etc.—possibly mattering, the failure of police, a haunting sense of lurking violence, all point to influences, most pointedly detective novels, and, endorsed by Pron himself, Bolaño. The influence of Bolaño is strong, but Pron is talented enough not to let it dominate. There is no singular moment that is a recognizably specific Bolaño moment or a sense of mimicry, and it is likely the honest comfort with this influence that allows it to work naturally, and for differences, even responses, to spring up. For all of the ways that Bolaño’s characters swing between obsession and detachment, they aren’t usually detached from their obsessions. Pron’s narrator is and moves his investigation through a near fugue state, his obsession separate from him. He only follows, hoping the fugue will clear.
On the other hand, the connection with crime stories is, surprisingly, given Bolaño’s openness to the genre, one the narrator, and seemingly Pron, rejects, even as it swallows him and the novel: “the resolution of most detective stories is condescending, no matter how ruthless the plotting, so that the reader, once the loose ends are tied up and the guilty finally punished, can return to the real world with the convictions that crimes get solved and remain locked between the covers of a book.” This of course is true not of most crime stories, but only of the simplest, the laziest—the type seen in television procedurals. Not only that, but the fight against this mode of the genre, the celebration of the lost detective with no answers, has been ongoing for decades at least, so there is nothing interesting in openly acknowledging it as if it were new and it becomes a claim to complications that aren’t there.
In the end, the novel becomes, for a large middle section, too dependent on a strategy that is neither interesting, nor something that Pron or the narrator seem to believe in. As much as there is little belief in the form, Pron shows a lack of trust in his own clarity, or in the reader. The numbered micro-chapters are not fully sequential. In the first of the novel’s four parts, numerous numbers are skipped, to show the narrator’s fractured memory, but we see this already, and are told it. Later, in the throes of his investigation, the narrator falls ill, and feverish, the numbers skip again, or repeat or backtrack, but again, we know he is losing clarity, and there is no specific reason for each interruption of order.
Yet it should again be emphasized, clarified, anticipated in future books, that when Pron moves away from blocking out his narrative around these newspaper clippings, when he focuses on fiction that’s based on non-fiction rather than non-fiction playing itself off as fiction, My Fathers’ Ghost is Climbing in the Rain gets deepest into its own questions, and finds multitudes. Pron’s narrator wonders how to take on the national identity of Argentine when he has seen the symbols of that identity abused, used “so many times in circumstances beyond our control, circumstances that we didn’t have anything to do with and didn’t want to have anything to do with.” This feeling is so overwhelming that he includes a World Cup1 victory in the same sentence as a war. He wants to be able to embrace an Argentinean identity at the same time as a writer’s identity, while “That a writer could be Argentine and living is a fairly recent discovery.”
The explorations of such questions, some of which fall away as the focus tightens on the newspaper clippings, are more crafted, more affecting when Pron gives his writing free reign, unburdened by the sense of obligation to the idea of “how it actually happened.” In an early passage, Pron’s narrator ponders his relationship with his parents, trying to find how to compare, describe it, and comes to: “Children are policemen of their parents, but I don’t like policemen. They’ve never gotten along well with my family.” In one moment, the focus is his direct relationship with his parents, in the next a simile goes awry and takes him in a dangerous, fearful direction, plunging to the past. The obliqueness, the potential strangeness of fiction, gives reason both to read deeply, and to invest in Pron’s mission of uncovering Argentinean history—personal, familial, and political: a childhood game of killing frogs becomes both the child’s version of unknowingly participating in the violence of his country and the adult’s attempt to reconcile; the fever dreams give us images such as a transparent fish, with a “fistful of autonomous organs with no center of command,” which we cannot do anything but associate with our narrator.
My Fathers’ Ghost is an effort to tell a story that has previously been passed over in silence, while knowing that this secret knowledge is not one of power or liberation, but one that comes with danger and suffering: “You don’t ever want to know certain things, because what you know belongs to you, and there are certain things you never want to own.” Pron’s desire is to fill the silence, not with noise but with clarity and truths. Near the end, the narrator reminds of us inheritance, “My father had started to search for his lost friend and I, without meaning to, had also started shortly afterward to search for my father.”
This inheritance is not only of a search for what has been lost, but also a complicated relationship between the lost, what happens when the lost is found, and the consequences of expression. When talking with his sister, the narrator attempts to gently mock their father for always going out to start the car alone instead of waiting for the kids. The mocking ends when his sister reveals the truth, and the debt that the son owes the father: “journalists were getting killed by car bombs; he went out alone every day to start the car to protect us.” Added to this debt, which came into existence only with revelation, is the narrator’s belief that his choice must be “the truth” or “a compassionate lie,” with the latter being one of escapism and blindness. There is also, and it is glimpsed at times here, a form of lie, fiction, that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the truth. That power is compromised in My Father’s Ghost, a compromise established in Pron’s decision to give his parents veto power over his book. Those glimpses into a deeper soul for the book give one hope that Pron’s next work will be more decisive, expand on seedlings planted here, and for an American reader, give hope that a young American writer can speak to the silences that have overlaid the American atrocities of the last decade.
1 The appearance of an unnamed Maradona, an “obese caricature of a soccer player,” in an airport, wearing a T-shirt with himself on it, is a nice moment of literature and soccer overlapping, a call to Three Percent’s upcoming “World Cup of Literature”.