June 2011

Ingrid Rojas Contreras


Kamchatka by Marcelo Figueras, translated by Frank Wynne

Risk, frogs, Houdini, The Invaders, physical training, secret identities -- Kamchatka by Marcelo Figueras makes me nostalgic for the boy’s childhood I never had. Indeed just a few chapters in I left my apartment in search of a Risk board game at a second-hand store. On the Risk board, Figueras writes, “Kamchatka was the most distant place you can imagine.” I pondered his beautiful description of the real Kamchatka (“that frozen tongue Russia pokes into the Pacific ocean”) and the wonderful things teeming there (“the wild bears, the fumaroles, the gas that bubbles up on the muddy surface of the thermal springs like pustules on a thousand toads”) as I searched for the board game. But I had no luck, so instead I played an electronic version of Risk, which only deepened my impossible nostalgia -- in Portuguese saudade, the longing for what might have been but never was.

Kamchatka is not a nostalgic book. Its narration is unconstrained and light, entwining and sympathetic; it is composed of the recollections of Harry Vicente being ten years old in Argentina, son of two politically-active parents, during the Military Coup of 1976. Harry remembers that time from the distant volcanic snowland of Kamchatka, where he lives, although we are not aware under what conditions.

There is a weighing lack of danger in Harry’s recollections, but the fact that his real name is never offered and we only know his fake name, Harry Vicente, immediately intimates the dangerous nature of those years. The story begins with Harry saying goodbye to his father and mother at a gas station, where they are finally at ends with their hide-out and Harry’s grandfather is taking Harry and his little brother under his care. In it, Harry’s father whispers one word into his ear: Kamchatka. The significance of this lies in father and son playing Risk as a pastime during their hiding, as if everything were normal. Kamchatka was Harry’s father’s secret in Risk. Even if Harry had control of the board, Harry’s father only had to hold onto Kamchatka to win. Harry holds onto the metaphor when he is forced to part with his parents and when, eventually, he leaves Argentina.

As in a möbius strip, the book ends with that same scene from the beginning. It gives the book the wonderful texture of memory. Nothing is entirely different, but the lines and gestures carry slight variations. Seen under a different light, the layered memory reveals plenty.

When the family first goes into hiding, Harry’s parents present it as a vacation of sorts; the car trip to a faraway, strange quinta, the small house with a pool placed in the middle of lonely farms where the hours are idled away watching television, saving frogs, and Harry’s training in becoming an escape artist like Houdini -- but the fact that family left Buenos Aires in a hurry with only the clothes on their backs suggests they are fleeing from the fate of being incarcerated or disappeared. Details about the activities of the military coup trickle back to Harry, little by little, of his parents’ close friends being disappeared or appearing dead, people going into hiding, and of both his parents losing their jobs at the University due to their political convictions. There isn’t specific information about why the coup happened, but we get all of its consequences. Some of my favorite lines in this book are regarding these details:

For a long time I thought that my parents told me these little things because they believed I would not understand the bigger picture -- whatever it was they were not saying, whatever they were hiding from me. Now I think that they did it deliberately, knowing that by the time I put the pieces together and could finally see the picture in the jigsaw puzzle, I would be safe, far away from the danger that, right now, threatened us all.

When Lucas arrives (another fake name), Harry’s family takes him in. Harry does not understand why the young Lucas is staying at their quinta, and regards him skeptically. Lucas has a secret mission, and what emerges between the two is a close camaraderie. In Kamchatka we know from the beginning of the book, that Harry will become exiled and will be separated from his parents, but the real voyage is Harry’s internal one, the development of his thoughts amidst the danger and the resilience of his childhood. The fine translation of this book is by Frank Wynne. Read it, and buy yourself a board game of Risk.

Kamchatka by Marcelo Figueras, translated by Frank Wynne
Black Cat
ISBN: 0802170870
312 Pages