What Did You Do in the Dirty War?

'My Fathers’ Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain’ by Patricio Pron Reviewed by Marcela Valdes New York Times Book Review. July 5, 2013.

In the 1970s, during the years that Argentina’s last military dictatorship was busy raping, torturing and killing thousands of the country’s citizens, a large obelisk in Buenos Aires was adorned with this menacing piece of advice: ­“Silence is health.” That dictatorship ended in 1983, but no one recovers quickly from a bludgeon, especially not a child. The Argentine novelist Patricio Pron was born in 1975, a year before the Dirty War began. The nameless narrator of his artful novel “My Fathers’ Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain” isn’t merely silent; he’s erased.

For eight years he has been living in Germany, popping paroxetine, benzodiazepines and sleeping pills until his mind is shot through with gaps like a censored letter. Lest we forget we’re dealing with damaged goods, Pron makes the novel’s very structure as perforated as our man’s memory. Holes appear in its numbered fragments — a missing No. 8, say, or an elided 17 — whenever the narrator hits a snag. When he gets sick, the sequence turns feverish: 22, 11, 9, 26, 3.

Only when his father sinks into a coma, in August 2008, does this bruised soul finally return to Argentina. There he finds a photograph that disturbs his willful amnesia: Dad in sideburns next to a woman who is not the narrator’s mother. Below the photo lies a folder thick with clippings about a recent missing-person case: 60-year-old Alberto José Burdisso has disappeared from the town of El Trébol; decades earlier his sister, Alicia, vanished during the military dictatorship.

“You don’t ever want to know certain things,” the son thinks, staring at the photo of his father and the woman, “because what you know belongs to you, and there are certain things you never want to own.” Reason enough to eat another Xanax.

But having discovered Dad’s interest in Alberto and Alicia, the protagonist must find out: Who are these siblings? Why did they disappear? How is his father connected to them? And what, exactly, was Dad doing during those crucial years when Argentina’s democracy imploded? Suspense swells through the early sections, as Pron nests mystery within mystery, carefully tending the big enigma: What trauma drove the narrator to Germany, and into the fuzzy comfort of pills?

Read the rest of this review at nytimes.com