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Thursday, August 21, 2008

Imagining Argentina

I don't know where I heard about this book, but I highly recommend it! At just over 200 pages, it's one you could squeeze in before your next book - THAT'S how much I'm recommending this one.

Imagining Argentina was written in 1987 by Lawrence Thornton. The novel takes place during the 1970s-80s in Argentina, during the time known as The Dirty War. I'd heard bits and pieces about this time in Argentinian history but this was my first real exposure to it.

I don't usually do plot summaries in my reviews but I think it's needed here.

Our narrator is Martin, a 70 yr old friend of main character Carlos. Carlos is works in a children's theater. His wife, Cecelia, write for a local newspaper. When the novel opens, the generals who run the country have been abducting people on spurious charges; most are never heard from again. When a group of teenagers is abducted from their school bus, Cecelia writes an outraged article about it. This leads to her abduction. Shortly thereafter, Carlos begins "seeing" the disappeareds (that is the term used for the abducted). Once he hears the details of a person's abduction he can continue the story from there, letting the family know exactly what has happened to their disappeared - down to the very last detail. However he can't seem to use his gift to find Cecelia.

I was completely drawn into this book; the writing itself, the characters, the history, the awful truth of what was done to these people - all of it was fascinating. I couldn't put it down. Here are some of the images/ideas that really struck me:
  • Carlos explains why he loves walking in the rain - he says that the small cone of dry space under his umbrella is HIS space, controlled only by him - the generals who are controlling the rest of the city have no influence in that small space - he feels independent there, and imagines thousands of these little cones across the city coming together until one day they burst and freedom spreads everywhere
    "Unless the generals chose to assign a cop to everyone walking in the wet streets of Buenos Aires they could not contain this simple but eloquent reminder of freedom." (p102)
  • The importance of names in one's memory really touched me. When speaking of the disappeareds, Carlos says:
    "Names tell us about life and the memory of that life. But in Argentina names are not like they are elsewhere. Here, now, they are as easily erased as markings on tissue paper. Now the page of Argentina is clean of names that belong there, that have a right to be there." (p121)
This is my first real foray into the Magical Realism genre and I must say that I'm impressed. I had to believe that Carlos truly had this ability, but the way the story is written makes that an easy step. It didn't seem fantastical at all.

One of the quotes on the back cover describes this book as "a harrowing, brilliant novel". An online review at Amazon says it "should be required reading for anyone who calls him or herself a responsible citizen". I agree with both of these statements wholeheartedly; this is a book that will stay with me for a very long time.

I read somewhere that this is the first in a trilogy about The Dirty War. From what I can tell, the 2nd book does not follow the same characters; the time period is the same, but the story seems unrelated to this book.

Have you read this book, or any of the others in the trilogy? What did you think about them? If you've reviewed them, please comment with your link and I'll add it here.


Anonymous said...

Heather, this sounds like a great book. I've read some other books set in this time period in Argentina (cannot remember the names right now) and it is fascinating to read about, even in all its tragedy and sadness.

Amanda said...

Wow! What an interesting book! I have just a little experience reading magical realism and I would like to read more by different authors. And I love books that help the reader understand more about a piece of history/culture/country. I'm adding it to my TBR pile :)

Anonymous said...

Wow -- this sounds really interesting. Thanks for the great review. I'm bookmarking it. :-)

Dreamybee said...

Wow, there's a song that U2 has on their Joshua Tree album called "Mothers of the Disappaeared". I've always liked the song and had a general idea what it was about, but I didn't know specifically. I still don't *know*, but I'm willing to bet this is it. The name always stuck with me though-not taken, not missing, but disappeared, gone without a trace.

Thanks for the small history lesson! I will have to check out this book.

DebD said...

My MIL's 2nd husband escaped from Argentina in the 70's after one of his cousins disappeared. This book sounds very compelling.

Thanks for the review and bringing it to my attention.

Anonymous said...

Heather, this is a coincidence: just this morning I put up my review of The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander, a novel about the same period.

I'd never heard of Imagining Argentina before, but I will try to get hold of a copy.

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

Thanks for mentioning this one! Isn't it great when you find an unexpected gem? My sister just moved back to the states from Argentina, so I'm sure she would love this one as well! It's a very interesting country--I was really shocked at all the constant protesting in the government areas of the city when I went to visit last month.

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