on My Father’s Ghost Is Climbing In The Rain, a novel by Patricio Pron (Knopf)

Patricio Pron describes his fifth novel, My Father’s Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain, as “non-fiction fiction.” It is narrated by a young Argentine writer who, having lived in Germany for eight years, received a call in 2008 from his family. His ailing father’s admittance to a hospital led to the son’s return home. Now he reflects on that visit.

PronCover.jpegThe fictional autobiography provides some writers with a perch on the periphery of his/her knowledge, offering an antidote to the certainties and obligatory “arc” of mainstream memoir. The novelistic element of such works gives permission to the writer to create alternate pathways toward the felt significance of events. “What really interests me much more than reality is truth,” Enrique Vila-Matas says in a brief Paris Review interview, adding, “I believe that fiction is the only thing that brings me closer to the truth that reality obscures.” He refers to his fictional autobiography Never An End to Paris.

In My Father’s Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain, Pron inverts a memoiristic staple, namely, a child returns to uncover the ominous past and comprehend his own identity. But the unnamed speaker, dosed on antidepressants for an undisclosed reason, is reluctant to know too much. Grim secrets entice him, but his psyche resists their puncture. Pron may be standing on the edge of his experiences, but his speaker is crowded in the midst of them.

Pron2.jpgBriefly, on Pron and his family: He was born in Argentina in 1975, the outset of the most violent period of that country’s “dirty war.” His father and mother, both journalists, were ardent Peronists, marking them as potential targets for the military junta that finally overthrew Evita Perón’s government in March, 1976. As many as 30,000 dissidents, unionists, socialists, journalists and students were killed by the military. Argentina’s defeat in the Falklands War brought an end to military rule, but the terrors of the period huddle in the latency of memory. For Pron’s speaker, the past has deflated the energies of the younger generation:

“… I thought that I hadn’t really fought, and that no one in my generation had fought; something or someone had already inflicted a defeat on us and we drank or took pills or wasted time in a thousand and one ways as a mode of hastening an end, possibly an undignified one but liberating nonetheless. Nobody had fought,, we had all lost and barely anyone had stayed true to what they believed, whatever that was, I thought; my father’s generation had been different, but, once again, there was something in that difference that was also a meeting point, a thread that went through the years and brought us together in spite of everything and was horrifically Argentine: the feeling of parents and children being united in defeat.”

What follows is the tale of a hunt frustrated by inertia and the disregard of history, that “something or someone” drifting into his and the reader’s sights, then dissipating. In short bursts of stark prose, the teller reports on his arrival at home and visits to the hospital to see a father who has always seemed to live at a remove from the son. He recalls the father, going alone to start the family care in case it had been wired to explode. The distance between them was perhaps an extended, saving gesture.

In the second part, the narrator finds among his father’s papers some evidence of having known a young woman named Alicia who was murdered by the regime. This leads him to the story of a more recently killed 60-year old restaurant worker named Alberto José Burdisso. It was his sister who was killed by the junta. Why has the father collected a ream of police reports, newspaper clippings, interview transcripts, and other documents about Burdisso? The son speculates:

“My father had gotten Alicia involved in politics without knowing that what he was doing would cost that young woman her life, would cost him decades of fear and regret and would have its effects on me, many years later. As I tried to shift my attention from the photographs I’d just seen, I understood for the first time that all the children of young Argentines in the 1970-s were going to have to solve our parents’ pasts, like detectives, and what we would find out was going to seem like a mystery novel we wished we’d never bought.”

Pron.jpgPron’s fifth novel in English translation, My Father’s Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain is preoccupied with the difficulties of telling traumatic stories. Its shamed tone of failure successfully evades the gesture of reflecting too much credit on its own understanding. The mode of narration movingly embodies the aftereffects of brutality. But there comes a point when the book’s awareness of itself as a “failed” text seems to preen with meta-ness. Fortunately, Pron recoups in the conclusion.

Like his narrator, Pron has lived for years in Europe, in his case, Spain. When speaking of the young generation that has not “fought,” Pron may be referring to the many Latin American writers who prefer Madrid to Buenos Aires, Santiago or Managua. If there is going to be a reconciliation with South America’s past, some of it is being devised across long distances. My Father’s Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain captures a certain set of misgivings and sustained fears in relation to that effort. Even at the end, Pron’s young man says, “This display of the world’s brutality and of the infinitesimal distance separating life and death didn’t make me stronger; rather, it crippled me with an indefinable terror that has accompanied me ever since.”

[Published May 21, 2013. 212 pages, $24.00 hardcover. Translated by Mara Faye Lethem.]