Patricio Pron’s publishers refer to My Father’s Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain as an autobiographical novel. More likely, the book is an autobiography with a few details altered to protect the innocent, although the innocent became victims long ago. The book is about Argentina’s Dirty War, during the 1970s, when so many people (especially the young) disappeared. Pron wasn’t born until 1975, but he grew up in the era of state terror, and he remembers being told as a child that on the streets he should always walk against traffic. His father (who was a journalist) presumably went outside to the automobile to start it and warm it up before he drove his children to school. The real reason, however, was to protect his children in case the automobile had been loaded with a car bomb. These and other heightened conditions resulted in Pron’s fear, as a young man, about remaining in Argentina. As soon as he could, he fled the country, for studies overseas.
In 2008, after Pron had been living in Germany for eight years—ostensibly studying but drifting and heavily into drugs—he learned that his father was ill and possibly dying. He was ambivalent about flying to Argentina to see his father. He had never felt any closeness to his family, clearly because of the tense political atmosphere. As he notes, “Something had happened to my parents and me and to my siblings that prevented me from ever knowing what a home was or what a family was, though everything seemed to indicate I had both.” His father, he’d been told, had memory problems but so did the young man himself. These memory gaps are illustrated in the narration by missing numbers for chapters. Hence, in the first part of the novel, concluding with 52, the following numbers/chapters are missing: 3, 28, 31, 33, 34, 37, 40, 41, 43, 44, 48, 50 and 51—a rather ingenious way of demonstrating lapses in memory—for both father and son.
The young man wonders if his lack of feeling for his father is the result of the medication he’s been taking, which has left him blotto. “Perhaps the only real effect of the pills is that they hinder complete happiness or complete sadness; it’s like floating in a pool without ever seeing its bottom but not being able to reach the surface.” He says he doesn’t fear his own death, yet fears “the deaths of those [he cares] about, and especially the deaths of his parents.”
While his father is still in the hospital, Pron snoops around his father’s study, uncertain of what he is looking for. And there he discovers a thick folder that initially throws him off-guard. Inside, there are numerous clippings about someone named Alberto José Burdisso, a fairly innocuous maintenance man at a sports club, 60 years old, who disappeared in the town where they both lived. Pron wonders whatever could have been his father’s interest in Burdisso, besides that of a journalist’s interest in following intriguing stories. As the young man reads through the file, what is eventually revealed is a homicide by three fairly shady characters (a woman and two men) who where attempting to fleece Burdisso out of his house. But why did the elder Pron care about this man and accumulate a folder with a couple of inches of clippings?
What is so startlingly revealed in the thick folder is a revelation of Pron’s father’s own past. In the 1970s, Burdisso’s younger sister, Alicia, also disappeared—one of the thousands of disappeared radical students identifying with the Peronists and fighting the generals. It was not until 2005 that Burdisso received reparations for her death. Moreover, it was Pron’s father who got Alicia involved in politics all those years ago. “The fact was: my father had gotten Alicia involved in politics without knowing that what he was doing would cost that young girl her life, would cost him decades of fear and regret and would have its effects on me, many years later.” Both assumed they would be picked up for their activities and be killed, but it was Alicia who vanished. Pron’s father suffered from survivor’s guilt—not so far removed from the guilt the younger Pron feels having abandoned his family and fled to Germany. Thus, there are two parallel stories of guilt in this narrative and, by extension, a generational question about the young people of Argentina, today, needing to probe their parents’ pasts and understand what happened to them during the Dirty War.
Fear, guilt, and survival—these are the themes of Patricio Pron’s probings into his father’s career as a journalist during Argentina’s terribly dark days. How ironic that the son also became a journalist (like his father) and his father wanted to write a novel (as his son did several times). But that’s a story best left to Pron’s own words:
“I also knew this story had to be told in a different way, in fragments, in whispers, and with laughter and with tears and I knew I would be able to write it only once it became part of the memories I’d decided to recover, for me and for them and for those who would follow…. Standing beside the telephone, I noticed it had started to rain again, and I told myself I would write that story because what my parents and their comrades had done didn’t deserve to be forgotten, and because I was the product of what they had done, and because what they’d done was worthy of being told because their ghost—not the right or wrong decisions my parents and their comrades had made but their spirit itself—was going to keep climbing in the rain until it took the heavens by storm.”
This is a riveting story, elegantly translated by Mara Faye Lethem.
Patricio Pron: My Father’s Ghost Is Climbing in the Rain
Trans. by Mara Faye Lethem
Knopf, 224 pp., $24
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.