Every country’s history includes episodes that manifest as open wounds on the psyche of its people and everyone affected by the often-unspeakable event. In this country one such episode is slavery. In Argentina a more recent nightmare spawned from the dictatorships of the 1970s and the early 1980s, when hundreds of thousands of citizens were kidnapped and tortured by the government, never to be seen alive by their families again. Carolina De Robertis, technically Uruguayan and raised in Europe but with Argentinean relatives still living there today, began to explore this historical wound in her first novel, The Invisible Mountain, but found herself leaving too many of the most graphic and painful details on the cutting-room floor. Hence, Perla.
The surface story of the novel, which you can hear about for yourself at its launch party at A Great Good Place for Books (6120 La Salle Ave., Oakland) on Monday, April 2, is the tale of an young Argentinean woman named Perla who must confront the reality of her country’s disappeared and how they touched her own life, from her military father to her activist lover to everything she thinks she knows of her own beginnings. The novel is a literary descendant of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but very much its own achingly original, hauntingly lyrical outing. Having workshopped the book in Mills College’s MFA program, with East Bay novelists Micheline Aharonian Marcom and Daniel Alarcón as faculty readers and advisors, De Robertis acknowledged that she was “incredibly fortunate to stumble upon amazing faculty and peers who could hold a container for such a strange, ambitious project, encourage it, and also really push me to take risks and expand.” Researching her subject directly at the source with relatives in Buenos Aires was another gift. “I traveled … and saw them for the first time in seventeen years,” she said. “Considering what a raw wound this part of history still is in Argentina, they responded … with remarkable grace and warmth.”
Perla doesn’t shy away from the details that make hearts ache, but De Robertis’ lyrical prose allows readers to lose themselves in the often dreamy-despite-itself world the author creates. “At its best,” explained De Robertis, “surreal, fantastic, or magical realist writing does the opposite of escaping from reality. It can explore reality with a different freedom and audacity.” Each person’s experience with this part of history, she maintained, is “as varied as the population itself.” So Perla delves into “the full humanity of the perpetrators: the torturers, guards, and military officers who were part of this national tragedy,” as the heroine learns of the “death flights,” where the disappeared were drugged, stripped, and dropped, still alive, from airplanes into a dark sea.
But what happens if the sea, the literal watery grave of so many Argentineans, returns one of the disappeared? Perla goes there, imagining the “unfinished business” these spirits might have with the living, whose responsibility is to continue living without them, and to never forget. 7 p.m., free. 510-339-8210 or GreatGoodPlace.Indiebound.com