Brooklyn BookBeat: Patricio Pron’s latest explores father’s hidden past
By Samantha Samel
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Argentine novelist Patricio Pron, named one of Granta's Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists, has recently released his latest book, a moving autobiographical novel titled “My Fathers’ Ghost is Climbing in the Rain” (Knopf). The novel is already a sensation in Europe, earning rave reviews, and Pron will spread the excitement as he makes his first public appearance in the U.S. at the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sunday, Sept. 22.
“My Fathers’ Ghost is Climbing in the Rain” tells the story of a young Argentine man who returns to his hometown to visit his dying father. The nameless protagonist, who has been living in Germany, is largely estranged from his life in Argentina. In fact, he reveals that during his eight-year stint abroad he consumed a variety of pills that cloud his memory.
But upon his visit to his hometown, he is forced to confront his past and family life. He arrives at the hospital and notes that his sister, upon seeing him, began crying “as if I were bringing terrible and unexpected news…” In a tone that appears superficially disaffected but also deeply emotional, the narrator recalls his interactions with his mother, who “had a gaze that could turn the demons out of hell,” and his father, who “was still alive, fighting and losing but still alive.”
Soon after reacquainting himself with his hometown and family, the narrator uncovers a file his father has kept regarding a mysterious disappearance and possible murder. The folder contains numerous clippings about Alberto José Burdisso, a janitor who went missing from the town of El Trébol decades after his sister Alicia disappeared during Argentina’s Dirty War and military dictatorship.
Intrigued by his father’s interest in the case, the narrator begins to investigate the documents. As he discovers that his father is in some way connected to the events that transpired, he comes to realize just how little he knows about his father’s political engagements. Further complicating his understanding is his own distorted memory of his past life in Argentina.
Beautifully melding history and politics with the complexities of familial bonds, Pron’s novel threads together the experiences of one family and a nation at large as they struggle to confront a tragic past.
Pron will be participating in two panels at the Brooklyn Book Festival on Sept. 22. In anticipation of the author’s Brooklyn appearance, Brooklyn Eagle spoke to Pron about the book’s focus on time and memory. He tells us about the sensitive process of writing an autobiographical novel and shares with us how the text’s reception has differed in various countries.
Did you have any hesitations about publishing an autobiographical novel? …Did the autobiographical aspect make the writing process more or less challenging for you, as compared with that of your other books?
I began thinking about writing this book in 2008 or 2009, shortly after the events narrated on it, but it was only in 2011 when I thought I’d found the proper way to write it. I’d tried and tried and asked myself if I was the right person to tell this story. I didn’t know at that point how painful it is to stand naked in front of an audience, as is the case when you write an autobiographical novel, so I started writing it not for me but for others, and when I started I couldn’t stop until the book was finished. It just happened.
Memory is a prominent theme in the book. Was this a theme you set out to weave into the text, or did this focus materialize after you began writing?
By talking about memory I tried to make a virtue out of one of the most important defects I’ve got, which is my difficulty to remember certain things. The question for me was how to write a novel about past events if you can’t rely on your own memories, if your own remembrances can be a fiction, maybe a consoling fiction.
Sections of the book are numbered, but some numbers are skipped – which seems fitting given the text’s focus on memory and time gaps. Can you talk a bit about your decision to separate the text this way?
The gaps, the absences in the text, are the result of the gaps and the absences in my own recollection of events, but also a way to express the gaps and absences on the story, which is made out of snippets of articles, memories, photographs, dreams, etc. As in many books, it’s the content of the book that determines its form, as well as its theme. The disappeared chapters also represent the disappeared of the recent Argentine history, one of the main themes of the book.
Have you noticed a vast difference in the book’s reception in Argentina and elsewhere?
Yes, for some reason the book has different meanings and produces different effects on different countries. In Italy, for instance, the book was read mostly as a novel about migration, which is a very important issue in Italian history. In France it was the book’s form that interested most readers, and in Spain it was read as an autobiographical novel while in Argentina—where events are still fresh on the collective memory—it was read as a fiction, which puzzled me a lot. It was very interesting to see how different these readings were and how much they’ve said about the Italian, French, Spanish or Argentine ways if reading and approaching to texts.
Who are some of your greatest literary influences?
One hundred-twenty-seven writers (and-a-half).
What are you working on now?
I’m always doing things, but I [don’t] like to talk about them until they’re ready, since I prefer to speak about facts rather than about conjectures. Anyway, coming to Brooklyn I’m very much looking forward to discovering how American readers approach the text.
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Pron’s Book Festival appearances will take place at:
BOROUGH HALL COMMUNITY ROOM (209 Joralemon Street)
12:00 p.m. Cities and their Ghosts, Past and Future: What phantoms continue to haunt the landscape of our cities and our dreams? And how will these apparitions appear to us in the future, in a world even more shrouded in mystery? Basque author Kirmen Uribe (“Mean While Take My Hand”) searches for roots in Spain and abroad; Patricio Pron (“My Fathers’ Ghost is Climbing in the Rain”) reckons with his father's hidden life and Chang-Rae Lee (“On Such a Full Sea”) depicts a bleak vision of an apocalyptic Baltimore. Short readings and discussion. Moderated by Valeria Luiselli.
3:00 p.m. Historical Secrets and Lies: Lying never gets old. A young writer discovers his dying father’s less-than-desirable secrets. A Colombian man relives an old friend’s murder and a decades-old drug war. A travel agent in post-apartheid South Africa learns something that might change her identity forever. Patricio Pron (“My Fathers’ Ghost is Climbing in the Rain”), Juan Gabriel Vásquez (“The Sound of Things Falling”), and Zoë Wicomb (“Playing in the Light”) talk history and its endless lies. Moderated by Michael Miller (Bookforum).