by Patricio Pron; Knopf, 2013; 224 pages; $24
This book is disturbing. And not in a particularly pleasant way.
The grammatically stylized (and often incorrect) novel is a tough one to pull through. However, the story of personal and familial memory should stop readers from casting the book aside completely.
After eight years of self-imposed exile and therapy couch jumping in Germany, the narrator — never identified by name — returns home to Argentina to visit his dying father.
As he is traveling home, he attributes his inability to remember large pieces of his past and childhood to prolonged use of prescription medications.
Splitting his time between the hospital and his childhood home, the narrator tries to remember, or know in the first place, the person his father was. Sifting through his father’s papers, he finds a collection of newspaper clippings, maps and pictures chronicling the death of a man from his father’s village.
The story is played out dramatically through newspaper reports of the initial disappearance, the search for and finally the discovery of the body and police interviews, which contain contradicting facts surrounding the incident including the disappearance of the man’s sister during the reign of Argentina’s junta in the 1970s. Like the narrator says of his own family, the missing sister was a political activist against the government.
As the facts of the case fall into place, the narrator unearths family secrets about his father’s obsession with the missing man and the fighting legacy of a generation.
Whether creatively purposeful or just an unhappy accident, Pron’s writing style makes for a difficult read — the short chapters, lists, repetitions and structural errors can be confusing. Run-on sentences and non-sequential chapter numbers, at first glance, seem to be the making of bad translating and editing. But as the story unfolds and the reader gets a better sense of the power of memory and the pain of its absence, the disjointed telling aids in the stylistic matching of the narrator’s voice.
With his American debut, Pron seems masterful in modern-art literature. The craftsmanship borders the line of annoyance, but the story is just twisted enough to keep readers turning the pages of “My Fathers’ Ghost.” And while the unconventional layout and content of the story may leave some readers baffled, most will be left with a feeling of accomplishment – if not a little disturbance.