More than thirty years ago, as part of Argentina’s “Dirty War,” close to 30,000 dissidents and other like-minded people simply disappeared as part of a massive state-sponsored program. During this cruel obliteration, children, too, were abducted, and those born to the disappeared were adopted into new families--entire generations of people torn from each other forcibly. These “disappeared” or “desaparecidos” form the central focus of Caroline de Robertis’s new novel, Perla.
Perla is the young protagonist in the novel, attending college and looking to major in psychology against the wishes of her father, who wants Perla to become a doctor. As the novel opens, Perla is home alone in Buenos Aires while her parents vacation in Punta del Este in neighboring Uruguay. One evening, a sopping wet naked man stumbles in and slowly seeps into the home--both literally and figuratively.
As Perla slowly finds out, the naked man is a metaphorical ghost from the past: he is one of the disappeared. Exactly why he has come now to her home and exactly what kind of closure he is looking for are some of the issues both she and the stranger need to find out over the course of the novel.
Even before the wet man arrived, Perla had been grappling with issues of loyalty, allegiance and truth. She recognizes that her father was a Navy man, someone who might have been instrumental in carrying out the inhuman Dirty War. This is further confirmed when her boyfriend, the attractive journalist Gabriel, takes to making the Dirty War his central focus. Torn between her boyfriend and her family even before the stranger sets foot into her home, Perla is estranged from Gabriel when she deals with the demons the ghost rakes up.
Carolina de Robertis does an excellent job in bringing vital issues to the forefront: questions of identity, loss and reinvention. How does one reconcile the past with a new reality? Do family ties necessarily condone all evil? Does family supercede all, even the call for justice? These are the vital questions that de Robertis addresses so artfully in Perla. With the ghost, there are touches of magical realism in here, but the story remains accessible all through.
The strongest point about Perla is the evocative writing, which will absolutely take your breath away. Especially well drawn is the vibrant and passionate relationship between Gabriel and Perla. The city of Buenos Aires also comes alive in these pages and is as much of a vibrant entity as the book’s human players. “The night’s pulse seemed to come roaring in through the windows, the delirious blend of a million human hearts,” de Robertis writes of Buenos Aires in one evening. “The city, incorrigible and sprawling and awake. For all its long and freighted history, for all its cracked facades and streaks of sorrow, on this night the city seemed young, renewed by the vigor of its people.”
Despite its somewhat trite ending, Perla is a small marvel of a book, poetic in its approach to some of life’s most fundamental questions including that of identity. “All that Freud, and yet you can’t see your own demons,” Gabriel once jokes to Perla. As she gradually recognizes in the novel, it’s not that Perla can’t see her own demons. It’s just that once you see them, it’s a bitter struggle to rid yourselves of these very same demons and all their associated baggage.