Marcelo Figueras Breaks Down His Book ‘Kamchatka’
By Erin MendellMarcelo Figueras’ novel “ Kamchatka” is his first to be translated into English. It’s the story of a family – Harry, Midget and their parents — as they go into hiding. The foursome takes on new identities at the beginning of Argentina’s Dirty War in 1976; the 309-page book is told from Harry’s perspective and takes its title from a key territory in the board game Risk.
Figueras grew up in Argentina and currently lives in Barcelona. The 49-year-old author was forthcoming as he talked with Speakeasy about reading himself in translation, telling a story through pop culture and Risk strategy.
The Wall Street Journal: What’s the strategic importance of Kamchatka?
Marcelo Figueras: It’s a very little country in Asia, but it’s very useful because from Kamchatka you can leap to Japan, and you can leap also to America. … I had already written the novel when I had watched an episode of that sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle,” and it was really funny because Malcolm’s mother and father were playing Risk, and the mother beat the crap out of the father, and [in consoling himself] he said, “At least I got to keep Kamchatka. …”
So I laughed and said, “ I guess somebody in North America will really know what Kamchatka is about.”
Do you play Risk?
Quite a lot. It was a really popular board game during the ‘70s in Argentina. In Argentina it has another name: Teg.
What are some of the challenges of writing from a child’s perspective?
There are many challenges, which I tried to avoid by making the narrator not really a child. It is a 40-year-old man who remembers. He finds it easier to relive it all in a childish voice, which was in fact what happened to me when I began writing this. At the beginning I tried writing the novel in the third person, in more of an objective voice, but I studied it five or six times, and I began writing as if I was Harry, as if I was the boy, and I had to let this happen, because that voice, Harry’s voice, was really powerful to me.
You are not quite a contemporary of Harry’s — you were a few year’s older at the beginning of the Dirty War?
There’s a three-year gap. He was 10. I was 13, but at 13 I was really childish, and I was living in a world made of books and movies and TV shows and comics. And I knew really little about what was happening outside in Argentina, and it wasn’t that much of a stretch. I was really a little boy back then.
Have you read the book in English?
Yes, of course.
What’s it like to read yourself in another language?
Reading Kamchatka in English was really a joy for me. Most of the novels that I really, really love and have to do with my being a writer are written in English originally and are American, of course, so it was a joy. But there is something else that makes this translation important for me: I was a really good student as a boy, but there was only one subject that I really resisted, and it was studying English. When I was a child, I went to school from 8 o’clock in the morning to 5 in the afternoon, and my mother insisted that I take English lessons. And of course by about 6 o clock in the afternoon, I was really tired, and I didn’t want to do anything of the sort, so it was the only thing she really forced me to do. She really, really insisted. I had no chance of escape. Of course, finally I became really grateful to her because if she hadn’t insisted, I wouldn’t be able to read all this fiction in its original language.
Luckily, my family suffered nothing compared to what Harry’s parents suffer, but my mother died when she was really young. And I had almost already completed the first draft of the novel, and it was only then that I realized that in some sort of strange way I had conceived Kamchatka as a way to have the goodbye scene with her that I couldn’t have in real life.
Speaking of the goodbye scene, that is both the opening scene of the book and the end scene. When Harry says he likes to have the bad part out of the way first, I thought we might avoid it. Why did you decide to bring it full-circle?
It had to do in many ways with the real meaning of the novel to me. So it is the same scene, but at the same time it is a retelling of the scene. It’s in the end when Harry picks up that piece of paper that Mom wrote, and it was the paper on the cigarette pack. It is the paper on which it says Harry’s real name many times, and in a lyrical way it is the moment when Harry remembers who he really is, and when he decides to leave to this fictional land that is Kamchatka for him and he goes back to the real world and tries to have a shot at real happiness.
You said you didn’t have, fortunately, the same experiences as Harry’s family. How did it seep into your life that this was going?
I wasn’t aware of anything that was happening. My family was really apolitical, and I wasn’t into newspapers and T.V. newscasts, only fiction. In a way, it all seemed same-old, same old. It wasn’t our first dictatorship. It wasn’t my first dictatorship even though I was 13 years old. So it seemed like more of the same, but it wasn’t.
Even though I wasn’t able to explain really what was happening, and even though on the surface the city of Buenos Aires looked exactly the same, I began to live in fear. I was afraid in the streets even though I saw nothing happening, and I was really, really afraid of people with uniforms. If I was walking and I saw a policeman on duty, I would go around the whole block to try to avoid it. And it was a fear I couldn’t explain, but it was in a way really rational. Part of the version of that particular dictatorship in Argentina was that they tried to cover appearances so there was no military in the street, cause that would have spooked normal people, but the streets then were filled with policeman — they were a really common sight but a sight that turned ominous because the police were, of course, in the military.
You could breathe the fear because nobody said anything but it was somehow in the air. And if I, who back then was a 13-year-old, completely apolitical, head-in-the clouds boy, was able to feel this, it would have been really strong. So in a way I became a boy who was afraid of the blue even though I couldn’t explain exactly why.
Does that have anything to with why you live abroad?
No, it has nothing to do with it because I’m living here in Barcelona since last year. But if you lived in Argentina back then, and had these kinds of feelings that I had even though I was little, you’re really used to the feeling of being a stranger in your own land.
Why did you decide to structure the book around school subjects?
I guess it happened naturally. Harry and Midget being little boys and immersed in the school experience, I had this inkling that you always tend to decode what is happening to you in terms of your own experience. If you’re a boy, the only experience you have is in your school and your own family and your favorite comics and books and your favorite TV shows. And that is how “The Invaders” appeared, and it was a TV show that I watched a lot back then, and it was really useful in explaining the kind of horror we all lived because you didn’t know if your friend was your friend anymore. …
Mainly with the school experience I was trying to answer myself, what do we really know? Given the fact that we spend most of our lives thinking that there’s something that we don’t know that if we knew it would be really useful for us to reach happiness. I was trying to do the opposite: What if we know everything we need to know to be happy, to live a very fruitful life? And so I ask myself: What does biology tell us? What does history teach us? What does geography mean for us? And so all this knowledge that we mostly take for granted because the bare bones of them that we received when we were really little — going back to them through Harry’s eyes, I realized I knew most of what I needed to know to live a fruitful life. It was there, and I only needed to remember and reinterpret.