Marcelo Figueras wrote this coming of age novel about a family caught up in Argentina’s “dirty war” in the 1970s. It is narrated by a ten-year old boy, who with his younger brother and parents must leave Buenos Aires to secretly find residence in a quinta on the outskirts of the city.
It is a child’s story. Although at times the narration is retrospective, evidenced by knowledge beyond that of a little boy, it reflects the resilience of childhood. Children have an amazing capacity to find escape and joy in play, even under the worst of circumstances. The reader, like the children, is not exposed to the fears and risks of the parents. It is a testament to the parents, as reflected through the narration, that the story is told almost as if nothing was transpiring. Mr. Figueras avoidance of the dramatic makes the book that much more compelling. It is structured into sections that are school lessons. A selective chapter within each section is educational: First period is biology; second period, geography; third period, language; fourth period, astronomy, and fifth period, history. For some in middle school, a few of these chapters may be a stretch, but it is worth the exercise.
Kamchatka is an imaginary place that exists only on the board game Risk. For those who remember this game it brings back memories of playing for hours or even days. As a period piece, younger readers might not appreciate this ode to childhood as would an adult. It is not a young adult novel in this regard.
“Kamchatka”begins with a quote from “Moby-Dick”. “It is not down on any map; true places never are.”
This is a book about family relationships and life. It is optimistic and redemptive.
“I believe that stories have no end, because even when one life ends, its energy gives life to others. The dead (remember the larvae) simply nourish the Earth so it can be fruitful and feed those above who, in their turn, will give life by dying. For as long as there is life in the universe, the story of each single life never ends; it is simply transformed. In dying, the life-story undergoes a shift. We are no longer a thriller, a comedy, an epic; we are a geography book, a biology book, a history book.”
… “For our lives are no less important than other lives. On the contrary, our lives appear on the horizon of past lives, the lives that have ceased to be biology and become history, the lives that have cleared the path to the present, which, in that sense, is better than all the past; lives that, just like certain species, trace a path between what was and what is, offer us a bridge across the ravine to the summit of a mountain that is higher than all those that came before, but which is never the last.”
Mr. Figueras wrote “Kamchatka” in 2003 but it was not translated into English until 2010. It reflects an innocence of an earlier period: Risk; King Arthur and his knights; Houdini; comic book heroes when more was left to the imagination. Some experiences remain universal: new kid at a new school; little boys’ fascination with toads; finding a role model in a younger man.
I think this would be an excellent reading choice for a teacher, but I welcome comments about what age it would be best suited for. It is an enjoyable read for adults as well.
Being in Kamchatka reminds me of a quote from Virginia Woolf’s “The Common Reader”.
“The pressure of life when one is fending for oneself alone on a desert island is really no laughing matter. It is no crying one either.”
Alone or together we persevere.