“Perla” by Carolina De Robertis (2012) – 236 pages
After reading “Perla”, I am quite sure that I’ve discovered a new major world-class novelist. Carolina De Robertis was raised in England, Switzerland, and California by Uruguayan parents. “Perla”, De Robertis’ second novel, takes place in Argentina and Uruguay.
“Perla” is a supremely intelligent, deeply moving novel about a horrifying situation. “Perla” is about Argentina in the years when it was ruled by the military junta which was responsible for the torture, disappearance, and ultimate deaths of over 30,000 people from all over Latin America. Only a few weeks ago I had read Tomas Eloy Martinez’ novel “Purgatory” which served as a good introduction to this time in Argentine history, but which I did not find completely convincing as a novel. In “Perla”, De Robertis has impressively humanized and dramatized the events of that sorry time and has brought a passionate intensity to the telling. This is the South American novel that I’ve been looking for during the last dozen years, a novel that stunned me.
At one point in the novel, some of the political prisoners of the Argentine military junta are taken up in an airplane and flown over the Atlantic. When the plane is far enough from shore, the side door of the plane is opened, and soldiers push the political prisoners out of the plane and they fall to their deaths into the ocean. Without any bodies, the government could easily deny any knowledge of these prisoners’ whereabouts, and the murdered prisoners are put on to ‘disappeared’ lists. The mothers of some of the ‘disappeared’ political prisoners formed an activist protest organization called “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo”, and some of these mothers were also arrested and ‘disappeared’.
This is a terrible story of man’s inhumanity to man. Since many of the people who were murdered by the Argentine junta are also Argentines, one soon realizes the deep anger between the families who had members murdered and those who actually participated in and facilitated the murders, and that this deep anger will continue for many, many years. Perla’s father was a Navy officer during the time the military junta was in power, and helped carry out these “disappearances”. Perla was just a baby at that time, yet she is held accountable for the sins and crimes of her father. Her best friend dramatically and loudly breaks off with her when she finds out about Perla’s father.
In the character of Perla, De Robertis expresses this horrible human tragedy in human terms. I’m not going to go into the plot at all so as not to spoil the story for anyone. All I can say is that this novel moved me more than any other novel I’ve read this year. What puts this novel above other political novels is the intelligence and passion that Carolina De Robertis brings to the story. Here is a good example of De Robertis’ style as she writes about Perla’s experience reading Rimbaud’s “Illuminations”.
“The words seep into your mind. They pour into your secret hollows and take their shape, a perfect fit, like water. And you are slightly less alone in the Universe, because you are witnessed, because you have been filled, because someone once found words for things within you that you couldn’t yourself name – something gesturing not only toward what you are, but what you could become. In that sense, books help you in a way your parents can’t. They emancipate you.”
The cover of the book “Perla” may suggest the passion of this novel, but does not suggest the mental toughness here.
I highly recommend you read “Perla”.