Perla, the narrator of the second novel by De Robertis (The Invisible Mountain, 2009), is a young university student who’s spent much of her life keeping a dark secret: Her father was a naval officer who during the late 1970s and early ’80s helped round up the “disappeared,” dissidents who were arrested and executed by the military regime, often dropped into the Atlantic Ocean from airplanes. That dark history has shaped her friendships and complicated her romantic relationship with a journalist investigating the Dirty War. But that legacy becomes unavoidable to her when a man appears in Perla’s home, soaked and dank-smelling and constantly thirsty. He’s a ghost of one of the disappeared, but also quite real: The water that he can’t shake off soaks the apartment. His surreal presence unlocks a host of memories for Perla, and the novel alternates between her perspective, as she recalls her difficult relationship with her father, and the stranger’s perspective, as he recalls the horrific rapes and other abuses he suffered while in military custody. The tone is mournful, but the book is as much romance as tragedy: De Robertis favors long, luxurious sentences that help give the novel a sense of uplift. That style makes for a few fecund, overwritten passages, but on the whole the story is remarkably convincing: The ghost is an effective metaphor for the history Perla’s family can’t suppress, and De Robertis is clearly attuned to the afteraffects of the dictatorship on contemporary Argentina, where it still fills books, newspapers and TV reports. We are products of our times, she means to say, but past history isn’t necessarily our destiny.
An elegantly written and affecting meditation on life in the wake of atrocity.