Every house in the country keeps a room ready in case the president should need it. He never enters most of them, so what happens when the president does come to call and an ordinary boy from an ordinary house becomes “the boy the president visited,” singled out by an attention he cannot hope to understand?
In his first novel to be translated into English, Argentine writer Romero advances a conversation begun by Camus, Kafka, and Calvino. Every household here keeps a carefully curated room set aside in anticipation of the president’s visit. Though the poorer apartments in the city center do not adhere to this tradition, the book’s teenage narrator, an avatar of unconscious suburban affluence, assures the reader that every house “owned by people like us” keeps a room reserved or “they lose their privileges.” What these privileges are no one knows. How the custom began no one remembers. Just as no one recalls what led to this unnamed country’s banning basements in the narrator’s grandparents’ time because “terrible things used to happen before, in the basements,” and no one seems to quite know how old the president is, how long he has been in power, or anything else about him other than the size of his nose, which “looks like a potato, and…that’s why he has a moustache.” In this way, Romero weaves together the implacably known world of late childhood—a place of favorite household nooks, favorite vantages in front yard trees, uncontemplated routines that are ordered according to the mysterious reasoning of parents and teachers—with all that is impossible to know about the adult world that looms on the narrator’s horizon. Romero’s unnamed narrator is believable and affecting—filled with the bodily insouciance of his age as he shinnies up trees and pads around the house in the dark—but also afflicted with the feverish dread of the eternal questions: Why this life? Why these customs? When the president finally does come to make use of his room, the narrator is pushed out of observation and into a kind of nebulous action, coming to no definitive conclusions but placing himself in a position where enlightenment will have to find him, if only because he is standing in its way.
A taut, appealing, and often quite funny exploration of existential angst.