Thursday, May 9, 2024

Confession, by Martín Kohan


Charco Press, 2023
originally published as Confesión, 2020
translated by Daniel Hahn
162 pp

(read in March)

Confession is not a long novel, coming in at less than two hundred pages, but its short length disguises the complexity within. It also has a shocker of an ending that completely rattled me for days after finishing this book.  Related in three interconnected parts, the author sets this novel timewise over three periods: before, during and after Argentina's military dictatorship that existed between 1976 and 1983.

Briefly, since to tell any more would be to utterly ruin the reading experience, the narrator of parts one and three is the grandson of a certain Mirta López, and as the novel opens, he takes the reader back to a time in 1941 when his grandmother was a young girl first becoming aware of her sexuality.  It begins with Mirta confessing to her priest at the church of San Patricio in Mercedes.  Sometimes, she says, she experiences a "powerful tremor, a kind of whirpool, only hot, in her stomach, in her whole belly, a thing kind of like a fever and a perspiration ..." that was only calmed by "squeezing her thighs together."   All of this happens whenever she sees the oldest son of the Videla family walking by her dining room window, either going to or from the train station.  He would come home from his school, arriving on Satudays and going back on Sundays, and Mirta waited for him by her window faithfully every weekend.  As her feelings toward the Videla boy intensify and grow more sexual,  the number of trips she makes to the confessional increase, but  her disclosures grow less candid than previously.   Eventually she realizes that she's confessing with "omissions," realizing that if God is "all-knowing" then He must also be all-forgiving.   Mirta goes on to marry, but not to the Videla boy, who married a year later when a lieutenant in the army at the age of 23.  Interspersed throughout this section is another entire strand dealing with the Rio de la Plata, which makes up part of the border between Uruguay and Argentina and upon the shores of which sits the city of Buenos Aires.   The significance of this second narrative strand is highlighted in the second part of this novel, which describes the actions of a group of people, all of whom have "adopted a new name" to create a sort of anonymity as they plot to "strike at the regime, and in as extreme a way as possible." Their plan had been hatched in July of 1976, with the ultimate goal of   "killing the tyrant."  The group's members work both on the streets and below them, trying to conceal what they're doing from prying eyes and from state surveillance, which is everywhere.  In part three, we are reunited with an elderly Mirta López in the present day, during a visit from her grandson at the facility where she now lives.  The author sets up this section brilliantly, as the  two play a card game called truco, the main complexity of which, as noted here, "lies in the need to deceive the opponent and avoid being deceived."   Her short-term memory isn't what it used to be, but she hasn't lost the long-term memory which during this game her grandson tries to plumb to get answers about what she knows about his father who disappeared during the military dictatorship.  Little by little, in between plays of the game, he is able to elicit information that will ultimately tie all of the pieces of this novel together into a unified and extremely painful whole.  

I am drawn to books set during the time of the military dictatorship in Argentina, and Confession left me absolutely stunned. It continued to haunt me for some time, and reflecting on it now brings back all of the feelings it produced the first time around.    Each section of this novel focuses on some aspect of secrets that are held, thoughts or deeds that are left unspoken, things that are both known and unknown -- and what happens when those make their way to the surface.   The author explores the continuing impact of the past on the present, most especially in the ways in which ordinary lives are often randomly caught up in or bound to history.    It is one of the best books I've read this year, and without hesitation I can definitely recommend it.   

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