Reviewed by Mythili G. Rao
“Where were you Mamá, when all those horrible things were taking place in your city?” This question, put to Laura by her daughter Claudia, is what has drawn The Absent Sea’s protagonist back to the fictional town of Pampa Hundida at the start of novelist Carlos Franz’s exploration of the turbulent aftermath of Chile’s 1973 coup.
Pampa Hundida is a recurring setting for Franz’s work. He places it in the northern part of the country, an oasis hidden in the Atacama desert; he has described it as “above all, a region of the spirit.” In The Absent Sea’s opening pages the city is in the midst of La Diablada, Pampa Hundida’s annual religious festival. Costumed pilgrims from the region—“a disparate bewildering, arbitrary crowd”—come “to beseech and to celebrate, to plead and to dance” in an age-old collective reckoning with evil. After twenty years of self-imposed exile, Laura has returned for a reckoning of her own. She’s come to reclaim the same judicial post she left two decades before, and to face up to where she was when all those “horrible things” were happening in Pampa Hundida.
“The desert was like extreme youth, for neither one allows any gray zones or chiaroscuros,” Franz writes. Laura first arrives in Pampa Hundida during Chile’s “bloody and stormy period” of the early ’70s—the period of her own extreme youth. Having just graduated from law school with the highest honors, she’s been named court secretary of the remote tribunal, a post from which she is quickly promoted, becoming the youngest magistrate in the history of the whole system. She is confident in her abilities, and certain that a bright future stretches before her: “I believed in all good faith that this was the gift conferred on me by my times,” she remembers.
Then the soldiers arrive one October noon, a month after the coup. They are led by a “tall, angular, impatient” officer named Major Marion Cáceres. His face, gaunt and handsome, fills Laura with foreboding. The soldiers build a prison camp on the outskirts of town, and fill it with truckloads of handcuffed captives. With horror, Laura realizes that:
. . . the law had been pulled to pieces, the legitimate authority had been demolished, and among those ruins the only thing left was me on my dais, behind the railing, completely alone.
She’s been left alone, but she has hardly gone undetected. Major Cáceres takes special notice of Laura. He tells her the town’s revered statue of “La Patrona”—the Virgin of Carmel—looks like her, and with an eerie mix of condescension, reverence and irony, he nicknames Laura “patroncita,” or “little mistress.” Provoked by the brazen major, Laura stages a surprise inspection of the prison camp. But inside its walls, she is the one surprised to find herself witness to a hastily convened military tribunal. In Laura’s presence—and before she manages to rise from her seat to object—all of the camp’s prisoners are sentenced to death.
And so Major Cáceres’ s executions—one each morning—begin. Every dawn, the shots ring out over Pampa Hundida, tormenting its quiet citizenry. Finally, a group of the town’s “ten righteous men”— the priest, the mayor, the baker, and others—approach Laura. They beg her to appeal to the Major in any way she can (“Everyone knows how the commandant looks at you! And you do too.”) to end the killings and to return the holy statuette of La Patrona, which he’s taken from the church to punish the town for attempting to shelter condemned prisoners. When Laura goes to him, he tortures and rapes her, and proposes a pact: so long as she continues to visit him regularly, he will stop shooting prisoners. In Laura’s acquiescence, the novel’s central metaphor is born. What happens when justice is forced into complicity with brutality? When justice is cowed, can there be any hope of salvation?
These are fascinating, ambitiously posed questions but the prose with which Franz approaches them is sometimes overwrought. In the moment before her rape, for example, Laura notices the tip of the Major’s penis:
. . . glistening now, like satin, so very close and yet so distant, like the cupola of a tower trembling behind the wall of liquid air of the desert (or behind a veil of tears). The tower of a forbidden city, or the watch-tower of an encampment of prisoners, or the main mast on a shipload of corpses.
Convoluted language like this distracts from the bleak horror of what Laura is made to endure—and detracts from the seriousness of The Absent Sea’s inquiry into the violent submission of justice under a dictatorial regime—by exalting the violence itself. Each time Laura returns to the Major, they reenact the first night’s torture and rape, ritualizing the obscene with its repetition; he beats her with a metal ruler, calling her pain a “song of steel.” More than a dozen taxingly florid pages are devoted to the details of their encounters. Similarly, when Franz sounds certain repetitions to hint at the circularity of memory, the effect takes a touch of the mawkish. By circling around acts of degradation, hinting at the unspeakable, and grasping for the poetic, brutality is sentimentalized, and seems (if inadvertently) condoned. In Laura’s blackest hours, Franz’s narration—elsewhere commanding in Leland Chambers’s even-keeled translation—occasionally turns unsteady.
The novel’s deep fascination with feminine power—not just as prescribed by modern norms, but also in its most ancient and primal manifestations—is similarly dissatisfying. Feminine power is a theme Laura herself explores in two decades of academic writing after leaving Pampa Hundida, work that culminates in a book about justice and destiny named Moira for the powerful goddess of fate—“eternal justice, exalted above men and gods alike.” The Absent Sea suggests that Laura has arrived at a scholar’s nuanced, profound understanding of dark truths about a femaleness inherent in “eternal justice.” Yet The Absent Sea’s few female characters embody common stereotypes. Idealistic, brilliant, and beautiful Laura and Claudia are defined by their purity, desirability, love for truth, and fallibility while The Absent Sea’s other women—the saggy-breasted whore Rosita; the “corpulent” midwife (“her face with Indian features and round as a full moon”); the distraught varicose-veined mother of a disappeared prisoner—are large, tired, marginalized, and used-up, sullied and discarded by the world for their working knowledge of its sins. It’s a disappointingly familiar dichotomy that hints at a serious failure of imagination.
In the end, these problems aren’t enough to entirely obscure The Absent Sea’s moral force. Entwining imagined personal and factual national histories, Franz charts a bold, spellbinding inquisition into how collective guilt is experienced by the individual. In the end, this is a powerful story about a kind of contradictory love— “I’m not speaking about a sentimental love affair”—born out of the darkness of necessity and a grasping, desperate faith:
The kind of love engendered by a pact whose intimacy—that between executioner and victim, between captor and hostage, between him and me—had been more powerful than I ever could have anticipated . . .
Laura returns to Pampa Hundida to acknowledge that intimate pact, to settle unfinished debts, and, finally, to claim her own complex story—and write its ending for her own daughter. She returns because she knows “there are some questions you can only respond to with your life.” Pampa Hundida might be a fictional place, in Franz’s words, “a symbolic space . . . appropriate for a modern tragedy” but the psychic space it conjures—the heart of the Atacama Desert, where the Pinochet dictatorship piled the bodies of countless “disappeared” prisoners—is only too real. The Absent Sea is about human nature in its most vast, arid, and uncharted reaches.
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