The Washington Post
No Place For Heroesby Laura Restrepo
During Argentina’s “Dirty War” of the late ’70s and early ’80s, Lorenza/b>/i>
From one of the most accomplished writers to emerge from Latin America, No Place for Heroes is a darkly comic novel about a mother and son who return to Buenos Aires in search of her former lover, whom she met during Argentina’s Dirty War.
During Argentina’s “Dirty War” of the late ’70s and early ’80s, Lorenza and Ramon, two passionate militants opposing Videla’s dictatorship, met and fell in love. Now, Lorenza and her son, Mateo, have come to Buenos Aires to find Ramon, Mateo’s father. Holed up in the same hotel room, mother and son share a common goal, yet are worlds apart on how they perceive it. For Lorenza, who came of age in the political ferment of the ’60s, it is intertwined with her past ideological and emotional anchors (or were they illusions?), while her postmodernist son, a child of the ’90s who couldn’t care less about politics or ideology, is looking for his actual father—not the idea of a father, but the Ramon of flesh and blood.
Anything goes as this volatile pair battle it out: hilarious misunderstandings, unsettling cruelty, and even a temptation to murder. In the end, they begin to come to a more truthful understanding of each other and their human condition.
No Place for Heroes is an addition to that long tradition of the eternal odd couple—in works ranging from Waiting for Godot to Kiss of the Spider Woman—waiting for their fortunes to change, written by one of the most talented and internationally celebrated authors at work today.
From the Hardcover edition.
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“I need to know how it happened,” Mateo tells his mother. “The dark episode, I need to know exactly how it happened.”
“I’ve already told you a thousand times,” she responds.
He was the one who had given it that name, the dark episode, partly because it had been so painful but also because it was buried under a mountain of half- truths. The worst part was that he had no memory of it because he had been too young to remember. Blindly stabbing—an expression he had heard. That’s how he felt, like a blind man trying to jab his way out of a story that he did not understand, but in which he played a part and which snared him in its net.
“Come on, Lolé,” Mateo says, softening his voice and addressing her by the name he had always used when he was a child. Now he prefers to call her by her given name, Lorenza, and when he is irate with her, simply Mother. “Come on, Lolé, tell me again. Let’s begin with the park.”
“You were two and a half. It was a Thursday afternoon, and you, your father, and I were in Bogotá. At the Parque de la Independencia.”
“And he was wearing a thick wool sweater.”
“From the pictures I know that he liked to wear thick wool sweaters.”
“Not sweaters, pullovers.”
“What are pullovers?”
“Sweaters, but that’s what he called them. Pullovers. We Colombians call them sweaters; in Argentina they call them pullovers. Ridiculous really, since they are both English words.”
“But what I want to know is if he was wearing a thick wool sweater that speciﬁc afternoon.”
“Who knows? But I do remember his hair was long. In Argentina he always had to keep it short, the dictatorship did not tolerate hippies. But when he got to Colombia, he let it grow. If you want to know what your father looked like then, Mateo, look in the mirror and add a dozen years. That’s how he looked.”
“Not true, I don’t have wide shoulders. Uncle Patrick told me that Ramón’s shoulders were wide.”
“Soon yours will be just like his.”
“Okay, back to the afternoon, in the park.”
“Ramón and I stroll, hand in hand with you. The sky is hydrangea- blue, like it is in Bogotá when—”
“I don’t care about the color of the sky in Bogotá,” Mateo says. “I want to know what happened.”
Sometimes Lorenza tells her son that the most horrendous thing about the dark episode is that it happened exactly when she thought the horrors had all but ended. They had left the Argentinean dictatorship behind, and she and Ramón had survived living underground. After ﬁve years together in the resistance movement, they had distanced themselves from the party and left Argentina for Colombia, as bewildered as monks who abandon the cloister and poke their noses out into the world. For Lorenza, who was Colombian, the change had not been too difﬁcult; after all, the return to Bogotá had allowed her to be with her people again, in a world that she knew well and that she took to without much drama. But for Ramón, an Argentinean, the move left him in limbo. He grew contemptuous of everything around him. He found her family abominably bourgeois and began to treat her like some unfathomable creature who had little in common with the woman he had fallen in love with in Buenos Aires. Once the complicity that had bound them during their years in the underground was broken, they became strangers to each other.
“In Bogotá, your father became invisible to me,” Lorenza confesses to her son.
“What do you mean ‘invisible’? Nobody really becomes invisible.”
“Maybe I was too busy with you, with my job, with my family, maybe just busy with myself. Besides, this does happen with people who have grown very close during times of danger. The danger passes and they quickly ﬁnd out that it was the only thing keeping them together. You see, I no longer had a place for your father, like having to wear a thick coat in the middle of summer.”
“A woolen pullover in the middle of summer.”
“You don’t know what to do with such a thing, it doesn’t belong on you. But Ramón didn’t help either; he began to behave in a manner that, let’s just say, was unusual. He couldn’t come to grips with life outside the party. But wait, it was worse than that, he couldn’t come to terms with how to live outside the dictatorship, without having an enemy right in his face that he had to destroy before it destroyed him. All this made living together an incurable headache, so we separated.”
“Stop, Lorenza. We separated? You say ‘we separated’ and that’s it, you’re free and clear? Who separated? Whose idea was it?”
“You wanted to separate?”
“And my father didn’t want to?”
“No. He didn’t.”
“That’s very different than ‘we separated,’ no?”
“I had gotten a job as a journalist, and when I left him, I took you with me to my mother’s. Ramón stayed in the apartment that we rented in the center of the city.”
“So we suddenly became upper class, and he remained in near poverty.”
“Not exactly. You and I were in a guest room, and he had his own apartment.”
“Let’s go back to the park.”
“We’re in the park. Thursday, ﬁve in the afternoon. He lifted you up to one of the horses on the carousel, and we stood on either side to hold you and talked. A surprisingly quiet chat, I would say, nothing like the heated arguments we had before the separation. Ramón asks me if I am sure that the separation is what I want. A few days earlier he would have screamed such a thing at me, but now he poses the question in a neutral tone, like a notary clarifying some detail. I tell him yes, I’m sure, that the separation is over and done with, that it doesn’t make sense to reopen the discussion. He says he didn’t mean he wanted to discuss anything, he only needs to make sure that there’s no going back. Yes, I say, there’s no going back. He doesn’t persist and changes the topic. He says he’s going to take you on a trip to a ﬁnca for the weekend. He’ll pick you up early the next morning, Friday, and bring you back Sunday before seven at night. It’s a ﬁnca near Villa de Leyva, and your father says that I should bundle you up because it will be cold.”
“Don’t you ask whose ﬁnca it is and where it is exactly? Don’t you even ask for the phone number of where I’ll be?”
“No. I don’t want him to think that I am questioning his life. He is an excellent father, who adores you and cares for you well, and at that moment it seems to me the most natural thing in the world that he wants to spend a few days alone with you. I also remember thinking that if he was already organizing trips, it was because he had grown used to the idea of the separation. We each take you by the hand, and as night falls, the three of us stroll again through the park. At a certain point, you fall and scrape your knee and cry a little, not long though, nothing major. The strange thing is that Ramón and I chat agreeably, but about nothing in particular. For the ﬁrst time since the quarrels of the separation began, we have a nice time together. I start to feel that perhaps we can function as a separated couple who share a son amicably, and that makes me happy.”
“Okay,” Mateo says. “And now to the dark episode.”
“Friday, I get you up early, bathe you, dress you, and ask your grandmother to make you breakfast.”
“You said before that you made me breakfast.”
“No, your grandmother does. I pack your suitcase for the cold, a pair of corduroy overalls, a sweater—”
“A pullover, socks and undershirts, your teddy bear pajamas, which are the warmest, your raincoat and galoshes. At seven thirty, Ramón rings the bell, and I turn over the child—that’s you—and the suitcase to him. You’re very happy, you enjoy being with your father and are glad to see him. I also give him another bag stuffed with Choco Quick, some apples, powdered milk, a box of Rice Krispies, and two of your toys.”
“Do you remember which toys?”
“I remember each detail with a terrifying clarity. I put a green clown in the bag, one we had given you for Christmas, and a pair of long woolen ropes that you loved to drag on the ﬂoor. You say that they are serpets, and we can’t take them away from you, even to launder them. Serpets? At ﬁrst we didn’t know what you meant or why you were always dragging them on the ﬂoor, until we realized the serpets were serpents. Inside the bag, I also put a small bottle of disinfectant for Ramón to put on the scrape you got in the park. This I give to him at the last minute, after he has left the apartment, taken the elevator, and is crossing the lobby that leads to the street. I yell at him to wait, and run after both of you, barefoot and in my robe. I put the small bottle in the bag and I take advantage of the moment to give you a last kiss. You go to throw yourself into my arms, but your father holds you back. I say you are going to enjoy your trip very much, and you ask if there will be cows. You mean horses; you called horses cows. Ramón responds that yes, there will be cows and you will be able to ride them.”
“Cows, horses, serpets. Can we move on to that night?” Mateo asks.
“I work in the national politics section of La Crónica, a new weekly that has quickly gained some renown. Friday night is the closing deadline and the newsroom is swarming with people. Ministers, lawyers, opposing political leaders, and friends of the house all stop by. Anybody who has a fresh story, or wants to participate in the discussion about what will be published, comes by and joins the conversation. And out of that swarm of activity, the weekly articles emerge, always down to the wire.”
“I don’t want to hear about your journalism, Mother.”
“Fine, but don’t call me Mother.”
“But you are my mother.”
“But you always say it with an attitude. Look, let’s not ﬁght. Let’s go back to the newsroom at La Crónica. At about one thirty in the morning, we put the last touches on the edition, and it is after two when I get back to my mother’s. She hears me arrive, gets up, heats a vegetable stew for me, and keeps me company while I eat it in the kitchen. As we’re saying good night, she tells me that an envelope arrived for me and that she left it on the bedside table. She goes to her room and I brew some tea and go to the guest room, which has two beds, yours, which is empty, and mine. All I want at that moment before going to bed is to take a long bath in very hot water, to soothe the frenzy that overwhelms me after the closing of each edition. Every day you wake me up before six, but this weekend I will be able to sleep in.”
“So do you open the envelope that someone has left for you?”
“No, I don’t even look at it. When I go into the bedroom, I don’t even turn on the lights. My back hurts, so I throw myself on the bed, in the dark without taking off my clothes, thinking that in a few minutes I will get up and bathe. But I fall asleep. A few hours later, I’m awakened by the cold. In the haze of dawn, I can see the clock, it is almost six. I undress, put on my nightgown, and because I’m thirsty I look for the cup of tea, which is sitting half full on the night table. That’s when I see the envelope. I would have ignored it but for one detail that catches my attention, it is scrawled with your father’s handwriting. It says, ‘Please give to Lorenza.’ A note from Ramón? That seems odd, but not entirely. Let’s just say that I open it unsuspectingly, and quickly realize that it is not a note, it is a handwritten letter, several pages long, and this does make me grow uneasy. Your father’s handwriting, which is small and muddled, makes me reach for my glasses in my purse. I put them on and read.”
“What does the note say?”
“It’s not a note. It’s a long letter. What does it say? It says, ‘I am leaving forever and taking the child. You will never see us again.’ ”
“No, there are a lot of explanations, pages and pages of explanations, justiﬁcations, and accusations. In short, he asks forgiveness for what he is about to do, and then goes on to blame me for everything.”
“Tell me exactly what the letter said. I need to know what explanations my father gave.”
“I couldn’t read any more at that moment. I had just realized that my son had been taken from me, and I was shattered.”
“So you read the whole thing later.”
“No, I never read it all the way through, I didn’t care about his reasons. Only those cruel words: ‘I am leaving forever and taking the child.’ After I read it the ﬁrst time, everything went black and I had to hold on to the side of the bed not to tumble over. Then I began to howl, the wild howls of a she wolf whose litter has been taken from her.”
“Grandma says they were like the howls of the night during the dictatorship years. She says that when they woke her up, she thought someone was murdering you.”
“It was worse than that.”
“I don’t remember.”
“You don’t remember, or you don’t want to remember? That morning, what do you do?”
“Howl, suffer, die several times over. Your father is an expert at living underground, at counterfeiting passports and tickets, forging signatures. He’s used to changing his identity time and again. To hide and disappear, that’s your father’s talent. And he has just disappeared with you.”
Meet the Author
LAURA RESTREPO is the bestselling author of several prize-winning novels published in over twenty languages, including Leopard in the Sun, The Angel of Galilea, and her most recent, Delirium.
From the Hardcover edition.
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