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Originally published Friday, April 27, 2012 at 5:30 AM

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Book review

'Perla': Novel revisits the dirtiest of wars

Carolina De Robertis' "Perla" revisits the horror of Argentina's "Dirty War," (1976-1983) when women kidnapped by the country's junta had their children taken from them and put up for adoption. De Robertis reads Monday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

San Francisco Chronicle

Author appearance

Carolina De Robertis

The author of "Perla" will read at 7 p.m. Monday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
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In the car the other day, I heard part of an old BBC interview with Josef Stalin's daughter, Lana Peters. Peters defected from the Soviet Union in 1967, 14 years after her father's death. She married William Wesley Peters, whom she later divorced, and she died in Wisconsin, where she had lived for many years. This is a quote of hers that stayed with me: "Of course I was used to living in the shadow of my father's name and politics. No matter how hard I tried to explain that I had nothing to do with it, people refused to accept it."

Those words especially stayed with me because I was in the midst of reading Carolina De Robertis' impressive second novel, "Perla" (Knopf, 236 pp., $25.95), which tells the story of the daughter of a man who, much like Stalin, carried out atrocities (in Argentina, rather than the Soviet Union), and of how his daughter has to come to terms with her legacy, a legacy she neither caused nor directly participated in — but one she can't hide from.

A refresher: After what was called Argentina's Dirty War, from 1976 to 1983, the victorious junta of the Argentine army kidnapped and tortured a vast number — estimates range from 5,000 to 30,000 — of Argentine citizens who came to be known as "the disappeared." The junta targeted trade unionists and other leftists. They also took men, women and children with no connection to any particular cause.

A number of the women kidnapped were pregnant and gave birth to children while detained. These children were taken and put up for adoption. The Abuelas (Grandmothers) of the Plaza de Mayo, mothers and grandmothers of the disappeared, took up residence in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, then began offering DNA tests to those who suspected they were children of those who vanished. The history of that time — and the horrors it has left behind, years later (the novel takes place in 2001) — is the ocean that Perla swims in.

Like Lana Peters, Perla Correa, the novel's protagonist, learns early on that her beloved father is a member of the military dictatorship and therefore supervised or carried out some of the kidnappings and torture. She's informed, brutally and sadly, by a girl she has befriended, a girl she loves, who tears away from her when she finds out that Perla's father is a member of the junta. After that, Perla knows the facts — but she does not know what to do with the bitter truth she has been told.

Over the course of the novel, she is forced to face that truth through a series of mysterious events that I won't detail here. The novel's hold grows slowly. De Robertis is bold, willing to confuse the reader somewhat early on, beginning with the appearance of a peculiar guest in Perla's home whose meaning and identity is fully revealed only near the novel's end. Yet the elegance with which the story builds and the beauty of the language entice the reader to stay with it.

Listen to this description that Perla offers of a beach walk with her loving boyfriend, Gabriel: "My family had often vacationed in Uruguay over the years, but only in Punta del Este, with its crowds of expensive bikinis and hi-rises crushed up against each other. In Punta del Este, even the ocean seemed carefully groomed. Here the waves were just themselves, loose-maned, unabashed, mixing easily with the sand." As lovely as the sea it describes. And a bitter contrast to some of the dreadful events described just as vividly elsewhere in the novel.

In an artful blend of beauty and horror, De Robertis has made the disappeared visible once again. With that, she has done them — and us — a great service.

Martha Southgate's most recent novel is "The Taste of Salt."

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