Caroline Brothers joined us at a recent Salon event to discuss her new novel The Memory Stones.
The Memory Stones is a raw and beautiful novel that explores the far-reaching consequences of the brutal rule of the military junta in Argentina from 1976-1983. While the disappearance of thousands of people is at its heart, this story is not told through a litany of horrors but through the story of one family, of their loss and the love that drives them to search across decades for a child who went missing.
I sat down with Caroline to discuss her book, her writing and much more in between!
Caroline, I’m interested to know what drew you to this story?
In literary terms, there are two things I found utterly compelling about this subject. The first was the notion of a quest – writ large, across several generations. The second was its twist on the question of individual identity – a coming-of-age story gone awry. Each in its own right would provide ample terrain for fiction. What fascinated me in this instance was the interaction between the two: that one person’s quest might be another’s crisis of existence, its resolution not so simple when other lives are involved.
Argentina’s ‘Dirty War’ and its legacy is such a dark and perverse history but in your novel you don’t only dwell in the dark places. You take us inside a family and for much of the book we, as readers, only know what they know. We fear what they fear, and we share their hopes. Was creating this strong sense of empathy what you hoped to achieve? And is that what led you to choose fiction as the form for telling this story?
I am fascinated by the way history plays out in the fabric of individual lives, and how individuals cope in the aftermath of seismic events. Journalism and works of nonfiction are hugely important in alerting us, in establishing the parameters and giving us a framework for understanding. But fiction gets under our skin. In fiction, we feel what the factual means; we live with it and understand it in human terms. I think it is understanding that I seek to create, rather than empathy per se. If readers feel empathy towards my characters, then that for me is a considerable bonus – it means I have created a reality in which the reader can believe.
I could have chosen a nonfiction form for this story, but the facts are out there, they have already been told, in Argentina and beyond. I wanted to reach a different audience – not specialists in political history or human rights law, but readers who might feel that this narrative speaks to them, that it has something universal to say. And I wanted the reader to stay for the journey, and not be overwhelmed by the darkness on which that narrative rests.
The novel moves in time and between voices. It is told partly in first person and then as we move to different characters and perspectives the narrative changes to third person. What led you to make that shift between first and third person perspectives?
The action of the novel is mainly chronological, though on rare occasions it does break away, giving the reader a moment of omniscience in order to understand what is coming next. The bigger challenge this story posed was how to manage the very different narrative time frames of its two main protagonists. From the beginning I wanted to convey the sense of parallel worlds, of individuals leading parallel lives, unable to connect. It’s not easily perceptible, but there are incidents in the novel where one character goes to a place that another visited sometimes years before, sometimes just days.
With regard to perspective, the dominant storyline at the outset belongs to Osvaldo, and I wanted to carry the reader in on his first-person narrative. His search is for someone he doesn’t know, who exists for him only in the abstract, only in the third person. But when that individual enters the novel, I wanted their experience, their point of view, to feel equally important to the reader, and for its importance gradually to increase, so that towards the end the reader might wonder whose narrative should in fact prevail. To get a bit technical, employing what is sometimes called the third person limited (the ‘he’ or ‘she’ form used as if the reader were sitting on a character’s shoulder, seeing only what that character sees) is as close as you can get to another first-person perspective. Using a different form for the two main voices was a deliberate choice to keep their narratives separate and avoid the potential confusion of a second “I”.
You created such a wonderful character in Osvaldo. He is someone I wish I knew. Could you tell us a little about him?
I wanted Osvaldo to be fundamentally a good person but also a character who is flawed. He makes mistakes. He is naïve about politics, he gets out of his depth, he isn’t quite strong willed enough. He doesn’t understand his eldest daughter and romanticizes the younger. He loses everything: his profession, his family, even his country; he has to struggle to rebuild. Yet he is constant. He never gives up hope. He fights back, just as the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo in real life fight back, with whatever tools they can find. He finds the right people to help him. He changes, he learns about politics and human nature, he learns that love isn’t enough. He loves well, he loses, he learns to love again. He learns to accept what he has no power to change.
I hasten to add that I didn’t know all this at the outset – I discovered him while writing him into existence.
Osvaldo had antecedents of course – there was Tomás in the Unbearable Lightness of Being, a doctor who also gets out of his political depth; and there is the wonderful Argentine poet Juan Gelman, one of the first people I interviewed about this subject and an early inspiration for The Memory Stones, who searched for his granddaughter for 23 years.
There is evidence of tremendous research throughout your novel, and you take us to many different and beautifully observed locations around the world. How long did it take you to research and write The Memory Stones?
This is a novel that has been in the making in one way or another over a good decade. I lived in Mexico City in the late 1990s and that had a profound effect on me; it was on a trip back there in 2004 that I interviewed Juan Gelman, the exiled Argentine poet, without knowing even then that I would one day write a novel on this subject. It took me a long time to find the right form for the story, before I was ready to write. I wrote another novel, ‘Hinterland’, in the meantime. It was not until 2012 that I set to researching ‘The Memory Stones’ in a concentrated way, spending time in Argentina to interview recovered grandchildren and the Mothers and Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, and visiting places that intrigued me and that later became important to the novel. I returned to work in Paris and discovered that there was a whole community of Argentine exiles living there, and who proved of enormous help. From then on it was a process of reworking and editing until I found the right balance and structure, over the next two to three years.
I liked your use of stones as a recurring motif in the novel – from the Isle of Skye, to Patagonia and Greece, and of course to the title and Ana’s interest in archeology. Could you tell us about what stones symbolize in the novel?
In the context of this novel, the idea of stones has several meanings for me. There is the idea of a headstone, a marker for those who have passed away, and the terrible, open-ended cruelty of denying this to the families of the disappeared, who have no place to mourn the missing. Connected to that is the idea of stone as something lasting – how we want to make memory concrete, yet cannot, as Osvaldo learns in the novel. There is the idea of stepping stones, as a kind of pathway we hope will lead us to a destination or through a maze. And there is, as you mention, the big theme in the novel of archaeology, the sifting of the earth for clues about where we have come from, that explores how the distant past can be as unknowable as our own histories, unless we find a way to keep them safe.
When I think about the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo piecing fragments of information together and finally locating missing grandchildren the first thoughts that come are of how wonderful and incredible it is that they have found these stolen children. But through your novel you are able to explore how difficult it is for those who did not know they had been lost, to be found. Could you describe what it has been like for some of the, so-far, 120 found children of the ‘disappeared’ to learn of their origins?
There are as many stories as there are recovered grandchildren. Much depends on the age of the grandchild when they are located, on who has initiated the search, and on how that very delicate moment is handled. Some were found as children in other countries, creating tremendously complicated issues of custody and extradition. Even for an adult, learning that your entire life is based – at best – on a lie can provoke a profound psychic shock if it comes like a bolt from the blue.
In once case, the young woman concerned fled from Argentina to Paraguay, believing herself under attack. In another, a young woman had been ideologically and emotionally absorbed by a military family headed by the man who had killed her father; she hired lawyers to fight off her true family’s approach. In contrast, when Juan Gelman believed he had located his missing granddaughter in Uruguay, he approached the family via a priest who acted as an intermediary, giving all sides a chance to adjust.
One of the most amazing stories is that of the president of the grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Estela de Carlotto. One day in 2014 a young musician who had only just learnt he had been adopted turned up at the Grandmothers’ offices and asked about his origins. He’d been brought up by poor tenant farmers on the property of wealthy landowner; a DNA test proved he was the grandson de Carlotto had been searching for for 36 years.
There is a lot of beauty in this book: your observations of the natural world; the relationships you create; the love that drives your characters. And this sits alongside the knowledge of horrors, of torture, of murder, of the theft of life and the theft of children. This made the point, very powerfully to me, that while we have all this beauty and wonder around us, there is such duality, and when terrible things are happening we need to take notice.
Congratulations on The Memory Stones, Caroline, and thank you.