“Dearest Father, You asked me recently why I say that I am afraid of you. As usual, I didn’t know how to give you an answer, partly precisely because of the fear I have of you, partly because to explain the reasons for that fear I need many details that I can’t keep in mind when I speak”. With these lines starts the letter to father by Franz Kafka, possibly the most emblematic and recognized literary text for explaining to what extent the relationship they maintain with their father can mark a person’s life. All the work of the Czech writer, in fact, is better understood from this handwritten letter that Kafka never gave to his mother and that, like much of his work, only saw the light after his death.
Whether by its influence for better or for worse, the paternal institution has fueled not a few biographical and autofiction novels, to the point of turning the father into a coveted literary object. Only at this beginning of the year have several novels been published that focus on the father figure. In First blood (Anagrama, 2023), the Belgian writer Amélie Nothomb withdraws backstage to give all the prominence to her father, Patrick Nothomb. Based on a traumatic event that occurred a few years before the writer’s birth, Nothomb delves into her father’s particular childhood and adolescence, his curious encounter with his future wife (and Amélie’s future mother) and the origin , after all, of what will end up being his family.
Something similar, going back to a very specific and traumatic moment in his father’s life (he has just lost his mother, the sister he was expecting and his father, who had to go to the battlefront in the middle of World War II ), is what the French writer Mathias Malzieu does in the porcelain warrior (Reservoir Books, 2022), a novel that, like Nothomb’s, in the desire of both writers to understand their parents from a specific event, ends up being a precious tribute to the beloved father.
In a closer geographical context, the Basque storyteller Eider Rodríguez signs in construction material (Random House, 2023) a very personal work, endowed with a writing that is sometimes delicate poetry and sometimes tears like the blade of a sharp knife, which could be understood as a reckoning with a complex father, marked by his addiction to alcohol, little given to displays of tenderness and with which, above all, he shared silences. “I am ashamed to write about my father,” Rodríguez writes on one of the first pages of the novel. Fortunately for readers, he puts that embarrassment aside to end up creating a monumental love letter to a man who left without her daughter ever getting to know him (“We have always been like strangers to each other”). .
Almost a genre unto itself
Writing about the father figure is almost a genre unto itself; an incomprehensible genre due to the immense number of titles published and the very diverse approaches that the texts take on. Lacking him telling himself (first-person paternity accounts are still a rarity), the father reaches readers as told by his children. In recent years, there is no more emblematic title than The oblivion that we will beyes (Alfaguara, 2010), the novel with which the Colombian writer Héctor Abad Faciolince paid homage to the figure of his murdered father. There is also blind admiration, in this case of a teenager, towards the figure of her father, there is in the pages of A communist in underpants (Alfaguara, 2013), by Argentine Claudia Piñeiro. “In short, what I wanted was for Miss Julia to disappear. And when I thought of her disappearing I thought of her never interrupting my life or my father’s life again. I didn’t think about my mother. I thought of my father and myself (…) Because the center of my world was still my father, and she put that world in danger”, writes the author.
But not all are love letters. “It is hard for me to write about my own life using the first person, but there are things that I only come to understand through writing,” writes Eider Rodríguez. And that ambition to understand the father who is no longer there is behind some titles. There it is, for example, daddy’s jump (Seix Barral, 2017) by the Buenos Aires writer Martín Sivak, who seeks to close in his book the wound that led to his father’s suicide when he was barely 15 years old. EITHER a foreign father (Impedimenta, 2016), in which the Argentine author Eduardo Berti perfectly combines the life of his father (a Romanian emigrant who reinvented himself upon arriving in Buenos Aires) with that of the writer Joseph Conrad. Also The distance that separates us (Planeta, 2015) by the Peruvian Renato Cisneros, in which the Peruvian writer and journalist infects the figure of his father, a powerful and implacable soldier: “If I can understand who he was before I was born, perhaps I will be able to understand who I am now that he is dead”.
But if something stands out in this genre, which is literature on the father figure, it is the books that, like the letter to father of Kafka, constitute a kind of killing the father, a toll sometimes necessary to find oneself. This is what the Swede Ingmar Bergman does in his novel sunday kids (published in 1993, but republished in Spanish by Fulgencio Pimentel, 2022), in which he delves into the troubled relationship he had with his father, a severe and angry shepherd. “The most serious thing must have been that we were so afraid,” Bergman tells his father in a conversation that took place in his adulthood, after his mother’s death. Along the same path, emphasizing that feeling of fear, many fragments of the island of childhood (Anagrama, 2015), by the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård. “She (through her mother) saved me, because if she hadn’t been there, I would have grown up alone with my father, so I would have committed suicide sooner or later, one way or another (…) The question is whether that was enough. The question is whether it was not her responsibility that we were exposed to him for so many years, to a man of whom we were always viscerally afraid, at all times, ”writes the Norwegian.
But if there is a book that is related like no other to the letter to father of Kafka is the Saturn (Jekyll & Jill, 2017) by the Guatemalan author Eduardo Halfon, which already from its title evokes the image of the god of Roman mythology who ate his children. The Guatemalan writer metaphorically kills his father in order to also kill himself, the Halfon he no longer wanted to be, in this long letter to a severe, disciplined father characterized, above all, by one of the traits that, for a long time, Unfortunately, they have better defined the father figure: physical and, above all, emotional absence: “The father is a name, I think I hear. But there is no one, father. I am alone”.
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