Ricardo Romero: La habitación del presidente (The President’s Room)
The idea of a house being somewhat frightening is not an uncommon trope in literature. I am not talking about haunted houses or about houses that have strange inhabitants (think Miss Havisham in Great Expectations) but houses that are inherently frightening to the narrator and other characters. Mark Danielewski‘s House of Leaves is one obvious example.
Our narrator lives in a fairly large house with his parents and one older and one younger brother. The house may well be in Buenos Aires, as it seems that the President does visit the area but may not be. Indeed it may be in another country. The time is also not clear, though our narrator describes the President as tall and around seventy. Assuming his guess at the age is correct (not always the case with children), the last president of Argentina who was tall and in his seventies was Juan Perón, president in 1973-74. The President, like all the other characters, is never named.
Our narrator is not too scared of the house but does have issues with houses that adjoin one another, and flats, as he feels you cannot determine where one dwelling ends the next begins. That worries him. But what also worries him is the same issue between the upstairs and downstairs of his own house. He is also worried about basements. A few houses in the area had basements but they have been banned so they have been blocked off. The thought of a sealed room, devoid of all light worries him (and others).
What also slightly worries him is the President’s Room. At the front of the house – the last part he mentions in his description of the house – is the aforementioned and eponymous President’s Room, a room set aside in this and, apparently, in other houses, in case the President visits. He has not done so yet, though apparently he did visit the house of a boy at our narrator’s school. Our narrator is scared to go into the room. When his mother opens the door to clean it, he peeks in but does not dare enter. He is well aware of what is in the room – indeed there is an entire (one paragraph) chapter devoted to a list of its contents but he is somewhat frightened to put anything there himself. There’s an abyss in there that swallows up all the objects I’ve ever considered. They disappear into that void. He does know that there is a revolver in the room.
For him, the other key room in the house is the bathroom he uses. He imagines that it might have been built first of all even though he knows this is not possible as it is not on the ground floor. He also imagines that he will open the door and the rest of the house will have gone.
He is not the only one who has issues with the house. The house was built by his grandfather who is now dead. Our narrator remembers his grandfather who always seemed to be running away from something. He wasn’t a coward, it’s not that. I think it’s just what happens to people who build their own houses.
One day he sees a strange man in the President’s room, sitting in the armchair. He assumes that the President has finally come to visit but it is his father, after all. My father. A stranger.
Of course, the President does come, more than once, and it is our narrator who sees him. Not surprisingly, the visit of the President has a profound effect on him.
This is not a horror book, in the traditional sense, but one of those books where you see things through the eyes of the narrator and, as a result, things are not quite what they seem and, if the author is skilful, as Romero certainly is, you are left with a sense of uneasiness as though something is not quite right but you cannot really put your finger on it. Romero skilfully introduces small elements – the basements, the fear of opening the bathroom door and finding that the house has disappeared, the disquiet about houses adjoining, the President’s Room (and the revolver in it) and several others I have not mentioned. It is these elements that gradually build up to give us this sense of uneasiness, not quite in a Kafkaesque sense, as there is no obvious threatening character as in Kafka, but in a gradual manner so that we do not know where the threat, if there is one, is coming from or, indeed, whether there really is a threat or it is entirely in the narrator’s mind.
This is Romero’s seventh novel but the first to make it into English, thanks to a new, Edinburgh-based publisher Charco Press. (The origin of the name is explained here.). This novel is certainly an interesting find and one I was not aware of. I shall look forward to more of Charco’s publications.
First published by Eterna Cadencia in 2015
First English translation in 2017 by Charco Press
Translated by Charlotte Coombe