The President’s Room

Ricardo Romero’s The President’s Room, the third release from recently founded Charco Press (you can read about the first, Die, My Love, here) name-checks a number of well-known writers on the reverse: Kafka, Calvino and (naturally) Cortazar. Such references are, of course, necessary to entice the notoriously timid English-speaking reader, but perhaps in future we will be able place this novel, and others like it, in a recognisable genre of its own, one which we are at last being introduced to (thanks to wonderful translators like Charlotte Coombe): Argentinian horror. Like Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream before it, The President’s Room uses a domestic setting, family relationships, and, above all, a child to create an atmosphere as fearful as the woods at midnight, or the dead-end of a dark alley. Though magic realism was never as cute as some would have you believe, now the magic is as dark as the print it appears in, dressed in the borrowed clothes of the horror genre to disguise the deeper horror which lies beneath in reality itself.

Where Schweblin’s horror was environmental, Romero’s, from the title onwards is nakedly political. Told in the voice of a young boy in a series of short chapters, it begins with a description of the house he lives in with his parents and two brothers, ending with the sentence:

“And of course, at the front of the house at the left, looking out over the garden, is the president’s room.”

As he later explains:

“In our neighbourhood, all then houses have a president’s room. And yet the president has never been to visit us. It’s not that we are expecting him, because to be honest, most of the time we forget the room’s even there. Most of the time, we forget.”

With this simple idea, Romero captures the insidious invasion of dictatorship into the domestic space. The narrator’s fascination with the room (“I’ve also climbed the laurel tree to peer into the president’s room”) reflects our own fascination with the powerful. Throughout the novel, Romero uses the geography of house as an echo of the state:

“There’s no basement…They’ve been banned since my grandparents were around. People say that terrible things used to happen before, in the basements.”

Even the brothers’ illnesses are made to seem ominous, his little brother’s bouts of fever linked in his mind to his grandfather, now dead:

“One of them is alive and the other is dead, but they both have a fever.”

The grandfather, whom the boy barely remembers, is vivid in his speculations, suggesting that his memory hangs heavily over the house. Similarly, when at one point the little brother disappears, we sense that every event is the echo of some wider, unnamed tragedy.

The boy is only aware of one boy at his school who is rumoured to have had a visit from the president, but he is too scared to talk to him:

“They say that’s something went wrong in his house, and that for quite a while afterwards he had a fearful look about him.”

There is a later hint that something may have happened to his parents. Even when he briefly mentions that he has not seen the girl he likes at school for two months we cannot help but fear something terrible has happened.

Inevitably, the president does visit the house – “he was dressed just like when we see him on TV” – observed by the boy, unnoticed by the rest of the family. That Romero from that point steers the novel to a conclusion which is both satisfying and unexpected says much about his skill. The President’s Room, at only eighty pages, can be read in an hour but, appropriately for a novel which turns the haunted house story into a political satire, it will haunt the reader for some time to come.

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10 Responses to “The President’s Room”

  1. Melissa Beck Says:

    Both novels from this new press you have reviewed seem very interesting. I will have to give them a try. Is Charco Press based in the UK?

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Wow – this sounds absolutely fascinating, Grant – will definitely look out for it!

  3. tonymess12 Says:

    I think a subscription may be in order, considering my bent for contemporary Latin American fiction.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    They do sound like they have an eye for interesting work. I’ll have a look out for this. Do you have a subscription or did you just buy some/get some review copies?

    • 1streading Says:

      I bought the first two books at a launch in Edinburgh and then they kindly sent me the third one after I wrote my first review. The only problem is that, having bought the first two rules me out of their subscription deals (for either the first three or five titles)!

  5. Man Booker International Prize 2018 – Predictions | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] books make an appearance – both Ariana Harwicz’s Die, My Love and Ricardo Romero’s The President’s Room are certainly excellent. Any from Maclehose Press’ new Read the World series is also worth a […]

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