School for Patriots by Martin Kohan

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School for Patriots by Martin Kohan

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Set in Argentina in June 1982, this is the story of a young female teaching assistant who goes to unusual lengths to please her boss before unfortunately finding out what he is really after. Somewhat strange but compelling and powerfully written. It has won the Spanish Heralde Prize so the author is already flushed with success, you might say.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 208 Date: June 2012
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
ISBN: 9781846687433

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There's a fair chance that if you pick up a South American novel, it's going to score quite highly on the 'seriously odd' scale. Martín Kohan's School for Patriots, translated by Nick Caistor, doesn't disappoint in that regard. The main character, María Teresa, is an innocent, shy teaching assistant at a Buenos Aires school that is run on military academy style discipline. The running of the school is itself something of a surprise but that's not what makes this strange. What ramps up the 'odd' factor here is that she spends vast amounts of this short novel hiding in the boys' loo, ostensibly to catch young boys smoking despite there being no evidence that any student has contravened this rule in this location. One might say she has nothing to go on. Then again, best not in the circumstances.

Set in the run up to the Falklands invasion, her brother is doing his national service from where he sends María Teresa and her mother postcards with just his name on them. So that's not exactly normal behaviour either. María Teresa's supervisor at the school is a fierce man who is known to have been involved in the infamous 1976 Night of the Pencils when school pupils were rounded up be security forces and disappeared. María Teresa is keen to seek his approval although it appears that information about deviant student behaviour may not be the thing that Señor Biasutto is really looking for from the young teaching assistant.

The older man in power abusing his position for the sexual attraction of an innocent younger girl is hardly new - it forms much of Shakespeare's plot in Measure for Measure for example. But Kohan's detailed account, told from the perspective of María Teresa, reflects her own obsession, for that is what it is, with her spying on the boys' loos. It is only when she is hidden in the boys' toilet María Teresa feels useful and at peace with herself, Kohan writes.

What also comes over repeatedly is the Argentinian awareness and education in their military history, and in some ways this is perhaps enlightening in terms of the lead up to the Falklands/Malvinas war.

In terms of character development, the naïve María Teresa is convincingly drawn and you fear for her even while she is behaving in a distinctly odd way. Her goal of catching a culprit to gain kudos with the revered Señor Biassutto is only part of her drive though. It's also clear that she, at some level enjoys this espionage and the location. As a portrait of an obsession, it's completely convincing, with phrases repeating to add to the suggestion of a routine compulsion.

There's something quite disturbing about the book, but while not what you'd call mainstream, it's certainly well worth checking out if you are a fan of Latin American fiction. Serpent's Tail has a talent for unearthing hidden oddities like this.

Our thanks to the kind people at Serpent's Tail for sending us this book.

If I'm honest, I would struggle to think of other books that involve girls hiding in boys' loos, but for more interesting fiction involving Argentina, then Far South by David Enrique Spellman is intriguing and something a bit different, while Amulet by Roberto Bolano is a good example of this much praised Latin American author who can be challenging but rewarding.

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