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The President and the Frog

Carolina De Robertis

Knopf, 2021

Review by Daniel Rey


In The President and the Frog, Carolina De Robertis describes how the president of an unnamed Latin American country survived solitary confinement by sharing his story of political protest with his only interlocutor – a frog.

The president is closely based on José Mujica, Uruguayan leader from 2010 to 2015, who befriended a frog whilst imprisoned for nearly fourteen years in the 1970s and 80s. In short chapters that flit between the prison cell and an interview the president gives to a Norwegian journalist after leaving office, De Robertis presents an extraordinary and down-to-earth man who became known as the ‘poorest president in the world’.

If the president’s life is the focus of the novel, then its central question is whether he will reveal the secret of his survival to the amenable journalist he has shown into his garden. ‘Why not talk about the frog,’ he agonises. ‘Maybe he was wrong to think it couldn’t be told, to think no one would ever understand; maybe this was the day to break the silence’.

De Robertis tells the president’s story through his conversations with the journalist and the frog, as well as through third-person narration that is closely aligned to the protagonist’s point of view. We learn how, aged seven, he was forced into an accelerated adolescence after the death of his father. He had to work, study, and tend to vegetable gardens. At university, he indulged in the humanities, devouring books and ‘dreaming his way onto the deck of Odysseus’s ship, falling in love with Quixote and then Sancho and Quixote all over again’.

Yet the magic of Homer and Cervantes contrasts with the reality of his country’s political system – a dictatorship where ‘leaders lied through their teeth, detainees were tortured, and cops shot at protesters like it was nothing’. Longing for a kind and equal society, he joined the urban guerrilla movement. ‘We stole from casinos to give food to the poor,’ he tells the frog. ‘We held up banks and passed out toys in the slums on holidays, as well as, of course, using that same booty to stockpile weapons.’ Years pass in an underground existence in which he is intermittently jailed, then set free. Eventually, he is arrested and subjected to four years of ‘deep solitary’ confinement.

His cell is initially shared with ants and spiders but, like the guards who ‘thrust food his way’, the insects refuse to talk to him. He is saved by the arrival of the frog, who seems to already know the prisoner’s past, and who, through short, prophetic bursts of speech, invites him to consider his destiny:

‘Do you know how you would lead?’

‘Lead what—the movement?’

‘No. The country. If you were the leader of your country.’

‘Well, that’s impossible now.’

‘You barely know the ocean of the possible.’

The frog is not only keen to talk, but keen to listen. In the torture chamber, the act of telling stories to an amphibian keeps the president loyal to his comrades, and his mind healthy. ‘The frog was his last tether, and he knew deep down—he now understood—that if the frog left before they finished he’d succumb to the horror.’

After his release, and the country’s transition to democracy, he enters politics. As a senator, and then as president, he pushes major social reforms and surprises everyone with his humble approach to power (he decides not to move into the presidential palace and, rather than be chauffeured, continues to drive his Volkswagen Beetle). Most memorably, his aides suggest he shouldn’t hang his washing where his guests can see. ‘Why not?’ he replies. ‘Don’t we all wear undies?’

De Robertis’s portrayal of the president is effusive. Though he is unable to enact some of his political proposals (such as leniency for his torturers), and plenty of his supporters believe change is happening too slowly, De Robertis emphasises how her protagonist is constrained by the domestic and international systems. He has a few foibles, such as making prima facie assumptions about his First-World interviewer, as the narrator points out: ‘What did he know about what she [the journalist] carried inside?’ However, the narrator mollifies any negative interpretation by emphasising the president’s self-awareness: ‘He was not so much surprised as he was struck by how impossible it was to ever gauge how a person existed in their skin.’ Such examples, together with the structure of the journalist’s interview – which touches on the importance of climate change, civil liberties, and LGBTQ+ rights – lead De Robertis into flattery and didacticism.

She is more interesting when she considers another of the novel’s threads: the nature of storytelling. Chapters begin ‘Once upon a time’, there are many references to Greek myths and, at its core, the novel is about the stories the president tells (and might not tell) to the journalist and the frog.

In the frog, De Robertis has found a tiny detail from José Mujica’s biography that proves to be an excellent conceit for her novel. The frog, a familiar character from fairy tales and fables, provides her with a natural way to lend a parabolic quality to Mujica’s story. Though at times The President and the Frog flaunts its politics too forcefully, it’s a nicely written meditation on the power of perseverance and the indomitability of the human spirit.