Carlos Rueda, a playwright, musician, and director of a children’s theater in Buenos Aires, discovers, following the kidnapping of his wife by the government’s secret police, that he can “imagine” those who have disappeared, seeing their fates clearly in his mind’s eye; in some cases, when they have escaped, he is able to offer hope to the grieving families. He performs this seemingly miraculous feat nightly for an ever-growing throng of people, while, during the day, he marches with the wives, mothers, husbands, and relatives who have lost loved ones. Growing increasingly intransigent, he produces a play entitled THE NAMES, critical of the regime. The authorities kill his daughter and his close friend in retaliation and shut down his theater.
Although he comes close to murdering the man responsible for his daughter’s death and the city’s terror, Carlos decides instead to continue recalling the fates of the lost to their families, certain that--although he cannot envision her--he and his wife will ultimately be reunited. At last, he sees her escaping, and they are rejoined. The military regime falls, the army officers are tried for their crimes, and the novel closes as the narrator, a journalist named Martin, reads a second play which Carlos has created out of the ashes.
Thornton’s work argues that the artist’s imaginative power is greater than any repressive measure of a totalitarian regime. The novel is centered nearly entirely on Carlos, whose spiritual strengths, shown through suffering and regeneration, can become dispiriting to the reader at times. Nevertheless, the scenes concerning the desaparecidos, those whom Carlos envisions, are touching, poignant, and quite powerful.