If I read a crime novel set in a foreign country, one of the things I expect is to get a sense that either the characters, the crime or the manner in which it’s investigated is somehow or another unique to that country. In other words, I expect some local colour–not that I always get it, and my recent experience with the Polish crime novel Entanglement led me to have some high expectations.
This brings me to Needle in A Haystack from author Ernesto Mallo. Mallo, a writer and a journalist, according to the blurb on the front of my copy, was also a “former member of the anti-Junta guerilla movement.” I was curious, so encouraged by the fact that this is the first novel in a trilogy (and made into films), I decided to give the book a try.
I’ll admit that with all the books and films I’ve watched about life under Argentina’s murderous military regime, I’ve never wondered what it was like to be a policeman during this time. Needle in A Haystack argues that a successful career in law enforcement in Argentina of the 70s was based on the ability to look the other way and only investigate certain crimes. The book begins with Superintendent Lascano getting a call to pick up two stiffs. The bodies have been dumped in a site that’s commonly used by the Junta’s death squads for the disposal of victims. Lascano’s job is to go there, pick up the bodies and deliver them to the morgue. There will be no investigation. But when Lascano arrives, there are three bodies. Two of the bodies bear the ear-marked signs of execution by the death squads, but the trauma to the body of the third corpse does not fit the pattern. Lascano begins an investigation.
The mysterious third body turns out to be portly Biterman, a wealthy Auschwitz survivor who’s known to lend money. As the plot follows the investigation into Biterman’s death, it’s clear that Lascano’s job is not easy. Under his eyes, crimes committed by the state regularly take place in broad daylight–people are hauled out of their homes & shot in the streets while their belongings are ‘impounded’; others simply vanish without a trace, but in spite of the fact Lascano sees these things, he’s powerless to act. It’s hands off & look the other way.
Things heat up for Lascano when the investigation leads him to a man who has powerful friends, and the overriding question becomes whether or not Lascano should continue his investigation or back off. I’m not going to tell you what he decides to do, you can probably guess.
The novel is at its strongest in its depiction of the insanity of life in Argentina during the Dirty War. There are people trying to ‘uphold the law’ (but only certain laws) while others act in blatant defiance of those laws. While the Junta supposedly tracks down lefties and subversives, the reality is that anyone can be a victim of the Junta. Just piss off the wrong person or have something they want, and it’s sayonara.
The novel is at its weakest in its sentimentality towards Lascano’s personal life. He’s a widower and during the course of the investigation he harbours Eva, a girl sought for her ‘subversive’ connections. This brings me to the subject of sex. It’s a touchy area but when it comes to describing sex organs all sorts of terms pop up. Here we get Lascano’s “sleeping sex” and at another point “his sex is triumphantly reborn and wants to fly.” This is bodice-ripper territory and created all sorts of strange images in my head–all of which were out-of-place with the rest of the novel. Another criticism is the long italicized passages. Sometimes these passages are thoughts and at other times these passages are exchanges between two characters. In the latter case, it’s sometimes difficult to follow just who is saying what.
Nonetheless, there are some interesting characters here, including Amancio, scion of a once rich family who knows how to live well but who no longer has the means to do so:
He feels nostalgic for the days of playing the white hunter, when he could happily blow a fortune on an African safari in the Okavango delta, for the lost splendour and indulgence of it all, because for some time now Amancio’s finances have been spiralling out of control. He was never taught nor felt the need to learn how to earn money, only to spend it . He was an awful student guided by an indifferent father, from whom Amancio inherited the sense of a life already accounted for, nails growing long like those of a Chinese mandarin. Work was not meant for the likes of them. Their distant ancestors had made fortunes appropriating indian land in the wake of the desert campaign of General Roca. Back then, just as today, the army lived by a non-negotiable principle: that the good fight meant fighting for goods. The sacrifice, the massacre of one thousand Indians per day, wasn’t considered excessive in return for securing a family’s wealth for three or four generations.
Amancio’s big problem is, of course, that those 3 or 4 generations are over. Meanwhile, the family wealth has dissipated. He’s left with little other than expensive tastes, a penchant for leisure and a high-maintenance wife who is primed to leave if things get too tough.
Another character subject to domestic troubles and the need to placate his wife is the incredibly evil Major Giribaldi–a man who arranges an adoption to his wife in order to shut her up. According to the military doctor who suggests adoption to Giribaldi (without raising the issue of stealing babies from pregnant women in detention centres), “adoption is the easiest thing in the world these days.” Giribaldi arranges to take a baby from a girl who, when she delivers, will become one of The Disappeared. Needle in a Haystack is a novel that delineates the atmosphere of a country sunk into madness–where illegal actions are perpetrated by those running the country state, and one scene in the Plaza de Mayo epitomizes the insanity.
Translated by Jethro Soutar