“Dying can be too easy a path to take, believe me.”
Last year I watched the terrific crime film The Secrets in Their Eyes, and if you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for? But then again, perhaps you may want to read the book first. Since I saw the film before reading the book, I knew, of course, what was coming, but there are some differences between the two, and I’m really glad I read the excellent book as it de-emphasized the love aspect and concentrated on the shifting relationship between the two central male characters instead.
For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, The Secrets in Their Eyes is a story told by Benjamin Chaparro, a clerk who works in Argentina’s legal system. Translator John Cullen explains that at the time the novel takes place, the “Argentine judiciary was divided into two jurisdictions, investigative courts and sentencing courts. Judges–examining magistrates–presided over investigative courts, and every judge’s court comprised of two clerk’s offices. A clerk employed about eight people, of whom the second in command was the deputy clerk and chief administrator.” The novel’s narrator, Benjamin works in this system. I’m including that quote because some sources describe Benjamin as a detective, and that description gives the novel a rather different flavour. So to clarify, Benjamin works as a clerk in an office which investigates crimes.
The novel begins with Benjamin’s retirement and moves into his decision to write a book based on an experience that haunts him more than 30 years later. Obviously a man in Benjamin’s position, a man who lived through Argentina’s Dirty War, has no shortage of raw material. But Benjamin decides to write the story of the crime that bothered him the most–the 1968 murder of Liliana Morales, a young beautiful woman, still a newlywed who was brutally raped and murdered in her own home.
Benjamin recalls the day his office received the call about the murder, and his “profoundly cynical” attitude as the case falls to his jurisdiction:
Not for a moment did we stop and think that if the telephone was ringing, whether five minutes before or five minutes after eight, it was because someone had just killed someone else. For us, it was simply a matter of office competition, and the loser had to bust his butt. We’d see which of us was the lucky one, which of us was cool.
As it turns out, the murder of Liliana Morales is to have a lasting impact on Benjamin’s life, but it takes him some time to realise just how important the case is. From the moment Benjamin sees Liliana’s body “flung, face up on the bright parquet floor,” he begins to feel that this case stands out from the rest. Perhaps it’s the victim’s beauty; perhaps it’s the shabby details of the tiny apartment. The task of telling the victim’s husband, gentle bank clerk Richard Morales fell to Benjamin:
I watched his expression grow more and more vacant. His features gradually relaxed, and the tears and sweat that had dampened his skin at the start dried up definitively. It was as though Morales–once he’d cooled off, once he was empty of emotions and feelings, once the dust cloud had settled on the ruins of his life–could perceive what his future would be like, what he had to look forward to, and as if he’d realized that yes, beyond the shadow of a doubt, his future was nothing.
At first it seems as though the culprits have been caught, but Benjamin quickly ascertains that two innocent men are being conveniently scapegoated for the crime. With the trail growing cold, it looks as though the killer will never be caught, but as the years pass, Benjamin, inexplicably keeps in touch with Ricardo Morales, and it’s during one of their bleak meetings that Benjamin stumbles across a clue….
Chapters which record the investigation of the crime, and by extension the crimes of a government, are occasionally broken up by Benjamin’s struggles with the progress of the book and meditations on his personal life. While Benjamin offers a brief outline of his troubled personal life, the one constant–the one unbroken link in the chain–remains the relationship between Benjamin and Ricardo Morales:
I’m not sure about my reasons for recounting the story of Ricardo Morales after so many years. I can say that what happened to him has always aroused an obscure fascination in me, as if the man’s fate, a life destroyed by tragedy and grief, provided me with a chance to reflect on my own worst fears. I’ve often caught myself feeling a certain guilty joy at the disasters of others, as if the fact that horrible things happened to other people meant that my own life would be exempt from such tragedies, as if I’d get a kind of safe-conduct based on some obtuse law of probability.
At first Benjamin, wrapped up in the demands of his job, and inured to violent death, tends to dismiss Ricardo as a nonentity, a gentle, unassuming man whose life, ripped about by violent death, will never heal. But as the years pass, and the strange, undefinable bond between the two men grows, Benjamin re-evaluates Ricardo and grows to respect him:
Morales remained turned away from me, looking out at the street with an expression of great disappointment on his face, and I was able to study his features for a long time. I tended to think that my work had made me immune to emotions, but this young guy, collapsed on his chair like a dismounted scarecrow and gazing glumly outside, had just expressed in words something I’d felt since childhood. That was the moment, I believe, when I realized that Morales reminded me very much, maybe too much, of myself, or of the ‘self’ I would have been if feigning strength and confidence had exhausted me, if I were weary of putting them on every morning when I woke up, like a suit, or–worse yet–like a disguise. I suppose that’s why I decided to help him in any way I could.
While The Secret in Their Eyes is the story of a crime, the emphasis is not on its solution. Instead the author explores the moral quagmire of ‘justice’ in a country in which the military junta is actively engaged in murder and where the concept of justice is certainly not equated with the various institutions who are supposed to be enforcing the law. While murderers and victims are inexorably linked to one another, in this tale Benjamin finds that he is forever connected to Liliana’s murder and the man she left behind. The murder of Liliana Morales becomes a major defining event in Benjamin’s life, and the enduring, trusting relationship between Benjamin and Ricardo Morales is a searing, loyal constant in a country which sinks into butchery and state-endorsed crime.
Review copy courtesy of Other Press.