When I read Claudia Piñeiro’s novel Thursday Night Widows, I knew I’d found an author that I wanted to follow. Then came All Yours with its deliciously bad unreliable narrator. This brings me A Crack in the Wall, the latest novel from Claudia Piñeiro–a story of greed, murder, and identity. All three novels are highly recommended, and while the plots are dissimilar, there’s a common thread– class, the pathology of marriage and its link with crime–all set against the shifting economic backdrop of Buenos Aires society.
It’s 2007, Pablo Simó is an unhappily married middle-aged architect living in Buenos Aires. He’s in a strange position at work–although he’s worked there for over 20 years, he’s never been made an associate, and he’s the odd man out in the unhealthy triangle at the office. There’s a long-term affair between Pablo’s married boss Borla and the third person in the office, sexy architect Marta, and that leaves Pablo, who’s plagued with his own sexual fantasies of Marta, in a somewhat awkward position. Even though the company name is Borla and Associates, the associate, in reality is singular. Pablo has the somewhat undignified position of being the employee who overhears intimacies between Borla and Marta, and he even occasionally acts as a liaison between the two long-term lovers. If Marta wants to call Borla at night, Marta will call Pablo with a message instead of talking to Borla directly, and then Pablo picks up the phone and runs the gauntlet of Borla’s wife in order to give Borla whatever message Marta has sent.
It’s a dead-end job in more ways than one. Not only is Pablo the lowest man on the totem pole, but he’s also destined to build generically designed, cheaply made, ugly highrise buildings. With land in short supply, Buenos Aires is in state of flux: beautiful old buildings are being destroyed and systematically replaced, and as Pablo acknowledges: “You can’t lay a single brick in Buenos Aires without first finding a building and condemning it to annihilation.” Pablo can only just remember the man he used to be–a man who had goals to design and build something unique, but all this is lost. Now he’s driven, like the rest of the herd, to tear down old beautiful buildings and pack in cheap, rapidly built, high-rise flats into every available square foot of Buenos Aires, always keeping the shifting “profit margin” in mind.
For years Pablo Simó has looked at Buenos Aires purely as a source of what Borla calls business opportunities: reasonably priced plots of land on which to build: public auctions; municipal land that comes up for sale and which is feasible to buy thanks to some friend or contact; complicated estates, where the heirs want a quick sale and end up settling for a pittance; divorces that require selling off property ridiculously cheaply so as to separate what can no longer be joined. That’s what he looks at these days, because that’s what he’s been told to look for. He tries to remember a time when he saw things differently, harking back to student days when he could stand in front of a newly discovered building and feel a current pass through his body, an almost sexual sensation, a tension that nowadays he never feels so fervidly, not even in bed.
But Pablo is a dreamer, so by day he scribbles plans for the building he’d like to build, and he also holds silent conversations in his head with his long-lost, equally idealistic friend and fellow architect, Tano, a man who loved the exotic, excessive splendors of Art Nouveau. Even though Pablo hasn’t seen Tano in years, the memory of his friend acts as Pablo’s conscience–the two men hold imaginary conversations with arguments about Pablo’s actions. The presence of this imaginary Tano also reminds Pablo just how far he’s veered from the path of his youth.
And speaking of Pablo’s conscience … well, he’s hiding a horrible secret. Partly due to his passivity and partly due to his susceptibility to hysterics, Pablo committed a crime, and while the crime seemed to be buried and forgotten, that recent past walks through the door of Pablo’s office in the form of a very attractive young woman who begins asking some awkward questions….
A Crack in the Wall is both literal and figurative. Pablo was involved in building yet another high rise when he’s approached by a rather strange man named Jara who contends that the new building is undermining the integrity of his apartment. Jara has a series of photos to show the progression of a sizeable crack in his wall that has opened and continues to grow as the building next door progresses. But the “crack” also exists in Pablo, and it’s a crack that separates the man he is and the man he’d like to be. As the story unfolds with Pablo going back over past events, the crack in Pablo’s psyche widens, making it much more difficult for Pablo to live with himself. While this is a very satisfying psychological crime novel, to say this is just a crime novel negates the rest of the plot and its character driven elements which explore the issues of identity and moral compromise while also giving us fascinating glimpses of Argentinean culture and architecture. Claudia Piñeiro shows us that there’s a very definite connection between ideals and an inner moral compass. Lose one and the other is in jeopardy.
Tomorrow he’ll walk or take a bus–there must be a bus that follows a direct route across the city from his house to his work instead of describing the peculiar horseshoe around which he travels every day beneath the earth–he will make a journey overland, allowing him to look up and take stock of all that each street has to offer. He will roam from one side of town to the other, like a treasure seeker but with no map or coordinates, with no references or clues, leaving chance to do its work, letting an invisible hand carry him through the city, guiding his determination to rediscover something that, until recently, he didn’t even realize he had lost.
Translated by Miranda France.