Tag Archives: argentinean crime fiction

Death Going Down: María Angélica Bosco (1955)

“That’s what happens to people who go out at night. Just look how they end up.”

I’ve posted previously on the crime books from Pushkin Vertigo. So far there have been some marvelous reads for crime fans: She Who Was No More, Vertigo, The Disappearance of Signora Chiara and several Frédéric Dard titles (all highly recommended by the way). Vertigo has also released a number of a number of novels from Augusto de Angelis–all much more standard police procedurals. Given the rather dramatic division between the book types (makes me think of Simeon’s Romans Durs vs. his Maigret novels), I’ve formed two figurative piles of books with the Augusto de Angelis on the left and all the other Vertigo titles on the right. That brings me to Death Going Down (original title: La Muerte Baja en Ascensor) from María Angélica Bosco–a police procedural that I’m going to place in the left stack with the Augusto de Angelis novels. However, I’ll add a caveat to that decision later.

death-going-down

Death Going Down opens on a cold night in Buenos Aires as Pancho Soler arrives home drunk to his apartment house. It’s an atmospheric scene as Soler stumbles from his car into the lobby of the building. He has just three minutes of light in the lobby (a regulation we’re told) and he makes it to the lift but sees it’s already in use.

All of a sudden he noticed that the lift shaft had filled with light and at the same moment, as if choreographed, the lobby plunged into darkness.

Someone had come down in the lift. He could make out a blurry shape on the other side of the door. Still leaning on the wall, Pancho moved to one side to make way for the person in the lift but the door remained stubbornly closed. All he could see was the shadow puppet outline of a shape curled up in the corner.

I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say that Soler opens the door and discovers a dead blonde in the lift. The police arrive, the residents gather, and the investigation begins. …

Death Going Down, a prize-winning crime novel, was published in 1955, and the story’s emphasis is the duplicitous lives lead by those in the apartment house along with the idea that the investigation is clouded by the number of immigrants involved. These relative newcomers to Argentina from Europe have lives shrouded in mystery. Are they victims of the nazis fleeing for their lives or do they have pasts they wish to escape from? And herein lies my hesitation in placing Death Going Down in that figurative left pile of Vertigo titles. Yes it is a police procedural but the refugees & immigrants, flotsam and jetsam from WWII still bring the war to Argentina’s shores a decade later, and that’s a nice twist.

There’s a solid assortment of suspects: playboy Pancho Soler, Dr Adolfo Luchter, caretakers Andrés and his bitter wife, Aurora Torres (she hopes the murder victim is the resident she likes the least,) the invalid Señor Iñarra and his family, the abrasive Bulgarian (former resident of Germany) Czerbó and his long-suffering sister Rita, and of course, the murder victim’s husband who married his wife by proxy.

There are three police figures in the book: Inspector Ericourt, Superintendent Lahore, and detective Blasi (my favourite of the three). That’s rather a lot of policemen for a 160 page book, and the result was that I was unable to get a firm grasp on any of their characters–although Blasi is the strongest drawn of the three. Here’s his approach to crime:

What do you do when you’re standing in front of a painting? You adopt different positions until you get the best perspective.

These days a common complaint about crime books is that they are too fleshed out with extraneous detail. In Death Going Down,  the opposite is true, and while I can’t give away spoilers, the plot would have benefitted from further explanation of the past connections between the characters.

Finally, the author made mention of what happened to the victim’s dog, and this was a nice little touch to the tale.

Review copy

Translated by Lucy Greaves

12 Comments

Filed under Bosco María Angélica, Fiction

Betty Boo: Claudia Piñiero

“Sometimes we can take the right road, sometimes we have to take other roads without knowing whether or not they are going to lead where we want to go.”

Argentinean crime writer Claudia Piñiero takes us back to familiar territory, an elite community for the very privileged, in her latest crime novel, Betty Boo. In Thursday Night Widows, Piñiero explores the dark secrets that reside in the seemingly affluent gated community and the scandal that erupts when 3 men are found dead in a swimming pool. Betty Boo begins with La Maravillosa Country Club, a Buenos Aires community whose exclusivity and high security does not prevent the occurrence of a vicious murder. The dead man, Pedro Chazarreta, was the suspect in the recent high-profile murder of his wife. Although many considered him guilty, the case was dismissed “on the grounds of lack of evidence,” but now found murdered in exactly the same fashion, in the same house, Chazarreta seems to have received the death he deserved.

Betty Boo

The murder brings together a handful of main characters, including former crime reporter, Jaime Brena. Now humiliatingly demoted to writing meaningless, trite articles for the society section at El Tribuno, Brena, divorced and fighting for possession of his books, looks forward to the time he will own a dog, imagining how the relationship will be and what sort of pet owner he will become. He understands he’s a loner and that makes any relationships problematic:

Only a solitary person is able to be at the side of another without feeling the need, the obligation to possess or change him.

The new crime reporter, dubbed ‘Crime Boy’ by Brena doesn’t seem to have a clue about how to do his job, and Brena, somewhat reluctantly takes the new reporter under his wing. Meanwhile, slimy womanizer, the El Tribuno‘s editor Lorenzo Rinaldi hires Nurit Iscar, dubbed “the Dark Lady of Argentine fiction,” and also nicknamed Betty Boo for her dark curls, to write literary articles about the murder from the vantage point of a plush house within La Maravillosa. Nurit was once a writer of best-selling crime novels but she made the mistake of falling in love during an affair with a married man who had no intention of leaving his wife.

Because you were in love, your head was somewhere else and love and art don’t get on well. Sex and art do, but not love and art.

With her last book written during the affair, a romance called Only If You Love Me, a complete flop, and after a bitterly critical review, Nurit now refuses to write a novel again. Divorced and her children grown and gone, Nurit is a ghostwriter (escritora fantasma), and she’s currently working on the memoir of a privileged society woman.

Nurit and Brena are both great characters worthy of their own series. Both are now reduced to using their writing skills for survival, not for something they feel passionate about, but for generating soulless, meaningless rubbish on cue. Brena, involved with crime once again, is energized. Nurit’s affair was the inspiration for her ill-fated romance book, and now relying on ghostwriting for the wealthy who have the money to fund their own meaningless memoirs, she chugs along in life, aided and abetted by close female friends. Rinaldi’s offer to write articles for the paper could be just the jumpstart her career needs, or then again, as her friends are convinced, the offer may mask an ulterior motive…

Once Nurit is living in La Maravillosa, writing her own material again, and with life offering her choices, she finds that her old skills never left. The depiction of the elite housing community reveals the highly stratified layers within Argentinean society–the have-a-lots and the have-nots, with people like Crime Boy, Brena, and Nurit somewhere in the middle. The great irony of the novel is that while walls, excessively high security, and guards supposedly guarantee safety, murder stalks La Maravillosa.

She thinks how the quotidian –banal, even-elements of daily life can get mixed up with crime in a fusion that both robs the horror of any drama and makes simple things more horrifying.

 Betty Boo is not as tightly plotted as the previous Piñiero novels I’ve read (there’s a sidetrack history of the Betty Boo character, for example) and the dialogue formatting isn’t reader friendly. Still this is a novel from my favourite crime writer from Argentina, so I’ll call her the real ‘Dark Lady of Argentine Crime Fiction.’ This is a novel about second chances (and if you think about it, revenge is a type of second chance), but on another level the emphasis here is of creating a world of “counter-information,” “being informed from a different point of reference, outside the centers of power: an alternative media.” Since this is an Argentinean novel, the reference to secrets and “unpunished crimes” carries additional significance.

By the same author:

Thursday Night Widows

All Yours

A Crack in the Wall

Review copy

Translated by Miranda France

 

23 Comments

Filed under Pineiro Claudia

A Crack in the Wall by Claudia Piñeiro

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.

a crack in the wallIt’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.

10 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Pineiro Claudia

The difficulties of reading Russian novels in Ernesto Sabato’s The Tunnel

I’ve long since overcome my reluctance to read Russian novels, but I’ll admit that there was a time when they seemed impenetrable. At best, I’d have to draw up a list of characters in order to keep all the names straight–no easy task with those patronymics. Now I seem to have overcome these early difficulties. Was it just practice? The main point is that I identified and laughed at a section of Ernesto Sabato’s novel The Tunnel in which a few characters discuss this same issue. Since the narrator of The Tunnel reminds me of the narrator from Notes from Underground, it’s no coincidence the Russian novel mentioned was written by Dostoevsky.

In The Tunnel, the main character, painter Juan is in pursuit of Maria, the woman he’s obsessed with, and he travels to the country home of her cousin Hunter to find her. Here’s Hunter and Mimi Allende (“a skinny woman with a ridiculously long cigarette holder”) discussing art which leads to the subject of Russian novels. We start with Mimi and Hunter talking while the narrator listens:

After all to claim that one is original is really like pointing one’s fingers at the mediocrity of others–which to me seems in very doubtful taste. I am sure that if I painted or wrote, my art would never attract attention.

“I don’t doubt that,” Hunter said maliciously. “Then you would not want to write, let us say, The Brothers Karamazov.

“Quelle horreur!” Mimi exclaimed. She rolled her eyes heavenward, then completed her thought:

“To me, they are the nouveaux riches of the consciousness. Can you bear Russian novels?”

The last question, unexpectedly, was directed at me, but the woman did not wait for an answer; she rushed on, again speaking to Hunter:

“My dear, I have never been able to finish a Russian novel. They are so tiresome. I think there are thousands of characters, and in the end it turns out there are only four of five. Isn’t it maddening just when you begin to recognize a man called Alexandre, he’s called Sacha, and then Satchka, and later Sachenka, and suddenly something pretentious like Alexandre Alexandrovitch Bunine, and later simply Alexandre Alexandrovitch. The minute you get your bearings, they throw you off the track again. There’s no end to it; each character is a whole family in himself. Even you will agree that it is exhausting, even for you!”

Later there’s a discussion of mystery novels….

12 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Sabato Ernesto

The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato

How far might such a mania lead?”

Dostoevsky fans, stop right here. If you liked Notes from Underground, then this is your lucky day. At least that’s what I thought after reading Argentinean author Ernesto Sabato’s marvellous, wickedly funny novel, The Tunnel. In the introduction to Notes from Underground, Richard Pevear, who translated many Dostoevsky novels, uses the term “the dialectic of isolated consciousness” to describe the narrator’s obsessive, circular and rambling narrative. That term can also be applied to the narrator of The Tunnel, and even the title should echo a connection–although an explanation for the ‘tunnel’ does appear late in this brilliantly entertaining novel. The Tunnel is narrated by an obsessive, violently jealous man, an artist named Juan Pablo Castel who begins the novel with a frank confession that he has murdered his mistress, Maria Iribarne. So as we know the nature of Juan’s crime, the all-important question becomes why.

It takes just a couple of pages to know we are dealing with a loony:

To a degree, criminals are the most decent and least offensive people among us. I do not make this statement because I myself killed another human being; it is my profound and honest conviction. Is a certain individual a menace to society? Then eliminate him and let that be an end to it. That is what I call a good deed. Think how worse it would be for society if that person were allowed to continue distilling his poison; think how pointless it would be if instead of eliminating him you attempted to forestall him by means of anonymous letters, or slander, or other loathsome measures. As for myself, I frankly confess that I now regret not having used my time to better advantage when I was a free man, that is, for not having done away with six or seven individuals I could name.

The purpose of Juan’s “account” he tells us is that he feels “animated by the faint hope that someone will understand me- even if it is only one person.” ‘Understanding’ Juan isn’t the issue here, however, and that’s one of the dark ironies of this tale. It’s easy to understand what’s behind Juan’s actions: madness, obsession, deranged passion, violent jealousy, and the desire to own & control another human being, but while we grasp Juan’s mental state, Juan’s “account” is really an exposition of his insanity. He condemns himself with every word.

Juan has a neurotic aestheticism that belongs in a Huysmans novel: ” I do not mind telling you that there have been times after I observed a particular character trait that I could not eat for a day, or paint for a week.” There are many things Juan loathes: the critics (“they are a plague I have never understood“) psychologists (“let’s not go into that“) people in general (“I have always looked on people with antipathy, even revulsion“), the beach, etc. Sabato’s narrator is unintentionally funny, and one marvellous scene has him trying to retrieve a letter from the post office only to be met with a wall of impenetrable bureaucracy. But at the same time, side-by-side with this humour, tension builds as the tale develops and Juan’s victim is drawn deeper, almost irresistibly, into a blatantly dysfunctional relationship which seems fated to end, inevitably, in violence.

Juan is a well-known, highly respected painter when he meets Maria, the elusive woman who becomes the object of his obsessive love and paranoia. Juan first sees Maria at an art show where he exhibits a painting in Buenos Aires.  In the foreground of the painting is a woman and a child, and Maria is transfixed–not so much by the whole painting–but one particular corner of it:

In the upper left-hand corner of the canvas was a remote scene framed in a tiny window: an empty beach and a solitary woman looking at the sea. She was staring into the distance as if expecting something, perhaps some faint and faraway summons. In my mind that scene suggested the most wistful and absolute loneliness.

No one seemed to notice the scene: their eyes passed over it as if it were something trivial, mere embellishment. With the exception of a single person, no one seemed to comprehend that the scene was an essential component of the painting.

After Maria leaves Juan is devastated that he lacked the courage to talk to her, and he becomes depressed. At the same time, intrigued by Maria’s attention to the detail of his painting, he begins to be obsessed with her:

Throughout the months that followed I thought only of her and of the possibility that I might see her again. And in a way I painted only for her. It was as if the tiny scene of that window had begun to expand, to swallow up that canvas and all the rest of my work.

In Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, the narrator spends many hours plotting revenge against an officer for some imagined slight, and it’s this same sort of thinking at work in The Tunnel. After the art show, Juan experiences insomnia while he racks his brain over the possibility of another encounter with Maria. He asks himself “How the hell is it that some men manage to stop a woman and start a conversation with her, even an affair?”

I envisioned scenes in which she spoke to me–for example, to ask about an address, or where to catch a bus–and from that opening, during months of reflection and melancholy, of rage, of abandon, and hope, I constructed an endless series of variations. In one I was talkative, witty (something in fact I never am); in another I was taciturn; in still another, sunny and smiling. At times, though it seems incredible, I answered rudely, even with ill-concealed rage. It happened (in one of those imaginary meetings) that our exchange broke off abruptly because of an absurd irritability on my part, or because I rebuked her, almost crudely for some comment I found pointless or ill-thought out. I felt bitter after these frustrated encounters, and for several days I would reproach myself for the clumsiness that had caused me to lose my one opportunity to establish a relationship with her. Fortunately, I would realize that everything was imaginary, and the actual possibility still existed.

Of course, they eventually meet, and through the relationship Juan begins his descent into madness.

Juan is the classic unreliable narrator, and regular readers of this blog know I have a weakness for this narrative form. As Juan tells his story, he spins a tale of justification, obsession, and paranoia, and of course since this is Juan’s version, we only get his side of things. Nonetheless,  there are tantalising glimpses of Maria, the only woman on the planet unfortunate enough to catch his attention and to become the vessel for his neuroticism and obsession. Here’s Maria being interrogated by Juan about her husband, Allende:

“You always twist my words, and pervert my meaning,” Maria protested. “When I said I had married him because I loved him, I didn’t mean I don’t love him now.”

“Ah, then you do love him.” I parried swiftly, as if hoping to prove she had lied in answer to earlier questions.

Maria was subdued and unresponsive.

“Why don’t you answer?”

“Because there doesn’t seem any point. We’ve had this same conversation too many times before.”

“No, this is different from the other times. I asked you whether you loved Allende now, and you told me yes. But I seem to remember that not too long ago, at the port, you told me I was the first person you ever loved.”

Again Maria did not answer. What irritated me about her was not only that she contradicted herself but that it was almost impossible to get her to say anything at all.

The Tunnel was rejected by several publishers but was finally published in the French magazine Sur in 1948. Camus read it and “commissioned” the novel for Gamillard. In the introduction, Colm Toíbín explains that Sabato chaired the commission to “investigate the crimes against human rights”  committed during  the years of Argentina’s military junta.

Translated by Margaret Sayers

Copy courtesy of the publisher via netgalley. Read on the kindle.

16 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Sabato Ernesto

All Yours by Claudia Pineiro

“However much you love your man, there are limits and sometimes, to be honest, I feel like putting a bullet between his eyes.”

In 2010 I read and enjoyed Argentinean author Claudia Pineiro’s novel, Thursday Night Widows. The book has since been made into a film. I’ve yet to see it, but I hope that Pineiro’s latest, replete with sly black humour, and told by a hilariously unreliable narrator, makes it to film too. That said, it’ll be no easy task to translate this book to the screen without turning it into a comedy, and that would be a shame. Chances are, if you enjoyed Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here and/or Jenn Ashworth’s A Kind of Intimacy, you’ll enjoy All Yours as well.

This slim novel which racks in at 172 pages in narrated by middle-aged, middle-class wife,  Inés Pereyra who begins to suspect her husband Ernesto is having an affair. Their sex life has dwindled down to nothing, and initially Inés is willing to chalk the lack of sex up to exhaustion on her husband’s part. But after digging in her husband’s briefcase and finding a heart “drawn in lipstick, with the words ‘All Yours’ across it, and signed ‘your true love,’  ”   Inés decides to take action:

But I said to myself, what if asking questions backfires on me, the way it did with Mummy? Because when she thought Daddy seemed a bit strange she went to him one day and said, “Is there a problem, Roberto?” And he said, “Yes, you’re the problem! I can’t stand you any more!” He left there and then, slamming the door behind him, and we never saw him again. Poor Mummy.

Inés reasons that she won’t repeat her mother’s mistake, and so while her “instinct” is to confront Ernesto with the paper heart and demand “What is this, you piece of shit?” instead she suppresses her rage. She decides that whoever drew the heart isn’t a serious threat and that Ernesto is “just getting his rocks off.” Nevertheless, Inés increases her vigilance:

So I started going through his pockets, opening his mail, keeping an eye on his diary, listening in on the extension when he was on the telephone. The kinds of things that any woman in my situation would do.

After a mysterious late night phone call that sends Ernesto flying from the house, Inés follows her philandering husband to a rendezvous. Hiding behind a tree, she sees her husband meeting his long-term, patently upset secretary, Alicia. An emotional argument takes place between Ernesto and Alicia, and it ends with Alicia dead.

Up to this point, Inés seems to be a little odd–one of those prim and proper ladies who worries about how her house looks, and what her neighbours and acquaintances think even while she can happily, and delicately, ascribe her husband’s alienation to ‘work stress.’ She seems to be on the pampered side and is, perhaps, a woman who can’t cope with the idea of functioning without a traditional family structure.  The initial impression of Inés begins to disintegrate, however, as the story evolves. With gusto and almost savage glee, Inés decides to show Ernesto just what she’s made of by providing him with an alibi (they were watching Psycho), even destroying damning evidence in her newly aggressive role of the supportive wife who stands by her man–no matter what. As time goes on, the crime remains unsolved, but life at home changes drastically….

What follows is a wickedly funny tale of obsessive love, adultery and revenge. The plot unfolds through Inés’ warped view of her toxic marriage, and then, at points, her off-kilter world vision is interrupted by what appear to be police reports. At still another point in the novel, the narration briefly shifts to third person. A sub-plot concerns Inés and Ernesto’s daughter, Lali, and while Inés who’s rather jealous of Lali’s relationship with Ernesto, thinks of her daughter as a protected spoiled brat who lives in a “bubble,” Lali’s life quietly unravels in the background.

All Yours is a marvellously clever novel, and I hope my enthusiasm conveys how enjoyable the story is. Initially Inés may seem like one of those perfect housewife types who’ll happily sweep anything under the rug rather than confront the fact that their domestic life is anything less than perfect, but when Inés begins to suspect Ernesto of the affair, she almost morphs into a bumbling amateur detective type from a British cosy. From then on as the plot settles into its main premise, Inés is clearly seen as the classic unreliable narrator. So we see events interpreted through her eyes while off in the periphery we get hints that Inés’ life is unravelling in ways even she cannot control.  When you have a character who sees murder as a less serious offence than the vulgarity of scratching herself, well you know that there’s a problem.

I took a bus into town I don’t like driving, especially when my nerves are on edge. And why deny it–I was really jumpy. I felt as if something inside my body was going to come out of my ears. Something hot. Something at boiling point. My insides? I sat down at the front and looked out the window. Trying to calm myself down. Deep breaths. Why did I ever stop going to yoga? The lights at the junction of Cabildo and Juramento weren’t working. Trees, cars, buildings. I fiddled with Alicia’s keys. Because the yoga teacher talked too much, she made me feel nervous.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher. Translated by Miranda France.

13 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Pineiro Claudia

The Secret in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri

“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.

8 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Sacheri Eduardo