Tag Archives: argentinean fiction

The Paper House: Carlos María Domínguez

“He was looking for a book.”

The Paper House from Argentinean author Carlos María Domínguez is a delightful cautionary tale, a fable of sorts that explores the excesses of a bibliophile at “the mercy of his passion,”and asks the question: when does the luxury of a prized collection of books “cross an invisible line” and become a burden?

Professor Bluma Lennon has just purchased a book of Emily Dickinson poems. She’s distracted by reading when she crosses a street and is hit and killed by a car. This event opens the story’s beginnings with a wry twist on that old saying: “Books change people’s destinies.”

The paper house

The narrator, a work colleague of Professor Bluma Lennon, attends her funeral, and at the service, yet another professor makes a speech in which he creates “great controversy.” He states: “Bluma devoted her life to literature, never dreaming it would take her from this world,” and subsequently a debate rages across the university whether or not poetry is responsible for her death.  The narrator is perhaps particularly interested in the idea that books can be harmful as, in childhood, his grandmother always stopped him from reading claiming it was “dangerous.” As the narrator grows older, he thinks perhaps his grandmother was right.

An elderly professor of classical languages, Leonard Wood, was left paralysed after being struck on the head by five volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica that fell from a shelf in his library; my friend Richard broke a leg when he tried to reach William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, which was so awkwardly placed he fell off his stepladder. Another of my friends in Buenos Aires caught TB in the basement of a public archive, and I even know a dog from Chile that died of indigestion from swallowing the pages of The Brothers Karamazov one afternoon when rage got the better of him. 

Shortly after Bluma’s death, the narrator, who has taken over her office and courses, receives a package from Uruguay with no return address. Upon opening the package, the narrator finds a tatty copy of Conrad’s The Shadow-Line, but the book is covered in cement particles. Who sent the book? The only clue is an inscription from Bluma to someone named Carlos, and so the mystery begins that takes the reader to Buenos Aires and eventually to a remote beach in Uruguay. This is the story of Carlos, a man who loved books so much that the sheer number involved drove him out of his house. With a library of over 20,000 books, how do you store them? How do you keep track of your collection?

they were piled in the kitchen, the bathroom, and in his bedroom as well. Not his original bedroom, because he had been forced out of there, but in the attic where he had taken refuge, next to another little bathroom. The stairs leading up to the attic were also full of books, and it was nineteenth century French literature which watched over his scant hours of sleep.

The sheer number of books in Carlos’s collection presents a horrible logistical problem. After all, one must be able to locate the books one owns, otherwise what’s the point? Carlos develops a new way of indexing his books, and it’s a fatal choice.

It is often much harder to get rid of books than it is to acquire them. They stick to us in that pact of need and oblivion we make with them, witnesses to a moment in our lives we will never see again. While they are still there, it is a part of us. I have noticed that many people make a note of the day, month, and year that they read a book; they build up a secret calendar. Others, before lending one, write their names on the flyleaf, note whom they lent it to in an address book, and add the date. I have known some book owners who stamp them or slip a card between their pages the way they do in public libraries. Nobody wants to mislay a book. We prefer to lose a ring, a watch, our umbrella, rather than a book whose pages we will never read again, but which retains, just in the sound of its title, a remote and perhaps long-lost emotion. 

Peppered throughout this novella (which includes illustrations from Peter Sis) are the most marvellous observations about books and book lovers. This witty, wise cautionary tale of letting our libraries grow out of control makes my best-of-year list.

Also titled The House of Paper (my copy has the exact same cover but is titled The Paper House). Don’t be put off by the cover.

Translated by Nick Caistor

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Filed under Domínguez Carlos María, Fiction

Dinner: César Aira

César Aira’s Dinner is a delightfully strange, genre bending novella narrated by a bachelor in his sixties who lives in the Argentinean town of Pringles. We don’t know the details of what’s gone wrong in this man’s life, but he’s bankrupt, washed up and living with his elderly mother–a very undignified position to find oneself in at any age, but the narrator, with old age looming, cannot kid himself that life will ever improve.

I was dead broke, they’d repossessed my house and my car, I’d taken refuge in my mother’s apartment and was living off her retirement income (if you can call that living.)

The narrator and his mother spend an evening with an eccentric friend–a wealthy building contractor who owns a splendid large home which is stuffed full of bizarre, expensive collections. The narrator has sought this invitation as he hopes to hit up his last friend, a self-made man, for a business loan. While the host shows off his fantastic automatons, the conversation veers towards various residents of the town. For the host and for the narrator’s mother, it’s all about names, “the conformations and genealogies of all the town’s families.” And as the evening progresses “each name was a knot of meaning wherein converged many other chains of names.” These are discussions which do not interest the narrator. While he has “real memories, full-fledged memories,” there are also “inexplicable memories” from his childhood. The narrator’s memories don’t quite mesh with the memories of his mother, and while his mother jumps from memory to memory by the use of names, the narrator notes that for him, there are “pits” in his memories which symbolize  ” ‘holes’ in memory.”

The shifting nature of memory then morphs into a question of what is true and what isn’t. When the narrator and his mother return home, the conversation shifts to their host. The narrator sees their host as a wealthy man, but the mother argues, vehemently and with detail, about massive debt & failure. Soon the narrator begins to doubt the affluent version of his friend’s life.

dinnerAlone, and only with the television for company, the narrator channel surfs and finds himself spellbound over a programme on the Pringles channel in which news reporter Maria Rosa zooms around on her scooter tracking the nightlife of Pringles. The programme is supposed to seem, “improvised, informal, youthful,” but with a cameraman in pursuit of the intrepid Maria Rosa, instead each episode is amateurish and almost laughable. But the narrator finds himself glued to the set as Maria Rosa takes her scooter to the cemetery to confirm the story that “the dead were rising from their graves.”

At this point, the story shifts completely from the narrator watching the programme to the assault on Pringles from the Dead who exit their graves, descend upon the town and, in the pursuit of endorphins, suck the brains from the living….

Is this a nightmare brought on by the evening’s discussion of “pits” and the cemetery? Did the Dead rise and kill many of the inhabitants of Pringles or is the event a publicity stunt? Or is the event about something bigger–symbolic of memory, the truth and “representation“? You decide.

César Aira’s prose is poetic, smooth, and slides like honey. This is how the book begins:

My friend was home alone, but he invited us over for dinner anyway; he was a very sociable man, liked to talk and tell stories, though he wasn’t any good at it; he got the episodes mixed up, left effects without causes and causes without effects, skipped over important parts, and dropped anecdotes right in the middle. This didn’t bother my mother, who at her age had reached a level of mental confusion equivalent to what my friend had been born with; I think she didn’t even notice. In fact, she was the one who most enjoyed the conversation–and it was the only thing she enjoyed that evening–because there was a constant mention of the name’s of the town’s families, magic words that distilled her entire interest in life. I listened to the names drop, as one listens to the falling rain, whereas for her, each was a treasure full of meanings and memories.

The dinner is an elegant occasion, leisurely in nature, with the host proudly showing his guests some delightful, intricate, miniature automatons. But the evening is a contrived event–a representation of the subtle unspoken politics of class, wealth and business acumen. While the evening appears to be composed of two old friends reconnecting over dinner, it’s an occasion in which the narrator cannot help but compare his failure to his friend’s phenomenal success. Perhaps this partially explains the narrator’s mother’s irritation. The narrator sees that his mother, who loves him, is in “complete denial” of the facts. “And her life was reduced to that denial; I had reduced her to that.”

Perhaps she sees the host displaying his expensive toys as more than the actions of an enthusiastic collector:

Her idée fixe was that I was not a failure, that I had no reason to be dissatisfied with my life, that I could be happy, and that in fact I was. According to her, I had always done the right thing, and I continued to do so; I was an exemplary man, a role model, and moreover, I was young, good-looking, and intelligent. The objective facts contradicted her categorically: I was approaching sixty; I was fat, wrinkled, stooped; I was alone. without any family (except her), money, work, or future. Mama overcame this discrepancy by closing her eyes to reality, and since this didn’t suffice, she blamed the rest on humanity.

Automatons, zombies, representations, perceived wealth and failure, slippery truths and memory holes–all very clever ways of asking that age-old question:  what is truth and what is reality?

Translated by Katherine Silver

Review copy

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Papers in the Wind by Eduardo Sacheri

The Secret In their Eyes , a crime novel from Argentinean author Eduardo Sacheri, was made into an excellent film. I saw the 2009 film first–and I suspect that the film’s success prompted the book’s translation into English. The Secret in their Eyes is the story of Benjamin, an Argentinean clerk who formerly worked in an office which investigated crime, and now in retirement, Benjamin begins writing the story of a decades-old crime that haunts him still. The film version featured one of my favourite actors, Ricardo Darin as the sensitive, troubled Benjamin, and I mention Darin as I also imagined him playing Fernando,  one of the characters in Papers in the Wind, the second novel by Sacheri to be translated into English.

While The Secret In Their Eyes is a crime novel which delves into Argentina’s Dirty War, the novel also is partly about the friendship between two men.  Papers in the Wind explores the friendship between four men and what happens when one of them dies of pancreatic cancer, but the novel is not just about friendship; it’s also about letting go of one’s dreams and accepting middle-aged reality & regrets.

papers in the windWhen Mono dies of cancer, he leaves behind a daughter, Guadalupe who lives with Mono’s bitter, angry ex-wife, Lourdes. Mono didn’t have much of a legacy to pass on, but he did ‘invest’ in a soccer player, Pittilanga, a young man whose transfer was purchased by Mono with his severance pay of 300,000 pesos. According to the advice Mono received from a possibly questionable source,  Pittilanga was supposed to be a promising player, and Mono, once a soccer hopeful himself, expected to see a big return on his investment when one of the top teams purchased Pittilanga’s transfer. But now Mono is dead, and Pittilanga is still on a team “out in the sticks,” and due to his continued poor performance–not exactly helped by his weight gain–he’ll probably soon be booted even off of this  bottom-rung team. Then it’s back to his village and a dead-end job for the rest of his life.

Mono died with “practically nothing in the bank,” and Mono’s brother, teacher Fernando, feels obligated to recoup Mono’s investment in Pittilanga with the plan to use the money for Guadalupe’s future. He asks Mono’s childhood friends, serial failed businessman Ruso, and materialistic lawyer, Mauricio to help. Ruso, who shared Mono’s enthusiasm for the soccer player scheme in the first place, is only too happy to be involved, but Mauricio sees it as a lost cause and offers minimal help.

While the plot concerns the friends’ efforts to recoup and sell Pittilanga as a promising young soccer player, most of the novel delves into the relationships between these four very different men. The chapters alternate between past and present, so the story begins with Mono’s funeral, and then moves forward to the problem with Pittilanga. Every other chapter then traces the back story of how Mono decided to take his severance pay, how he dealt with his diagnosis & the series of failed cancer treatments. Unfortunately, this is the weakest part of the book. At first these chapters have some sort of point–there’s one good segment when Mono meets an oncologist whose treatment of his patient is so inhumane Mono’s friends almost cause a riot, but the merits of these short chapters quickly fade as Mono’s options whittle down, and we begin to follow his death with pointless chapters such as this:

Hey, Fer …”

“What Mono.”

“I asked you a question.”

“…”

“…”

“…”

I asked you if you don’t console me because I asked you not to, or because you think I’m done for.”

“And?”

“the truth.”

“of course.”

“Both.”

“…”

“…”

“…”

“…”

“…”

This is about half of one of those backstory chapters, and when these chapters begin to replay the last times Fernando and Mono spent together, during Mono’s treatments and end stage, some of the conversation is relevant, but most of it isn’t, and I do not understand the constant appearance of the “..”.  This would have been a better novel with the back story just cut back to Mono’s purchase of Pittilanga’s transfer, the diagnosis and aftermath. As written, we move forward with one chapter and then move back into these chapters of private moments between Fernando and his brother. The constant  “…” felt like someone had censored the more sensitive exchanges.

The novel’s strength comes from its characterizations. Ruso and Mono have a symbiotic relationship; they are both dreamers, and their enthusiasm feeds off of each other. When Mono comes up with this scheme to buy a soccer player’s transfer, eternal optimist Ruso, with a long history of failed business ventures, is all for it. Fernando understands that part of Mono’s dream includes memories of his brother’s thwarted desires to become a world-class soccer player; there’s “an element of revenge, of outstanding debt.” Also well conveyed is the character of Mauricio. Fernando doesn’t particularly like Mauricio, and while Fernando recognizes that Mono wanted to involved himself in the world of soccer any way possible, he lacks the insight to see that some of his dislike of Mauricio is based on the lawyer’s material success. These men grew up in the same neighbourhood, but their lives all took different paths, and Fernando sometimes ponders just how much their characters say about their success or failure. Ruso, who holds playstation tournaments with his employees during business hours at the car wash, seems oblivious to the idea of money and success. Obsessive Fernando, however, often knocks his own status and mulls over exactly why Mauricio is so successful. There’s a buried resentment and envy there that Fernando doesn’t recognize and which is layered with antagonism.

But what of the women in the story? Mauricio has a high-maintenance wife, Mariel, whose good looks are due in no small part to her pampered life style and the wonders of plastic surgery. Mono’s “testy” ex, Lourdes, seethes with resentment and hate for her ex–dead or not, and Ruso’s long-suffering wife, Mónica, is driven to desperate pleas when her husband’s feckless ways threaten to bring the roof down on their heads.

Fernando thanks him and thinks, as always, that Ruso is a real case. Since they finished high school he has set up an infinite number of businesses, all on his own, all preceded by fantastic predictions of “this is a surefire business” and “I’m going to wear out my shoes walking to the bank.” And all them buried, sooner or later, in debts and failure. Fernando and Mono talked about the issue, more than once. Because Ruso’s surefire knack for missing he mark in his investments seemed forced, as if he were intentionally avoiding success. Mono claimed that Ruso’s problem was questions of timing: all the businesses that he thought up were sound, but two years before Ruso  got involved with them. By the time Ruso considered them, and put all his hopes and his shrinking pesos into them, they were on their way out. Fernando , for his part, didn’t know whether to be sorry about the fact that Ruso, when he left high school, had been able to count on a modest fortune his father and grandfather had amassed in their leather workshop in Móron. On the one hand, that money had financed only failure after failure. On the other, it still allowed Ruso, his wife, and his daughters to eat every day.

 Translated by Mara Faye Lethem. Review copy.

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Filed under Fiction, Sacheri Eduardo

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.

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Filed under Fiction, Pineiro Claudia

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.

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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.

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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.

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Thursday Night Widows by Claudia Pineiro

“Are we shutting ourselves in, or are we shutting out other people so they can’t come in?” 

I just finished the very impressive novel, Thursday Night Widows written by Argentinean novelist, Claudia Pineiro. The story is set in Cascade Heights, an exclusive gated country estate thirty miles from Buenos Aires. The novel begins in September 2001 with the discovery of three dead men at the bottom of a pool, and then the novel backtracks over the past decade. Ultimately,  Thursday Night Widows is a scathing psychological analysis of a class and a country seen through the narrow vision of one group of families who enjoy bloated, materialistic lives while ignoring the collapse of their society.

Told partly through the eyes of real-estate agent Virginia Guevara, the novel explores life in Cascade Heights–a walled in estate which encompasses 500 acres and 300 homes, and the worth of those homes increases with proximity to the perfectly manicured golf course. Naturally only Argentina’s ‘best’ families live there with most of the wives becoming avid consumers at home while their husbands travel by luxury car to work in the city. Marooned in “The Cascades”  the families are divorced from society and develop relationships with each other based on status and strict hierarchy. The high perimeter wall and dozens of guards keep out undesirables, crime and poverty, while creating a false world inside the estate. Lawns must ‘match,’ no fences or barriers are permitted, certain colours are ‘allowed,’ but these are all only external signalments of conformity. As the couples mingle and socialize, certain behaviour (excessive drinking, spousal abuse, subtle and not-so-subtle rascism) is largely ignored. Everyone adheres to the unspoken agreement of conformity and pack behaviour with El Tano Scagli, one of the estate’s most affluent men, and owner of one of the largest homes, dominating the other subordinate males.

Virginia Guevara, one of the rare Cascade wives to be employed, works to keep the family afloat, and notes the up-and-coming newcomers, along with the decline in fortunes of those forced to leave this fabricated, upscale Eden. The novel covers the affluence of the 90s and the rapid decline of Argentina’s economy through the ripple-out consequences felt in Cascade Heights. To the wives who live there, the outside world doesn’t exist, and while the perimeter wall and the guards manage to keep the poor and undesirables out of sight, nonetheless the social problems of Argentina still manage to creep through. In this fashion, the history of Cascade Heights becomes a reflection of Argentina’s problems, but with Argentina’s economy becoming a ‘reality’ only as it impacts the Cascades. At one point, Virginia mentions the “Antieri episode”–the suicide of a military man. Virginie and her husband, pick up the Antieri house “for next to nothing” when they move to The Cascades in the late 80s. Suicides, divorces, and bankruptcies all take their toll as the financial systems of Argentina wax and wane. Here’s Virginia talking about Argentina’s boom years:

“It was about two years later that I sold a plot of land to the Scaglias. This was a few days after the Minister for Foreign Affairs became the Finance Minister he had always been destined to be and persuaded Congress to pass the Convertibility Law. One peso would be worth one dollar: the famous ‘one for one’ that restored Argentines’ confidence and fuelled an exodus to places like Cascade Heights.”

Covering the late 80s until Argentina’s 2001 economic collapse, Thursday Night Widows is a stunning analysis of a social class. The smug upper classes flock to The Cascades, creating a sleek, affluent Utopia in which the poor are only allowed in wearing uniforms; “as a general rule, if someone is walking and not carrying sports gear, it’s a domestic servant or gardener.”  Every ugly reality is either hidden, ignored or ejected from this well-heeled paradise. Couples move in and then sell out–usually due to some horrible misfortune, and the novel records it all from the cluelessness of most of the wives, to the rebelliousness of some of the children:

The thing is, many of our neighbours made the mistake of thinking that they could keep spending as much as they earned forever. And what they earned was a lot, and seemed eternal. But there comes a day when the taps are turned off, although nobody expects it until they find themselves in the bath tub, covered in soap, looking up at the showerhead, from which not a single drop of water falls anymore.”

The scenes which include interactions between the Cascade wives and their servants resonant with bitter cynicism. In one section of the novel, some of the bored wives decide to form a charity and call themselves “The Ladies of the Heights.”  In one great scene the tanned, spoiled wives organize a jumble sale for charity, selling their cast off clothing and underwear. The jumble sale is  “exclusively for the maids”  and the maids are then expected to come and buy the discarded clothing they’d normally be given as handouts. You’d think the wives’ hypocrisy would stick in their throats but it doesn’t, and the wives consider they are better people for throwing crumbs to their maids and then making them pay for the privilege. But even though the wives are mostly clueless about their selfish, crass behaviour, the author still maintains sympathy for some of her characters–the wives are kept like exotic pets and then discarded as they age or deteriorate. Some of the Cascade wives have husbands who refuse to work, and so these women juggle the affluent lifestyle with debts and a lot of pretense.

I expected a crime novel, but Thursday Night Widows is much more than this–primarily a compelling tale, and at no point did the tale seem forced to fit an agenda or a point of view. Upscale, exclusive (and excluding) housing estates such as The Cascades don’t just exist in Argentina, and wherever they crop up, they tend to condition residents into conformity and homogenous pack behaviour. You couldn’t pay me to live in one of these sorts of communities, but I’ve seen them, and I’ve seen the sort of people who live in them. People of similar material circumstances prefer living with others who enjoy the same standard of living. It may be natural, but as the novel shows, add a wall, guards, and a few rules, and the result isn’t  healthy.

Thursday Nights Widows  by Claudia Pineiro is translated by Miranda France. With any luck director Marcelo Pineyro’s film version, Las Viudas de los Jueves, should make DVD release soon.

For those interested in the subject of gated communities, I recommend a short documentary film call The Forbidden City by filmmaker Matt Ehling. It can be ordered directly from the website: www.prolefeedstudios.com

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Rage by Sergio Bizzio

“He decided to disappear, disappear into the interior of his own disappearance.”

Many years ago I watched the lively comedy film The Bliss of Mrs Blossom. The film starred Shirley MacLaine as bored suburban housewife, Harriet Blossom. Married to bra maker, Robert Blossom (Richard Attenborough), the neglected Mrs Blossom has everything she wants but with so much leisure time on her hands she’s bored to tears. Enter one of her hubbie’s employees, sewing machine repair man Ambrose Tuttle (James Booth). He arrives to repair Mrs. Blossom’s sewing machine and never leaves. Tuttle lives in the Blossoms’s attic for years, and while Mr. Blossom is slaving away at work, Mrs Blossom and her lover Tuttle indulge in every leisure time activity imaginable. Mrs Blossom enjoys the best of both worlds: the fruits of the labours of her husband buys her the leisure time to enjoy her lover.

This film came to mind when I read Rage from Argentinean novelist Sergio Bizzio. Whereas The Bliss of Mrs Blossom is a comedy about bourgeois values and the empty hours of a bored middle-class housewife, Bizzio’s novel examines the savage clash between the upper and lower classes in Argentinean society seen through the eyes of a fugitive lover who hides in the attic of a mansion.

Rage begins with the slow romance between construction worker Jose Maria, and Rosa, a maid who works in a splendid mansion not far from Jose’s work site. The two meet in a supermarket, and as their relationship grows they meet on Rosa’s day off–renting a hotel room for a few stolen hours. But Jose’s presence in the neighbourhood attracts attention, and he’s seen as having “attitude problems” by a local doorman and Israel, the son of the president of the Owners’ Association. Israel’s fascist tendencies clash with Jose’s lack of obsequiousness, and Jose quickly becomes marked as an undesirable element in the upscale neighbourhood. It doesn’t take long before Jose’s boss fires him after hearing complaints from Israel.

When Rosa’s employers, the Blinders, leave on holiday, their absence heralds a slight relaxation of Rosa’s rules regarding her relationship with Jose. Instead of meeting him at the tradesmen’s entrance, she allows him in the house, and when her employers return unexpectedly, Jose does what seems quite natural. He hides in the house.

A few days pass by, and Rosa assumes that Jose simply left. She goes looking for him at his work site and learns that he was fired. That afternoon, the police arrive at the Blinder mansion looking for Jose. He’s been accused of murder.

At this point, Rage shifts from being a crime novel to being a novel in which Jose becomes symbolic of the working class in Argentinean society. He lives in isolation in the Blinder mansion for literally years. He is privy to all their dirty little secrets, and he’s a silent invisible witness to the abuses Rosa suffers at the hands of her exploitive employers. As time passes, Jose begins to telephone Rosa from within the house, and this becomes the sole means of their communication.

Jose is a silent witness, locked up and shut away and yet powerless to help the woman he loves–even though he must witness her degradation. He resorts to violence in order to exact revenge, but it’s not quite clear if this is real or imagined as some of the incidents maintain a surreal quality. In the novel, Jose is very quickly identified as an undesirable element in the upscale neighbourhood. His virility, confidence and self-assurance mark him as a troublemaker. Once he’s out of the picture (or so his enemies believe) the other males have free access to exploit Rosa, and he’s largely powerless to stop it–an invisible witness rendered impotent by circumstance.

 Some of the reviews I’ve read of Rage seem split over the question of whether or not this is a crime novel (Jose  is accused of one murder and then murders someone in the Blinder mansion) or if this is a novel that’s largely symbolic, with Jose as a metaphor for the class system. Obviously, I land firmly with the latter group. When reading Rage it’s impossible not to ask yourself questions about the main character. How does Jose, for example, remain unseen in the mansion for years? Is this a straight forward crime novel or is Jose’s solitary, invisible existence symbolic? I think these are questions each reader will find it necessary to answer in order to find this a satisfying read.

Rage was made into the film, Rabia produced by Guillermo del Toro and directed by Sebastian Cordero, and it should prove to be an interesting slice of cinema. I’m very curious to see how the film handles the crime vs the symbolic elements of the novel.

On another note, Jose’s “disappearance” in the Blinder mansion reminds me of Argentina’s recent history of its “Disappeared” — during the 1970s, approximately 30,000 men women and children simply vanished into the dungeons and torture chambers run by Argentine’s sick-minded military Junta. There was no justice for the victims, and many of those responsible for these bloody years still walk free, under amnesty and without threat of prosecution. Bizzio’s novel seems to argue that many poor and disenfranchised still disappear in Argentina–swallowed up and absorbed by the power and appetites of the country’s wealthy families.

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