Tag Archives: state crimes

His Own Man by Edgard Telles Ribeiro

“I found myself thinking that, in the space of a generation, thousands of people south of the equator had been imprisoned, tortured, and killed in the name of priorities long since forgotten. Who would answer for the fatal gale that had precipitously taken them all?”

The ironically titled, His Own Man, from Brazilian author Edgard Telles Ribeiro, follows the dubious career of Marcilio Andrade Xavier, otherwise known as Max, a Brazilian diplomat, over the course of several decades. The narrator, a younger diplomat, just a step behind Max in his career, begins the tale as one of Max’s “lunchable colleagues” in 1968. Unknown to the narrator, Max is already on a certain bloody political path chosen back in 1964 after the military coup. Throughout the rest of the book, the narrator pieces together Max’s career as Max is posted to Uruguay and Chile–countries which slide into military dictatorships. Max’s arrival in these countries at critical junctures in their history is, of course, no coincidence, and Max, although deeply involved in decisions related to political dissidents, is not directly involved in torture & murder. All of the dirt, the evil, the cruelty seems to slide off of the very well-educated, very polished Max who continues to move, elegantly, through the corridors of power thanks to his reptilian nature, natural duplicity, ruthless ambition and complete absence of conscience. The story of Max’s career is set against the backdrop of State Terrorism, Dirty Wars and Operation Condor waged by various right-wing governments of South America towards political dissidents, their friends, families, and sympathizers–in reality, anyone vaguely related to Socialism:

Writing a country’s history may be difficult, but tracing a man’s story presents its own challenges. For a country, there is a vast array of information in the form of books and treaties, maps and image, leaders, legends, and archives. But a man? What kind of history does he have? Where would his secret maps be found? Or his boundaries? What might be hidden beneath his façade or detected in his gaze should he give in to temptation and study himself in the mirror one night?

When the narrator meets Max in 1968, Max has a diverse reservoir of friends “of assorted leanings ranging from idealism to full-blown alienation,” and yet even these friendships are formed for reasons that are part of Max’s “master plan.” As the narrator follows Max’s career, usually from a distance, but also from occasional meetings, he realizes that clues to Max’s career and intentions existed all along–he just didn’t know what to look for.

His own manThere’s a mystification that obscures Max. Part of the mystification includes the disbelief that anyone who is refined, loves literature and discusses Flaubert, Proust, Chomsky and Chekhov is capable of throwing in his lot with right-wing governments who oppress anyone who poses a perceived threat or an independent thought. It takes the narrator some time, and he’s still reluctant at that, to grasp that Max is a chameleon–a man who uses friendships as disguises, who watches and mimics behaviour,–a man who delights in deceiving others, always  operating under cover. Of course the crucial question for the narrator, constantly compelled by “the urge to dig deeper,” is: does Max have a conscience about his involvement in the heinous crimes against humanity enacted in various South American countries?

The more we learn about Max, the more elusive a character he becomes:

He had split his personality in 1964 and, apparently unsatisfied with that particular accomplishment, had subdivided it further in Montevideo, as though trying to progressively reduce his individuality into less and less visible niches.

Through the eyes of the narrator, we see Max’s wife, Marina–a woman who’s driven to extreme measures just by her dawning suspicions of her husband’s duplicity and involvement in state crimes. It’s witnessing the fear of others, including her own father, that finally drives the truth home.

Given the subject matter, it’s probably not too surprising that the book occasionally reads like non-fiction:

The same was happening on the Chilean end, even though the local economy was still weak. But Max relied on a few solid ties in the country, derived from the contacts he’d kept with certain local upper-middle class groups over the twelve months preceding Allende’s downfall. These connections ran deep given that, on his successive visits to Chile, Max had shared with these groups the plan crafted by the CIA in Montevideo and carried out in Brazil ten years earlier–by force of which the government had been systematically destabilized.

Following the Brazilian model and, later, the Uruguayan one, the Chilean business community had operated in a way that was at once light-and heavy-handed. First, it funded strikes that paralyzed the productive sectors, creating panic among the middle class and immobilizing the labor and farmers’ movements. These actions were backed by investors who in many instances received support from the CIA. As a result, nearly all the crucial sectors of the Chilean economy had crossed their arms at one point or another, most notably the truck drivers. Without transportation, essentials wouldn’t be distributed, except with great difficulty.

While this is a novel, there are some very real political figures here–including Allende. Max and his wife arrive in Chile in 1973 right in time to witness the CIA sponsored military coup, and at one point there’s a character who sounds remarkably similar to Dan Mitrione. I couldn’t help but wonder if the name of Max’s one-time secretary, Esmeralda marked the floating torture ship used by the Chilean government during its years of military dictatorship.

It will help the reader to have some background knowledge of the period in order to understand the corrosive consequences of Max’s actions. At one part in the book, towards the end, the narrator meets with a retired spook–an ideologue whose deep belief in the Domino Theory seems not only antiquated but also dwarfed and patently ridiculous in light of the terrorism of the 21st century–a whole new war. As the novel concludes, the overwhelming theme, at least for this reader, is Max’s motivation. He’s hardly an ideologue, and the narrator’s meeting with the former spook argues that some of the participants in the heinous Operation Condor at least had political beliefs–however misguided or fear-driven they were. Max had nothing except ambition, but even this does not seem to adequately explain Max. According to a colonel, a character who knew about Max’s activities and is ready to render his opinion, Max can be summed up like this:

His actions were those of a strategist with a personal agenda. Max’s team had only one player: himself. Our friend realized very early on that his superiors, within and outside the ministry, would come and go and lose power and prestige, gradually disappearing, whether from age or ill-formed alliances, while he advanced in his career. So he used them strictly for his own needs. No more, no less. he gave each an amount of attention proportional to his potential usefulness. And he knew better than anyone else how to buy low and sell high.

Max ultimately is arguably a hollow man whose complete absence of morality and conscience explains his choices, and with each step, he seems to splinter apart until there’s nothing left but a walking suit. He seems oblivious of the damage he’s caused:

Did Max notice how doleful these people were? That they had no radiance, not to mention mundane qualities such as flexibility, malice or a sense of humor? Did he ever regret having helped–even indirectly–to liquidate the country’s intellectuals, the artists, the teachers, the students, the liberals?

Or was he so bedazzled by his own splendor that he’d become immune to such doubts, content to shine on a now deserted stage?

In spite of its low-key approach, His Own Man is an incredibly moving book which traces a shameful period in South American history. The plot explores how this time provided a stage for ideologues, the ambitious, the psychos, and the amoral, and while this is a large stage, there’s also the very small personal stage between Max and the narrator. Part of the novel’s power comes from its Hall of Mirrors approach to the main characters–the narrator is fascinated by Max, and we’re fascinated by that fascination–the cobra fascinates its prey. It’s also intriguing to read how the narrator is continually reluctant to acknowledge how bad Max really is–we are so often tempted to ascribe our own morality to others. Parts of the novel, just brief entries, introduce victims of the repression, and these sections are understated but pack a powerful punch. This is a solid entry into the canon of South American political fiction and should appeal to fans of The Secret in their Eyes.

translated by Kim M. Hastings

Review copy.

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The Professor of Truth by James Robertson

In an article from The Scotsman, James Robertson explains his interest in and his concerns regarding the Lockerbie case. His latest novel, The Professor of Truth, is certain to come in for its share of criticism given its very obvious connections to the explosion of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988. In 2001, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was found guilty and sentenced for the bombing. In 2009, diagnosed with prostate cancer, he was allowed to return to Libya, and he died in 2012. Case over? Well no… there are the families of those killed who still have to live with the memories and the loss, and then there are those who are not satisfied with the investigation into the tragedy. One of those not satisfied happens to be James Robertson, and while the words “Lockerbie,” and “Pan Am 103” do not appear anywhere in these pages, their glaring absence only serves to underscore the similarities between the novel and the case surrounding the destruction of Pan Am Flight 103.

Robertson will come in for his share of criticism for this novel probably on several levels–for creating a fictional story inspired by a true event and probably also for taking that fiction into a very definite direction. For Robertson’s defense, I’d say that he’s carved an area somewhere between reality and fiction, and that’s a fascinating zone for exploration–especially since the Lockerbie case itself is fraught with some very strange occurrences.

the professor of truthBut back to the book….

Professor Alan Tealing, a 55-year-old lecturer in English Literature, lost his wife and daughter in an airplane explosion that occurred over Scotland 21 years before. He’s never ‘recovered’ from his loss, and instead a large portion of his life, and an entire room in his house, have been given to what he calls The Case. Initially he tried to understand the logistics of what happened, but that turned into an investigation which then morphed into a dissatisfaction with the official “narrative” of events. A man, Khalil Khazar, was convicted of the bombing, but Tealing is convinced that Khazar is innocent and convicted on the flimsiest, highly questionable “evidence.” Although to most people, the case is ‘solved,’ Tealing is convinced that the ‘truth’ is still out there somewhere. During all the years of his research and his fight with various official institutions, Tealing has lost friends–including the parents of his dead wife. He’s a man obsessed, and he describes his life as an existence in a “succession of cells in a vast old prison that refused to release” him. Existing in a state of limbo, not free from the past, and unable to move forward, he exists in a space he calls “Château d’If.”

One day, Tealing receives a visitor–a dying American who “had the look of a man who might recently have returned from a long expedition, in the Antarctica perhaps, on which many things had gone wrong.” This man, who calls himself Nilsen, obviously has connections with some American Intelligence agency, is there, he says, “to settle” his debts.

“You’ve always interested me,” Nilsen said. “You were an awkward fit. You were assessed as not having any allegiance.”

“Allegiance?” I could equally well have challenged the word “interested” or the word “assessed,” but they surprised me less.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he went on. “Your first allegiance was to your loved ones, we all understood that. But beyond that. Beyond country, even. What was your philosophy, your world view? When you started to make a fuss”–he saw me bridle again and made a small concessionary gesture with the palm of one hand–“when you gave us trouble with your questions, it wasn’t clear what boundaries you recognize, or if you recognized any. It wasn’t clear where you would stop. You could have been a unifying force, someone who spoke for all the victims’ families. You bridged the Atlantic with your loss. but you were obstinate. You weren’t prepared to shut up. Not so long ago that enraged me. Who was this guy? Did he think he was smarter than we were? But now, you know what, I respect it. I admire you. In your shoes I would have been the same. I see that now.”

I did not want his respect or his admiration.

“The only thing I’ve ever felt an allegiance to,” I said, “is the truth.”

“That’s a slippery substance, truth,” Nilsen said.

It’s an uneasy meeting–one that Tealing barely endures as he’s suddenly face to face with a man who embodies the very sort of government opacity he’s struggled against for the last 2 decades. Yet Tealing finds it impossible to not listen as Nilsen says some curious things:

The log of the journey. You start an investigation and you’re starting a journey. Sometimes you set off and you draw the map as you go. You’re looking for some end point but you don’t know what or where it is. And other times you do know, and it’s just a matter of how you get there. The narrative is how you get to the right destination.

In an attempt to atone for past sins, Nilsen leaves Tealing with a single piece of information. This information may hold the key to the act that ripped apart Alan’s life, and so his obsession leads him to perhaps the final step in his journey towards the truth–a very important word to Tealing.

I had begun to think the unthinkable: that I might die before the truth was known about who had killed Emily and Alice. I hadn’t ever doubted that the truth would come out eventually, but if it came out when I was dead what use would it be to me? Or if it came out long after all of us–all the fathers and mothers and sisters and lovers of the dead–were gone? By then it wouldn’t really be the truth at all. It would be information, of historical interest only, provided to people untouched by the event. It would be like news of some atrocity in a foreign, distant land, unreal and therefore, in a way, untrue. They would want to feel it, those people, but they wouldn’t be able to, or the feeling would not be sustainable. Human sympathy can only travel so far.

Okay, it’s a bit clunky to jump-start the final leg of Tealing’s search with a Spook smitten with remorse or a desire to pay his moral debts, but the story had to be jump-started somewhere. But apart from that, Robertson shows incredible mastery when creating atmosphere–the tension in Tealing’s house between the two men, the chaos at the site of the plane crash–even as officials swoop in and begin collecting evidence of wreckage, Tealing’s vivid dreams of his dead daughter, and the last lap of Tealing’s journey which takes him to the sweltering heat of a seaside town in Australia, where he plays the role of an incongruous tourist plagued by food poisoning, a scuffle with locals and stuck with a low-rent hotel room.

The story goes back in time to the day of the plane crash, moving painfully through Tealing’s discovery that his wife and only child are dead, and then the story takes us back to the present, with occasional glimpses into the past. This is, in a way, a detective story with Tealing, a man of books, desperate to discover the truth about the established/official “narrative” surrounding the explosion. Author Robertson shows terrific empathy and understanding of a life gutted by grief and loss, and also how an average man is spurred on by the desire for the truth, whatever that may be, as a way of finally being able to have some sort of peace. For this reader, The Professor of Truth was a page-turner.  Tealing’s grief and sense of living in a state of limbo are palpable, and his sense of urgency, in spite of a 21-year delay, intensely conveyed. This is primarily an excellent novel which explores how ordinary lives become swept up in crimes committed by governments, but at no point does the author dally with preaching any particular political beliefs beyond asking the value of a human life and perhaps underneath it all, exactly who determines why some humans should be worth more than others.

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Rebel Streets: A Novel of the Irish Troubles by Tom Molloy

If I carried away one thing from Tom Molloy’s novel Rebel Streets, then it’s the idea that an Occupation is a great place for a psycho to hang out for, to quote Nabokov, a “wunderbar time.” This might seem a strange conclusion to come to, but the novel illustrates how, under cover if you will, of the auspices of an Occupation, police intimidation, torture, ambushes, civilian casualties as collateral damage and murder are just some of the crimes that routinely take place while legality and conventional morality go out the window.  The ‘messiness’ and spillage of an Occupation ensures that no one stays neutral and that only the soldiers–the ones that survive–go home with or without a wooden box, but for those who endure under an Occupation, life is hell on earth.

Set during Northern Ireland during The Troubles, this short novel (232 pages) which is a quick, intense and sometimes brutal read, is essentially the story of Jimmy, a young IRA member who, when the novel begins, is under torture designed to make him break. As the torture is ramped up, Jimmy finally breaks into a blubbering mess, and then once turned, he’s released back to his compatriots with the stipulation that he report back with valuable information to his handler, RUC Special Branch Chief Detective Ian MacDonald. To make Jimmy’s degradation complete, MacDonald, an experienced interrogator who oversees Jimmy’s torture and plays the ‘good cop Saviour,’ insists on paying Jimmy a “Judas” Wage in exchange for information. Any reluctance on Jimmy’s part to betray his friends results in MacDonald threatening Jimmy’s girlfriend, Michaela.

Into the maelstrom arrives a mal-adjusted American, known in Vietnam as Monk, whose failure to adjust back into the humdrum post-conflict existence has led him to Ireland where he intends to volunteer his unique skills to the IRA as a sniper. Known simply as ‘Yank’ by the IRA members, Monk sees Belfast as Tet “without the Vietcong.” Slipping around buildings and rooftops, picking off British soldiers, Monk feels that he’s back in the jungles of Vietnam, dodging booby traps and exhilarated by the thrill of slaughtering the enemy.

Interestingly, the British soldiers and the SAS stay firmly in the background with the attention given instead to a handful of Irish characters, Catholic and Protestant, who exist on both sides of the divide. Rebel Streets might have benefitted from some further character development, but perhaps it’s intentional on the author’s part to leave his characters sketchy–they are, after all, trapped in the roles carved for them by fate, religion, birth and class, and as such they play out their parts occasionally with a smatter of cliché or heavy-handedness. We’re told for example, in one simple paragraph, about Monk’s reception upon returning home from Vietnam:

They explained he had been a dupe, a pawn, damaged goods, a war criminal, a murderer, he hated his daddy or his mommy. They explained he was afraid of women, of intimacy, of being homosexual, of being a rapist, of being castrated. He should have gone to Canada, or jail, or grad school, or taught school.

It’s just too pat, and it doesn’t work.

On the other hand, the various difficult relationships between the Irish characters all work well. It’s easy to imagine Jimmy’s moral dilemma even if we aren’t in his shoes, and the author does an excellent job of showing how his characters fill their social roles and deliberately don’t look too deeply into the moral consequences of their actions.  MacDonald, for example, “had become someone he would have shrunk from a month before.” Similarly, Jimmy finds himself ratting out his fellow IRA members, and every time he does, he hates himself more but is unable to see a way out of the trap that’s descended on his life.

Rebel Streets also gives us a glimpse into the private lives of the main characters, so we see RUC Special Branch Chief Detective Ian MacDonald going home at night after a hard day of torture. There’s a silent question raised in these scenes. How do you glide from directing scenes of torture to playing with your small children? There  is no answer to the question, of course, but MacDonald seems to know that he’s a man living on borrowed time, and proof of that is the way he’s established a code with his wife that indicates it’s safe to go indoors. Handling Jimmy is a dangerous part of MacDonald’s job, and both men risk their lives with each meeting:

He’s getting nervous sitting here, though Jimmy. It was true. Because one thing the lawman and the guerilla shared was a dread of being seen together. Death had pulled up a chair at this meeting. And death would be present at every one of their rendezvous. And like a true whore, death would be happy to leave with either one, or both of them.

While the main characters are on the front lines of the conflict, some secondary characters try to remain uninvolved, but this is seen as largely an exercise in futility. There are a couple of spots when those who try to remain neutral find themselves dragged into the conflict, and when they emerge on the other side of the experience, they are all turned by the event into new recruits for the IRA.

The biggest silent question Rebel Streets asks is Do the ends justify the means?– a fundamental question which always rears its head in wartime. Given the way that the violence Molloy depicts on the streets of Belfast also acts as a splendid cover for various psychopathic crimes, I’d argue that the novel’s stance–which shows the consequences of an ends-justifies-the-means policy (and its endorsement of violence) illustrates that no one emerges unscathed from the conflict. While Monk hunts British soldiers, “there’s a trap door [had] opened to bottomless black space” in the form of the Butcher gang–a group of psychos who hunt, torture and kill Catholics for sport. The crimes are so horrific that there are rumours that the crimes are not committed by humans but by Vampires. The Butcher Gang ( modelled on the Shankill Butchers?) operate undetected and with the justification of the ongoing sectarian violence, but while they operate on the far end of the sadistic spectrum, are they really any different from the other characters who commit acts of violence? Does enjoying torturing a human being make the act itself worse? And this brings us to the absurdity of: In other words is it ok to torture people as long as you don’t enjoy it? While Rebel Streets is a story of the choices made by a young man in a hopeless situation, the novel, for this reader, raised some interesting questions about the morality of violence. When engaged in a war against the enemy, how much can be justified? Is there a cut off point when actions become unacceptable? We would, no doubt, all agree that the Butcher Gang are criminal but under what circumstances do slaughter, bombing, torture and assassination become ok?  Molloy argues that the die-hard idealists mingle with the pyschopaths on a slippery moral slope, and at the end of the day, it’s a judgement call to peel them apart.

Tom Molloy was a freelance journalist and covered The Troubles. According to the blurb on the back cover, he was sent, at one point, to “the infamous Castlereagh detention center” where Rebel Streets begins.

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The Crime of Julian Wells by Thomas H. Cook

“The road to moral horror is never direct. There are always ramps and stairs, corridors, and tunnels, the secret chamber forever concealed from those who would be appalled by what they found there.”

I get a lot of snooty looks when people ask me what I am reading and I reply ‘crime fiction.’ That’s not the only type of novel I read, but it seems inevitable that I have a crime novel in my hand when someone asks me that question. I also get a range of snotty replies which range from: “oh … I don’t like wasting my time on that sort of book,” (like I’m reading porno) to “You should read something worthwhile. I wouldn’t waste my time on something like that.” Whatever. Up Yours. I read what I want to read.

But once in a while, I come across a fellow crime reader and we have a nice little chat about our favourite sort of crime novels. After all, there’s no such thing as an ‘average’ crime novel–that’s a huge umbrella term. Crime novels run the gamut from cozies set in picturesque, quaint English villages to very violent, heavily detailed novels about predators and their sick pastimes. I don’t care for cozy mysteries but neither do I like to wallow in torture details. Give me a crime novel that teaches me something and stretches the genre into something special, and that brings me to The Crime of Julian Wells by Thomas H. Cook. Is this a crime novel? Well the word is in the title, so crime is definitely part of the equation, but the novel is much, much more than that. It’s also an exploration of the nature of guilt, and on a larger scale, a treatise on the basest aspects of human nature. Thomas H. Cook has a reputation for writing cerebral crime novels with a strong psychological component, and that description is certainly well-deserved in The Crime of Julian Wells.

The book begins with the suicide of middle-aged American author Julian Wells. He leaves no note–no clues as to why he chose to kill himself on this day, in this fashion, and as is usually the case with suicides, family and friends are left to put together the pieces as they try to understand what happened and whether or not they failed in some way.

Julian, a writer with a respectable reputation occasionally lived at Montauk with his widowed sister, Loretta. The rest of the time, he spent either travelling the world researching his non-fiction books and articles or writing in a rented garret in Pigalle. Loretta, and Julian’s friend, literary critic Philip are the two people Julian left behind. After talking about Julian’s last weeks, Loretta and Philip identify a few peculiarities in his behaviour: a cancelled trip, unusual agitation, and a circled place on a map–the Argentinian village of Clara Vista right next to the border with Paraguay. Stunned by Julian’s death, Philip begins to question all of his memories and conversations with Julian. He is drawn to solving the mystery behind Julian’s suicide which he begins to believe is somehow connected to a month-long trip the two men took to Argentina thirty years previously.

Philip questions whether Julian committed suicide due to his prolonged exposure to depressing subjects. After all, he’d spent a lifetime delving into the darkest deeds of humankind.  With each book, Julian immersed himself in the crimes under consideration, and according to Loretta, “he was like a man in a locked room, trying to get out.”  Julian’s books never followed a template. His first book was The Tortures of Cuenca (about afabled injusticethat took place in Spain 1911), and there was also a study of Gille de Rais, The Terror, and a book about the crimes of Countess Bathory, The Tigress. Julian also wrote about serial killer, Henri Landru, the crimes of Paul Voulet, and the horrendous massacre at Oradour in 1944. Julian’s latest book, six years in the making and to be published posthumously, is The Commissar, the story of Russian serial killer Chikatilo. Loretta feels Julian’s constant exposure to some of the worst human behaviour cost her brother dearly and that “each book was like a nail in his coffin.” And our narrator agrees:

I thought of how he’d spent his last six years following the Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo’s path through countless dismal towns, sleeping in the same railway stations, eating black bread and cheese, eying the vagabond children who had been Chikatilo’s prey, becoming him, as Julian always seemed to do while writing about such villains.

Philip’s father, a retired state department official, doesn’t believe that Julian was ‘tainted’ by his work, but rather that he had “morbid” tendencies. Was Julian’s suicide the result of 30 years of researching the lives of psychopaths and their victims? In the end, was all that darkness too much for Julian to absorb? Or was there something behind Julian’s obsession with the many faces of evil and his very particular interest in disguise and deceit? There seemed to be some desperate need behind Julian’s work to explore and understand cruelty that had nothing to do with his writing career or selling novels. Julian’s work seemed integral to his character: 

The deeds that drew him were the darkest that we know, and he’d pursued them with the urgency of a lover.

The Crime of Julian Wells takes us to Pigalle, London, Moscow, and Argentina as Philip retraces Julian’s career, but all roads lead back to Argentina and Philip and Julian’s vacation during the years of that country’s Dirty War. Along the way, we meet some very Graham Greenesque characters from Julian’s shady underworld: a hearty but suspicious former KGB agent, and René, Julian’s liason in France.

The Crime of Julian Wells narrowly misses being sublime, and its one, fault, and I hesitate to write that word as I enjoyed the novel a great deal, can be found in the character of Philip. He’s Julian’s doppelgänger, and yet he’s also a blank slate in many ways. While he’s necessary to the plot’s structure and revelations, he’s not that interesting a character in his own right, and so he acts as a device that folds back the layers of the past. In spite of this, The Crime of Julian Wells is a wonderful crime novel for many reasons. For all the anti-crime novel snobs out there, with allusions to Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, author Thomas H. Cook shows just how serious and philosophical a crime novel can be. The characters aren’t solving crimes as much as they try to find the answers to haunting questions concerning the nature of guilt, the utter randomness of cruelty, how some people can sleep well, eat, and laugh after horrendous acts of cruelty while others can never expiate their guilt, and how easy it is for someone to simply disappear….

For here was Julian’s sense of life’s cruel randomness, life a lottery upon whose uncontrollable outcome everything depended, how because this streetcar stopped on this particular corner at this particular moment, nothing for this particular human being would ever be the same again.

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The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness

“I had arrived full of the kind of optimism that, in retrospect, I recognise as a sure sign that things would go wrong, and badly. Not for me, for I was a passer-by; or, more exactly, a passer-through. Things happened around me, over me, even across me, but never to me. Even when I was there, in the thick of it, during those last hundred days.”

It’s difficult for me to wrap my mind around the fact that The Last Hundred Days is the first novel from British author Patrick McGuinness. Ok, so he’s previously published some non-fiction and poetry books, and this plugs into one of my favourite pet theories: when poets write, expect something extraordinary, and for this reader, The Last Hundred Days easily glides on to the Best of 2012 List. A stunningly well-written book focusing on an ugly subject, and no doubt the most underlined book I’ve read this year, The Last Hundred Days examines the nature of corruption and the power politics during the final months leading up to the overthrow of the despotic Ceausescu regime in December 1989.

The narrator of the novel is a young man in his twenties who leaves for a university position in Bucharest after the death of his father. There’s something decidedly fishy about the appointment as he didn’t even bother to show up for the interview. Naturally he didn’t expect to get the job, and so when a visa arrived, he packed a suitcase and asked no questions. Upon arriving in Bucharest,”the Paris of the East,” the narrator gets a taste of what’s to come when customs officers “who operate with malign lethargy,” lift chocolate bars and batteries from his luggage with the dead-pan comment, “tax.”

For those of us who know a little about recent  Romanian history, we know that the narrator has arrived to live, by choice, in a totalitarian country–Romania in the 80s ‘run’ by the Ceausescus–Nicolae and Elena. Immediately after alighting from the plane, the narrator notes the sensation that he’s entered a time warp. The posters glorifying Ceausescu show him decades younger than he actually is and yet he appears to have  “lightly bloated marzipan blush of an embalmed corpse.”

The narrator is given an apartment recently occupied by his mysterious and missing predecessor, Belanger–a man who left, apparently, in some haste as his clothing, CDs and books remain behind. Leo, a fellow professor, becomes our narrator’s guide to Bucharest and Romania. A master figure in the lucrative black market economy, Leo has a vast network of acquaintances who specialise in acquiring and selling all the goods that seem to have disappeared from Romanian life. Leo’s first gift to the narrator is a Bachelor of Arts certificate, a “welcome present” which comes along with the cryptic comment, “mind you, if you want a PhD you’ll have to pay for it like everyone else.”

Welcome to Bucharest.

Although this is ostensibly a communist country, Romania has succumbed to Totalitarianism, and along with that comes the Police State and its savage treatment of anyone with the bad luck to fall foul of the system. This is a country in which people disappear, the great majority of the population don’t have a connection to the corrupt network of party politics with its accompanying black market, birth control is illegal and any miscarriage is investigated as a criminal act.

While Leo, who has his black market goods stashed all over Bucharest, does business with the British ex-pats and embassy minions in Bucharest, he largely makes fun of their society:

It’s a close call for Leo’s special scorn, between the Party apparatchiks who rule their people with such corruption, ineptitude and contempt, and the expats: the diplomats, businessmen and contractors who live in a compound to the west of the city, with their English pub,  The Ship and Castle (‘The Shit and Hassle’) and their embassy shop. One of his riffs is to compose designer scents for them: ‘Essence of Broadstairs’, ‘Bromley Man’, ‘Stevenage: For Her’. Their parties, and endless round of cocktails and booze-ups are ‘sometimes fun, of only for a drink and a chance to read last week’s English papers’, but the circuit as a whole is, as he puts it ‘a doppelganbang: where largely identical people fuck each other interchangeably’.

Gradually, through his relationships, the narrator is drawn into both the highs and lows of Romanian life. Through his relationship with the pampered daughter of a high-ranking Party official, he sees how the fortunate, the throughly corrupt live, but in his relationships with those who desire change, the narrator enters the dangerous and treacherous twilight area of black marketeers and dissidents. 

For all the grotesqueness and brutality, it was normality that defined our relations; the human capacity to accommodate ourselves to our conditions, not the duplicity and corruption that underpinned them. This was also our greatest drawback- the routinisation of want, sorrow, repression, until they became invisible, until they numbed you even to atrocity.

Author McGuinness, who lived in Bucharest during the period described in the novel, is particularly adept at juxtaposing the two worlds of Romania–the world of repression and want vs. the world of lavish excess enjoyed by Party apparatchiks, the double-speak of totalitarianism and the seemingly natural duality that exists in everyone. Leo for example, may be a professor at the university, but he’s also a zealous, energetic black-marketeer. His sideline, if you will, is the documentation, in book form of the rapidly disappearing areas of Bucharest–a sideline that will culminate, with any luck, in the conclusion of his book The City of Lost Walks. So Leo is one of the movers and shakers of both the demolishing of Romanian society and its preservation–even if it’s only in book form. And what of our young narrator–a man whose moral corruption begins on day one of the job when he’s ‘encouraged’ to provide a reference for a student he’s never met. But in spite of this morally compromising act which signals that he’s willing to begin playing the corruption game, our narrator is far more attractive to the dissidents among the population than the power-brokers who can smooth his way. The nature of a police state encourages subversion even as it represses it, and everyone the narrator meets is not quite what they seem. What of former politician Trofim now out of favour as he writes two sets of memoirs (back to that double-speak again). Is he a voice for reform, or is it as Leo jokes: “New brothel, same old whores….”

Leo argues that “people and what they did were two separate things, they and their actions parting like a body and its shadow at dusk,” and in Romanian society corruption and repression is a part of daily life. There’s a Kafkaesque sense to some of the events that take place–the waiter who asks how the diners enjoyed the meal, for example, with the food yet to appear on the table. The waiter’s comment is deliberately mis-timed is a signal for bribery to begin. But this sense of madness and an almost secret, unspoken language that is only understood by natives extends beyond a simple exchange between two people and has escalated to national insanity:

If foreign dignitaries were being shown Bucharest, police vans unloaded goods and stacked them in shop windows: bread and vegetables, cuts of meat and fruit most people had forgotten existed. The cars slowed down to take it all in. When they had passed the same vans took everything back again to the diplomatic and party shops.

And again:

From the outside, the ministry was boxy and grey, its only ornament a stucco Party crest. As an interior space, it was barely comprehensible. I remembered those posters by Escher that decorated student walls: physically impossible architecture and abysmal interiors; staircases that tapered into a void, or twisted back into themselves; doors that opened onto doors; balconies that overlooked the inside of another room that gave onto a balcony that overlooked the inside of another room… There were vast desks with nothing on them except for telephones, ashtrays and blank paper; voices loud enough to startle but too faint to understand; unattributable footsteps that got closer but never materialised into presence, then sudden arrivals which made no sound. The rustle of unseen activity was everywhere,. like the scratching of insects in darkness. Kafka’s The Castle came to mind, a book I had not read but that fell into that category of literature that culture reads on your behalf and deposits somewhere inside you. So I imagined Kafka’s castle.

The Last Hundred Days is a dense read–not to be skimmed, and I found myself backtracking numerous times just to drink in the descriptions. While the professional reviews seem positive, reviews elsewhere appear to be mixed. Sometimes I think books get the wrong readers, but for me, this superb book, exquisitely written and told through the eyes by a slightly stunned narrator who lands in Romania as a witness of a dramatic time in the country’s history, the book will resonate for a long time to come.

Review copy from the publisher.

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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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Twelve Who Don’t Agree by Valery Panyuskin

I and everyone who participates in the Dissenters’ Marches–and we’ve prepared for repression, we’ve often talked about it, but we imagined we’d be arrested for unsanctioned rallies, antigovernment articles, and public opposition. Why didn’t I think of this? The Bitsevsky maniac! Young Limonov supporters go to prison not because they’ve posted antigovernment flyers or organized Dissenters’ Marches. They go to prison for selling drugs, like good little children, even though the drugs were planted on them by operatives during the arrest. Even their parents believe their own children’s involvement in the drug trade. Mikhail Khodorkovsky is in prison for money laundering, not for going into politics. Manana Aslamazian came under investigation for contraband, not for running a free journalism school.

Idiot! You were hoping to be repressed for your little freedom-loving articles. Like hell! What are you going to do if you’re repressed for well-edited FSB videos of you assaulting minors?What will it be like when neither your friends, nor your own children, nor even your own mother believe that the proof of your guilt, quoted in the tabloids and on television on True Confessions, is bullshit from the first word to last?”

I’ve come across the name of Russian journalist Valery Panyuskin enough to know that I was interested in Twelve Who Don’t Agree (original title 12 Nesoglasnykh) which was published earlier this year by Europa Editions. After reading this non-fiction book, I can recommend it to anyone who wants to know about what is going on in modern Russia beyond the Putin-mania, and I can also say that Valery Panyuskin is a very brave man.

The book is divided into twelve chapters with each chapter telling the story of the various dissidents who–despite their varied professions and backgrounds–all participated in the 2007 March of the Dissidents. This series of protests which argued for a number of social changes–including greater accountability of ‘authorities’–took place the year before the presidential election scheduled in 2008. Although Russian law states that protests do not need to be ‘sanctioned’ there’s a technical requirement that notice of upcoming protests must be lodged with the ‘authorities.’ The 2007 protest marches sparked alarming behaviour on the part of those so-called authorities: Dozens were beaten by OMON (“the special purpose police”) officers, the numbers of those attending the marches was severely underestimated by the press, members of various other political parties were arrested before some of the demonstrations took place, and agent provocateurs mingled with the protesters in order to illustrate the poor behaviour of the demonstrators.

No room for smugness here. We can’t kid ourselves. This stuff is happening in America and Britain too. And here’s the thing, if you can’t even have a protest, then what’s the alternative?

But back to Panyuskin. The book begins the night before the demo scheduled for November 24, and Panyuskin is clearly in high spirits anticipating the rally, but the situation becomes increasingly more serious the next day: buses packed full of OMON personnel, blocks cordoned off by soldiers, and underground routes “closed on the pretext of emergency repairs.” It begins to look as though the protest is gearing up to be a mass suppression, but there are amusing moments when Panyuskin notes the Danish journalists who search amongst the high-end luxury foreign vehicles for a tatty old car with a cracked windshield to include in their footage:

Evidently they thought that in the film Moscow should look like a Havana descended upon by a glacier, the final touch of our totalitarian misfortune.

But that moment of humour gone, the protest begins to turn sour:

According to long tradition, the authorities drove a couple of hundred homeless to every opposition rally for the purpose of displaying the drunken riffraff who constituted Putin’s opponents. In exchange for participating in the country’s political life, the homeless demand vodka but not to be allowed to wash.

Panysukin also explains that there are “myths” circulating that the protestors “are extremists financed and directed by the American CIA.” And there are sobering anecdotes about the dangers of entering politics:

While I was standing in this crowd of intelligentsia, students, and bums, I told my friends a tale about how not long ago one opposititionist politician planning to run for president went to see a famous banker to ask for money for his campaign. The meeting took place in a restaurant. The banker was eating oysters. No sooner had the politician walked in that the banker said to him, as he scooped a fine de claire out of its shell, “So, I guess you want to run for president? Have you really thought this over? Have you thought about the fact that your wife, Tanya, and your son, Vadik, could be abducted tomorrow and you’d never find them?” The politician was taken aback. He broke out in red spots, muttered something and took his leave. And no sooner had he gone that the banker said to the intermediaries in the talks between the politician and businessmen who were still at the table, “So what? He’s asking for twenty million of my money, by the way. Don’t I have the right to know whether he’s going to piss his pants at the first attack?”

The protest begins with leaders of the Other Russia coalition present, including Garri Kasparov and Eduard Liminov (leader of the National Bolsheviks–Nazbols). The protestors are cordoned off, beaten and thrown into OMON vans. Panyuskin’s trials for the day don’t end there, however.

The other chapters are profiles of 11  individuals from various walks of life, and these chapters examine each person who found themselves disagreeing with some aspect of Russian policy. One man witnessed the Belsan attack, and yet another man was a member of a Special Ops group who understands the importance of creating a strategy of tension in order to further political objectives. One of the most fascinating chapters concerns Marina Litvinovich, an idealistic young woman whose career, while morally questionable, was certainly rising. Working within the FEB and reporting to FEP head Gleb Pavlovsky, she was soon attending high-level meetings with Voloshin, the president’s chief-of-staff. Her job was to analyse “Information Threats and Recommendations for Their Elimination.” What a job. Anyway, her career went into the toilet after she recommended that Putin return from his holiday and meet with the families of those doomed on the submarine, Kursk. After that incident, policy changed following the Moscow theatre massacre :

And the “information threats” were eliminated by the fact that NTV, the last VHF television channel to allow itself to speak freely, replaced its directors. At the time, President Putin reproached the channel’s chief, Boris Yordan, for “making ratings on blood.” The president was implying that there were so many victims  because NTV had broadcast live. The Kremlin’s information policy had completely given way to naked propaganda, and no one needed Marina Litvinovich anymore.

And finally here’s a quote I loved:

If you read the newspapers not the way normal people do, skimming the headlines and reading only the articles that interest you, if you read the newspaper straight through from cover to cover, your picture of the world changes. Articles by different authors on different topics line up in legions of information and go on the attack. In various newspapers and various headings Marina found seemingly totally unconnected articles. An article about the horrible state that the largest factory in the town of N was in, for instance. An article about how businessman K had met with the young people. An article about how state official M had taken shady money for consulting for some unknown person. Putting these texts together, and bearing in mind that businessman K wanted to privatize the factory in N, official M was preventing him, and so businessman K had started a PR campaign whose ultimate goal was acquiring the factory.

Anyway, for anyone interested in what’s going on in the New Russia, Twelve Who Don’t Agree is a must read. While I find politics boring, the stories of the levels of corruption, cover-ups, and the injustices submerged under the headlines offer a unique look at individuals who struggle within the larger, alien social context.

Translated by Marian Schwartz.

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Needle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo

If I read a crime novel set in a foreign country, one of the things I expect is to get a sense that either the characters, the crime or the manner in which it’s investigated is somehow or another unique to that country. In other words, I expect some local colour–not that I always get it, and my recent experience with the Polish crime novel Entanglement led me to have some high expectations.

This brings me to Needle in A Haystack from author Ernesto Mallo. Mallo, a writer and a journalist, according to the blurb on the front of my copy, was also a “former member of the anti-Junta guerilla movement.” I was curious, so encouraged by the fact that this is the first novel in a trilogy (and made into films), I decided to give the book a try.

I’ll admit that with all the books and films I’ve watched about life under Argentina’s murderous military regime, I’ve never wondered what it was like to be a policeman during this time. Needle in A Haystack argues that a successful career in law enforcement in Argentina of the 70s was based on the ability to look the other way and only investigate certain crimes. The book begins with Superintendent Lascano getting a call to pick up two stiffs. The bodies have been dumped in a site that’s commonly used by the Junta’s death squads for the disposal of victims. Lascano’s job is to go there, pick up the bodies and deliver them to the morgue. There will be no investigation. But when Lascano arrives, there are three bodies. Two of the bodies bear the ear-marked signs of execution by the death squads, but the trauma to the body of the third corpse does not fit the pattern. Lascano begins an investigation.

The mysterious third body turns out to be portly Biterman, a wealthy Auschwitz survivor who’s known to lend money. As the plot follows the investigation into Biterman’s death, it’s clear that Lascano’s job is not easy. Under his eyes, crimes committed by the state regularly take place in broad daylight–people are hauled out of their homes & shot in the streets while their belongings are ‘impounded’; others simply vanish without a trace, but in spite of the fact Lascano sees these things, he’s powerless to act. It’s hands off & look the other way. 

Things heat up for Lascano when the investigation leads him to a man who has powerful friends, and the overriding question becomes whether or not Lascano should continue his investigation or back off. I’m not going to tell you what he decides to do, you can probably guess.

The novel is at its strongest in its depiction of the insanity of life in Argentina during the Dirty War. There are people trying to ‘uphold the law’ (but only certain laws) while others act in blatant defiance of those laws. While the Junta supposedly tracks down lefties and subversives, the reality is that anyone can be a victim of the Junta. Just piss off the wrong person or have something they want, and it’s sayonara.

The novel is at its weakest in its sentimentality towards Lascano’s personal life. He’s a widower and during the course of the investigation he harbours Eva, a girl sought for her ‘subversive’ connections. This brings me to the subject of sex. It’s a touchy area but when it comes to describing sex organs all sorts of terms pop up. Here we get Lascano’s “sleeping sex” and at another point “his sex is triumphantly reborn and wants to fly.” This is bodice-ripper territory and created all sorts of strange images in my head–all of which were out-of-place with the rest of the novel. Another criticism is the long italicized passages. Sometimes these passages are thoughts and at other times these passages are exchanges between two characters. In the latter case, it’s sometimes difficult to follow just who is saying what.

Nonetheless, there are some interesting characters here, including Amancio, scion of a once rich family who knows how to live well but who no longer has the means to do so:

He feels nostalgic for the days of playing the white hunter, when he could happily blow a fortune on an African safari in the Okavango delta, for the lost splendour and indulgence of it all, because for some time now Amancio’s finances have been spiralling out of control. He was never taught nor felt the need to learn how to earn money, only to spend it . He was an awful student guided by an indifferent father, from whom Amancio inherited the sense of a life already accounted for, nails growing long like those of a Chinese mandarin. Work was not meant for the likes of them. Their distant ancestors had made fortunes appropriating indian land in the wake of the desert campaign of General Roca. Back then, just as today, the army lived by a non-negotiable principle: that the good fight meant fighting for goods. The sacrifice, the massacre of one thousand Indians per day, wasn’t considered excessive in return for securing a family’s wealth for three or four generations.

Amancio’s big problem is, of course, that those 3 or 4 generations are over. Meanwhile, the family wealth has dissipated. He’s left with little other than expensive tastes, a penchant for leisure and a high-maintenance wife who is primed to leave if things get too tough.

Another character subject to domestic troubles and the need to placate his wife is the incredibly evil Major Giribaldi–a man who arranges an adoption to his wife in order to shut her up. According to the military doctor who suggests adoption to Giribaldi (without raising the issue of stealing babies from pregnant women in detention centres), “adoption is the easiest thing in the world these days.” Giribaldi arranges to take a baby from a girl who, when she delivers, will become one of The Disappeared.  Needle in a Haystack is a novel that delineates the atmosphere of a country sunk into madness–where illegal actions are perpetrated by those running the country state, and one scene in the Plaza de Mayo epitomizes the insanity.

Translated by Jethro Soutar

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Entanglement by Zygmunt Miloszewski

“How unfair it is that we only have one life,” mused Szacki, “and that it so quickly bores us.”

 

I am less-than-thrilled with the recent flood of Scandinavian crime fiction. While I’m pleased to see publishers taking chances on books in translation (I read somewhere that a very small % of published books in N. America are translations), the latest offerings haven’t really interested me. Admittedly I haven’t read many–only a handful, and perhaps I read the ‘wrong ones’ but they’ve been bleak and anemic.

This brings me to another issue in crime fiction. I am getting bored with the overworked police detective who’s drinking himself into oblivion (a subject that recently came up at Whispering Gums). Classic noir fiction seemed to handle this character type perfectly–or perhaps it was just the times when a three Martini lunch wasn’t something that raised eyebrows. These days I can’t help but suspect that if you show up for roll-call with a whiff of booze, you’d be on leave and signing into rehab before you could grab your nightstick.

Anyway, this is a long preamble but it leads me to Entanglement an excellent POLISH crime novel from Bitter Lemon Press. This is one of the best police procedurals I’ve read in some time. My reaction may partly be explained by the fact that Poland seems exotic or at least fresh when it comes to crime locales. I’m not the only one who thinks that. Here’s the blurb from the back of the book:

“This is flinty, quirky crime writing from Poland with a pungent sense of locale and a nicely jaded protagonist in Szacki, the past-his-sell-date prosecutor energised by the case.” (Crime Time).

That’s so good, I wish I’d written it. Now to the book….

Warsaw State Prosecutor Teodor Szacki isn’t pleased when he’s told to investigate the murder of middle-aged businessman, Henryk Telak. The case just adds to the stack of work he already has, and compared to some of the other nasty cases he’s dealing with Telak’s murder doesn’t stand out in any notable way. But as Szacki starts asking questions, the case, which initially seemed to be the result of a burglary gone wrong, strangely becomes less transparent. The murder took place in a secure former Warsaw monastery now used for religious retreats. Telak was a participant at a weekend of intense Family Constellation Therapy, and the seminar was also attended by the therapist and four of his patients.  Libidinous policeman Oleg Kuzniecow sums it up in one sentence: “one body, four suspects–all sober and well-to-do.”

Szacki begins to be intrigued by the case as it’s a “nice change after all those run-of-the-mill city murders.”  The crime should be fairly easy to address: either one of the other people attending the seminar murdered Telak, or it’s a case of a murder committed during a random break-in. But the murder proves difficult to solve, and while there’s pressure to designate Telak’s death as an unsolved crime, Szacki isn’t ready to give up. There are troubling details about the crime that gnaw away at Szacki, and as he begins devoting time to the case and is gradually sucked in to its solution, it’s very easy for the reader to go along for the ride. 

Szacki initially dismisses Family Constellation Therapy as quackery, and possibly explosive quackery at that, but as the plot develops, Szacki finds himself thinking in psycho-babble metaphors, and in another cold case, a tip from a clairvoyant may lead to a murderer. Szacki begins softening to the notion of therapy as a useful tool while he questions his own domestic situation and just what Family Constellation Therapy would reveal about his intimate relationships. 

Part of the novel’s success can be attributed to Szacki. He isn’t the train-wreck-shell-of-a-man detective from, let’s say Raymond’s Factory series, but there’s definitely a self-destructive streak there under his flawed, all-too human surface. Szacki is a realistic character plagued with the trivia of everyday existence. For example, he limits himself to three cigarettes a day and then bargains about how soon to smoke them. He also worries about whether or not he can afford lunch in a cafe. For the first few pages, I assumed that Szacki was in his 50s (there are references to his white hair), but later it’s revealed that he’s in his 30s. He’s at the point in his career and in his marriage where he can see the future mapped out, and it’s hardly reassuring.  He’s a man who could slowly slide into a life of bad habits, and this is underscored by the idea that Szacki is beginning to think that there’s something missing in his life which may very well be fixed with an adulterous romp with a young, attractive reporter. As the story develops, Entanglement could easily refer to the Telak murder, Szacki’s increasingly complicated personal life, or even the depths of Poland’s murky political past.

As Szacki hunts for the truth, he interviews, meets and questions a range of crisply drawn characters, and it’s these intense quirky characterisations–usually a few sentences with a concluding zinger–that really make the book so entertaining. Here’s Szacki about to question one of the women who attended the therapy session with the murder victim:

Hanna Kwiatkowska had a pretty, intelligent face and her slighty hooked nose gave her a surly appeal and a certain aristocratic charm. In twenty years she’d look like a pre-war countess. Her smooth, mousy hair came down to her shoulders, and its ends curled outwards. And although no fashion house would have offered her a job advertising underwear on the catwalk, plenty of men would have been happy to take a good look at her well-proportioned, attractive body. It was quite another matter how many of them would be scared off by the restless look in her eyes. Szacki for sure.

There’s also a couple of state pathologists (Szacki calls them “necrophiliacs“)  who spice up their work hours with their morbid sense of humour, policeman Oleg Kuzniecow who won’t stop talking about sex, and Szacki’s boss, District Prosecutor for Warsaw City Centre, Janina Chorko–a tired, bitter, dried-up woman who makes him feel very uncomfortable: 

She was several years older than Szacki: her grey suit blended with her grey hair and nicotine-grey face. Always a bit sulky, with a wrinkled brow, she gave the lie to the theory that there aren’t any ugly women. Janina Chorko was ugly, was perfectly aware of the fact and did not try to cover up her defects with clothes or make-up. Quite the opposite-she consciously made herself sour, malicious and painfully businesslike, which was in perfect harmony with her appearance, turning her into the archetypal boss from hell. The new prosecutors were afraid of her, and the trainees hid in the toilet whenever she came down the corridor.

While Szacki admires Janina Chorko’s intelligence and integrity, he lives in mortal fear of any hint that her obvious loneliness may one day spill over to a sexual proposition, and so any conference between Szacki and his boss is fraught with tension:

Szacki nodded in silence. She was right, but he was afraid that if he started agreeing with her to eagerly, she’d think she’d found a fraternal soul in him and would suggest he drop in at her place for a glass of wine and a nice little chat about the sad lot of the prosecutor in the Polish Republic. He waited a while out of courtesy, thanked the boss, muttered something about a huge pile of paperwork and went out, leaving Janina Chorko surrounded by unhappy thoughts, the stink of cigarettes and the smell of her imitation leather chair.

Glimpses of Szacki’s home life surface throughout the novel. Szacki’s marriage to Weronika isn’t bad, but their sex life has stagnated, and their daily life has dissolved down to a series of petty details.  He’s genuinely confused when Oleg Kuzniecow makes a crack about Weronika’s attractiveness and wonders if Oleg sees something he doesn’t, if he’s being sarcastic, or if Oleg salivates over every female.  Szacki finds it surprisingly easy to lie to his wife but then his job has taught him a great deal about deception.

Szacki also deals with the inflated ego of an idiosyncratic therapist and an amateur historian who specializes in the covert actions of the SB (Sluzba Bezpieczenstwa), Poland’s secret police whose brutal speciality was political suppression. The novel’s depth and creeping air of menace is accentuated by an unidentified character (subject to his own domestic tyranny) who tracks Szacki’s investigation in case he gets too close. Entanglement blends just the right amount of crime, sly humour and despair, and it’s a novel I recommend to anyone who reads crime fiction.

Notes at the front of the book mention that the author is working on a screenplay for Entanglement and is also writing a sequel.

Entanglement is translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

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Stefano Delle Chiaie:Portrait of a Black Terrorist by Stuart Christie

“Fascists are the subordinate element of more cohesive and powerful forces.”

After watching the Italian film about the kidnapping of Italian politician Aldo Moro–Good Morning, Night–some bizarre features about the case led me to this book: Stefano Delle Chiaie: Portrait of a Black Terrorist by Stuart Christie. While the name of terrorist Carlos the Jackal was practically a household word for several decades, somehow or another the name Stefano Delle Chiaie seems to have stayed under the radar. When one considers all that is known–as well as all that is speculated about the terrorist career of Delle Chiaie, it’s both remarkable and bizarre that he’s managed to stay so anonymous. Author Stuart Christie’s book is a focused, relevant, well-documented and intense study of Delle Chiaie’s terrorist, neo-fascist career.

Stefano Delle Chiaie also known as “Il Caccola” (Shorty) was born in 1936 into a “staunchly pro-fascist” household. By the time he was 20, he was the secretary of the local neo-fascist party, MSI, but soon moved on to the more radical Ordine Nuovo–a group that shared the same motto with the Nazi SS: “Our Honour is our loyalty.” Delle Chiaie then in 1960 founded his own neo-fascist organization “Avanguardia Nazionale”–the “cudgel of black extremism” notorious for “stringent internal discipline.”

Working with fascist elements within the police force, the government, and Italian military intelligence (SIFAR), Delle Chiaie and the Avanguardia Nazionale built a “national and international clandestine neo-fascist infrastructure” which operated for over twenty years. One of the organisation’s aims was to establish a “Strategy of Tension” in Italy which would create such a degree of “social disruption” that the Italian people would be swayed into approving the “installation of a strong-arm government pledged to restore ‘order’.” Delle Chiaie’s operatives achieved their goal of creating a “climate of chaos” by infiltrating communist and anarchist groups, committing terrorist acts and then ensuring that the blame was lodged on those groups. The book includes many black and white photos of Delle Chiaie’s shape shifting operatives acting as agent provocateurs while working undercover initially within communist groups and then moving on into the Maoist (Marxist-Leninist) and anarchist movements. Christie also analyzes the mysterious death of anarchist Pinelli who ‘fell’ from a window during a police interrogation. At the time anarchists were accused of the bombings in the Piazza Fontana, Milan on December 12, 1969–an incident Delle Chiaie was later extradited, tried, and acquitted for.

The book also includes information about Delle Chiaie’s international activities. When Italy became too uncomfortable for him, he moved his operation to Franco’s Spain and then Latin America. Here he participated in various ‘dirty wars’ including Operation Condor, and the book discusses his known involvement with many international assassinations, massacres, and coup d’etats. Speculation about other suspected activities is pieced together by formerly secret documents, and internal memos while tracking Delle Chiaie’s whereabouts at the times of nefarious actions–he manages to pop up at various suspicious locations. Also covered is information regarding the Serpieri Report (conveniently buried by the Italian Secret Service), P2, The Rose of the Winds organization, and Operation Gladio. Reading this book about the shadowy career of a terrorist puppet master is a revelation for those interested in subversive political operations, and with a splendid understanding and superb definition of fascism, the author shows clearly how fascism can be utilized for nefarious purposes within a society’s infrastructure.

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