The Case of Lisandra P. by Hélène Grémillon, translated by Alison Anderson – #WITMonth 2016

Title:  The Case of Lisandra P.

Author:  Hélène Grémillon

Translator:  Alison Anderson

Publisher:  Penguin Books, New York (2016)

ISBN:  978 0 14 312658 4

 

When writing #WITMonth posts, my first instinct is to spotlight only amazing books. And while those books definitely exist, it started to seem unfair to hold a writer to a ridiculously high standard because of her gender. It is perfectly acceptable for women, like men, to write mediocre but ultimately entertaining novels. Novels you take to the beach or read beside the pool not caring if the pages get full of sand or foxed from the water. Novels that are a little far-fetched and require a willingness to buy into coincidence after unlikely coincidence; but  which have you locked to the page – frantic to find out what happens next.

The Case of Lisandra P. is that kind of book.

In 2003 the French military’s role in training Argentine forces thirty plus years prior, in both urban warfare and torture techniques, was revealed. That training was subsequently used by the Argentine government against its own people in what came to be known as the Dirty War. Anywhere between 7,000-30,000 men, women and children disappeared between 1974 and 1983 – no one knows the actual numbers – and devastated families had no choice but to accept never knowing what had happened to a generation of their loved ones.  French writer Hélène Grémillon sets her story in Buenos Aires, 1987. It is against this backdrop of residual paranoia and loss which The Case of Lisandra P. plays out.

When a beautiful young woman is found dead on the sidewalk by a pair of young lovers, six stories below the window of her own apartment, the police are more than happy to implicate the husband. But Dr. Vittorio Puig,  psychoanalyst, maintains he is innocent.  From prison he reaches out to one of his patients and asks for her help in uncovering the truth. Eva Maria, an alcoholic and emotionally fragile woman (who may be a little in love with Puig), hesitantly agrees.

The alcoholic detective, recovering from a tragic past may be as cliché as it gets – but Eva Maria is more than that. She is a mother still reeling from the disappearance of her daughter.  One day Stella left the house and, like so many others during the Dirty War, never came back.  Her body was never found. In the aftermath, Eva Maria’s marriage falls apart and she drinks until she blacks out.  Her remaining son’s attempts to reach out to her, to care for her, are continually rejected. He desperately wants some sign of his mother’s affection, but Eva Maria is buried alive in a very real portrayal of a parent’s inconsolable grief.

…The funeral of a dead woman is one thing, but of a murdered woman, that’s something else entirely. The sorrow of not knowing how she died, this woman they are burying: it impedes mourning, and nothing should ever impede mourning, or there can be no healing. Can anyone here imagine Vittorio pushing his wife out the window? Is anyone here absolutely convinced he did? Eva Maria got there first, and she will be the first to leave. The policeman are waiting. Talking. Laughing. Eva Maria hides behind a tree. She watches as people leave the church. You don’t take photos at funerals. Her camera sounds like the song of a sick bird. She doesn’t want to miss anyone. Eva Maria is beginning to have a taste for suspicion, the stifling sensation that anyone could have killed Stella. She meant to say Lisandra. She’s confusing them. Mixing things up. In her mind now the two dead women are overlapping. The one who makes her suffer so much that she cannot bear to think of her, and the one who did not suffer, who occupies her thoughts for hours on end.

As she becomes more involved the case the boundaries between  Lisandra P.’s murder and Eva Maria’s obsession with her daughter’s disappearance begin to blur. As she listens to tapes of his sessions, at Vittorio’s request, she learns terrible secrets regarding her fellow patients. Things quickly spiral into an ending both shocking and tragic.

Structurally, The Case of Lisandra P. is a hodge-podge that incorporates first person stream of conscious and all three third person narrative perspectives (objective, limited and omniscient) as it jumps from character to character. Even the victim gets her turn to speak. Four pages of sheet music are reproduced between chapters, we read directly from the transcripts of Puig’s therapy sessions, there is the illustration of a sign and of a business card, a list of words Lisandra found in a book takes up three pages. There’s probably more that I’ve forgotten. Grémillon has metaphorically dumped a box onto a table and assembled a novel out of the contents. A hot mess is one way to describe it.  But the disorganization also creates the impression that the reader is actively participating in Eva Maria’s investigation.

Hélène Grémillon’s first novel, The Confidant was nominated for the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman and won Monaco’s Prince Pierre Literary Prize.  I have to think that it was a very different book than this one.  The Case of Lisandra P. is a perfect poolside thriller. Easily read and just as easily forgotten.

 

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Spring Crime Spree: Murder Most Serene by Gabrielle Wittkop (tr. Louise Rogers Lalaurie)

Title:  Murder Most Serene

Author:  Gabrielle Wittkop

Translator:  Louise Rogers Lalaurie

Publisher:  Wakefield Press, Cambridge (2015)

ISBN:  978 1 939663 14 6

Murder Most Serene is a study in contrasts.  It is a tale of two cities, one above and one below, during the month and years preceding Napoleon’s invasion of the then Republic of Venice. The inhabitants, fully cognizant that history is catching up to them, distract themselves with frenetic celebrations and debauchery. Venice is an empire staring down its final days – like a garishly made-up prostitute at the end of a long night staring silently at her reflection, powder caked and lipstick smeared,  in the mirror.

In Venice, everything is different. Different from what, if not Venice?… A city that shows only one-half of herself, held aloft on millions of felled trees, upon the forests of Istria, the great trunks cut down, dragged, floated, flayed, and sawn into piles, planted in the mud, bolt upright and tarred like mummies, chain-bound oaks, hooped in iron, held motionless in the sand for all ages, doubly dead, etiolated corpses encrusted with lime, dead mussels, putrefied seaweed, swathed in nameless debris, decomposed rags and bones. A twin city beneath the city, inverse replica of its palaces and domes, its canals metamorphosed into the skies of Hades, a response but not a reflection, for this is the city of darkness, the city whose skies are forever black, the city below, on the other side.

Murdercover4As Venetian society whirls through candlelit ballrooms they whisper about the trials and tribulations of Count Alvise Lanzi, a hapless Bluebeard, who can’t seem to keep a wife alive. His brides’ untimely ends – punctuated by black bile, violent spasms and agonizing pain – blend together into one macabre death scene which plays across the entire novella. Alleviated only by occasional digressions into the candlelit glamour of Venetian society, the narrative bounces back and forth between an omniscient (if somewhat reticent) narrator describing the evils as they befall the Lanzi brides and a delightfully gossipy correspondent writing to his or her “dear Siren” about all that is happening in the city.  

The wives, of course, are being murdered. A seasoned mystery reader will suspect by whom very early on, but that isn’t the point.  The prose is the star of this dark little book. When Wittkop introduces Felicita and Teresa, two sisters destined to follow Lanzi to the altar and each other to the grave, they are pretty little dolls frozen in a miniature diorama.  

Felicita is a tall girl with a pure, olive complexion, capable of playing the harp and turning a compliment in Latin. People say she has an austere temperament. Teresa is quite as tall and slender, but of a paler hue. She plays the harpsichord and loves nothing so much as to shine, and shine…

In just four sentences Wittcop conjures the two young ladies – one regal and serene, the other vibrant and effervescent. But the glamour is fleeting and this image is quickly replaced with another. Death, when it comes, is not pretty or charming.

The room, near the kitchens at the back of the Mendicanti, is grayish white like a wall eye. To counter the smell, the pathologists don the old beaked mask once worn by doctors purporting to treat sufferers of the plague. Beside the table, a valet holds the flaming torches. The stench of butchery again, as at the birth. A fly – a fat blue gem covered in fine, downy hair – wanders across Felicita’s face.

Back and forth, back and forth Wittkop drags her readers. And, despite ourselves, we enjoy every minute of it. Like her previous novella, The Necrophiliac, the darker and more depraved the story gets the more playful the prose becomes.  Much of this little novella’s perfection comes from the cinematic handling of the imagery – cut scenes, close-ups and pan shots, fade ins & outs – it’s very easy to imagine a Tim Burton screen adaptation of Murder Most Serene inspired by 16th century still-life paintings (imagine exquisitely painted depictions of skulls, dead animals and rotting food). The archness of the prose belies the unsavory nature of what it describes. Like the white-eyed, too wide smile of Anne Hathaway’s powdered sugar portrayal of Carroll’s White Queen which leaves the audience unsure of whether she’s going to stroke or snap the fluffy white kitten’s neck, murder has never appeared so charming.

 


 

Murder Most Serene was longlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award. It’s author, Gabrielle Wittkop, liked to refer to herself as the heir to the Marquis de Sade. And Murder Most Serene is a book de Sade would have delighted in. A woman of strong principles and beliefs, Wittkop committed suicide in 2002 when she learned she had lung cancer, preferring to meet death on her own terms.

 

Spring Crime Spree! – Betty Boo by Claudia Piñeiro, Miranda France tr.

Title: Betty Boo

Author:   Claudia Piñeiro

Translator:   Miranda France

Publisher: Bitter Lemon Press, London (2016)

ISBN: 978 1 908524 55 3

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There are three epigraphs at the beginning of Betty Boo, the highly enjoyable mystery novel (her fourth to be translated into English) by Argentine author Claudia Piñeiro. One is a quote from Ricardo Piglia’s Target In the Night.

“The story goes on; it can go on; there are various possible conjectures; it’s still open; it merely gets interrupted. The investigation has no end; it cannot end. Someone should invent a new literary genre, paranoid fiction. Everyone is a suspect; everyone feels pursued.”

The epigraph is a nod to the sense of unease (a sense that never materializes into the actual paranoia and fear Piñeiro valiantly tries but falls short of  conveying) that the murder of one of their own creates among the sheltered residents of  an exclusive neighborhood in Buenos Aires – where all who enter and exit the premises (guests, domestics, residents) are closely monitored at the gates. The victim is a rich and influential man and the murder scene staged to appear as a suicide. What makes the events newsworthy is that this man, Pedro Chazarreta, buried his wife five years before under equally suspicious circumstances. He had initially been, and in the eyes of the public remained, a chief suspect in her death.

The protagonist and, for the novel’s purposes, lead “investigator” is Nurit Iscar – the titular Betty Boo.  Her nickname is inspired by her physical resemblance to the 1920’s cartoon character.  Nurit is…  rather was… a successful mystery novelist dubbed “the Dark Lady of Argentine literature” up until five years ago (right around the time of the death of Chazarreta’s wife) when a disastrous affair with a married man, her subsequent divorce and a series of scathing reviews of her most recent novel led her to withdraw from the literary world.  That last novel had been a departure from the crime stories readers had come to expect from her.  She’d written a much more personal work – a love story based on her affair. Since its public rejection she has stopped writing her own material and survived financially by ghost writing the memoirs of society ladies with illusions of grandeur.  She is fifty-four and her two sons will soon be graduating from university.  She is not unhappy, but has allowed her creativity to become dormant. There is a hole in her life.  She is surrounded and sustained by a small group of women friends – all of whom understand this and want her to return to publishing her own work.

And so when her former lover approaches and asks her to write a series of columns on the Chazarreta murder for his newspaper Nurit, after some convincing, agrees.  She will move into a house in the gated community where the murder occurred.  From there she will observe and report on events from the inside, using the proximity to tap into the residents’ paranoia for her stories about the case.  As far as an angle goes, it’s a good one.

At the same newspaper Jaime Brena, a journalist who sat behind the crime desk for decades, has recently been replaced by a young, wet-behind-the-ears upstart who knows more about social media than about actual reporting. When a call comes about this latest turn in the Chazarreta case Brena grudgingly hands it over. And yet… old habits die-hard and he forms an alliance, a friendship even, with the Crime boy. They – Brena, the Crime boy and eventually Nurit – will come to pool their resources and together attempt to follow the trail of a murderer with a very specific list of victims.

Jaime Brena tidies his desk, gathers up his papers, switches off the computer then notices just as he’s about to go that the ruler with which he instructed the Crime boy to simulate his own throat-slashing is lying on the floor under his chair. Jaime Brena has had this ruler ever since he first came to El Tribuno. He has a tendency to form slightly fetishistic attachments to certain objects. He picks it up and puts it back in the drawer. Looking up, he sees that the Crime boy is still working at his desk, and he goes over to him. How’s it going? Fine, says the boy. I’m just finishing up. OK, I’ll see you tomorrow. Jaime Brena starts to walk away but after a few steps he turns back and says: Can I ask you something? Yes, of course, says the boy.Who would you like to be like? What? Says to boy. Who would you like to be like, who’s your role model, your favorite journalist? Ah, from here or anywhere? From here, kid, here, and in Crime, because if you’re going to write about Crime that’s where you need to look for your role model. I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about it. I got into Crime a bit by chance; my role models are in other areas. It shows, kid. Not to bring you down, but it shows.

Betty Boo is a better than good book. Piñeiro is a solid storyteller who avoids gimmicks and tricks and instead concentrates on the careful plotting, character development and psychological insight that distinguishes the best mystery writers.  Her plot reminds me a little bit of the British writer Anthony Horowitz (who wrote sequels to Sherlock Holmes and James Bond under the auspices of both the Doyle and Fletcher estates). Both authors explore issues and ideas, even politics, but only as far as it serves the story.  Their plots are meticulously constructed, built block by block like a case for the prosecution, and frequently stray into lurid (but not ridiculous) territory.

As for characters, Piñeiro has managed to populate Betty Boo with multi-generational cast – Nurit, her girlfriends and Brena are in their 50’s. Their thoughts and concerns ring true to their age, as do their actions.  And the same can be said for the younger characters, like the Crime boy and Nurit’s sons.  They possess the clichéd “arrogance of youth”, but their self-absorption makes them no less likeable. The dialogue is sharp and interesting.  Individual voices stand out.  Quite an accomplishment, since Piñeiro compresses and contains her dialogue within the same paragraph as the action, abstaining from the use of quotation marks. This simple, little stylistic tick transforms the rhythm of the text into the rapid patter of old pre-code Hollywood movies. These are wonderfully engaging characters who are fun to be around. Their conversations are genuinely interesting, not just for the information, but for their humor and warmth they convey.  

Claudia Piñeiro’s currently has three other novels translated into English.  All three are published by Bitter Lemon Press. None appear to be or have sequels.

 

Spring Crime Spree! – Target In The Night by Richard Piglia, Sergio Waisman tr.

Title: Target In the Night

Author:   Ricardo Piglia

Translator:   Sergio Waisman

Publisher: Deep Vellum Publishing, Dallas (2015)

ISBN: 978 1 941929 16 9

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When Toni Durán, a handsome Puerto Rican-American, arrives in Madariaga, a small town in the Argentine Pampas, he definitely shakes things up.  He romances the beautiful twin daughters of the richest man in town, befriends the local Chinese waiter, charms all the gentry and, a few weeks later, turns up dead under suspicious circumstances.  Ricardo Piglia’s Target In the Night seems a straight-forward case of “find-the-murderer”, but soon becomes about much more than solving the mystery of Toni Durán’s death.

Luca Belladonna, along with his late brother Lucio, owned the town’s only factory which once employed most of the townspeople. Now the factory stands empty, production stopped by an economic downturn and the death of Lucio in a car crash.  Luca has become something of an eccentric, living in the crumbling building with an assistant, continuing to work on his inventions in hopes of re-opening for business. His red-haired twin sisters Ada and Sofia (who can’t help but remind readers of Bolaño’s Garmendia sisters) are beautiful and wild – “The sisters were like replicas, the symmetry between them was so similar it was almost sinister” – and local gossip has both girls engaged in a ménage à trois with Durán, who they met on a visit to the States.  He followed them back to Argentina with a suitcase full of money.  

The Belladonna patriarch is still alive, but estranged from Luca.  The siblings’ mothers (one for the boys and one for the girls) are both dead.  Piglia’s novel portrays the decaying aristocratic family and all that goes with it: betrayal, disillusion, archaic codes of honor, sexual deviance and the loss of the wealth which buttressed its illusions of grandeur through generations. He has, in short, clothed a Faulknerian tragedy in the guise of a detective novel.

By then the story had changed. No longer a Don Juan, no longer a fortune seeker who had come after two South American heiresses, he was now a new kind of traveler, an adventurer who trafficked in dirty money, a neutral smuggler who snuck dollars through customs using his North American passport and his elegant looks. He had a split personality, two faces, two backgrounds. It was impossible to reconcile the versions because the other, secret life attributed to him was always new and surprising. A seductive foreigner, an extrovert who revealed everything, but also a mysterious man with a dark side who fell for the Belladonna sisters and got lost in the whirlwind that followed.

The whole town participated in fine-tuning and improving the stories. The motives and the point of view changed, but not the character. The events themselves hadn’t actually changed, only how they were being perceived. There were no new facts, only different interpretations.

As every good reader knows, a murder needs an investigator.  Detective Croce, a Lear-like figure working from the brink of madness, is determined to discover the true killer and exonerate the scapegoat.  A man who has been falsely imprisoned by those who find an expedient solution to the case more politically beneficial than justice.  Emilio Renzi, a big city journalist who appears in a number of Piglia’s books and is a satisfactory (and satisfactorily cynical) foil provides the objective outsider’s view of events. They form a dynamic partnership – Renzi the superego to Croce’s ego.

Piglia’s work is both clever and unusual.  At first glance Target In the Night reads as if it were three or four stories, ideas even, mashed together into one. The transitions between scenes are fuzzy, making the plot difficult to follow at times.  The story doesn’t follow the narrative we expect and as a writer Piglia can come across as a bit schizophrenic.  But the writing, itself, flows beautifully and the threads sort themselves out by the end. And some of those scenes with the fuzzy transitions between them can be very funny. When Renzi visits Croce in an asylum he gets to know some of the inmates.

Renzi gave them a cigarette and the two men started smoking it right away, taking turns, standing near them. The fatter of the two broke a one-peso bill in half and gave half of it to the other for a drag of the cigarette. Every time they took a smoke they would give the other patient half of the bill, and when they exhaled they would take the other half of the bill back. They paid with half a bill, took a smoke, exhaled, accepted half of the bill, the other would smoke, blow out the smoke, they would pass the half-bill back, the other would smoke – and the cycle accelerated and went faster and faster as the cigarette was consumed…

Ricardo Piglia is an Argentine transplant who now currently teaches Latin American Literature at Princeton University. It might be worth noting that the Belladonna/Garmendia sisters coincidence isn’t the only Bolaño parallel to be found.  Piglia incorporates fictional footnotes into his text as well. And while Bolaño doesn’t own the patent on twins and footnotes, they might be something an Argentine author who isn’t specifically intent on paying homage might want to avoid. Sometimes, though, these glimpses of the familiar work in an author’s favor and add to the readers pleasure. Fortunately for the author, they do that here.

Target In the Night seems to be part of the ongoing trend towards the domestication of the crime novel. Crime/detective fiction is the one category which (seemingly) has managed to entirely escape the genre ghetto – skipping back and forth across the line between its sensationalist roots and literary aspirations. Latin American authors, in particular, seem to have the most fun with the fusion, injecting a bit more humor, experimental prose writing and unusual story structures into their endeavors. In fact, the defining characteristic of these existential crime novels seems to be exactly how little a satisfactory resolution of the crime actually matters to the overall trajectory of the story.

 

The Brotherhood of Book Hunters by Raphaël Jerusalmy, tr. Howard Curtis

Title: The Brotherhood of Book Hunters
Author:   Raphaël Jerusalmy
Translator:   Howard Curtis
Publisher: Europa Editions, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 60945 230 8

The eighteenth century romance novel tradition with its lush descriptions of landscapes and settings is  just one of  the many threads Raphaël Jerusalmy weaves into a novel which features the 15th century French poet and rogue Francois Villon, a real-life figure with a shadowy historical record.  Add to this the Medici family, a journey to the Holy Land and a Jewish conspiracy as fanciful and ambitious as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (minus the anti-semitism) and you’ll begin to get a sense of the scope of the author’s vision.

Slowly advancing across the still burning scrubland, through ravines over which darkness was spreading, Djanoush at last reached a promontory from which the outline of the lake could be seen in the distance. His traveling companions gazed down at the fabled landscape in silence. A sparrow hawk hovered, describing broad circles, weaving his flight in the invisible weft of the sky, patrolling the sheet of water in search of prey. The Sea of Kinnereth, as the Hebrews called it, stretched as far as the horizon, lined with wild rushes and willows. The white domes of Tiberias glittered on the western shore. To the east, the grim mass of the Golan rose into the clouds, covering the tranquil waters with its threatening shadow. Opposite, in the distance, where the haze of the lake gave way to a sand-filled mist, Judea began.

The Brotherhood of Book Hunters is a  historical adventure story in the style of Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson or James Fenimore Cooper. Or, if we’re looking for more contemporary comparisons, with Michael Chabon’s 2007 novella Gentlemen of the Road, Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas and, in a roundabout way, the short stories of the sci-fi/fantasy writer Fritz Lieber will do nicely. The basics of what ultimately grows into a rather complicated plot are as follows: François Villon is approached in prison by the agents of Louis XI.  The French King wishes to shift the power between himself and the Vatican by encouraging the circulation of pamphlets challenging the dogma of the Catholic Church. To this end he tasks Villon with convincing printers & booksellers from across Europe to set up their shops in Paris. And once that is accomplished he sends Villon – accompanied by the poet’s friend Colin da Cayeux (Fafhrd to Villon’s Gray Mouser) – to the Holy Land on a mission to acquire rare manuscripts from the time of Christ which are guaranteed to undermine the Pope’s authority once distributed among the masses.

What the King & Villon do not realize is that more people are involved in this game of Renaissance intrigue than they know. The Medici family, backed by a shadowy organization known as the Brotherhood of Book Hunters, have their own plans for poor Villon. And no one seems to consider the possibility that Villon may just have a few plans of his own.

“What good wind brings you to the Holy Land, Master Villon?”

“Contrary winds. Zephyrs of escape and trade winds of fortune.”

Raphaël Jerusalmy has a true gift for sprawling scenic landscapes and carefully lit interiors – in this way he is the novelistic equivalent to the director John Ford.  Often he spends more time on the particulars of a room than the people in it, leaving his characters emotions and motivations opaque through much of the book. There’s a noticeable absence of internal dialogue in the pages of The Brotherhood…, particularly among the main characters.  This is a marked and noticeable contrast to the Franzen-style psychoanalytical navel gazing frequently found in contemporary literary fiction.  But Jerusalmy seems to be after something else entirely. His prose is performative, delivering moments of deliciously decadent melodrama.  Take for example the passage below in which Colin de Cayeux dramatically enters a tavern, summoned there by Villon.

The door of the tavern opened suddenly, blown inward by a gust of wind. Spray and hail crashed onto the flagstones, sprinkling the sawdust and the straw. The dogs growled, the drinkers bellowed, the cats threw themselves under the tables. Their shadows swayed in the red light of the newly fanned flames of the hearth. Threats and curses rang out. Framed in the doorway, dripping with rain, a man stood silhouetted against the whiteness of the hail. He was motionless for a moment, ignoring the tumult. A black velvet cloak floated around his shoulders like beating wings. Only two things were visible on this untimely specter: a wan smile and, below it, the milky reflection of a knife.

Cue the sinister music.

The Brotherhood of Book Hunters was released in English by Europa Editions in 2014, the second of Jerusalmy’s novels to be translated into English, and received moderate attention and lukewarm reviews. His tendency to view his characters with the same panoramic lens he uses for the scenery – zooming in only briefly to record a reaction or fleeting emotion before sweeping off to the next plot twist – is a deliberate, but perhaps not always successful, stylistic tick. His use of the third person omniscient narrator is masterful, but (perhaps as a result) his book is not character driven enough to appeal to the genre reader. Nor is his writing experimental enough to draw the attention of the die-hard translation crowd. What he has done is written a solid, entertaining and (admittedly) cinematic novel filled with lovely passages that fire the imagination – the perfect book for Fall nights curled up in a comfortable armchair under a warm blanket.

Federico checked on last time that the volumes were in good condition, then called the clerk and ordered him to wrap them. He walked Ficino to the door of the shop. The old scholar took off his hat to say goodbye to his host, then again pulled it down over his ears. The rain had stopped. The clerk arrived, holding the precious package at arm’s length, and was already rushing outside, forcing Master Ficino to gallop after him. Federico watched them scampering toward the rainbow that crowned the end of the avenue. He half expected to see them fly away on the horizon and whirl around amid steeples and towers, gaily beating their wings beyond the orange roofs of the city.