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.

 

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

1

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.

 

Shantytown by Cesar Aira (Chris Andrews, translator)

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I never know what to expect when I crack open a new César Aira book.  It’s not always love at first sight.  Varamo grew on me over time.  The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira initially excited me, but now ranks as least favorite.  A reader on Trevor’s (of The Mookse & the Gripes) forums made the comment that in Spanish Aira tends to be hit or miss. That’s not entirely a surprise. Consider the 60+ novellas the author has written and the diversity of topics/genres he covers.  While there is that underlying thread of  “Aira-ness”  to everything I’ve read so far – no two are the same.  Shantytown is no exception.

So what is Shantytown?  If Quesadillas (the novella I wrote about last week)  is all chaos and craziness, then Shantytown is an exercise in  precision.  It lacks the powerful, plot driving first person narrative voice of Villalobos’ book.  Instead, Aira moves his characters through a carefully choreographed (though equally absurd) plot. Coincidences and clichés abound in what amounts to a modern fable – complete with a gentle giant,  nefarious villain and pair of lovers separated by circumstances.  Somehow Aira and his translator Chris Andrews make these old archetypes feel authentic and fresh.

The hero and protagonist, Maxi, is described in the opening pages by the omniscient narrator as a “meathead”.  A good-hearted young man who spends his mornings working out in the gym and his evenings pulling carts for the city’s scavengers (politely referred to as “cardboard collectors”) who move ahead of the garbage trucks looking for items of value.  Their route ends at the shantytown of the title – brightly lit by a web of electric bulbs strung over their makeshift homes.

The shantytown is known as the “Carousel” by the local police.  The name is a reference to the town’s borders which form a circle.  The streets lead into the circle’s center – like the spokes of a wheel. People go there to buy drugs; exactly where is difficult to track because the cars drive around and around the carousel.  The shantytown, its inhabitants and Maxi (because of his evening labors) have been watched by one unsavory officer in particular, whose motives are questionable and methods unscrupulous.  He is obviously up to know good.  Somehow Maxi’s sister and her best friend become involved in the adventure, as does a young housekeeper and a homeless boy Maxi tries to befriend.  The stories of all the characters converge at one point in time and  space – much like the  roads leading into the shantytown – and the story concludes, as we knew it would, with almost everyone living happily ever after.  Though it contains few (if any) plot twists, Shantytown is overall a satisfying read.

That has everything to do with the prose.  This novella contains some of the loveliest imagery since 2006’s Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter.  In both Aira somehow skirts the borders of magical  realism without ever fully setting foot within them.  Like when his characters are left stranded in a diner as the rain floods the city:  “The four of them looked out of the windows: the storm had resumed in all its fury, as if it were starting over again, with a lavish festival of thunder and lightning, and the rain pounding like millions of drums.  They had to rest their feet on the crossbars of the chairs because the tiled floor was under four inches of water.  The waiters were sitting on the bar.  There was nothing to do but wait.”

An even better example is the descriptions of the cardboard collectors’ carts , which Maxi pulls in the evenings:

Every new cart he pulled was different. But in spite of this variety, all of them were suited to the common purpose of transporting loads as quickly and easily as possible. Carts like that could not be bought, or found in the junk that people threw away.  The collectors built them, probably from junk, but the bits and pieces that went into them came from all sorts of things, some of which were nothing like a cart.  Maxi was hardly one to consider things from an aesthetic point of view, least of all these carts; but as it happened he was able to appreciate them more intimately than any observer because he was using them. More than that: he was yoked to them. HE had noticed how they were all different, in height, capacity, length, width, depth, wheel size … in others with wire mesh or canvas or even cardboard. The wheels were from a great variety of vehicles: bicycles, motorcycles, tri-cycles, baby carriages, even cars.  Naturally, no two carts looked the same, and each had its own particular beauty, its value as folk art. This was not entirely new phenomenon. The historians of Buenos Aires had traced the evolution of the city’s carts and their decoration: the ingenious inscriptions and decorative painting (the renowned fileteado). BUt now it was different. This was the nineteen nineties and things had changed. These carts didn’t have inscriptions or painting or anything like that. They were purely functional, and since they were built from assembled odds and ends, their beauty was, in a sense, automatic or objective, and therefore very modern, too modern for any historian to bother with.

Vincent Van Gogh’s “Cafe Terrace At Night”

The more of these little books I read, the more apparent it becomes that  Aira is constructing the geography which his characters inhabit with care.  Miniature worlds bound by finite borders.  Almost claustrophobic and with every detail carefully considered.  Like the carts.  Or the lighting.  In this particular book most of the action takes place in the early morning or evenings.  To convey this twi-lit world Aira seems to rely on a color palette reminiscent of Van Gogh’s painting Café Terrace At Night – shades of blue with pops of yellow.  Yet Aira, himself, would contradict this.

According to Aira, he never edits his own work, nor does he plan ahead of time how his novels will end, or even what twists and turns they will take in the next writing session. He is loyal to his idea that making art is above all a question of procedure. The artist’s role, Aira says, is to invent procedures (experiments) by which art can be made. Whether he executes these or not is secondary; Aira’s business is the plan, not necessarily the result. Why is procedure all-important? Because it is relevant beyond the individual creator. Anyone can use it. (Quoted from The Literary Alchemy of César Aira by   / The Quarterly Conversation) 

If this is true – and I’m always skeptical of claims to divine inspiration that doesn’t require any work  – then César Aira has benefited greatly from being translated. And Chris Andrews may have earned the title of collaborator.  While his Spanish critics seem to feel, like the forum reader, that the quality of Aira’s work is unpredictable – the novellas which  have been translated into English are (with only a few exceptions) remarkable.

Publisher: New Directions, New York (2014)

ISBN: 978 0 8112 1911 2