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.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Scars by Juan José Saer, translated from the original Spanish by Steve Dolph

https://i0.wp.com/catalog.openletterbooks.org/images/covers/scars_highres.jpgOf all his novels and short stories, it is For Whom the Bell Tolls that showcases Ernest Hemingway’s signature brand of maudlin, alcohol-soaked sentimentality.  Yet it remains a great novel.  The closing paragraphs, as Robert Jordan says goodbye to his María, are among the most heartbreaking ever written. Yes, I believe it would have been better if Hemingway had just written their conversation in Spanish instead of inflicting all those English thees and thous on readers.  Yes, there is something weird about his choice of the nickname Rabbit.  But the bleakness conjured by the words “We will not be going to Madrid…” has remained with me, as I imagine it has with others.

The famous epigraph that gives the book it’s title, taken from John Donne’s XVII Meditation can be attributed to Hemingway’s cynicism or prescience depending on your feelings about the man.  It ends with his hero, who valiantly aligned himself against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War, lying beneath a tree and waiting to die.  We know the Fascists, Franco’s Nationalists, ultimately win – and in doing so unlatch the gate for the coming of the second World War.   “No man is an Island, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

Juan José Saer has set his novel, Scars, in a completely different time and place.  “La Zona” is Saer’s personal Yoknapawtapha.  It includes the city of Santa Fé, Argentina, c. the late c. 1960’s.  The books is divided into four parts.  How Saer names his parts is unusual – he uses it to compress the timeline.  Part one is February, March, April, May, June; part two is March, April, May; part three is April, May and part four is simply May. The common factor of all four narratives is a violent murder which takes place in May (the description of which is the last narrative in the book).  Luis Fiore kills his wife, La Gringa, by shooting her in the face with a shotgun. Twice.

The final part of Scars tells the story of the murder from the murderer’s perspective.  The preceding three parts only touch on that event.  Or rather, the event touches on the lives of the three men who each act as first person narrators for a section of the book.  It opens with Ángel Leto, who is a young journalist given access to Fiore by the judge on the case.  But of the 90 pages that make up Leto’s story only 7 pages and a few scattered sentences talk about Fiore or the murder.  The rest is taken up by/with Leto’s libido as he goes about his day-to-day business.  All his interactions are underlaced with an uncomfortable sexual tension.

The parts/chapters which follow are told from the perspective of an attorney and former friend of Fiore who has given himself over entirely to the game of Baccarat – spending all his money, mortgaging his house and taking the wages of his young housekeeper in order to continue gambling; and by the judge who presides over Fiore’s case – a man in a deep depression who sees the world through the narrow tunnel of his daily routine and perceives his fellow human beings as gorillas.  Lust, addiction, despair and rage – these are the drives each man’s life seems to be reduced to.  One at a time we, the readers, are trapped in an individual narrator’s head… along with his particular demon. Each of these men are connected, tenuously perhaps, by the murder.  And each is isolated, living self-absorbed lives in which everyone around them is a supporting character.

Scars is an early novel – by a writer who is considered by many to be one of Argentina’s  most important and influential authors.  As such it has it’s strengths and weaknesses.  The writing feels intentionally claustrophobic.  Steve Dolph has done a wonderful translation – somehow balancing the author’s obsession with the repetition and minutiae of his characters’ lives (a detailed explanation of the game of craps, for example), with incredibly subtle moments of true poignancy.   The Hemingwayesque styled conversations, particularly, are powerful because the prose is so stripped down.  Saer doesn’t even bother with quotation marks.

They’ve told me you live off gambling, said el Negro.

Just the opposite, I said.

Then I asked him to tell me about Fiore.  He said that he had gone hunting in Colastine Norte with his wife and their girl.  In the truck from the mill.  That on the way back they stopped at a bar.  There was an argument, and when they were leaving he shot her, twice.  I asked if the argument had been violent.  He said he didn’t really know.  He said that he had used the shotgun.

That could actually help, I said.

They’re going to give him twenty years, at least, said el Negro.

He’ll be comfortable in prison, I said.  Much more than on the outside.  It’s always more comfortable in prison, in a way.

El Negro stared at me.  The skin on his face was thick and taut.  Two cords curved from the base of his nose, dropped to the corners of his mouth, and died at his jawline.

I never thought I would find you like this, said el Negro.

Come on, Negrito, I said.  We go back.  Tell me what you can, because I’m not asking out of curiosity.

Scars ends with a postscript; the Latin words “NAM OPORTET HAERESES ESSE”.  This translates to “There must be heresies” which is actually only a partial quotation of 1 Corinthians 11:19.   The full line reads:  “For there must be heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you”.  The word heresies is sometimes translated as heretics, or as divergent sects.  The translator Heather Cleary wrote a wonderful article on Saer for the website the Quarterly Conversation  entitled The Geometry of Dissent – in which she translates HAERESES to mean heresies or divergent sects.  Saer’s plays with points of view and perceptions, allowing the story of the murder to unfold slowly as the book progresses until, at the very end,  we are allowed inside Fiore’s head (though clear answers still aren’t given).  This makes sense, though to be honest I don’t see much divergence in the facts of the case among the narrators.  Another interpretation that seems equally legitimate is “heretics”.  That these four men, each sunk in a particular vice, likeable but by no means good, are in a way the heretics.  That their miseries, obsessions, addictions are all necessary to better see (and appreciate) a life better lived.  Because, going back to Hemingway, the only way to make someone understand that no man is an island is to show him that he, in fact, is.  That we are all trapped alone in our heads*, wrapped up in our own lives and egos.  Grace is the opportunity to step outside of ourselves and be “involved in mankind”.   Juan José Saer seems to have understood that… though his characters may not.

*have you ever read a Hemingway character who wasn’t trapped in his head??

Publisher:  Open Letter Books, Rochester (2011)
ISBN:  978 1 934824 22 1

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