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.

 

The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat, tr. Adriana Hunter

Title:  The Travels of Daniel Ascher
Author:  Déborah Lévy-Bertherat
Translator:  Adriana Hunter
Publisher:  Other Press
ISBN:  978 159051707 9

The Travels of Daniel AscherThe Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat is a generally inoffensive, if slight, novel brought out just in time for Summer.  According to a Publisher Weekly article, Other Press is marketing the title as a “YA Crossover”, which speaks to the awkward position the book occupies.  The plotting and prose are not sophisticated enough to impress adult fiction readers, but the characterizations (and perhaps even some of the situations?) are too sophisticated (without being engaging) for tweens and early teens. In other words:  the novel lacks the pleasurable appeal of genre, and at the same time offers no challenge to the literary fiction reader.

Hélène Roche is a 20-year old archeology student, invited by her Great-Uncle Daniel to stay with him while completing her studies in Paris.  He is the author of a beloved series of children’s adventure novels known as The Black Insignia series. Novels everyone seems to have read and adored… except Hélène.  Her relationship to Daniel is complicated.  Even as a child she was critical – thinking his word games “dumb”, his adventure stories “all the same” and finding his behavior clownish.    Whereas Daniel, in contrast, is inordinately fond of her.  At holidays he never forgot to single her and her brother out from the other cousins with special gifts – exotic items he picked up on his travels.  And, of course, inscribed copies of all his books. Still, despite his many kindnesses Hélène goes out of her way to avoid him.

Otherwise it’s a very convenient arrangement for her: she is given her own apartment on the top floor of Uncle Daniel’s building. Rent free. He resides on the ground floor and is frequently out of the country. He leaves her notes and sends her letters, planning for them to spend time together when he returns. Otherwise he leaves her to her  own devices.

That evening she found a postcard of Patagonia in her mailbox. It was sent from Ushuaia, featured low-slung houses against a background  of mountains, and had a really beautiful stamp. She recognized her great-uncle’s handwriting, the same writing as those dedications in the Black Insignia books, its sloping letters clinging to each other with tiny connecting hooks as if afraid of losing eachother. My dear Hélène, I hope you’ve settled into rue Vavin. It’s magnificent here. I’ll tell you all about it, but only if you insist… Affectionately, Daniel H.R.

Hélène is not the only member of the Roche family who has issues with Daniel.  The adults in particular seem to have mixed feelings, his two sisters and Hélène’s mother and father seemingly the only ones who have a genuine affection for him. Which makes what happens next so odd. Hélène begins to probe into the mysteries of Daniel’s life. Daniel is Jewish.  A war orphan, adopted by the Roches after his family was killed in the Holocaust. And while she goes to great lengths – even so far as to travel to America with her boyfriend to visit Daniel’s “Ascher” relatives – her sudden interest is inexplicable.  Almost half-hearted. In fact, everything about Helene comes across as half-hearted.  Her research is never presented as a means for her to become closer to Daniel, to understand him, or to learn about her family’s history.  With one or two exceptions she does not engage with him in any meaningful way as she sets about excavating his life as if digging through an ancient ruin.  Hélène moves through the world in a state of self-absorbed ennui. Smoking, brooding and thinking herself better than everyone around her. Déborah Lévy-Bertherat has done something worse than create an unlikeable character… she has written a thoroughly uninteresting one. One who has no more self-knowledge at the end of her narrative journey than she did at its beginning.  This matters as, despite it being a third person narrative, the entire story is told through the lens of Hélène.

As for the ending and the mystery’s final resolution – well, to be blunt, it’s a bit ridiculous.  My reaction to it all is very similar to my reaction to Antoine Laurain’s The Red Notebook, another French novel written in a similar vein. Neither book demands an emotional commitment from its characters or readers.

The redeeming feature of The Travels of Daniel Ascher is the amount of care and thought which went into publishing the English/American edition.  Adriana Hunter has made a lovely and flowing translation (she was also the translator of Hervé le Tellier’s Eléctrico W) of the source text. The writing itself is really very fine with pretty flights of fancy – for example that line in the passage above describing Daniel’s handwriting.  Other Press has created a lovely book in a style reminiscent of the Lemony Snickett’s Series of Unfortunate Events series and filled it with charming pen and ink illustrations by Andreas Feher.  Included at the end of the book is a drawing showing the spines of a complete set of Black Insignia books and a list of the titles in the series “so far”.  Overall the physical presentation is delightful – whimsical in a way which is normally just my style.

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The Island of Last Truth by Flavia Company, translated from Catalan by Laura McGloughlin

Dr. Matthew Prendel is an enigma.  Attractive, quiet, independently wealthy – he is the perennial subject of cocktail party gossip.  The most persistent rumor being that he was once shipwrecked on a deserted island.  We’re told Prendel’s tale, the “true” version of what happened to him, from his lover.  The conceit of the novel is that she,  Phoebe Westore, is the author, not Flavia.  The book is written in such a way as to support this illusion, opening with a preface where Phoebe explains her relationship to Dr. Prendel.  She reveals the promise she made to Prendel to write down the story of the shipwreck only after his death.  The Island of Last Truth is her fulfilling that promise.

We were lovers for almost seven years.  One of my aims was to endure longer than his shipwreck.  As if some kind of rivalry or a competition could be established with something like that.  “You always want to defeat impossible opponents, Phoebe; opponents that aren’t even there.  You take after your mother.”  My victory has been bitter and, in truth, transient, because a “shipwreck” endures much longer than a shipwreck.  It is like a lantern: it illuminates what you shine it on and the rest as well.

I don’t want to give too much away.  The plot is full of unexpected shifts.  Company wastes no time getting her protagonist onto the island and, once there, piles on the suspense.  Prendel is not alone on the island. Nor does the story end with him escaping it.  Nor is it all about him.

“…Part adventure story, part noir, and part mystery…”* I would add psychological thriller to that list.  Laura McGloughlin has written a nuanced translation that captures all of the melancholia and foreboding of Flavia Company’s strange and wonderful novel.  What works best in The Island of Last Truth is the perspective from which it is told.  The main body of the book, describing Prendel’s experiences, are told to us in the third person by Phoebe.  The rhythm of her voice remains consistent as it moves from Preface, to storytelling, and the end of the book where she attempts to fill the gaps in the story she’d been told.  So fully realized a character is she that an image begins to form in the reader’s mind: of Phoebe listening to Prendel as he tells her his adventure.  And then later writing it all down, occasionally pausing to stare into the distance, lost in her memories.  It’s all very intimate.  This is not only a book about a shipwreck, but about a woman trying to make sense of the enigmatic man with whom she had a relationship with for over seven years.  A man, she comes to realize, she never knew at all.

Publisher:  Europa Editions, New York (2011)
ISBN:  978 1 60945 081 6

*taken from the jacket copy

The Swimmers by Joaquín Pérez Azaústre, translated by Lucas Lyndes

The Swimmers is a short novel published this past September by Frisch & Co. – an e-book only publisher focusing on translated fiction. Ostensibly about the end of the world, it features no natural disasters, barren landscapes or bands of survivors fighting savagely over the few resources that remain. Azaústre’s vision is much more surreal, one could argue that it is meant to function as metaphor.  Jonás is a photographer who has grown too accustomed to interacting with the world through the lens of his camera. Which might be why his girlfriend left him and why his art career, once so promising, has stalled. He is an only child of divorced parents and carries that slightly clichéd aura of loneliness and isolation with him. The most important person left in his life is his best-friend, Sergio. The two have a relationship more like brothers than friends. They meet regularly at a pool in Jonas’ old neighborhood to swim laps.

Central to the novel are Jonás’ visits to the pool – with and without Sergio. These swimming sessions are integral to the structure and overall tone of the book.  In a wonderful article on the website Necessary Fiction (as a part of their Translation Notes series), Lucas Lyndes describes the challenges of translating a novel written under an Oulipian style constraint –

The novel’s protagonist, Jonás, goes to the pool almost every day, where he swims 2,500 meters. The book is broken up into 50 chapters, representing laps in the pool; as I learned during the translation process, an Olympic-size pool is 50 meters long, so essentially the book (50 laps x 50 m) is the equivalent of one swimming session. I read the prose, and especially the rhythm, as an imitation of the act of swimming. Most chapters start off a bit slow, with short(er), sharp(er) sentences, like diving in or kicking off from the wall, and then the sentences start flowing into one another, like strokes and kicks.

The carefully choreographed rhythm of the prose (apparent even without reading Lyndes) has a soothing effect and lessens the impact of the events driving the story.  People are vanishing into thin air.  Not to be confused with abductions and/or kidnappings – men, women and children in the city where Jonás’ lives are simply no longer there. Their disappearances are almost supernatural. First, other swimmers at the pool.  Then, Jonás’ mother. In quick succession: the daughter and grand-daughter of an older swimmer who Jonás meets regularly at a cafe; followed by a fellow artist and, then, the daughter of an underworld boss. As the pages pass the urban environment through which Jonás moves steadily empties.  Azaústre manages to create the feeling of a physical world expanding as, in almost direct correlation, Jonás sheds his personal relationships and connections. The disappearances come to represent an existential detachment.  At the same time they create discomfort in the reader – a primal response to the idea of non-existence.

Joaquín Pérez Azaústre is a novelist and a poet; with the ability to evoke the full range of sensory details.  He’s particularly strong when describing abandoned places. He breaks down the space into units of time – individual moments which the reader explores with the protagonist. Beautiful, haunting imagery appears all throughout The Swimmers. Azaústre’s writing is a combination of Camus, a young Stephen King and the great Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone).  He challenges our preconceptions of reality in new and interesting ways.  He plays with the concept of negative space, twins, reflections and parallel universes.  But he does it in a way that seems to exclude the fantastic.  There could be a logical explanation for all this.  In the meantime, people and events constantly move in and out of the periphery of the story.

It’s five in the afternoon. The clarity of the foothills is enveloped by the specter or rain. There is no countryside beyond the city, just a wasteland, a barren stretch of dry earth. On the right-hand shoulder, the bus leaves behind a hamlet of moveable homes and shacks erected with miscellaneous materials from demolition sites. He sees no one, not a single face. They take off so quickly that later, after driving out of sight of the wood and tin huts, some of them made from old emptied-out bodies of cars and trucks, scrap metal with plastic curtains and tarp roofs, Jonas starts to doubt their existence, as if the expulsion from the city had turned them into phantasms, as fleeting as the rest of the bare mounds of earth.

Joaquín Pérez Azaústre has unknowingly embraced Alan Weisman’s initial premise in The World Without Us – what if humanity were to inexplicably disappear? –  and stopped there.  Whereas Weisman explores the event’s aftermath, Azaústre is interested in the experience of disappearing.  Very little in The Swimmers gets explained or resolved, least of all where everyone has gone.  Instead we’re given tantalizing glimpses of another, untold story happening parallel to this one.  Even the characters feel it.  While explaining his mother’s disappearance to Sergio, we’re told that Jonás “felt as if he too was a witness to his tale, as if for a few minutes he had been able to contemplate his own narration…” Later, Sergio expresses “…that sometimes, when I think about it, I get the impression that out there, somewhere else, far away from this house, someone else is living my life for me.”

Everything about the novel – the prose style, the structure, the characters and settings – feels purposeful.  The author has a bigger idea in mind but it’s too much to absorb in just one reading.  I can’t say, definitely, what The Swimmers is about.  Upon finishing it I was left with an impression of thoughtful writing, a plethora of ideas, and the yearning to understand something that seemed important.  Or maybe I’m reading too much into it?   The Swimmers could just be one of those books that exists simply as the sum of its parts – regardless of our expectations (or desires) on how those parts should connect.

Publisher: Frisch & Co., Berlin (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 9891267 2 4

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