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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The Canvas by Benjamin Stein (translated from the German by Brian Zumhagen)

Any novel can be read straight thru from beginning to end.  But how many novels offer the choice of starting from either the front or the back?  Or tell a reader two stories, from two drastically different perspectives which eventually merge into one?  Open Letter Books calls The Canvas a “mind-bending investigation of memory, identity, truth, and delusion… the publishing event of the year, a novel whose meaning depends on the order in which it is read”.

Jan Wechsler – who in an interview Benjamin Stein described as his alter-ego – is an Orthodox Jewish man who lives in an apartment with his wife and two children in Germany.  One Shabbot (the Saturday sabbath) a suitcase from Israel shows up at his front door. He claims it’s not his, but many things about it show otherwise.  The luggage tag is in his handwriting.  Among the contents is a book, written by Jan Wechsler, attacking and exposing a man named Minsky who wrote a false Holocaust memoir. (Both Minsky and his memoir are based on a true story).

The suitcase and the items inside destabilize Wechsler’s life.  His memories, his marriage, his entire history – all come into question.  And so he sets out on a journey to Israel, hoping to solve the mystery and piece together who he once was.

Amnon Zichroni – the second protagonist –  is a talented psychoanalyst who was born into a strict German, Orthodox Jewish community.  In an incredible act of love his father, realizing his son will require more interaction with the secular world, sends him to Switzerland to be raised outside of the community.  Amnon’s path is one of balancing spirituality with the material world.  He has been given an extraordinary gift.  A gift he can either accept or deny.  But denial means turning his back on his beliefs.

The Canvas  opens with a simple set of instructions:

There are two main paths and intertwined side-trails running through this novel.  Behind each cover is a possible starting point for the action.  Where you begin reading is up to you, or to chance.  You can follow the narrative on one side until you get to the middle of the book, then flip it over and continue reading from the beginning of the other side.  To follow one of the side-trails, turn the book over after each chapter, and continue reading where you left off before.  Of course, you’re also free to find your own way.

I chose to follow a side-trail which required regularly flipping the book over.  I alternated between the Amnon Zichroni & Jan Wechsler chapters.  My experience was (though it’s not an adjective I usually use to describe a novel)  surprisingly rewarding.  So much so that it’s difficult to imagine the novel taking any form (or path) other than the one I chose.  At the same time, I realize the narrative can be experienced differently. For example: by someone choosing to remain with Zichroni for the entirety of his narrative and then move on to Wechsler.  (This is exactly what Trevor from Mookse and the Gripes did.  We’ve been discussing The Canvas on his forums for anyone who wants to join in).

On the meandering path I chose each chapter ended on a cliff-hanger.   It was a bit like reading a serial.  Flipping the book over became more and more difficult.  I wanted to continue reading (regardless of which side I was currently on).  Most of the book is spent trying to figure out what is going on.  Stein expertly teases out his story so that when the denouement arrives it is both abrupt and conclusive.  And, like a camera lens locking into focus, all the seemingly disparate elements come together to form a wonderfully complete and cohesive picture.  Both narrators intrigued me.  Though I trusted Wechsler less, neither protagonist’s story ever became the “true story”.   As there is no correct way to read this novel – there is not one correct version of events.  The essentials remain the same, the characters interpretations do not.   And perception really is everything.

Zichroni is only a peripheral figure for most of Wechsler’s narrative – and vice versa.  Because their “relationship” is once removed for most of their lives and narratives, both men are essential to understanding The Canvas.  The unusual format Benjamin Stein chose for his novel is not a gimmick.  Separating his two protagonists in every way possible was necessary to achieving his goals for the book.

The Canvas has a fair amount of symbolism and philosophy – as well as beautiful descriptions of Jewish tradition and teachings – layered into the story.  While there is a mystery involved, it is also a novel about ideas.  And, to some extent  about religion.  (In this way The Canvas reminded me of Daniel Stein, Interpreter).   On the Zichroni side there is one particular passage – a gorgeous description of tzitzes.  Tzitzes are the carefully knotted fringes at the four corners of a prayer shawl.  How they are knotted – the number of knots and coils of the thread used – is symbolic.  I’m not Jewish, or particularly religious, but I found the subject beautiful and fascinating.  The detail which Stein includes regarding Jewish life reminded me more than once of Melville’s descriptions of whaling.  Precise without ever becoming pedantic.

When I was a boy, my father had told me about the deeper meaning of the tzitzes, of the type and number of coils and knots.  They are all symbols for words, and they connect those words inextricably with their meanings.

There are different views on the exact number and sequence of the coils, which provide a coded answer about why people keep the laws.  The Sephardim tie ten, five, six, five coils – in that sequence.  The numbers correspond to the four letters in the name of Hashem.

The Ashkenazim, on the other hand, coil the thread only seven, then eight, eleven, and thirteen times.  The first two segments stand for the first pair of letters in the holy name, the third segment for the second pair.  The fourth segment, finally, has the same numerical value as echod – one – such that the combination of coils stands for Hashem echod – the Lord is one.

I am sure that there are even more variations of knots and coils, but clandestine ones, worn secretly by those who truly know.  But people like that wouldn’t have their tzitzes tied by someone else, not even by my father.

Regarding the translation:  Brian Zumhagen manages to capture each narrator’s distinctive voice, portraying the men as I believe the author envisioned them.  Zichroni is the more thoughtful, introspective, the cadence of the writing in his specific section reads slower.  Wechsler’s voice, in contrast, is brash and hasty.  Even a little slick (though that might be just my interpretation).   I had no problem shifting back and forth – it is impossible to confuse the two.  This, I imagine, was his main challenge.  The other area would be the pacing of the prose, which is perfect.  There was a real danger of Zichroni’s portion to become too wordy – too get lost in stream-of-conscious style (the character is a psychoanalyst) that leaps from topic to topic without getting to the point.  It’s a fine line, and Zumhagen walks it like a seasoned circus performer.

As I mentioned earlier, Trevor from the blog Mookse and the Gripes is also reading The Canvas.  I’m looking forward to his review and will add the link when it’s posted.  The Canvas is scheduled to be released on September 26, but can be pre-ordered.

Publisher:  Open Letter Books, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 1 934824 65 8