safe in the knowledge that nothing bad will happen to you

Thursday Night Widows, by Claudia Piñeiro and translated by Miranda France

The thing about recessions is that people tend to assume they’re bad for everyone, maybe not equally bad but generally not good. That’s not true though.

You might lose your job, have your wages frozen or slashed, be asked to do more work for the same pay. In any recession a lot of people are hurting, some very badly. Not all the pain’s visible. If someone’s now unemployed their friends and family likely know about it. If someone’s struggling to pay the bills though, having to cut back on luxuries and perhaps reevaluate what counts as a necessity; if holidays are being cancelled and purchases postponed, it’s quite possible that from the outside everything still looks fine.

On the other side of the coin though, some people do very well out of recessions. If you’re still in work and making good money (and generally plenty are even in the worst of times) then prices are likely falling or stagnant, restaurants are easier to get into, there’s good deals to be had and you’re in a position to take advantage of all of it. If you’re an employer you can squeeze wages and conditions and the chances are your employees won’t complain too hard about it.

There’s even an argument that recessions are necessary, part of the engine of capitalism, and that provided they don’t turn into extended slumps they ultimately make the majority of us better off. Poorly run companies go bust (as do some well run ones of course), questionable projects get cancelled, shaky business ideas abandoned. A recession on this view is like a forest fire that burns away dead wood, clearing room for fresh new growth. Of course, how much you agree with that view may well depend on how likely you think you are to find yourself dead wood or new growth.

What’s all this got to do with Claudia Piñeiro’s excellent Thursday Night Widows? Quite a lot as it happens.

thursday-night-widows

Cascade Heights is a gated community outside Buenos Aires. It’s an oasis for the well-off, a place where for the residents everything is exactly as it should be. The outside world might seem dangerous and uncertain, but in Cascade Heights you’re secure and the only time you see poverty it’s wearing a uniform.

As a general rule, if someone is walking and not carrying sports gear it’s a domestic servant or gardener.

Every Thursday a few of the men of Cascade Heights get together for cards and a drink. As the book opens though, in late September 2001, something happens and three of those men are found floating dead in a pool. The only survivor left early, or at least that’s what he says.

That survivor is Ronie, and his wife Virginia Guevara is the book’s chief narrator. Ronie lost his job a few years back, so Virginia had to step-up and became the estate agent for Cascade Heights. She helps the residents sell their homes when time comes to move or money gets tight, and matches new buyers to the right properties inside the fence (or gently discourages them if they’re not what the community would see as the right sort of buyer, this is not an ethnically diverse community and there’s a distinct strain of quietly spoken anti-semitism).

Virginia’s position is unusual in Cascade Heights, unique even. She’s a woman, but she works. Everyone else, their husbands make the money and they spend their days shopping, decorating, organising charity functions and taking classes.

In 2001 of course Argentina is deep in recession. It wasn’t always that way though and after that opening, those deaths, the book quickly backtracks to show Cascade Heights in better times. Most of the ’90s were boom years, a time when everyone seemed to be making money and the whole economy was spiralling dizzyingly upwards. It didn’t last of course. It never does.

The bulk of the book then isn’t about the dead men in the pool, and it would be a mistake to read this as a whodunnit. This is an examination of the Argentinian boom and bust, seen through the lens of a small group of particularly well off people. Cascade Heights is intended by design to shut out the wider Argentina, but however high you build your fence the world always still creeps in.

Inside the Heights is a tightly knit social world where local status depends in large part on how well you play tennis and where strict rules ensure that everything is just so. There are rules on how long your grass should be, what paint colours are permitted, where fences are allowed. Everything is harmonious, on the surface at any rate. Underneath though, lives can’t be made as neat as lawns and there are failing marriages, rebellious children, affairs, secrets and lies.

In well under 300 pages Piñeiro paints a sharply defined portrait of a range of characters. She dissects what passes for their moral structures, their hypocrisies and their utter near-wilful ignorance of the realities of life for most outside the fence. At the same time it’s not a crude satire, and there’ real sympathy here for some of the characters’ situations even if they’re not necessarily particularly easy people to like.

A wife whose husband leaves her risks losing everything. She has no career, she likely has no independent income or capital to speak of. This is a 19th Century world preserved at the end of the 20th where divorce can quite literally mean ruin, can mean being forced from your home and since that home’s within the fence being forced out of your community. Life here is comfortable, but it’s a comfort that can quickly curdle and the women live in large part at the mercy of the men. Lose your looks, get old, and you could find the world suddenly a much colder place than you were raised to expect. If the husband loses his job, dies, well that’s another home for Virginia to sell because this is a paradise with a definite price tag.

During the boom years though few think about this. Everyone’s making money, so nobody asks questions. These are utterly shallow lives, particularly for the women who have no jobs but still must outsource care of their houses to maids and their children to nannies leaving them with no possible contribution of their own. People take pleasure in sport and parties, and in their own ever-increasing wealth:

When we multiplied the surface area of our homes by the value of a square foot, we experienced a euphoria unequalled by almost any other: the pleasure principle of an algorithm. Because we weren’t planning to sell our houses to anyone. It was the maths alone, that simple multiplication, that caused us joy.

The good times don’t end overnight, and they don’t end for everyone either. As the end of the century approaches though things start to creak, cracks start to appear (“1998 was the year of suspicious suicides”):

The thing is, many of our neighbours made the mistake of thinking that they could keep spending as much as they earned for ever. And what they earned was a lot, and seemed eternal. But there comes a day when the taps are turned off, although nobody expects it until they find themselves in the bath tub, looking up at the shower head, from which not a single drop of water falls any more.

At times the critique here is absolutely biting. There’s a simply brilliant section where the wives (calling themselves the “Ladies of the Heights”) have a jumble sale in which they sell their cast-off clothes to their maids for charity. Normally the maids would just be given the wives’ old clothes, or could retrieve them from the rubbish. Now the maids have to pay from the wages the wives gave them so that the wives can give the money to the poor, ignoring the fact the poor are right in front of them. It’s utterly credible, unfortunately.

For all that the book’s never heavy handed. This is an easy read, cleanly written and full of sharp observation, and while I can’t speak to how accurate the translation is I can say that if I didn’t know it was originally written in Spanish I generally wouldn’t have guessed.

Occasionally of course there’s a social detail which might not make sense to those outside Argentina, and here the translator has taken a slightly unusual approach by including some very sparingly used brief explanatory footnotes. By way of example, the word asado can’t easily be translated, but a footnote flags that it’s an elaborate barbecue. Obviously the translator could just have said that, but it would have disrupted the flow of the sentence in a way the footnote doesn’t. Later on a separate footnote provides more detail, when it becomes important, on what an asado typically involves and the role it plays in Argentinian culture.  The footnoting works extremely well, and I wish more translated novels adopted this approach.

Thursday Night Widows is crime novel as social critique, but done so well the crime is almost forgotten and by the time you realise that’s what’s happening it doesn’t matter because while the deaths are interesting, the lives are fascinating.

As with so many other books, I learned about Thursday Night Widows from Guy Savage’s blog. His review is here. There are also a nice review at a blog I’m less familiar with called A Work in Progress, here.

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11 Comments

Filed under Argentinian Literature, Crime Fiction, Piñeiro, Claudia

11 responses to “safe in the knowledge that nothing bad will happen to you

  1. As many are saying that the United States is rapidly becoming a third world country with a few rich people and everyone else poor, it might do well for us Americans to read ‘Thursday Night Widows’.

  2. I agree that it would be nice to see more cultural notes added to translations to help the reader out. It’s funny how much gets lost. The film Filth has just opened here in Spain with the title unchanged and untranslated, and many people here don’t realise the double meaning of Filth in English, especially relating to the police.

  3. I have a copy of this as Guy recommended it during a discussion on Pascal Garnier’s Moon in a Dead Eye, a different type of book to Widows, but both feature a gated community setting. I’m interested in the social rules and principles at play here as an aunt of mine lived in a retirement community for a while before she died.

    The last two quotes are great, very insightful, and I like the way they’re written. I’m sure I’ll enjoy this one. Thanks for the review, Max. You’re getting through that review backlog!

  4. Thanks for the mention Max. I’ve read three books now by this author and they’ve all been excellent (all quite different too). I hope we see more of her work translated. I love your observation: when you see poverty, it’s wearing a uniform, and I see that the jumble sale scene struck you too. These women are so far out in their own little world, they have no clue. Anyway, an excellent book, and the review makes me want to read it again.

  5. Excellent review — like Anokatony, I suspect the increasing inequality in Western nations is making a late 20th century Argentine gated community a more appropriate model for us than we might think at first glance.

    With both Guy and yourself being impressed, I’ll add this one to my futures list. Thanks.

  6. Anokatony, I think it has a great deal of relevance beyond Argentina actually, and certainly in the US where these kind of communities also exist (and in many other countries too). The details may differ, the cultural particulars, but the emotions and human impact doesn’t change so much.

    Alastair, it’s really helpful here and really well judged. The first time an asado comes up you only really need to know what it is, and that’s what the footnote tells you. The second time you need to know it’s social importance to really understand the scene, so the footnote tells you that. It’s never intrusive and made a genuine difference since I wouldn’t have picked up those subtleties.

    Plays on words like Filth are a classic example. You don’t want to drown the book in notes, but a few well chosen ones can definitely help.

    Jacqui, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it too. It’s very good and a typically great recommendation from Guy.

    Guy, thanks for the initial recommend (and the book, since you sent me your copy as I recall). The jumble scene is possibly the best in the book, the whole build up to it and the maid’s perspective. I thought this a really good example of crime as social critique, so much so here the crime is actually not what’s interesting. I didn’t mind at all that most of the book forgets it and then it gets wrapped up fairly quickly at the end, because that wasn’t what made the book so rewarding.

    Which would you suggest reading next?

    Kevin, yes, it’s very much a model I think we’ll see more of with rising inequality in the West. I’d certainly like to see your take on it, I think it would be one you’d find interesting.

  7. First Guy, now you, she should be on my TBR. I enjoy books that mix a good story with an analysis of the society around them.

    Every time I read about gated communities, I think about the play by Sartre “No exit” and the famous sentence “Hell is other people” The idea of all these rules to follow, of the nosy neighbours or the shallow community makes me shudder.

  8. Yes, I’d hate to live in one. The world would need to be a lot more dystopian than it is before I’d consider it.

  9. I’m only familiar with this novelist by reputation, Max, but I’m happy to hear you and Guy speak so highly of her work. By sheer coincidence, I was just given a copy of a movie which is an adaptation of a different Piñeiro novel. Small world and all that! I’m glad the translator footnoted the word asado; as somebody lucky enough to have attended one in Argentina on a couple of occasions, I agree that the simple translation of “barbecue,” while not inaccurate, would have been inadequate. Now I’m getting hungry, though!

  10. It is very good Richard, so I’d recommend it and be interested in your thoughts.

    The use of footnotes here is particularly excellent, I’ve not seen this approach used before but it really worked. Lucky you getting to go to an asado, they do sound rather good.

    I suspect her stuff would lend to film pretty well.

  11. Pingback: Looking back on #readwomen2014 and my favourite reads of the year | Pechorin's Journal

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