Category Archives: Argentinian fiction

The less realist a work of art, the more the artist has been obliged to get his hands dirty in the mud of reality.

The Little Buddhist Monk, by César Aira and translated by Nick Caistor

César Aira famously starts his books without knowing how they’ll end. That, coupled with his complete indifference to ordinary rules of logic or realism can make for an exhilarating read. Anything can happen. The downside of course is that anything can happen.

And Other Stories are really nailing it with their Aira covers. At first glance they’re an energetic blaze of colour which matches Aira’s writing well, but looking closer the individual elements all actually relate to the novel’s motifs. It’s very nice work whoever is doing it.

The Little Buddhist Monk opens with the monk of the title reflecting on his long-held dream of one day escaping his native Korea to visit the exotic West. As a penniless monk that dream doesn’t have much chance of being realised so when he overhears a French couple desperate for a local guide who can speak their language he offers his services. If he proves sufficiently invaluable perhaps they’ll take him home with them.

I loved the reversal of expectations of the exotic. Here France and Europe are strange lands filled with the marvellous and unfamiliar, while Korea is tediously mundane. There’s a long tradition in western literature of exoticising the East and it’s nice to see that turned on its head.

The French couple are delighted with their diminutive guide. He seems knowledgeable, he refuses payment and he certainly seems to know his way around. Before long they’re utterly dependent on him. They go to have some champagne to celebrate, and that’s when things start to get weird:

But when they raised their glasses in a toast, the French couple froze in surprise. The ‘clink’ of the glass captured a snapshot of their astonishment. The only things moving were the tiny bubbles inside the glasses, and it was precisely those bubbles that were the object of the foreigners’ rapt attention: instead of rising, they descended, going from the surface of the liquid to the bottom, where they fizzed about in crazy swirls.

This is Aira, so it’s going to get a lot stranger from there. The monk promise to take the couple to some less well known sites, much better than those on the common tourist trail. He’s offering that old tourist dream: to experience the “real” country which the average tourist never gets to see.

Initially the tour goes well. He takes them to a pair of ancient temples and tells a curious story of a suicidal horse which threw itself off the top of one of them. In a fractal reflection of the wider novel the story seems rich with meaning, until you try to say exactly what meaning that might be:

What a beautiful, sad story, the French couple commented, and what a rich message it must surely contain for anyone who can correctly interpret it.

From there the tour gets rapidly stranger. The more the tourists follow the monk the less clear it is where he’s taking them. Everything is interesting, but it all seems increasingly idiosyncratic and they start to wonder at the nature of their guide:

And so they set off back along the narrow alleyways, hurrying after the little figure who glided along at ground level. Slightly uneasy, they wondered who exactly they were following. If they had to explain, what would they say? […] They understood him perfectly, and yet in some (indefinable) way his size still gave rise to the doubt: who exactly did they understand so well? How? Following him along these narrow streets, which were a chaotic mixture of East and West, was like following the genie of tourism, an impression only strengthened by the fact that nobody but them seemed to see him.

Eventually they take a train journey which the monk says never leaves the city but which passes through dense forests, vast mountain ranges and deep crevasses. The train stops at imaginary stations where enchanted passengers are lured off by witches to face the inconvenience of finishing their journey home on foot. It gets odder yet.

There are themes to the novel. The French husband is a photographer who specialises in 360 degree panoramic shots taken with no people in them. He aims to capture the totality of a place while as tourists he and his wife similarly seek to capture the essence of Korea. Both goals are absurd and Aira underlines this by the surreality of what they actually encounter.

The monk has never been to the west and has rendered it a fantasy; the French couple are actually in Korea but their experience of it is just as much a fantasy. But perhaps I’m just trying to find a rich meaning from what’s ultimately a collage of events.

I previously read Aira’s The Proof, which as it reaches its close arcs out in a scene of extraordinary violence. It’s an ending that shouldn’t work but that Aira somehow breathtakingly pulls off. There was a sense with The Proof that when it came time to end it Aira turned it into a firework that explodes leaving the reader both stunned and dazzled.

Unfortunately, I didn’t think Aira managed the ending of Monk nearly so well. There’s an odd note near the end where the French woman is referred to as being “Fickle as only a woman can be” which I thought an unfortunately sexist note and which underlined for me the fact that her husband is the one with the interesting job while she’s just tagging along with him.

Much worse though is a three page reveal that the little monk wants to get home in time for a TV programme which it’s vital to catch as “for the first time in history” it will definitively explain how to find the clitoris. It’s a gag that might I suppose have worked in the 1970s, but the implication that anyone who misses the programme will have lost their opportunity to discover “the path to the hidden object” just reads oddly today and seems at minimum to miss the fact that half the human race actually has them as opposed to it being an as yet unexplained feature of some strange alien species.

For me, Aira didn’t stick the landing this time. I’ve become a little too aware of novels which implicitly assume that everyone and every man are basically the same thing (once you see this it’s hard to unsee and it’s surprisingly common) and perhaps worse I thought the joke took far too long to explain without ever being particularly funny.

It’s a shame to end on such a downer note so I’ll just add that while I really didn’t like the ending up until then I was having a lot of fun. I’ll be reading his The Seamstress and the Wind and while I know how it opens I have no idea where it will go. I think with Aira that’s a large part of the point.

Other reviews

Two on this occasion plus doubtless others I’ve missed. Here’s Eric Anderson of Lonely Reader who likes it more than I did and who sees that TV programme joke as saying “something about our difficulty in really seeing each other even when we’re as intimate as possible and completely stripped down”. I see his point, but I don’t agree with Eric that it works.

Trevor at The Mookse and the Gripes here also likes the novel more than I did and calls its conclusion says“exceptionally fitting and satisfying” which certainly wasn’t true for me. However, Trevor also says “Sometimes Aira does stumble at the end, though I don’t mind too much since the journey has been so delightful” and while I think this time he did stumble I do agree that I didn’t mind too much since up until then the journey was indeed delightful.

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Filed under Aira, Cesar, Argentinian fiction, South-American fiction, Spanish

It has been, again, as if she did not see me.

The Invention of Morel, by Adolfo Bioy Casares and translated by Ruth Simms

The Invention of Morel comes with an endorsement by Borges stating simply that “To classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole.” I disagree.

An unnamed fugitive makes his home on an uninhabited pacific island. He plans to live out his remaining years there safe from discovery and the imprisonment that would inevitably follow. We do not know of what crime he is accused but we know it must be serious.

The island has a handful of empty buildings but its inaccessibility makes it a safe refuge. Or so it seemed until without warning a group of apparent holidaymakers appear among the buildings. They seem utterly ignorant of the fugitive’s presence. Are they ghosts? Is he? Is this some malevolent prank on their part aimed at his capture? Or is the truth much stranger?

The book comes with some rather charming illustrations. Here’s a map of the island showing the various structures on it:

And here is a mysterious sunbathing woman named Faustine with whom the fugitive falls furtively in love:

At first he daren’t approach her, uncertain both as to the group’s intent and her likely reaction. When he does he finds to his dismay that she doesn’t acknowledge him. It’s as if he were invisible, inaudible. He tries to make tribute to her by planting a floral garden where she sunbathes each day:

When I made this garden, I felt like a magician because the finished work had no connection with the precise movements that produced it. My magic depended on this: I had to concentrate on each part, on the difficult task of planting each flower and aligning it with the preceding one. As I worked, the garden appeared to be either a disorderly agglomeration of flowers or a woman.

That quote seems as obvious a metaphor for the process of writing a novel as one could hope for. Casares’ book was well received; the garden isn’t even glanced at. A male companion, Morel, visits the woman and walks over the flowers as if they weren’t there.

The problem is that it’s evident very early on that the holidaymakers are genuinely oblivious to the narrator. Unfortunately, the plot requires that he doesn’t realise this which means that he wanders about coming up with bizarre hypotheses for why everyone pretends not to see him despite it being perfectly apparent that they can’t (and despite other plainly outré events such as seeing two suns in the sky). I worked out what was going on pretty quickly (it’s not hard if you’ve read any pulp SF) but the narrator struggles even after Morel spends four pages (four!) in outright exposition setting out precisely what’s happening.

This next quote comes after the narrator has spent those four pages listening to Morel explain in detail the nature of his invention, after which everyone seems to vanish without trace:

There was no noise, there was almost no light. Had they all gone to bed? Or were they lying in wait to capture me?

Really? Four pages of exposition and he still doesn’t get it? The narrator doesn’t understand because the plot requires him not to. It’s clumsy, to be kind.

Invention is not generally seen as a genre novel. I’m not quite sure why that is since it’s actually a pretty straightforward SF tale. It deals in issues of mortality, love and how we ascribe meaning to our lives but there’s no rule that genre can’t address big issues.

It is well written and perhaps that’s why it’s won so many fans. I loved for example this quote which comes when the narrator is considering just declaring his passion to Faustine without further attempt to win her by garden gift or subtle wooing:

We are suspicious of a stranger who tells us his life story, who tells us spontaneously that he has been captured, sentenced to life imprisonment, and that we are his reason for living. We are afraid that he is merely tricking us into buying a fountain pen or a bottle with a miniature sailing vessel inside.

Casares is of course quite right. I think most of us have had the experience of some seemingly friendly stranger on a holiday turning out to have a timeshare to sell or a hard-luck story tucked away ready to bring out once trust is won. On the other hand the quote’s charm was lessened for me by the fact that there seemed no reason that the narrator shouldn’t already have realised that Faustine simply wouldn’t hear him if he poured his heart out.

By the close the narrator comes to understand what’s going on and the implications for his love. For me, the final few pages are the best in the book as the narrator responds to his situation and creates meaning from it. His response has a certain questionable beauty which I can’t explain or discuss without spoiling this utterly for future readers. It’s just a shame that he has to understand so little along the way and ignore so many evident incongruities in order to make it all work.

It’s rare I write a review this negative and all the more so when as here the book is well written. I may well read more Casares just because he plainly can write. For me though Invention was contrived with character and behaviour painfully twisted to serve the demands of unrelenting plot and situation. I didn’t think the payoff worth the journey.

Other reviews (and a note on the translation)

Several, and mostly glowing. Kaggsy describes this as “perfect” and a “five-star read” here; Gautambhatia pays considerable tribute to the book here in a review I’d describe as itself being perfect and a five-star read, not least for his clearly marked spoiler section; other reviews of interest (though more ambivalent ones to my eye) are from Grant of 1st Reading’s blog here and from Jacqui of Jacqui Wine’s journal here.

Finally, there’s a good piece here on the problems of the translation. Unfortunately it appears it’s pretty poor with plenty of changes, needless tidying and outright omissions. It looks like Casares meant it to be even more obvious to the reader what’s going on than it already was to me. I think that might have helped, because it would have brought out the intentional artificiality of the narrator’s obtuseness by making everything all the more apparent. It’s a shame. I may not have liked the book but Casares deserved better.

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Filed under Argentinian fiction, Casares, Adolfo Bioy, South-American fiction, Spanish

This was the magic spell the punks had cast on her: they made her believe the world could be renewed.

The Proof, by Cesar Aira and translated by Nick Caistor

‘Wannafuck?’

When I read The Proof I enjoyed it but initially found it a little slight. I admired its energy and clarity even if I couldn’t quite see what the point of it was.

I’m now a month or two on and the surprise has been how sharp and bright The Proof has remained in memory. I find myself wanting to read more like it, even though I’m not quite sure what “like it” would look like.

Love that cover.

The book opens with the single compound word I opened this review with – ‘wannafuck?’ It’s an instant shock to the reader. It stops you in your tracks.

It doesn’t quite stop Marcia, the teenage girl it’s directed to, because it takes her a moment to realise she’s its target. She’s an ordinary girl, conventional even, and that kind of greeting is entirely beyond her experience.

Marcia was blonde, small, chubby, somewhere between child and adult. She was wearing a woollen skirt and a thick blue pullover, with lace-up shoes. Her face was flushed from her walk, but it was always ruddy anyway.

She looks around and sees who called out to her:

They were two punks, dressed in black. Very young, although maybe slightly older than she was, with pale, childish features.

The punks call themselves Mao and Lenin, and it was Mao who called out to Marcia. Mao insists the offer is quite serious and that she’s in love with Marcia on first sight. Marcia isn’t interested but the conversation continues and the three girls head off down the street together.

They go to a café where Marcia tries to understand what it’s like to be a punk. The question doesn’t interest the punks themselves who nihilistically proclaim that nothing matters, or at least nothing Marcia is talking about matters.

There’s a sense of clashing philosophies. Marcia sympathises with a waitress in the café who has to ask them to leave since they won’t order. The punks are contemptuous and take the view that if they cause the waitress to lose her job that’s no great loss for anyone concerned.

Put like that it sounds like an ordinary argument. Idealism versus cynicism. But it’s not that simple because Mao and Lenin are arguing for the purity of love and what could be more idealistic than that? The punks are transcendent: black and white and pure of purpose. Marcia is ruddy, earthy, everyday. Marcia fears that once the punks see how ordinary she actually is they may prefer the waitress to her. She doesn’t see what they do: that love itself makes her extraordinary.

Or perhaps it doesn’t. I’m not absolutely sure. I talked of a sense of clashing philosophies and part of why this stays so sharp in hindsight is that it is just a sense – Aira doesn’t spell anything out and the uncertainty of what’s at stake somehow makes the impact all the more powerful.

While in the café the punks tell Marcia a story of an acquaintance and a lost necklace. It’s a reflection of the wider novel – not in terms of content or structure but in terms of how the two cannot be separated:

Marcia couldn’t believe it. This was the first time in her life that she had heard a well-told story, and it had seemed to her sublime, an experience that made up for all the fears this meeting had caused.

To start with, she grasped that it was not done to go on praising the form; such praise had to be transmitted implicitly in her comments on the content. But she was so dazzled that content and form became intertwined; whatever she might say about the former would inevitably be transferred to the latter.

The conversation ends; the punks declare that love requires proof and from there the novel goes at unstoppable pace to an extraordinary and bloody conclusion. To the extent it was ever realistic it leaves that realism gasping in its wake (yet without any element of the fantastical).

At the end I can’t actually say what The Proof is about, or indeed if it’s even about anything much at all. I don’t understand it. I think that’s part of what I like about it. It’s audacious. It’s tremendous fun. I love it as Mao loves Marcia – for itself but without reason. I’ve already bought more Aira.

Other reviews

Only one I have a note of which is by Grant of 1st Reading here. Grant’s review persuaded me to give this a go and I’m very glad I did.

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Filed under Aira, Cesar, Argentinian fiction, South-American fiction, Spanish

May nobody call me an unreliable narrator.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo and translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell

Some books are just delightful. The other day I finished a rereading of The Illiad, an epic poem over 3,000 years old full of tragedy and loss and extraordinary humanity. It’s hard after something like that to know what to read next. Then I happened to read a review at JacquiWine’s Journal, here, and there was the answer. I bought Where There’s Love, There’s Hate immediately on finishing her review; started it that night and drank it down over the next couple of days. It’s a Tom Collins of a novel, refreshing and a perfect palate cleanser.

Here’s how it opens:

The last drops of arsenic (arsenicum album) dissolve in my mouth, insipidly, comfortingly. To my left, on the desk, I have a copy, a beautiful Bodoni, of Gaius Petronius’ Satyricon. To my right, the fragrant tea tray, with its delicate chinaware and its nutritive jars. Suffice to say that the book’s pages are well worn from innumerable readings; the tea is from China; the toast is crisp and delicate; the honey is from bees that have sipped from acacia flowers and lilacs. And so, in this encapsulated paradise, I shall begin to write the story of the murder at Bosque del Mar.

The narrator is Dr Humberto Huberman, and he starts his tale with him en route to a much-needed holiday and writing retreat by the seaside. As he assures the couple he shares a train carriage with, he is not only a respected physician but also a writer of screenplays, currently writing a contemporary film treatment of Petronius’ Satyricon. How could any reader not put their full trust in such a companion?

The arsenic by the way is not Dr Huberman committing suicide, it’s a daily medicinal dosage for Dr Huberman prides himself on having seen past the limitations of mere conventional medicine; Dr Huberman is a homeopath and it’s surely only my own prejudices that had me seeing him within a handful of pages as essentially a self-important quack.

As Huberman is carried through the night, he reflects to himself:

When will we at last renounce the detective novel, the fantasy novel and the entire prolific, varied, and ambitious literary genre that is fed by unreality? When will we return to the path of the salubrious picaresque and pleasant local color?

When indeed?

Where-Theres-Love-Theres-Hate
Huberman has a romantic dream of a seaside idyll and a secluded private resort. It’s certainly isolated: “The building, white and modern, appeared picturesquely set in the sand like a ship on the sea, or an oasis in the desert.” What he finds though is a failing hotel with windows that can’t be opened due to endless sandstorms; where heat and flies make the inside intolerable and treacherous terrain makes the outside positively dangerous.

The other guests include one of his patients, Mary, to whom he had recommended a rest cure at the same resort. With Mary is her sister Emilia and Emilia’s fiancé, Atuel, as well as a Dr Cornejo. The only other guest is an older man named Dr Manning who spends most of his time quietly losing at solitaire.

The hotel’s run by Dr Huberman’s cousin Esteban which soon explains why Dr Huberman’s really staying there – he’s not paying. There’s also Esteban’s resentful wife Andrea and her oddly sinister nephew, Miguel, a boy with a fondness for killing and embalming animals and a marked fixation on Mary. Finally, there’s an elderly and possibly simple typist who wanders about swatting flies and ringing the bell for meals.

Before long it’s apparent that not all is well in this sandy paradise. On his first day Dr Huberman overhears a seemingly needlessly bitter argument involving Mary, Emilia, Atuel and Dr Cornejo. At dinner that night Emilia has evidently been crying, and Mary rather than sympathise bullies her into playing the piano for everyone. Later Dr Huberman sees Mary throwing herself passionately at Atuel. Something is most definitely up.

In the morning Dr Huberman is woken early by Andrea calling through his door, asking for help:

Andrea looked at me with weepy eyes, as if preparing to throw herself into my arms. I kept my hands resolutely in my pockets.

Mary has been found dead, killed by strychnine poisoning. There’s no strychnine bottle in her room, and no apparent shortage of people who might have wished her harm. It’s fortunate for everyone really that Dr Huberman is there to take charge of the investigation until the police come, and to assist them once they do.

In a more ordinary novel Dr Huberman would be a Miss Marple, a Poirot, and in a sense he is. The difference is Miss Marple and Poirot are actually genuinely gifted amateur detectives, keen psychologists ever attentive to the smallest detail. Dr Huberman by contrast is in love with the idea of finding himself the hero in a real-life detective novel, misses virtually every clue and repeatedly shows a near complete indifference to the feelings of others (particularly when they get between him and his meals, which are his real focus of interest):

Andrea was pale and a tremble in her jaw foretold the imminence of a sob. Barely hiding my impatience, I realized that a delay in the arrival of my soup was all but inevitable. I decided it would be prudent not to speak until it had been served.

What follows is hilarious. The police soon arrive and begin their own investigation, and once they’ve cleared Dr Huberman as their initial chief suspect they bring him on board to assist, though whether it’s because his help is wanted or because it keeps him quiet isn’t entirely clear. When the Victor Hugo-quoting chief detective moves to arrest Emilia, Dr Huberman becomes convinced she’s innocent and sets out to identify the real criminal.

Dr Huberman though isn’t the only amateur detective present. The police surgeon, an apparent drunk, shows signs of being a Columbo-esque figure whose insight is masked by a feigned bumbling exterior; Manning, who seemed a harmless old man concerned only with his cards, turns out to have a sharp and perceptive eye for clues; it goes on. Soon it seems there are more detectives than suspects.

What’s wonderful here is Dr Huberman’s utter incompetence, irrelevance even. At one point he deduces where some missing jewels must be based on where they would be were this a novel. He’s wrong, but not even momentarily daunted. He interprets everything according to his own prejudices, for example describing Atuel at various points as behaving slyly, as having unnatural composure, the manner ” of an overly debonair tango crooner”. Dr Huberman though has half-convinced himself he’s in love with Emilia (as the hero of a novel would be of course), and it’s fairly obvious that mostly he’s just jealous of Atuel.

As an aside, sometimes when a mediocre blockbuster movie or romcom comes out I see people argue that you should just turn your brain off as you enter the theatre and have fun. It’s just entertainment they cry, just enjoy it. Why should we have to do that though? Why should we have to turn our brains off to have fun? Why can’t a blockbuster or a romcom be smart? They can be of course. Anyone who’s seen His Girl’s Friday would never dare argue that a romcom for example can’t be both funny and almost cuttingly clever.

I see the same argument made for books every summer in the broadsheets, which should know better. They start recommending “beach reads”; the suggestion again is that you should just switch off your critical faculties and ignore dull prose and clichéd plotting. Why? Where There’s Love, There’s Hate is an utter refutation of that. It’s pure entertainment, but it’s good entertainment, it’s well written entertainment, more to the point it’s intelligent entertainment.

This is a hugely fun book. It’s incredibly silly, knowingly so with Dr Huberman even flat-out stating that he’s not an unreliable narrator. It’s a perfect choice for a beach or flight; it’s not remotely taxing, but nor does it once ask you to turn your brain off. It laughs with you, not for you.

As I said at the opening I discovered this through Jacqui’s review, which in turn was inspired by 1stReading’s Blog’s review here. Another interesting review is at the mookseandthegripes here.

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Filed under Argentinian fiction, Casares, Adolfo Bioy, Comic fiction, Crime, Ocampo, Silvina, South-American fiction, Spanish

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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Filed under Argentinian fiction, Crime, Piñeiro, Claudia, South-American fiction, Spanish