Monday, February 19, 2007

A Spanish detective in Argentina

I read several of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán's detective novels some years ago but never got addicted to the series. The plots are usually beside the point, and discoveries are often not made by the detective but simply stated in the narrative--the texture of the novels are far more important than the plots, which are devices for the exploration of the dark side of the modern world. On the strength of Andrea Camilleri's fondness for the novels, as well as the homage offered to Vázquez Montalbán in the "novel for four hands" by Paco Ignacio Taibo II and Subcomandante Marcos, I picked up what is evidently the second-to-last in the series, The Buenos Aries Quintet (the last is The Man of My Life, recently available in English). Private detective Pepe Carvalho is asked by his uncle to find a son who was a victim of the "dirty war" in Argentina 20 years previously and has been in exile in Spain ever since. The son belatedly decides to look for a daughter who was taken from him (when his wife was killed) and illegally adopted --disappeared as effectively as those murdered by the military government of those years. Off to Buenos Aires, reluctantly at first, Pepe is separated from his regular crew and his usual fare (food being a big part of this series). His new crew of damaged Argentinians who are more interesting than the regulars (to me, anyway). Carvalho repeatedly tells people that all he knows about Argentina is "tango, Maradona, and the disappeared." But as I mentioned above, the plot is not a straightforward (or even crooked) line from the assignment to the solution. We figure out where (and who) the daughter is long before the detective, and when she's found the novel takes little account of it. Much more important are the numerous ancillary tales and the main personalities (particularly Alma, everyone's love interest in one way or another) and the flock of auxiliary characters, who together draw a portrait not only of the conflict of left and right in Argentina but also the webs of conflict, deceit, and misery in the world at large. The text is full of tangos and poetry, food and sex, disguise and death. In an odd way when the novel reaches its most crescendo in a burlesque, macabre banquet among the members of the former (and still powerful) elite, The Buenos Aires Quintet reminds me of another big, baggy, overpopulated and satirical novel, Thomas Pynchon's first book, V. And as in V, the pleasure in reading Vázquez Montalbán's book is in going with the flow of the looping, overlapping stories as they reveal contemporary life, a troubled nation, and a vital people.

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