Thursday, July 30, 2009
SoHo Crime, Bitter Lemon Press, and Sergio Bizzio's Rage
SoHo Crime in the U.S. and Bitter Lemon Press in the U.K. are two of the leading independent publishers of international crime fiction in English. Their lists overlap a bit (both publish Garry Disher) and both publish novels that are detective-oriented and books that are more in the line of psychological novels (thrillers isn't really an adequate word), though SoHo's list tilts toward the detectives and Bitter Lemon's list tilts toward the psychologicals. The newly translated (by Amanda Hopkinson) Argentine novel Rage by Sergio Bizzio (from Bitter Lemon) is definitely in the latter category. The cover announces that it's to be made into a movie by Guillermo del Toro, and that's no surprise: the claustrophobic and high-concept novel hearkens back to early-20th-century expressionist writing in several ways. It's focused on the working class (as many of the expressionist writers were), it includes a hallucinatory (though also ordinary) architecture as its primary setting), and its effect is rather more like reading a ghost story or a fairy tale than reading a crime novel. In some ways it's a combination of the Phantom of the Opera and one of Francis Carco's gritty novels of lower-class Paris. There's also a hint of gender confusion in a couple of spots, one being that the primary character, José Maria, is most often called Maria. He's a construction worker who falls in love with a maid, Rosa, who works in a mansion near his current construction site. The novel actually begins with a suggestion of pornography, Maria suggesting a sex act that Rosa is reluctant to perform, in one of their rare moments together in a room-by-the-hour hotel. the tone shifts away from porn, though, when Maria goes on the run, pursued for the murder of his boss; instead of running way he runs in: he hides in the attic of the house where Rosa lives and works, but without telling her. The rest of the book narrates the scenes and sounds that Maria witnesses as he sneaks up and down staircases, through hallways of upper stories, and occasionally down to the ground floor, spying on Rosa and her employers and occasional visitors. The crimes that occur in the house, including rape and murder, are a less important aspect of the novel's texture than Maria's daily effort to survive undetected. As I said, it's easy to imagine del Toro's attraction for the story, given that director's interest in and skill with labyrinthine tales (both in scene and psychology). Bizzio's evocation of Maria-the-phantom's scurrying journeys and his glimpsed and overheard narrative is vivid, though I did find my attention lapsing now and then; it is, after all, a very high concept story--you either buy into the conceit or you don't; you're either in or out, there's no halfway. The same was true to some extent with some other Bitter Lemon books, Blackout (by Gianluca Morozzi, also to be made into a movie), for instance--though Blackout leads up to a plot twist while Rage moves forward with a kind of inexorable rhythm toward an almost inevitable conclusion foretold by a pun or double meaning in the original Spanish title that I can't explain without giving too much away. I'd definitely be interested in other books by Bizzio (and in the del Toro film), though Rage (in spite of the murder and mayhem) isn't the kind of crime novel I usually look for. Thanks are due to Bitter Lemon for stretching my reading horizons as well as for the high quality of their entire crime list.