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.

5 comments:

lriley said...

Sounds a little bit in a Roberto Arlt--The seven madmen--vein. That book was followed by the yet untranslated sequel Las lanzallamas--'The flamethrowers'. More or less a fast paced criminal plot to overthrow a corrupt government using working class Buenos Aires as a backdrop--those books progress through a series of criminal acts to a final act of suicide. Anyway I'll be looking up Bizzio--it sounds interesting.

Glenn Harper said...

I read 7 Madmen years ago, and remember it (correct me if I'm wrong) as more of a comic tour-de-force almost in the dada vein. I'd love to read Las lanzallamas but my lack of Spanish fluency currently prevents it. There is a translation of Mad Toy (El juguete rabioso) that I read not too long ago, and my memory of that one is decidedly dada, though there's also crime in it. Perhaps the success of Bizzio (who is far from comic except in a metaphysical sense maybe) and international crime writing in general will result in a translation of Las lanzallamas....

Steve Finbow said...

Great blog - just discovered it - will now have to expand my reading wish-list... Cheers

http://www.amazon.com/Balzac-Badlands-Steve-Finbow/dp/0578021161/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1249051159&sr=8-1

lriley said...

Sorry to take so long to get back Glenn.

My Spanish isn't really very good but I spent a summer working on Las lanzallamas--and created kind of a working copy of it. The second book is kind of the realization of everything that Arlt played around with in the first. There is certainly some comedy to it but comic aspects are much more prevalent in the first book. The second book is much darker and more intriguing IMO.

The Astrologer for one plays a much larger role. He recruits Erdosain to create a phosgene gas making machine. That does not come to realization though. Several murders including Erdosain's brutal and very gruesome slaying of his 14(?) year old girlfriend and the burning down of the Astrologer's home and headquarters preempt all the Astrologer's plans to stage a coup d'etat. The guilt driven Erdosain finally taking the train into the center of Buenos Aires where he shoots himself in the heart.

What reminds me of Arlt in your Bizzio review is a kind of expressionistic drawing of Buenos Aires--or a sense I get from it of a pervasive city life throbbing beneath the surface of the story which is a great tool for any crime or noir style writer to have at least those working in an urban setting. Speaking of great Argentine crime novels Ricardo Piglia's 'Money to burn' also comes to mind.

Glenn Harper said...

Thanks for the Arlt info, I don't know if I'll ever get to read a translation, given how the publishing industry is now. Money to Burn is indeed interesting, a sort of "documentary" crime novel. My favorite of Piglia's books. I haven't had a chance to see the movie that was made from it though--it's been on cable TV but I keep missing it.
Thanks again,
Glenn