Tuesday, June 01, 2010
Crime in Argentina
Ernesto Mallo's Needle in a Haystack (translated by Jethro Soutar and published by Bitter Lemon Press) uses unconventional means to tell a difficult story. There are two threads to the tale, one beginning with Detective "Perro" Lascano, who is dispatched to a site where two bodies have been discovered, and finds instead that there are three bodies, showing evidence of two different crimes. One of the crimes is political (this is the era of the "disappeared" and the dirty war, with the military freely attacking dissidents in the interests of power and ideological purity). The political crimes can, of course, not be investigated. but Perro takes the third body as a personal project, along with his friend the medical examiner. Along the way, he also discovers a young radical woman on the run who resembles his deceased wife, and who disrupts his comfortable but empty life. The other thread deals with Amancio, a privileged but feckless young man who can't support his lifestyle or that of his wife and has resorted to money-lenders (giving rise to a good deal of anti-Semitism, since the loan shark is a Holocaust survivor). Amancio has recourse to a school friend who is now an Army officer as well as to the loan shark's greedy younger brother as he digs himself further into debt and approaches financial and social ruin. Along the way, many aspects of 1970s Argentina are explored, including the expropriation of the children of the disappeared and the moral justifications indulged in by the power structure for this and other atrocities. There is a time gap between the two alternating sections of the tale that narrows toward the end, when the stories collide. Building up to that point, the novel seems less like a crime novel than a philosophical tale, but the investigation and the crimes reach a fever pitch in the last half of the book. The unconventional structure of the dialogue (sections of italic text with no indication of who is speaking, or where one speaker stops and another starts) are a little distracting at first, but go with the flow and you'll quickly adjust to the technique and have no trouble telling once voice from another. There are numerous literary references (to Joyce, Borges, etc.) but they don't distract from the forward motion of the narrative. Needle in a Haystack deals with difficult material but never bogs down into tendentious hectoring. Mallo was himself a member of a revolutionary movement, but his narrator carefully maintains a focus on each of the characters without tilting the bias toward the revolutionaries, the military, or those who are simply coping as best they can with the situation. This vivid and humane novel is the first of a series (though at the end you will wonder how Mallo manages to do a sequel), and also the basis of some movies. I find myself anxiously awaiting translation of the sequels (much as I was anxious for the subsequent volumes of the very different De Luca series by Carlo Lucarelli).