By Guillermo Orsi, translated from the (Argentinian) Spanish by Nick Caistor
MacLehose Press (Quercus), May 2010.
Pablo Martelli, known as Gotán, is retired from the police force (“the National Shame”) in Buenos Aires, and is now selling bathroom fittings – though we witness none of this particular professional activity in this novel. As the book opens, Gotán answers a late-night phone call from his old friend Edmundo, who asks him to come immediately to see him. Edmundo lives 400 kilometres away on the beach at Mediomundo, near the town of Bahia Blanca. When Gotán arrives at his friend’s house, he finds him lying dead on the floor, shot. He calls the local police, but they insist the death is a suicide. He also calls Edmundo’s daughter Isabel, of whom he is fond. Isabel is distraught and says she and her mother (no longer married to her father) will immediately travel to the region to supervise the funeral.
While the shocked and grieving Gotán is waiting for the women to arrive, Lorena, Edmundo’s young girlfriend, turns up. This event is cue for Gotán to be plunged into a whirlwind of violent, confusing and increasingly dangerous events which continue in ever-widening circles of impact without rest until the novel’s end. First he suffers a bruising encounter with the local police; then he finds himself driving south with Lorena, who vanishes while he is in the bathroom at a desolate petrol station. Totally confused about what is going on, but determined to find out for his friend’s sake, Gotán refuses to be intimidated by various dangers, bizarre characters and events that happen with increasingly frenzied pace, pursuing his quest to get to the bottom of his friend’s death.
What makes this book stand head and shoulders over most novels of this genre is the mixture of black comedy and knowing cynicism through which the reader experiences the story, and above all, the setting. Argentina in December 2001 is melting down, as the currency collapses and the banks refuse to give savers their money. Riots are the norm on the streets of Buenos Aires, the “bloated hydra’s head” of the country, teeming with shanty towns built by once-hopeful peasants flooding into the city when their lands or jobs were taken from them; immigrants from other South American countries or from further afield; as
well as thousands of striking or protesting citizens trying to live a “normal” life of work and leisure . All this is going on against a background of endemic evil – organised drug dealing, institutionalised corruption of every kind imaginable in all the professions (even hospitals are not exempt), family violence, sinister authorities, and extreme poverty – all of this gradually creeps up on the reader as what starts out as an apparently simple tragedy becomes more and more tangled with bigger-picture events going on in the capital and the entire, ruined land. Gotán himself provides a running internal commentary to the reader and to his cat of the events he is experiencing, in a country where “there are more supporters of the final solution than there are of Boca Juniors football club.”
As the characters of this energetic and blackly funny novel – including local police, an eccentric pathologist, a journalist, a magistrate and numerous quasi-military, police and armed factions of unknown origin – drive up and down route 3 between Buenos Aires and Bahia Blanca, as often as not blind drunk and falling asleep at the wheel, Gotán finds himself similarly travelling back and forth in his mind to try to make sense of the nightmare he’s in, as well as working out strategies for his own survival. Bahia Blanca is on the edge of the pampas, the rich and vast farmland of Argentina, but increasingly exhausted, ruined by owners or left uncultivated. In the final chapters, events and geography continue to mirror each other as we move with the protagonists further down into the southern, windy deserts of Patagonia, where finally Gotán discovers what’s at the heart of all the madness, and we discover why he is no longer a policeman.
The novel contains a wonderful mix of characters (including the cat) who all have their own ways of dealing with the misery and cruelty all around them. The stories of poverty in the hospitals and the corruption of the government and police are particularly well-integrated in the plot of this exciting, absorbing book. The author is a journalist, and (unsurprisingly) a pretty cynical one, infusing his tales of tragedy with in-depth knowledge of current affairs but also sufficient humour and feeling that one is carried along to the end. The translation of the novel is masterly, in that the ‘running commentary’ that provides the framework for the plot, and that eventually merges into it, almost unconsciously gives the reader a vivid sense of experiencing events alongside the characters.
The final chapters of the book go on for too long, with too many twists and turns of plot, necessitating occasions on which Gotán is attacked, captured, escapes or himself attacks others – and the other protagonists, some introduced right at the end of the book, are over-complex in motivation, rationales and actions — believability is somewhat sacrificed, not least in the illogical character of “Negra”. Yet at the very end, the novel returns to the core of the track it’s been on throughout: the strong basic plot of what happened to Edmundo and his daughter Isabel and why, together with the true story of how Gotán has come to be in a Patagonian mine with a woman who is after his life. It’s a powerful story, and a strong novel – one which I highly recommend.
“Argentina was like some huge, sleeping beast, a mythical elephant like those the ancients believed held up the world. It had just shaken off a president and all its ministers. It got rid of them because they did not know how to steer it, could only torment it with their absurd decisions on a journey to nowhere. Today the beast was resting, digesting, occasionally regurgitating its favourite, its only nourishment: madness.”
Guillermo Orsi was born in Buenos Aires, where he lives and works as a journalist. His previous novel Suenos de perro won the Semana Begra Umbriel Award in 2004.
Nick Caistor has translated many novels from the Spanish, including The Buenos Aires Quartet by Manuel Vazquez Montalban.
I thank the publisher, MacLehose Press/Quercus, for so kindly sending me a copy of this book.