“A new literary genre: paranoid fiction. Everyone is a suspect; everyone feels pursued,” Ricardo Piglia (published by Deep Vellum & Duke University Press).
Beef, gauchos and the tango. Eva Perón, military dictatorship and The Disappeared. Maradona, the 1986 World Cup and Thatcher’s last stand for Empire. Such are the answers of friends when asked what images Argentina conjures up in their mind’s eye. To which I would add, bookishly, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar and Ernesto Sabato.
Crime novelist Claudia Piñeiro is a welcome discovery. All Yours, A Crack in the Wall, Thursday Night Widows published by Bitter Lemon Press, and now Betty Boo, give an alternative, very contemporary view of Argentina. The abuse of public power for private benefit is increasingly a global problem, manifested in myriad nuanced ways at a local level. Corruption is invariably intrinsic to the way power is exercised. Just recently, the name of Argentina’s new president, Mauricio Macri, appeared in the Panama Papers leaked files.
The crux of Betty Boo may revolve around the murder of widower Pedro Chazarreta, “his throat slit from side to side,” in Maravillosa Country Club – a gated, guarded compound catering to the super rich, similar to ones you’d find in Florida or North London – but it is also a novel about writing, journalism, justice and ageing.
Once-upon-a-time bestselling novelist, Nurit Iscar, is eking out a living as a ghostwriter – her career killed by a bitchy review. The “Dark Lady of Argentine literature” is sent to write fictionalised reportage à la Truman Capote by her former (married) lover Lorenzo Rinaldi, the editor of El Tribuno newspaper. His nickname for her – on account of her black curls and red lips – is Betty Boop: the “archetype of the sexy, submissive woman.” A symbol of the 1920s liberated flapper, “Betty Boop is and will always be a definitively sensual and sexual woman. That’s what matters. She wears short skirts and stockings, she flaunts her breasts in low-cut tops . . . she likes to dance hula-hula, swinging her hips and repeating the phrase ‘Boop Boop a Doop’ as she dances.” Corruption No 1. Sex and nepotism often work hand in hand.
Iscar’s pieces are pungent: “Do men more often kill their wives, or women their husbands? When the circumstances of a woman’s death are in question, does suspicion always fall on the husband? Are the suspicions always well founded? And what about when a woman kills her husband? Is she more likely to go to prison? Which of the two deaths – or murders – was, or is, more socially acceptable? . . . How many unresolved or half-resolved cases of murder are lodged in the collective memory?”
Jaime Brena works at El Tribuno, which is “getting rid of everyone old and expensive.” He is about to take voluntary redundancy as the young illiterati – “Generation Google: no legwork, just keyboard and screen, everything off the Internet” – are taking over. He has had enough, however he ends up mentoring “the boy they brought in to replace him on the news stories that used to be his: violent crime and assault.” The pair turn into sleuths in true private dick fashion, as they try to figure out who slit Pedro Chazarreta’s throat . . . and whether the mysterious deaths of five of Chazarreta’s friends from secondary School were murders.
Brena is old skool and knows his stuff. Offhand and antsy at first, “Crime boy” begins to listen: “Try to be a good crime reporter; get out into the street and produce great writing – writing that informs, that has teeth, that draws people in. And without any spelling mistakes, which is already a lot to ask for these days . . . Journalism has nothing to do with the revolution any more. We turned bourgeois, kid. We got paunchy. We do what they ask of us, within certain limitations, and collect our paycheck at the end of the month.” Corruption No 2. Money kills ideals and principles.
“Sometimes one has to settle for having discovered the truth . . . It’s not our job to administer justice, we’re journalists. If, in the course of an investigation, we uncover some important, true information that we aren’t in a position to prove, that’s still a lot more than we manage most of the time . . . Taking justice into your own hands can only lead to another wrong, fuelling an endless cycle of hatred and revenge. When a person kills someone who deserves to die, does that make him any less of a murderer? The only way to save ourselves as a society is to administer fair punishment for wrongdoing, for crimes that have been committed. Don’t forget the unpunished crimes, because they always conceal something more terrible than the crime itself.” So speaks Brena, who lived through a military dictatorship and its aftermath. Corruption No 3. The law is not about justice. It is a tool used by the powers-that-be to keep the peace.
Truth will out, or will it? “What’s happening with this crime story has implications for other news items and for the general state of the media today. A news agenda that leaves out certain stories is tantamount to censorship. Don’t allow other people to create your agenda, no matter what side they’re on. Read a lot of newspapers, watch a lot of bulletins – all of them, even the ones you disagree with – and only then decide on your own viewpoint. Communication today is no longer a matter of passively receiving what we are told: we all help to create it.” Corruption No 4. Freedom of speech is an illusion. The Media (and increasingly the internet) are controlled.
Screenwriter-turned-novelist, Piñeiro excels at character development and her faultless plotlines had me hooked. A good translator has to be a good writer too, since their work creates a whole new book for a whole new audience and culture – Miranda France excels at both.
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Betty Boo by Claudia Piñeiro, trs. Miranda France | Bitter Lemon Press | Jan. 2016 £8.99 320pp PB | ISBN: 1908524553