Mercedes Rosende is Uruguay’s leading woman crime writer. In 2005 she won the Premio Municipal de Narrativa for Demasiados blues, in 2008 the National Literature Prize for La muerte tendrá tus ojos and in 2019 the LiBeraturpreis in Germany for Crocodile Tears.
The only other literature I have had the good fortune to read in translation from the second-smallest nation in South America, includes the poetry of Mario Benedetti, and the prose of Juan Carlos Onetti, the latter translated by Peter Bush.
“What happens when fear is automated in your mind?” Sergio Bitar, Minister of Mines in the cabinet of Salvador Allende, Chile
From 1973 to 1985, thousands of Latin American writers, poets, artists, intellectuals and revolutionaries headed into exile, to wander the world during the brutal censorship of the military dictatorship in Uruguay. Onetti fled to Madrid where he remained until his death in 1994.
Despite the arrival of a civilian government in 1985 and a gradual return to stability and economic growth, the disappearances, murders and other crimes committed under the military regime left a deep wound in an impoverished, Americanised society and culture.
Mercedes Rosende’s writing, adeptly translated by Tim Gutteridge, is sorrowful yet playful. Elegant like the tango, and passionate at heart like the flamenco, it is underpinned by neo-noir dark humour. Ultimately it is the women who make headway out of the chaos.
Diego a.k.a. Sparrow is waiting for his slick Ray-banned lawyer, Antinucci, who “carries a briefcase that the guards don’t check. Ever”. He is sitting in a gloomy isolated corner of the visiting shed overlooking a cement yard, apart from the other prisoners. “Plastic tables and chairs have been set out in groups and the visitors break these up and reorganize them, dragging chairs to and fro, lifting and dropping them with a clatter.”
He is banged up for kidnapping Montevideo businessman, Santiago Losada, while Sergio, his partner in crime, got away, and is “living it up somewhere in the world with the cash he got from his victim”. He is called a patsy by all and sundry.
Diego is released in part because Losada’s wife, Ursula López, claims that Diego did not demand a ransom for her husband’s safe return. It turns out that Diego accidentally telephoned a different Ursula López: a small time crook and miserable overeater whose life has been decimated by an abusive sadistic father, and “the brutal discovery that your [her] sister Luz was – is – more beautiful and thinner . . . [and] was – is – a better person.”
Diego is also released in part because his duplicitous lawyer, Antinucci, gets him to team up with another client, cellmate Ricardo a.k.a. the Hobo. Inside for the murder of Irene Salgado, whose niece is called Ursula López, the Hobo is planning a heist after his jailbreak.
“Too many Ursulas and too many murders. Could the two cases have become mixed up? And, most important of all, could Ricardo, the Hobo, have got confused? Could he have killed one woman believing she was the other?”
Carry on Thieving
Diego agrees to be the lookout who will help the Hobo and Skinflint get away in a Toyota truck with the bags of cash from the armed robbery, “and the same day you’re back home with the loot, no problem.”
Of course it all goes very wrong. There’s a “bloodbath in which there appear to be not one but several dead bodies, almost all of them badly damaged.” Unexpectedly, it is Ursula who drives away, though she is not alone.
The hilarious bunglings of both the cops and robbers oddly reminded me of the crime comedies made by Ealing Studios in the 1950s.
The grittier, seamier barrios of Montevideo, “smelling of garbage” are miserable places from where everyone is desperate to escape. Chronic deprivation, unemployment, underemployment and corruption go hand in hand in these neighbourhoods that are crowded with “dwellings constructed from wood and corrugated iron, shacks where the poorest of the poor live”.
A dark tale about systemic corruption and criminality fuelled by poverty, Crocodile Tears is both entertaining and thought provoking. The translation is rhythmic, poetic and bold in its language. It is the perfect read for right-sizing one’s own lockdown anxieties and troubles since for many people in the world, the challenges are huge and sometimes extremely harrowing, compared to one’s own . . . however much everyone’s individual experience of the pandemic is unique.
Dare to dream . . .
Crocodile Tears by Mercedes Rosende | Translated by Tim Gutteridge | Bitter Lemon Press 224 pages 14 January 2021 8.99 GBP | ISBN 9781913394431
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