Carlos Gamerro - Baroque fiction: a detective novel, a cyber-thriller, an inner-city road trip and a war memoir; a hilarious, devastating and dizzyingly surreal account of a history that remains all too raw
Carlos Gamerro, The Islands, Trans. by Ian Barnett, And Other Stories, 2012.
"Buenos Aires, 1992. Hacker Felipe Félix is summoned to the vertiginous twin towers of magnate Fausto Tamerlán and charged with finding the witnesses to a very public crime. Rejecting the mission is not an option. After a decade spent immersed in drugs and virtual realities, trying to forget the freezing trench in which he passed the Falklands War, Félix is forced to confront the city around him – and realises to his shock that the war never really ended.
A detective novel, a cyber-thriller, an inner-city road trip and a war memoir, The Islands is a hilarious, devastating and dizzyingly surreal account of a history that remains all too raw."
The curious thing is that I was originally planning to write a detective novel when I started The Islands. And at some point the Malvinas / Falklands conflict came in by the back door. It is the negative image of an autobiographical novel: the story of what did not happen to me but could have. Born in 1962, I was at university during the war and exempt from the call-up. Plus, I have a grandfather from Gibraltar and was brought up bilingual. You could say I have the conflict in my blood. - Carlos Gamerro
"Carlos Gamerro is not keen on labelling his own books – nor, for that matter, on reading labels people tend to stick on any books. However, the Argentine writer, whose 1998 novel The Islands just came out in English, claims to have coined the term “baroque fictions”. The title of his collection of essays, Ficciones barrocas, it is there to replace “Argentine fantastic”, usually applied to those works of Borges and Cortazar (as well as other, less famous writers, often overlooked outside their cultures) where reality is treated as multilayer in “an attempt to reinvent the Golden Age of Spanish baroque literature.” Our conversation with Gamerro turns towards labels from the start, when I mention a popular – if by no means unanimous – opinion that for the Anglophone world the bulk of contemporary Latin American writing comes in two packages: magic realism and Bolaño. The Islands clearly doesn’t fit into either.
“English-language readers like their Latin American fiction authentic,” says Gamerro. “They want their ponchos, llamas and all the rest.” This, together with the fact that Latin American literature is a drop in the paltry pond of translations published in Britain, goes some way to explain why some of us can’t see beyond One Hundred Years of Solitude, with 2666 occasionally getting in the view. It’s not that Gamerro dislikes magic realism per se – rather, he is surprised when The Islands is referred to thus. “Whenever I hear people say that I go: what? What does it have to do with it? Call it cyberpunk or sci-fi, a literary thriller or even a war novel…” These, incidentally, are the names rolling off my tongue as I ask Gamerro if any of them apply, having failed to come up with a definition for his novel’s genre. He’s heard this question before: “I was on a train the other day, going to Hay festival, and got talking to some young football fans. They said: ‘So you are a writer? What kind of books do you write?’ That wasn’t easy to answer.”
Labels aside, Gamerro doesn’t mind talking about a variety of genres his novel embraces: “On one level it’s a thriller, a crime story – and these elements aren’t just a plot device. As for whether The Islands is a war novel – yes, there is a lot of it there, although the war came into the book later.” Once it did, it became central to the novel, whose publication in Britain ties in with the 30th anniversary of the Falklands conflict. Gamerro mentions a lecture he gave on the subject in London, making me look at him in disbelief: is the date really being celebrated? Apparently not – at least not on the scale of mass jubilation in Argentina on 2 April 1982, the day the Malvinas were invaded. “The government we had at the time was extremely unpopular,” Gamerro explains. “But it all changed overnight after the invasion. Fortunately, this bout of nationalism didn’t last – in fact, it backfired.”
By 1992, when The Islands is set, the war fervour has abated, but not for the novel’s narrator, Felipe. Conscripted at the beginning of the conflict, he went through hell, was wounded and spent the next decade either in a mental hospital or in his room, hacking computer codes and taking drugs. He is not the only one for whom the Malvinas are still a raw subject: Buenos Aires is full of similar types, from his war buddies to chance acquaintances. Gamerro finds this obsession somewhat coincidental but strong: “Malvinas are, indeed, hugely important to Argentina. It’s not just a piece of land – it’s a symbol of the country’s prosperity, of the power it once hoped to achieve. Even their outline on the map is iconic; it’s often compared to Che Guevara’s face.” A different comparison is made in the novel: “Argentina is an erect prick ready to breed, and the Malvinas, its balls. When we recover them, fertility shall return to our lands and we shall become the great nation our founding fathers once dreamed of!” Looking at the islands’ contour tattooed on a friend’s arm, the protagonist sees “a perfect female sex, complete with half-open lips and a few unwaxed hairs on belly and thighs.” In the presence of such a strong feminine symbol, the author thought the contrast between it and the highly masculine nature of the regime was worth exploring.
As the novel develops around its thriller backbone, you keep wondering why another war is getting much less attention – the Dirty War unleashed by the Argentine junta against its own country, when many thousands were tortured and killed in the 1970s and 1980s. These events are weaved into just one strand of the wider plot. Gamerro points out that the novel is, in fact, part of a trilogy; the other two, La aventura de los bustos de Eva and Un yuppie en la columna del Che Guevara, are more focused on the theme. An Open Secret, his other novel available in English, also talks about state terrorism and the nation’s complicity in it. Asked about the perception of the Dirty War in today’s Argentina, Gamerro says: “Everything is very open. At the time when The Islands is set there were attempts to put an end to trials, but now the process has picked up again.”
The motif of complicity can be discerned in The Islands too. At first glance, it reads like a personal book in the sense that the protagonist’s experience is crucial. But here we come to more labels, such as “hindered narrator”, which, much as I like it, doesn’t go hand in hand with Gamerro’s design. “Felipe is mainly an observer. I didn’t use him – or any of the characters – to express any particular opinions.” Some of the novel’s best scenes are dialogues between Felipe and Tamerlán, the villain of the piece, who hires the hero to do a little investigative job, for a reasonable fee of 100,000 US dollars. In between instructing Felipe about his duties, his fiendish employer philosophises about big themes, proclaiming at one point that “one’s freedom begins where another’s tnds” – an inversion of a popular saying. According to the author, “This pact with the devil Felipe makes is meant to show that you can’t exist within an evil regime without being part of it.”
Sex and the associated imagery are just one of the novel’s many overlapping facets; its pages are generously peppered with the comic and the grotesque. This is a typical snapshot captured by the narrator in a futuristic office building: “a prodigious spiral of toilet paper that began at the almost empty roll in its holder, wrapped itself several times round his body and plunged up the tightly clenched crack of his arse.”
Another theme that never fails to fascinate readers, violence, is also there in spades. “Those were very violent times for Argentina,” Gamerro recalls. I ask him about an episode at a veterinary science faculty which brings to mind a slaughter yard – and, by sheer association, an eponymous story by Esteban Echeverría whose publication in the 1830s is considered the birth of Argentine literature. In the episode, Felipe slips and falls into a pool of blood near a shed where a cow is hanging, “at least what was left of it once its hide had been removed, its organs emptied, its musculature shredded.” Learning that students are petitioning for more humane methods of killing animals, he quips: “If by humane you mean human […] your wish has been granted.” Gamerro spent a year studying to be a vet: “That right was in the middle of the dictatorship, and in my eyes things that were being done to animals became emblematic of the cruelty of the regime. It was a code for what was being done to people. And I thought, perhaps Echeverría felt the same when writing El Matadero – he used the slaughter yard as a metaphor for political violence.”
Gamerro talks eagerly about the effort that went into the novel’s translation, done by Ian Barnett in collaboration with the author. The fact that his publisher, And Other Stories [3:AM Publisher of 2011], is dedicated to fiction in translation and prepared to put a lot of work into it is laudable in itself; the process Gamerro describes – the exchange of numerous emails between him and Barnett, the time they spent together in a room working on a draft – makes you long for an ideal world where you would be able to translate books in this way.
Our conversation keeps returning to Felipe: can we call him a reliable narrator? Is he more than just a not-too-unwilling instrument in the hands of the evil? “A curious thing happened last year,” says Gamerro. “The Islands was adapted for theatre – I wrote the play myself. Naturally, the narrator’s voice had to go. I was astonished to see that all Felipe does is just stand there, taking in what’s happening around him. That’s his role in the novel too.” How did the Argentine audience react to the play? “People we either very enthusiastic or very angry. Our politicians don’t usually read novels, but a stage production at an ‘official’ theatre is hard to miss. A lot of nationalists found my take on the war insulting.” For all the controversy, Las Islas has a cult following in Argentina, while the English version has been well received in Britain. Whatever its general perception, it would be true to say that the narrative, at its best, takes a situation and either turns it inside out or blows it up, creating that other layer of reality we were talking about earlier. As the interview draws to a close, more genre labels are bounced around, but I, like Gamerro, wouldn’t want to stick any on this book." - Anna Aslanyan
"Set in Argentina 10 years after the Falklands War, and released in the UK to coincide with its 30th anniversary, this genre-mash of a novel blends the conventions of sci-fi, hard-boiled and drug fiction but is overwhelmingly a historical work. Bleak and uproarious, The Islands seems to want to break away from examining the legacy of the 1982 conflict and be a different novel altogether. But the bitterness of that defeat, and the international community's blasé attitude to Britain's imperialist stance, mean that history is not so easy to ignore.
The labyrinthine plot begins when outlaw programmer Felipe Félix is contracted by a coked-up, Nietzsche-spouting business magnate, Fausto Tamurlán, to track down the witnesses to a murder committed by his son. As a veteran of the war, Felipe has ex-colleagues through whom he can access the State Intelligence Secretariat's Big Brother-like database. He offers to design a video game for the army that will indulge a faction hell-bent on winning back the Falklands; if they can't achieve it through political sabre-rattling or outright warfare, they might as well do it playing Playstation. "[R]arefying [him]self to a sequence of algorithms that could move ... frictionlessly as a ghost" (the book has many such wonderful flashes of prose poetry, full credit to translator Ian Barnett), Felipe installs the game for the slavering top brass and extracts the files. When he realizes that Tamurlá* now plans to bump off the witnesses, however, he sets out on a danger-laden, mind-bending and ultimately redemptive quest to foil his employer.
It turns out that one of Tamurlán's sons was also in the Falklands; one of the witnesses, too, is the ex-wife of a shady army major who was involved in the war; and one of the characters he meets even argues that the interest in the Falklands is really down to a gigantic armadillo stuffed with priceless colonial treasure: "Whoever recovers the armadillo and its contents will have a legitimate right over the Islands, and until that day the question of sovereignty cannot be settled." The Islands are everywhere Felipe turns; they provide the key to the mystery of Tamurlán's son's crime and open the door onto ever darker chapters in Argentina's recent past.
The author spent parts of his childhood in both Argentina and Gibraltar, well qualifying him as our guide to the blasted wonderland through the looking glass of Britain's vestigial colonialism. Numerous characters, maddened by the ignominy of 1982, have taken to imagining alternate histories, so that there are more ideas here than most writers would fit in 10 novels. This makes the experience of reading The Islands difficult to summarise, but one of the characters perhaps gets close when, as Buenos Aires melts into a synaesthetic blur, he describes "being locked inside a kaleidoscope that was spinning at the speed of a centrifuge". Finishing it feels a little like Jack Kerouac's breathless utterance in Dharma Bums: "The whole trip had been swift and enlightening as a dream, and I was back.' "- Tom Bunstead
"The Islands by Carlos Gamerro is narrated by a Falklands/Malvinas war veteran with a piece of shrapnel fused into his skull. He literally cannot get the war out of his head. Because the war is there all the time in his head Felipe spends a good deal of time trying to get out of his head. This book is full of drugs. It is also full of cruelty, sex and pain. The characters are all broken or damaged in one way or another, either by the war or by the military regime that started it. A narrative that begins as a kind of murder mystery quickly disintegrates into something a lot more interesting.
Imagine if you will a kind of literary kaleidoscope. Smash up the writings of Haruki Murakami, Borges and Denis Johnson. Add a dash of Michael Herr's Dispatches. Pour the fragments into your kaleidoscope and put it to your eye. Start to twist the tube and watch the coloured patterns form, shift and reform into a different shape. Keep turning. This gives an approximate idea of what it feels like to read this astonishing novel.
Waves of cyberpunk, sci-fi and magical realism crash against the rocks of state torture and almost journalistic descriptions of war. There is a lot in the novel and it is hard to cram everything into a short review but if I tell you this book transformed the way I think and feel about the Falklands conflict it would be no exaggeration. The Argentine troops were mostly conscripted. A lottery. A knock on the door and all of a sudden you are part of the mad scheme of a dictator. Next thing you know the General Belgrano has been sunk with the loss of 323 lives. Shortly after 2 Para arrive:
"They come at the open mouths of the foxholes from the sides and the back, not caring which, and stick the barrels of their rifles and machine guns right inside to make sure they don't miss, then drop a phosphorus grenade in to make sure and step aside to dodge the white flash, then move on to the next position to repeat the procedure, methodically, like weeding a field. You might have wanted to surrender, but they aren't asking questions."
The description above concerns the battle of Mount Longdon. Much of the novel is factually accurate including the ill treatment of the conscripted soldiers by their own officers.
"Our own officers were our greatest enemies", says Ernesto Alonso, the president of CECIM, a veterans group founded by Rodolfo Carrizo and former conscripts of the 7th Regiment. "They supplied themselves with whiskey from the pubs, but they weren't prepared for war. They disappeared when things got serious."
What this novel made clear to me was how the abuse of power creates traumas that can never fully heal. A dictator abuses his people with torture. He decides to start a mad war. It is his people who suffer once again. We could be talking about Saddam, Hitler or any other dictator - it is the people who suffer.
So there we go, a demented novel that somehow makes a powerful point with great clarity. It isn't often that I feel a novel really affects the way I look at things. In this case it did. I urge you to find and read a copy of this important novel, a book that took 14 years to be translated into English - thanks to And Other Stories Press - despite the fact we are so caught up with what it has to say." - Matthew Crockatt
"It isn't the criminal who returns to the scene of the crime; it's the victim, in the tyrannical hope they'll change the unfair result that's damaged them." So says a minor character in Carlos Gamerro's dazzling The Islands, a novel dealing with the Falklands war, its aftermath, and Argentina's recurrent obsession with Malvinas.
The main obsession here belongs to former soldiers with crippling dreams of revenge. But Gamerro examines the armed conflict within the context of blind national pride and the machinations of a declining military junta. The islands play a part in a chauvinistic epic about the country's presumed destiny. Or, as a pro-military character puts it: "Argentina is an erect prick ready to breed, and the Malvinas, its balls. When we recover them, fertility shall return to our lands."
The war put an end to what little power the junta had left, but the national triumphalism hardly went away. The Islands, set largely in 1992, follows its resurgence in the roaring Nineties. The key character is an monstrous businessman who sees himself as a Nietzschean Übermensch, plans the foundation of a new capital, and dreams of marching on Malvinas, where he lost his first-born. With a knowing wink to Marlowe, Gamerro has named him Tamerlán (Tamburlaine).
But, as in so many tragedies, the would-be conqueror first needs to put his house in order. Tamerlán's younger son has committed murder in view of 25 witnesses, and his father needs their names in order to buy their silence. Unfortunately, only the Intelligence Services know who those people are. So the narrator, Felipe Félix, is brought in to retrieve their identities. A war veteran, Félix lives at the frontier of legality, and makes money as a "security systems specialist" – "in a word... hacker". Tamerlá* offers him a hundred thousand dollars.
What stars as an investigation in cyberspace, and in a cyberpunk vein, descends to the streets as the information proves elusive. Do not expect a noirish novel with gentle realistic touches. Gamerro pushes towards satire and hyperbole. Félix's narrative charts his perambulations around a distorted Buenos Aires populated by half-broken characters.
All are, in one way or another, connected with the Falklands war. There is a crazed ex-conscript, confined to a derelict psychiatric hospital, who spends his days reciting gibberish about his days in battle; there is a sadistic ex-lieutenant who obsessively plays a Malvinas videogame in which the Argentines defeat the Brits; and there is a love interest, a wonderfully realised character who was once an guerrilla warrior, survived repeated torture, was forced to marry her torturer and had twin daughters by him, both with Down syndrome.
That bit of allegorical overkillshows how far Gamerro can go against politically correct pieties. The Islands is not a well-mannered novel, but it deploys bad taste conscientiously, using the negative force of taboos, scatology, profanity and the depiction of violence. If there is a weakness, it lies mainly with the characters, who are largely archetypical, and have archetypal conflicts. Tamerlán's dead son died during a phase of Oedipal rebellion against his father. Félix is looking for redemption. And so on.
The trauma of war lies at the centre of this novel which examines a society saddled with posttraumatic stress disorder. As for the portrayal of the war itself, Gamerro delays it until the penultimate chapter, where we see the Battle of Mount Longdon through Félix's eyes. It is worth waiting for this bravura piece of writing, with its cinematic sweep, sustained drama, and pitch-perfect dialogue.
Here as elsewhere, the prose mixes registers, and intersperses precise observation with energising metaphors: "We start to run across the plain, which booms and buckles under our feet, flapping our arms in the air like windmill sails, in pursuit of a balance that's always just a few steps ahead". British readers will be able to appreciate all the inflexions of the original thanks to Ian Barnett's assiduous translation, in collaboration with author." - Martin Schifino
"‘History is nothing but assisted and recorded memory’, says George Santayana in The Life of Reason. ‘The picture we frame of the past changes continually and grows every day less similar to the original experience which it purports to describe.’ To recall or record the past is always to reshape or reconstitute it. The Islands, for all its cyberpunk, future-world elements, is a novel about the past, about the sanguinary history of Argentina in the second half of the twentieth century, and about how the individual makes sense of it. The eponymous islands – the Falklands, Las Malvinas – are at the centre of this history. Located some 300 miles east of the mainland, these two rocks are historically important to a degree which belies their remoteness. The Falklands, and the 1982 conflict which Britain and Argentina fought over them, are far from remote in The Islands,which is a complex and ambitious exploration of how history is memorialised, and how the act of remembering changes and distorts that which is being remembered. It is the story of what happens to people when they cannot bear to remember the past, but are unable to forget it. If not entirely successful, The Islands is engagingly bleak and provocatively discomfiting. Its madcap narrative lodges in the mind of the reader, and resonates long after the book has been put down.
Lodged in the mind of Felipe, the otiose antihero of the book, is a piece of metal. He acquired it as a young Argentine officer fighting in the Falklands War. He literally cannot get the Falklandsout of his head. History is for Felipe and the other conflict veterans of the novel what it was for Stephen Dedalus: a nightmare from which they are trying to wake up. There is a visceral energy to the narrative of the book, at the centre of which is a murder investigation in reverse, in which the murderer is known from the start, whilst the witnesses to the murder are not. Felipe, a systems security specialist (‘in a word, hacker’), is charged with finding his way into the database of the state intelligence services in order to discover the identities of twenty-six individuals who saw it happen. Felipe is conscripted into this investigation by the murderer’s father, Fausto Tamurlán. Although a megalomaniac in the Lex Luthor mould, Tamurlán, who has perhaps read a little too much Nietzsche, in fact wants to be Superman. The novel begins with Felipe being summoned to Tamurlán’s headquarters in the Puerto Madero district of Buenos Aires, a giant twin tower structure with walls and floors made of one-way mirrors that allow superiors to look down on those beneath them, without being themselves seen. In a novel which plays on the relationship between information and control, Tamurlán’s Panopticon becomes a symbol of how one way to suppress individuals is to restrict the data they have access to. It is no coincidence that the central character of such a novel is a hacker.
Over the course of Felipe’s investigation, forgotten histories emerge unbidden. Argentina’s Dirty War provides the invidious source of many of these memories. During this conflict, which overlapped the Falklands War and was in many ways the cause of it, political dissidents and left-wing activists frequently vanished from the streets of Argentina’s cities. A galling example of a state rewriting history so as to efface personal memory, their bodies were disposed of in such a way as to leave no trace of their death. These victims came to be known as los desaparecidos – the disappeared. The Islands is a compelling account of how the processes of ‘assisted and recorded memory’ are not merely fraught and problematic, but often deeply sinister.
In The Islands, it is not only the state who struggles to rewrite the past. The veterans of the conflict are convinced that what happened in 1982 should never have happened. Powerless to change the course of history, they engage in various acts of historical rewriting, editing and outright excision. One solution is to drug the painful memories into submission, and acid-fuelled evenings provide one means through which empirical reality can be distorted to the point of avoidance, and memory replaced with hallucination. A more ambitious approach is to actively re-imagine the past, and Felipe uses his technical know-how to write computer programmes which not only simulate war but allow actual wars to be recalibrated and their outcomes rewritten. This way Germany can be given the atomic bomb before the Americans, MacArthur is able to nuke China in 1951, and – most important of all – Argentina can win the Falklands War. Such programmes allow the user to be the subject of history instead of its object, to manipulate history instead of being roughed up by it. Real life, the novel makes clear, allows for no such control. Instead of certain, predetermined outcomes life presents absurdity and non sequitur. If, in conveying this, the novel appears superficial, its superficiality is a highly crafted, willed flaw. Felipe is thereby never allowed to understand or penetrate the situations he is confronted with, and ideas in this novel are less fleshed out than reflected and refracted, like images in a hall of mirrors.
The publication of The Islands thirty years on from the Falklands conflict is significant in that 2012 has been more than just a jubilee year. The islands have resurfaced: two rocks on which Anglo-Argentine relations may again run aground. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the President of Argentina, has recently addressed Argentina’s claim to the islands to the United Nations. Britain has been uncompromising. Both states have adduced their own particular historical narratives and attempted to pass them off as definitive. Both have shaped and distorted the past to justify their respective claims. The Islands shows such processes to be ineluctable. Such narratives are forever being forged and reforged in the smithy of collective memory, memory that is ‘assisted and recorded’. If history is nothing but this, it is no less important for it. As the possibility of another Falklands conflict becomes less remote – a potentially non-virtual war game – Gamerro’s novel is a timely reminder of another of Santayana’s aphorisms: that those who cannot remember the past are often condemned to repeat it." - Michael Sopp
Carlos Gamerro, An Open Secret, Trans. by Ian Barnett, Pushkin Press, 2012.
"Dario Ezcurra is one of the thousands of Argentinians unlucky enough to be 'disappeared' by the military government-murdered by the local chief of police with the complicity of his friends and neighbours. Twenty years later, Fefe, a child at the time of the murder, returns to the town where Dario met his fate and attempts to discover how the community let such a crime happen. Lies, excuses and evasion ensue - desperate attempts to deny the guilty secret of which the whole community, even Fefe himself, is afraid."
"A nice sense of place is the most positive thing about renowned Argentinian author Gamerro’s slack and overfed novel, the first of his to be translated into English. Twenty years after the murder of Dario Ezcurra, Felipe Félix, aka Fefe, has returned to Malihuel, the small Argentinian town where he spent childhood summers with his grandparents, in order to research the crime for a forthcoming novel. An infamous ladies’ man and journalist from a well-off family, Ezcurra incited the wrath of the powerful “pampas plutocrat” Rosas Paz and paid for the provocation with his life. Before his death, Police Superintendent Neri had gone about town polling the public regarding his idea to have Ezcurra nixed. Many of those people still live in Malihuel, so Fefe spends most of the book interviewing them at length (emphasis on at length). These people include Professor Alfio Scuppa, who is described as having “a face like a Jackson Pollock done in melanin on parchment” and alcoholic ex-cop Carmen Sayago. Propelled primarily by the dialogue of these interviews, the story often loses momentum. Gamerro has created an interesting group of characters and a potentially compelling plot, but the book too often feels like a barely edited transcript. The author’s reputation in his homeland might lead one to wonder if the merits of the original have been lost in translation." - Publishers Weekly
"From 1976 until 1983, thousands of left-wing Argentinians were killed or "disappeared", victims of the state-sanctioned violence that became known as the Dirty War. Carlos Gamerro tackles this difficult subject in his novel, An Open Secret, by focusing on the disappearance in 1977 of one young man in a small town. Twenty years after Darío Ezcurra disappeared, Fefe returns to Malihuel where his grandfather was mayor. Staying with childhood friends, he starts asking questions about Ezcurra, claiming that he plans to write a fictional account of "a murder in a small town".
What he uncovers is both haunting and disturbing. The truth is obscured by a web of lies, suggesting that the townspeople are both distrustful and afraid of the past. Ezcurra had annoyed many people with his outspoken newspaper articles, his left-wing leanings. His philandering and even his arrogance had won him enemies. Most of the town now accept that the former local chief of police murdered him, but at whose behest, and why did nobody warn Ezcurra?
Gradually, by piecing together events, separating truth from lies, Fefe has to face the fact that many of the townspeople were complicit in Ezcurra's murder and that his own family had been involved. It was "the perfect crime... committed in the sight of everyone... there are no witnesses, only accomplices."
Experimental in style, An Open Secret is paced like a taut thriller that challenges but, ultimately, rewards the reader. It is not always an easy read and Ian Barnett's lucid translation is laudable. The multitude of voices is, at times, overwhelming and readers may find themselves tracking back and forth to remind themselves of the characters and their relationships. The deliberate lack of punctuation during speech also takes some getting used to, but is necessary for the overall effect of chattering voices. A host of colourful characters have their own explanations - some are intent on hiding their involvement, others attempt to settle old scores by shifting blame. Gamerro creates a vivid sense of how gossip can poison a small town.
Ezcurra's "disappearance" comes to represent the thousands who were summarily executed during Videla's military dictatorship. Just as many victims were taken on planes to be thrown into the Atlantic, Ezcurra's mutilated corpse lies at the bottom of the town's lagoon. As well as the eponymous secret, there is another devastating revelation in the novel's final pages. Gamerro's novel serves not only to remind us of this brutal period in Argentina's past, but also how its repercussions continue. Memories fade and guilt is alleviated but, it suggests, blame cannot merely be laid at the feet of the regime – the entire nation has a responsibility towards those who disappeared." - Lucy Popescu
"Carlos Gamerro is an argentina writer and literary critic ,born in 1962 he was broguth up speaking both spanish and english ,he has published six novels so far this is the first out in english and another the island due out next year .He has also translated shakespeare and Harold Bloom into spanish.
An open secret was the third novel I’d read from Argentina last year that dealt with the Dirty war period .Yet again it took another twist on the time ,the other two Purgatory took a wife who’s husband disappeared ,Kamchatka was told from a young sons point of view at the time .Now An open secret set in the present and uses a young man called Fefe as he returns to the town where his grandfather was Mayor and he spent summers as a boy ,he arrives at the small town of Malihuel ,he has a agenda and that is to get to the bottom of what happened to Dario Ezcurra who disappear in the dirty war time of 1976 to 1983.But tells them he is researching a piece on a fictional murder in a small town .As the action unfold the fact that only one man in a town of three thousand has become symbolic for the country as a whole as the futher Fefe goes the more people where there or knew what had happened ,you feel the danger as the locals try to close ranks and Fefe feels he might be in danager himself from the locals.
“So why did you choose us ? I mean there are so many towns in the province ” Don Leon wants to kno now .
“I used to come here as a boy ,”I reply”every summer.That’s how Gudio and I know each other “
“He’s Echerzarrea,your grandfather ? ” Gudio chimes in.”poli’s son”
Fefe says why he came to Malihuel
I felt Gamerro caught a nation looking towards its self and fefe was in some ways a nations concious looking at what happened at that time ,and malihuel is a typical villages as Gamerro describes it intersped in the chapters the every day argentina place and I think this is him symbolising the place as thou it was any where in the country they all have petrol stations cafes etc .The book is paced very in the thriller esque mode that constant turning of the screw this is help as the speech has little or no punctuation thus give the effect of speed as thou the words can’t come quick enough , as Fefe moves towards the truth ,what was once a friendly place becomes dark and unfriendly as we see what the effect of one mans death had on this small town of three thousand yet even thou the town is small we get to meet a host of strange and wonderful characters almost like a cross section of the country as a whole .Yet again I’m amazed with the openness Argentina writers are now approach this time in there history .I look forward to Gamerro new novel I enjoted Ian Barnett translation he is based in Argentina and translated other writers from there and you get a feel he has a sense of the rhythm of the language." - Winstonsdad's Blog
"I’ll get the full disclosure bit out of the way up front. I was sent a review copy of the new English translation of Carlos Gamerro’s 2002 novel, An Open Secret by Pushkin Press, its publisher. I’m very grateful to them for this as it is not a book that I would probably have come across otherwise and, as such, is an object reminder to me to step outside my usual literary territory once in a while.
During the so-called Argentine “Dirty War” in which the ruling military junta violently repressed political dissidents, trades unionists and other opponents of the regime, thousands of individuals were illegally detained, tortured and often murdered. Many of them were drugged, loaded onto airplanes, flown out over the South Atlantic and thrown into the ocean to drown. As there were no dead bodies to evidence their deaths, the junta was able to deny that they had been killed. They became known as Los Desaparecidos – The Disappeared. According to the various estimates, between 9,000 and 30,000 Argentineans were disappeared between 1976 and 1983, either in this way or other equally terrible ways. Pregnant women who were detained by the junta had their newborn children snatched from them at birth to be given to childless couples who supported the military government.
Fortunately, those times have ended and Argentina is now a civilian democracy but the memories live on and the plight of los desaparecidos is a perennially popular topic for Argentine novelists.
In An Open Secret, Carlos Gamerro has chosen to examine those times by focussing on a single (fictional) incident. His protagonist, Fefe, is a young veteran of the Falklands War (or Las Malvinas, if you are from Argentina or other parts of Latin America). He has returned to Malihuel, the small town where his grandparents and parents were from and where he spent his childhood summers to investigate a disappearance that took place in 1976, on the same weekend as one Diego Maradona made his debut for Argentina’s national football team.
Ostensibly collecting material for a novel, Fefe interviews many of the town’s notables about the events that led to the disappearance of one Dario Ezcurra, the town lothario and also an activist left wing journalist. Slowly, a dark, sordid story of complicity and murder emerges from the mass of lies, evasions and self-serving memories that Fefe’s questions reveal until the unpalatable truth of Ezcurra’s “disappearance” is uncovered, as are the secrets of Fefe’s own parents and grandparents.
It would have been easy for Gamerro to portray Ezcurra as a poster-boy for protest journalism but this would have made the story much less textured and thoughtful. Instead, he paints Ezcurra as a self-obsessed womanizer who leaves a trail of outraged and bitter fathers and (less so) mothers behind him. In so doing, he shows forensically how the personal grudges of the townsfolk dovetailed with the political forces of the police and government to seal Ezcurra’s fate. Instead, the people of Malihuel are complicit in his murder. It is a nuanced characterisation that goes beyond a wish to varnish los desaparecidos as simple heroes but shows a desire to get at the naked truth.
Complicity is a common theme in many countries where totalitarian repression has taken place. In both Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia, for example, a similar cocktail of personal hatred and fear of the authorities combined to keep the populace not only quiet but also as silent participants in the repression.
This unwillingness to denounce or admit to the crime in their midst is sometimes referred to as a conspiracy of silence but, as Gamerro points out, it is anything but that. Indeed, the inhabitants of Malihuel are only to happy to admit that, really, they knew what was happening and who was responsible. Not a conspiracy of silence, more a “conspiracy of chattiness”. At times, the flood of self-serving claptrap served up to Fefe by the self-justifying locals feels overwhelming, a sensation created in part by Gamerro’s clever, but irritating, decision to omit most punctuation in his characters’ speech.
What the locals also unwittingly reveal is that each and every one of them was more than a scared observer. Ezcurra’s murder and the subsequent murder of his mother, killed because she wouldn’t stop protesting about his murder, could have been stopped if any of the local notables had objected to the police superintendent. Yet they didn’t and thus prove the local military commander right when he says that the disappearances are perfect crimes because they are “committed in the sight of everyone—because then there are no witnesses, only accomplices.”
Gamerro also introduces some subtle touches of symbolism – Ezcurra’s body is dumped in the town’s lagoon, an echo of the dumping of victims in the Atlantic, and his mother is the only one to protest his death, an echo of the mothers of los desaparecidos who formed a protest group, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo – and the laconic way in which Fefe reports the self-serving nature of the locals is damming – in particular, there are two paragraphs in which rival hoteliers denounce each other for the same fault where every word other than their names and hotel locations is identical.
An Open Secret is a forceful exposition of the hypocrisy and cowardice that allow things like forced disappearances to occur and the long-term effects that they have. It is a thought-provoking and powerful read and well worth the effort of getting hold of a copy." - 2606books.blogspot.com
"In An Open Secret, author Carlos Gamerro, a native to Argentina, weaves together a complex murder mystery that explores how the death of a single man both affects and implicates an entire community. Twenty years after left-wing journalist Dario Ezcurra vanished from the small town Malihuel during Argentina’s Dirty War (a time during which thousands of political dissidents were murdered, their bodies disposed of and never found again), Fefe shows up under the pretense of writing a fictional account of Ezcurra’s disappearance. Fefe is no stranger to Malihuel—the grandson of the town’s former major, he spent his childhood summers there.
Through a series of interviews with the townspeople, Fefe reveals the complicity of the entire town in Ezcurra’s murder and subsequent disappearance. Ezcurra had a reputation as an arrogant philanderer, which led to a strange bet between the Colonel and the Superintendent. In possession of an unwavering and idealistic faith in humanity, the Superintendent asserted that the townspeople would refuse to be complicit in Ezcurra’s murder, despite any personal grudges. However, when the Superintendent talked to families around town, the people did not voice any dissent. Although the police chief was directly responsible for Ezcurra’s murder, anyone could have saved him by speaking out. Their resentment against the philandering journalist and their fear of facing a similar fate decided the outcome of the bet.
[The Superintendent] thought people’s natural reaction to an imminent crime would be to stop it, or report it. His need to lie paradoxically reveals his faith in people. It never entered his head that the perfect crime is precisely the one committed in the sight over everyone—because then there are no witnesses, only accomplices. His premise was correct—in a two-bit town like this you can’t waste a prominent inhabitant without everyone knowing: because it only takes one person to find out for everybody to know. He mistakenly concluded that, in the face of such vigilance, impunity wasn’t an option. Of course it wasn’t, as certain distorters of public opinion repeat ad nauseam, because the policemen of his generation had notions of morality, honesty or honour that were later lost; no, it was simply narrow-mindedness, intellectual laziness—a eureka moment, a Copernican revolution, the Superintendent was simply too old for it. All he needed to arrive at the right solution was a leap, a flip of the imagination that stood logic on its head and set the clockwork going—the realization that you can hold your tongue while talking out loud, that town gossip can work the other way round. That silence also travels by word of mouth.
The prose itself is difficult to wade through: a majority of the text is written as extended quotations from Fefe’s interviews, with punctuation stylistically omitted. Overall, this makes the panic and tension palpable for the reader, almost as if characters are speaking directly at them. It is easy for the audience to become immersed in the story line and submerged in a sense of confusion while attempting to piece together the loosely intertwined narratives. As the story moves forward, it becomes more and more apparent that the stories presented in the interviews are secondary to the tone itself—the novel itself is primarily composed of many unique voices interweaving into a sociological record of the town during a desperate time. Each person’s character is created largely out of their dialogue, and the bulk of the story itself is presented as a series of soliloquies. Truth is interspersed with contradiction and lies, and everyone is motivated by their own self-interest throughout Fefe’s interviews, either trying to hide their own involvement in Ezcurra’s murder or simply trying to lay blame on individuals they personally hold grudges against. This is undoubtedly a reflection of the self-serving attitudes individuals would have displayed twenty years prior, when faced with the possibility of saving Dario Ezcurra from his impending death.
The discovery that Dario Ezcurra’s mother Delia falls victim to a similar fate, quite likely because there were complaints that she was bothering the townspeople with her inquiries, makes the sense of horror evident in the panicked dialogues of the novel come to a head, and fuels the revelation that Fefe is Ezcurra’s illegitimate son. This explains Fefe’s investment in a story that beforehand simply appeared to be significant for the sake of childhood nostalgia, because he did not seem deeply concerned with writing the book itself.
And yet, for the sake of the book’s plot, this fact about Fefe being Ezcurra’s son in and of itself is not the most striking part. It is the change in human behavior as evident by a difference in tones of the dialogues of the characters that is observable after the revelation that is significant: people who were complicit in the murders of Fefe’s father and grandmother now offer their condolences, altering their behaviors to fit their audience. The murders themselves, in light of Argentina’s Dirty War, are not unique. What is new and significant is the idea that the responsibility for the murders, in this case and perhaps in many others, does not rest simply with the authorities and the government. Ordinary people are to blame, both by their silence and their choice of words when they spoke out. Perhaps history might have unfolded differently if people had listened to a left-wing journalist pointing out the injustices befalling the community. This book is more than just the story of a man documenting the life and death of the father he never truly knew—it is a sociological record commenting on the behaviors of people under the pressure of not only other people but under their own personal bias against one another." - Aleksandra Fazlipour