Guillermo Saccomanno - Abounding with shady characters, all seemingly competing for worst resident on earth, Gesell Dome becomes a chorus of corruption and greed, of savagery and ruthlessness. It’s both vicious and unforgettable. Think Louis-Ferdinand Céline on vacation in South America
Guillermo Saccomanno, Gesell Dome, Trans. by Andrea G. Labinger, Open Letter, 2016.
Like True Detective through the lenses of William Faulkner and John Dos Passos, Gesell Dome is a mosaic of misery, a page-turner that will keep you enthralled until its shocking conclusion.
This incisive, unflinching exposé of the inequities of contemporary life weaves its way through dozens of sordid storylines and characters, including an elementary school abuse scandal, a dark Nazi past, corrupt politicians, and shady real-estate moguls. An exquisitely crafted novel by Argentina’s foremost noir writer, Gesell Dome reveals the seedy underbelly of a popular resort town tensely awaiting the return of tourist season.
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Never was there a cityscape as immersive, or a populace as rife with iniquity, as in Argentinian writer Saccomanno’s noirish Gesell Dome, his first novel to be translated into English. The Argentinian town referred to as Villa is a seaside summer resort spot—but when the tourists leave and only the locals remain, a tangle of outlandish corruption, violence, and dark histories are unveiled. To begin with, there’s the suicide of a pregnant middle schooler, a sexual abuse scandal at a kindergarten, and a devastating real estate development known as the Twin Towers that divides the town. But this turns out to be nothing compared to the secret lives of the three Quiroses brothers: crooked lawyer Alejo, Braulio, and Julián, the Villa’s so-called Kennedys, who do their best to control their constituents. These include the mayor’s unruly son, Gonzalo, whose attempt to blackmail Alejo backfires miserably; Julián’s wife, Adrian (willing to go to absurd lengths for her Pilates studio); and Dante, editor and sole contributor to El Vocero, who, with the help of limo driver Rimigio, chronicles his township’s ills. Tales range from the story of El Muertito, the monster who stalks the forests at night, to whispers of the Villa’s Nazi diaspora. Then there are oddballs such as the loan shark called the Duchess, and cursed painter Claude Fournier, who all have a part to play in the Villa’s mounting intrigues. Like Twin Peaks reimagined by Roberto Bolaño, Gesell Dome is a teeming microcosm in which voices combine into a rich, engrossing symphony of human depravity. - Publishers Weekly
An unrelenting trip to the Inferno (with Dante as our tour guide, cast here as a discerning hack), featuring a revue of crooked businessmen, politicians, lawyers, and powermakers, stomping on the bedraggled masses in the most violent and messed-up Argentine villa to ever set itself up as a utopian tourist beach resort. Opening with a case of child molestation known as los abusaditos, a foul stench that permates the novel, the pages proceed to pile up with one shooting, suicide, murder, corrupt activity, gruesome child killing after another, most of the citizens of the town depicted as crazed sex maniacs on the steal and shoot and stab, with Dante the lone sane voice, writing emotionless reports in the villa newspaper fed to him by evil mastermind Alejo Quiros. Far from becoming intolerable, the novel piles up the carnage to the point the reader is no longer shocked and appalled (barring several extreme acts), cranking up the pain to comic-book levels of hurt (the author is a former comic writer). As an exploration of modern violence, the novel is less certain—is the writer revelling in the carnage? is he forcing us to confront the animal within?—however, there are moments of reflection and a sombre tone to reassure us that the moral compass is pointing in the right direction.www.verbivoraciouspress.org/our-year-in-books-2016/
“He was swollen, deformed, nibbled by fish.” And that’s one of the luckier residents of Argentine novelist Saccomanno’s infernal seaside-resort city, where not much good ever happens.
A Gesell dome is a one-way mirror that allows researchers to observe subjects without their being aware of it. So it is with this omnisciently noirish novel, which allows readers to hover over Villa Gesell in the off-season and see the odd doings of the year-round inhabitants. The resort (an actual place), the translator tells us in a helpful introduction, was named after another Gesell, the descendant of German immigrants, but no matter: all kinds of people end up in the beach town for the same sorts of exigencies and accidental reasons as the Europeans who have landed on the Rio de la Plata for the past half-millennium, among them an escapee from the military terror of the 1970s whose daughter, after affairs with drug dealers and sessions in rehab, pleads for her own daughter to find a place in the relative safety of Villa Gesell. “Trabuco kept a jealous eye on her,” the narrator tells us, making revelations in fits and starts, “told her that a sinner never gets rid of the vice in her soul and that the Lord must have had some reason for infecting her, because let’s not forget that Vicky has AIDS.” Vicky isn’t the only denizen of the city who’s sick, and everyone seems altogether grumpy, perhaps because, under the orderly surface, the whole place is tainted with graft, corruption, and nepotism, all of which run through the city like the sewer line that, the narrator assures us, will never be built, “streets and boulevards gutted with no signs of a single pipe.” Moving from character to character, Saccomanno writes with dark lyricism of the shady dealmakers, old-school Nazis, youngsters “with their hormones raging,” prostitutes, and other types whom you might expect to find in a grim place and a grim time.
Cynical and funny: a yarn worthy of a place alongside Cortázar and Donoso. - Kirkus Reviews
““The first two pages of Gesell Dome, the first novel from Argentine author Guillermo Saccomanno to be translated into English, are enough to seduce any reader and a testament to the vitality of international fiction. Dark, daring and epic in scope, Gesell Dome is a damning verdict of contemporary life and human nature. The novel reveals the corrupt underbelly of a resort town when the tourists leave. Abounding with shady characters, all seemingly competing for worst resident on earth, Gesell Dome becomes a chorus of corruption and greed, of savagery and ruthlessness. It’s both vicious and unforgettable. Think Louis-Ferdinand Céline on vacation in South America.”—Mark Haber, Brazos Bookstore
A Gesell dome is that setup, familiar from American cop shows, where a one-way mirror separates two rooms, facilitating observation for one side. A long series of polyphonous vignettes, Gesell Dome is the testimony/confession of the 40,000 denizens of Villa Gesell, a seaside resort town 325 kilometres southeast of Buenos Aires. For two months of the year, Villa Gesell makes its living off tourism. The other 10 months it turns on itself. Gesell Dome is literary noir, and like all noir, it resists the claim that crime is singular. In Villa Gesell it is a bath. Guillermo Saccomanno's Villa is a pit of racism, despair, passion, jealousy, violence and corruption – hell itself – with momentary tenderness. For the reader, who might encounter the same story 10 different ways, truth is elusive: 600 pages is enough for one book, but not enough for the Villa. Saccomanno requires no introduction in Argentine lit; for English-language readers, this is his startling, epic debut. - www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/book-reviews/review-new-works-from-alexandra-risen-guillermo-saccomanno-and-alexander-weinstein/article32020232/
Gesell Dome is set in Villa Gesell, commonly called 'the Villa', a resort town on the Argentine coast with some 51,068 residents that blossoms with activity for the short summer season, when there is an influx of tourists -- annually, "nearly a million tourists pass through the Villa" (or, elsewhere: "In summer, between December and March, over two million human beings will pass through here") -- while the rest of the year it festers in its own (human) filth. The Villa is not a happy place: as one of the locals notes: "The Villa is perdition. We're all lost here".
As explained in the novel -- and also in the translator's Introduction -- the title refers to an invention of American psychologist Arnold Lucius Gesell. As Saccomanno describes it:
The Gesell Dome consists of two rooms with a dividing wall in between in which a large, one-way mirror allows an observer in one room to see what is happening in the other, but not vice-versa.
This set-up -- familiar from countless police-interrogation-room scenes in movies and on TV -- isn't nearly as creepy as the actual 'Gesell Dome', which was an actual dome-shaped observation room:
In either case, the idea was to be able to look in and observe essentially unnoticed, and Saccomanno's novel similarly places a dome and one-way mirror over and around the Villa, and records the doings of those trapped inside (and they certainly come across as trapped, even though some do make their escapes or flee ...) -- who themselves are forced to confront their actions in the mirror this book is holding up. (Not that the locals necessarily mind being observed and described like lab rats: One passage of the novel laughs at the suggestion: "You think you're going to get kicked out of town for writing this novel. Like hell you are. [...] [E]ven when the shit splashes on them, nobody will want to be left out".)
The cast of characters isn't so much colorful as dark -- from gray to pitch-black. The town is under the control of a corrupt triumvirate, and two crime- (or thug-) clans see to it that proerty and life aren't safe. On top of that, all the local juveniles appear to be delinquent. Throw in the fact that (far too) many of the locals have guns and that all of them have short tempers and a sense of honor that demands vengeance -- preferably of the bloodiest sort -- for even the slightest slight, and you have an explosive mix. Adultery and rape are also widespread, and illegitimate children abound.
The Villa was basically founded by a Nazi who had fled when things went south in Europe, and that legacy lives on, in everything from the general moral corruption to the lingering widespread use of German. Never having escaped the past -- except fugitively (and fugitives, from one thing and another, flock to Villa) -- the townspeople seem condemned to be stuck in that ugly mire to this day.
Gesell Dome is an off-season novel, the main action covering the dark times between two summer seasons. The off-season is the dead season: of course there's the low-level activity of any town -- school; basic everyday commerce -- but really it's only in the summer season that the town comes to life and everyone tries to grab as much as possible. In between seasons, they can only grab from each other (which, of course, they do -- theft and robbery run rampant, though it's not just property and possessions that they take from each other -- trying, somehow, to last until the next summer).
While the main action covers less than a year, the novel packs much more in. The story is related in relatively short sections, rarely more than two pages in length, and often only a paragraph or two. The presentation, even the voice, is not uniform: an omniscient narrator presents the majority of the material, but there are also passages in a variety of first-person-voices, as well as brief articles from the town's weekly newspaper, El Vocero, which comes out every Friday, a variety of brief infomercial-type advertising (for forms of self-help therapy and the like, for the most part), and even summaries of chapters from the TV soap opera, My Neighbors' Drama.
As the year slowly moves forward, Saccomanno weaves a complex tapestry of present-day and back-story, focusing in on -- though often not exclusively -- specific characters and incidents for several sections before these end -- almost invariably in tragedy, often in death. Significant characters play larger roles along the way -- most notably guide Dante, the: "publisher and only reporter for El Vocero" (and: "the editor of our dirty laundry"), who more or less accompanies readers through these circles of the Villa-hell -- but this is also a novel packed with incidental characters from all walks of life (and their life- (and death-)stories) whose fates are typical and representative (and, generally, horrific).
It takes a while -- maybe even a few hundred pages -- to warm to the novel's odd rhythm, but there's no question that Saccomanno's writing packs a punch. Eventually, the reader rolls with the punches -- necessary, in a novel packed with them, along with beatings, stabbings, shootings.
What arc the story has begins with two tragedies: an abuse-scandal at the local kindergarten, Nuestra Señora del Mar, where eleven children were supposedly abused, and the suicide of Melina, a student, "barely fifteen and three months pregnant" (not an unusual combination in the Villa ...), who shot herself (and her unborn child) twice in the belly. The kindergarten scandal leads to a hysterical overreaction -- some lynching, and driving out of town -- even as it remains unclear exactly how many (indeed, if any) kids were abused, and by whom. Even as the police investigation doesn't really dig too deep, Dante keeps returning to the subject in his newspaper; so too the girl's suicide won't let him go: even near the very end of the book, and just as the summer season starts, he asks: "Didn't you ever wonder why that girl might've put two bullets into her belly ?"
The airing of dirty laundry is problematic in the Villa -- they don't want to scare off the tourists, after all. So there's a tendency -- presumably well-learned from their Nazi forefathers -- of sweeping things under the rug. Given what happens over the course of the novel, those are some very big mounds under that rug, eventually.
There's shocking, numbing violence in Gesell Dome -- numbing, too, because it's pretty much all readers come to expect. There are very few episodes here with anything resembling happy endings. Lives ruined -- and death -- are the expected outcomes, time after time after time. And there are a lot of such ruined-life-stories here.
This is also a place where the adults shrug:
But you know what kids are like. They never learn till there's a tragedy.
That doesn't seem to make all that much of an impression either: there are countless tragedies in Gesell Dome, and nobody ever seems to learn anything from them. "We're all mutants from a Philip K. Dick historical novel", one local suggests, and that's as good a summary as any.
There are hints and suggestions of greater connections -- and sometimes these are even spelled out:
Everybody shrugs when you ask about the Villa's Nazi past. The same as when you ask about the abuses at Nuestra Señora. And don't you find it suspicious, I ask you. Isn't it possible that the two situations are connected. We ought to analyze the relationship between these two issues.
Indeed -- but note that the two questions that are posed here don't even merit a question mark, a stark, clear reminder of the futility of the exercise in the Villa.
Gesell Dome is ultimately a vast, panoramic novel of a place and its people -- a really seedy (at its essence) sort of place -- that disappoints slightly in not building more with all its pieces: as vivid as the picture we get is, it's ultimately just a picture. Piece for piece, Gesell Dome impresses -- Saccomanno writers very well -- but all the impressive, multi-dimensional pieces still don't quite make more than a two-dimensional picture. (Note also that the soon-predictable end of nearly every episode or incident in horrific violence and, generally, death can be very wearing; Saccomanno mixes things up a bit, by mixing other things in, but it's not really enough to keep Gesell Dome from becoming a near-crushing weight).
Gesell Dome is an often absorbing but ultimately not entirely satisfying read. - M.A.Orthofer
In the mid-20th century, Yale psychologist Arnold Gesell invented a dome-shaped one-way mirror that now bears his name. As Dante, editor of the left-wing El Vocero, explains in one of the newspaper excerpts that appear throughout Argentinian writer Guillermo Saccomanno’s ambitious novel “Gesell Dome,” Gesell designed his mirror “for observing children’s behavior without their being disturbed by the presence of strangers.”
One can assume that Gesell’s definition of stranger didn’t include tourists to a resort town along the Rio de la Plata. And Gesell probably witnessed nothing like the often-lurid offseason activities exhibited by the residents of the Villa, the resort town in this novel, when the tourists are away.
Saccomanno uses the concept of the dome to invite us to observe the denizens of this 600-page exercise in literary noir. “Gesell Dome” is a bizarro Robert Altman film in book form: hundreds of characters and storylines that paint a portrait of a community, but with events far stranger than anything Altman created.
If the novel has a central character, it’s the Villa, which, like other cities in Argentina, accepted Nazi war criminals as residents after World War II. Now it is home to more than 50,000 people, many of whom drive around in 4x4s and harbor prejudices against “half-breeds” and other foreigners.
These residents give Dante many stories to cover, including the scandal that opens the novel: Eleven kindergartners referred to as los abusaditos are abused at Nuestra Señoradel Mar, a religious school “where the snobs send their progeny.” Parents are rightfully horrified, but other residents don’t want the media to cover the story for fear of the effect the news will have on tourism.
That’s just the start of the Villa’s many problems. Atila Dobroslav, a Croatian builder, destroys the Villa’s beloved forest to erect skyscrapers. He isn’t bothered by trivialities such as ecological disaster or beams striking construction workers in the head. Helping him is Cachito, the Villa’s mayor, a good ’ol politician with a drug dealer for a son; and a trio of young men who call themselves the Kennedys, the “Godfather”-obsessed leader of whom likes to make residents offers they can’t refuse.
Some of the more memorable of the novel’s characters are Moure, the veterinarian known as “the Mengele of the pet world”; Deborah Miller, the town psychologist, whose unconventional method of treating patients includes oil and Mayan massages; and Claude Fournier, a landscape painter who showers outside when it rains and spits at chapels he cycles past. And hovering over the action is the mystery of El Muertito, thought to be the “anguished scream of a child” heard late at night. No one really knows what El Muertito is. Some think it’s a bird with a little boy’s head. Others feel that, whatever form it inhabits, its cry is a call for justice.
Saccomanno shifts rapidly among narrative voices throughout “Gesell Dome,” and plot lines don’t play out neatly. Fans of straightforward narratives aren’t the target audience. And because of the novel’s repetitive elements — there’s a lot of adultery, bigotry and murder here — the tension sometimes sags, especially in the book’s midsection.
But if you enjoy lyrical depictions of iniquity and a sprinkling of philosophy mixed in with your noir fiction, then you’ll like “Gesell Dome.” Saccomanno writes midway through the novel, “The only way to show the wind is through its effect on things.” In other words, you can’t reach conclusions about human behavior unless you know its origins. As Arnold Gesell knew, the key is to observe and learn. - Michael Magras http://www.sfgate.com/books/article/Gesell-Dome-by-Guillermo-Saccomanno-10784366.php
Guillermo Saccomanno is the author of numerous novels and story collections, including El buen dolor. He is the winner of the Premio Nacional de Literatura and a two-time Dashiell Hammett Prize recipient for 77 and Gesell Dome. He also received Seix Barral’s Premio Biblioteca Breve de Novela for El oficinista, and his book Un maestro won the Rodolfo Walsh Prize for nonfiction.