Tag Archives: Argentinian literature

Review: ELENA KNOWS by Claudia Piñeiro

Translated from Spanish (Argentina) by Frances Riddle (Charco Press, 2021)

This is the Charco book I was most looking forward to this year (and, if you know my love of Charco Press, you’ll know this is no idle hyperbole). Elena Knows is Charco’s first publication by Argentinian crime writer Claudia Piñeiro, and follows a single (and very long) day in the life of protagonist Elena as she treks across Buenos Aires in search of help solving the mystery of her daughter Rita’s death.

Rita had been found hanging from the belfry of her local church, and the case has been closed as a straightforward suicide. But Elena knows that it couldn’t have been suicide, because it was raining on the day of Rita’s death and Rita was deeply superstitious about never going to church in the rain: “But it was raining. She’s the mother, and it was raining. That changes everything.” This fact, dismissed by the police, is one of many things that Elena knows, yet everything that she is so certain of will become destabilised in the course of the narrative, as Elena learns painful truths about her daughter, and realises how much she doesn’t know.

So yes, Elena Knows is crime fiction, but in many ways assigning it to a genre does it a disservice. It is so much more than a mysterious death: it is an unflinching exploration of aging and illness, of the Catholic church and the way it uses its influence in Argentina, and of the multiple ways women’s bodies are controlled.

Elena has Parkinson’s disease, and every step she takes in her quest costs her an immeasurable effort; every moment is counted according to the length of time since her last pill, and how she becomes less in control of her body as the effects of the medicine wear off. It’s quite rare to cast as protagonist an elderly widow suffering from a debilitating illness, and the way in which Piñeiro describes the ordeal that Elena experiences when attempting the most basic physical tasks is perfectly observed: what should be a relatively simple journey becomes an arduous task for a body that simply will not do what the brain tells it to. Every moment of every day is a struggle against an illness that is ravaging Elena’s body, leaving her helpless and drooling inside a carcass that feels alien to her.

But don’t think for a moment that we’re supposed to pity Elena, beyond basic human empathy for her infirmity and her bereavement. She is objectively a rather unpleasant protagonist, convinced in her dogmatic beliefs that what she knows equates to objective truth, and in her own way just as complicit in the continued repression of women’s bodies as the (few) men in the narrative. When Rita fails to provide her with a grandchild (“her duty to the species”), she subjects her daughter to a humiliating and invasive medical examination to check she has a womb, and the object of her quest is to call in a favour that amounts to using another woman’s body to carry out the investigative tasks that her illness prevents her from fulfilling.

So now perhaps you pity Rita, for the abject humiliation inflicted on her by her mother, and by a society that deems her not to be fulfilling her basic role as a woman? Or for the way in which she is cast unwillingly into the role of carer for her cantankerous and drooling invalid mother? Yet Rita too exercises a dogmatic control over another woman’s body, so convinced of her own rightness that she fails to see that what she considers as “saving” an unknown woman from making a terrible mistake (or, as it is presented within the context of religious dogma, committing a mortal sin) actually condemns that woman to a life she did not want.

So this story is as much about the lives of its characters as it is about understanding the truth of Rita’s death. It is also a masterpiece of storytelling, contained within the limits of one day in an expert representation of the hundreds of thoughts that go through a mind every minute when we react to surroundings and memories, and all the ways in which our minds jump from one thing to the next. It is a subtle yet breathtaking exposure of the prejudices against women, age and illness, and a fierce indictment of everyday sexism and the ways in which women’s bodies are controlled and manipulated by using religious teaching as justification for gendered restrictions. Indeed, the resolution to the mystery surrounding Rita’s death eventually seems less important than the veil lifted from Elena’s eyes when she finally “knows” the truth she has been seeking.

For the most part, Frances Riddle’s translation is everything I would have expected it to be. A regular Charco translator, I’ve waxed lyrical about her translations of Carla Maliandi’s The German Room, Andrea Jeftanovic’s Theatre of War, and my personal favourite, though (shockingly) I’ve never yet reviewed it here, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s Slum Virgin. Perhaps because I am so used to Riddle’s flawless translations, I noticed a very occasional choice that felt a little odd, but I feel it’s almost unfair to point them out as I’m pretty certain I only noticed them because I wasn’t expecting them. The vast majority of Riddle’s translation is excellent, though, with sensitivity to pace, register, context, and the tone that always questions yet never moralises. As I read back over my notes to write this review I realised that there is so much I haven’t even begun to touch on, such is the richness of the storytelling and the breadth of topics covered within one day of one woman’s life. Elena Knows is an unmitigated treat; I recommend it unreservedly, and can’t wait for more from Piñeiro.

Review copy of Elena Knows provided by Charco Press

Review: DEAD GIRLS by Selva Almada

Translated from Spanish (Argentina) by Annie McDermott (Charco Press, 2020)

After the success of Selva Almada’s English-language debut The Wind That Lays Waste (translated by Chris Andrews, published by Charco Press in 2019, and reviewed here), this autumn Charco brings us her next translated work, the journalistic fiction Dead Girls. The pairing of Almada with Annie McDermott as translator is an unmitigated success: McDermott translates with characteristic linguistic verve and sensitivity to detail, respecting the delicate stylistic balance between journalism, memoir and fiction that characterises Almada’s exposition of casual femicides in Argentina. Dead Girls explores questions of social justice, of gender inequality, and of the danger that women can be silenced by brutal means just for spurning a man’s advances, for the dishonour of being slandered or, as we are reminded, “simply for being a woman.” The “interior” or provincial Argentina that Almada describes is a small-minded and misogynist place where violence is commonplace, transvestites and homosexuals are not welcome, and women are dominated, abused, or held in contempt, a place where “horror could live with you, under your roof.” Almada explains that not only was this normalisation of gendered violence accepted, but also guilt was laid squarely at the feet of the victims: “if you stay out late you might be raped, if you talk to strangers you might be raped, if you come back from a dance by yourself you might be raped. If you were raped, it was always your fault.”

Almada focuses on three young women or girls who were murdered in the 1980s, and whose killers have never been brought to justice. Andrea Danne was stabbed in her own bed, María Luisa Quevedo was raped and strangled before her body was dumped in some wasteland, and Sarita Mundín’s decomposing body washed up on the banks of the Tcalamochita river (or, rather, the decomposing body of a young woman was washed up, it was deemed to be Sarita, and the investigation was closed). Three girls aged between 15 and 20, three of many whose deaths go unsolved and unpunished. Almada retraces their final days, and aims to reconstruct not just their last moments, movements and conversations, but the entire universe that the girls inhabited, to better understand, scrutinise, and denounce how their fate came to pass.

Almada intertwines her investigation with memories of her own childhood growing up in a similar community in provincial Argentina, questioning the things she too took for granted or assumed were “normal” – from the absence of telephones to the women being controlled by husbands, fathers and brothers. She sets out to find out what she can, via a combination of research through newspaper archives and interviews with people who knew the girls. But even here she is met with silence – Sarita’s confidante chooses “not to reveal her pain, which is hers alone, something intimate that she defends tooth and nail”, Andrea’s sister “prefers to remain silent”, and María Luisa’s brother is evasive, finally meeting with Almada only to disappoint her in the lack of light he can – or wants to – shed on the case.

Faced with a silence that carries through into the present, Almada seeks answers elsewhere: the particular idiosyncrasy that makes this piece so individual is Almada’s decision to consult a medium, in an attempt to communicate with the dead girls beyond the grave. This is a brave and innovative twist on journalistic fiction, and one which gave me goosebumps as I read, but which ultimately represented a slight anti-climax: in her final visit, the medium tells Almada to let go, and to let the dead girls “go back to where they belong.” This did feel a little too convenient – there is no neat ending, and so the medium offers one that feels discordant with a text whose objective was “to gather the bones of these girls, piece them together, give them a voice and then let them run, free and unfettered, wherever they have to go.” The gap between “wherever they have to go” and “back where they belong” was, for me, the one disappointment of the piece, but it must be said that Almada herself is more poetic and less conclusive in the way she takes leave of her three dead girls – but as always, I’ll leave you to discover the ending for yourselves. Dead Girls is an important and moving work that invites us to reflect on cultural practices that we would like to think are distant in both time and place, but which are frighteningly recognisable. This is not a book that will make you feel at peace with the world, but that is precisely where its strength and persuasion lie.

Review copy of Dead Girls provided by Charco Press