Needle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo (Jethro Soutar, trans.). Bitter Lemon Press. 190pp, $14.95.
The process by which writers turn historical events into metaphors is a long one. Take September 11, 2001, the metaphorical viewing of which is still ongoing, almost a decade later. Or consider China’s Tienanmen Square: even more than 20 years after the June events, the who, what, and why—including specific numbers of casualties—still is not widely known in China.
For this process to be successful, you need to now the facts, and you need to know how to give them emotional pull. First, “the truth” is identified, and only then can novelists begin to explore the period or event, creating composite characters who, though ostensibly fictional, may be based on real individuals. This body of work goes beyond merely establishing facts to give the general public something a statement about contemporary society, a nuanced portrait of the “good guys” or “bad guys,” or even a political motive.
In Ernesto Mallo’s novel Needle in a Haystack the trauma is Argentina’s Dirty War, which began in 1976 when the Argentine military junta overthrew the presidency of Isabella Perón, which was inherited after the death of her husband, the demagogue Juan Perón. In the subsequent seven years, the military terrorized Argentines, and up to 30,000 students, social workers, writers, journalists, priests and others disappeared. Mallo’s novel presents this experience through the guise of a detective story that opens with the hero, Lascano, a veteran Buenos Aires police detective, waking up as he is called to the scene of a double or triple murder.
We quickly learn that the two official victims, a young couple, are victims of the military torturers. But another body is discovered next to the two victims of the junta and it’s this body, which officials refuse to acknowledge even exists, that drives the “whodunit” aspect of this novel. At risk of resorting to an overly used and almost cliche term, it’s an existential murder investigation: Lascano is banned from investigating the deaths of the young couple, both shot at close range, since the military government operates within the pocket of the junta’s generals; yet the third body that Lascano does investigate officially doesn’t exist. It is into this precarious political minefield that Lascano treads, questioning charlatans, moneylenders, neighbors, carefully avoiding the official centers of power who will immediately cast his investigation into oblivion. Lascano is a archetype of a police detective that most readers are familiar with: a workaholic with a drinking problem whose wife’s death still haunts and isolates him as he throws himself into his job.
Detective Lascano offers not only a glimpse of what daily life was like under the military junta in occupied Argentina but illustrates the terror that (predominantly) young leftists felt at this government-sponsored terrorism. Little is told from their point of view, Mallo instead opting to look through the eyes of the perpetrators, enablers, and a passive if not particularly zealous police detective. We see vivid examples of how the junta was only marginally motivated by ideological concerns, and this gets at the central motivation that Mallo may have in setting his novel during this period. Despite years of denials and justifications by those accused of crimes during the Dirty War that their actions were necessary to “save” Argentina from unsavory political ideologies (i.e., communism, socialism, the usual suspects, etc.), the novel demonstrates the highly individual and individualized motivations for those who kidnapped, tortured, and murdered with impunity.
The story is told from the point of view of half a dozen men —all complicit in some way in the crimes that are rocking the country—and one woman, Eve, a leftist guerrilla who has lost her faith, so to speak, isolated and held willingly captive in Lascano’s apartment. Amancio, an upper class charlatan and violent thug, aims to please his overly sexualized and faithless wife. Giribaldo, a general in the junta, seems to be motivated to merely reach his frigid and emotionally unstable wife. Indeed, the relationships between men and women are a key motivating factor in the violence and victimhood of large swathes of the country. Detective Lascano’s wife is dead, a saintly and ghostly presence, and when the detective discovers the leftist guerilla, Eve, hiding under a table after a bordello raid, he installs her into his life as a substitute for his dead wife. Other characters, too, including the murder victim, Biterman, illustrate not only the lack of conviction that many right wing paramilitarists felt in establishing their reign of terror but also how idiosyncratic their terror was.
In a powerful scene at a tango club, Amancio and his wife (and her on-the-sly lover), are forced into an awkward reaction when the national anthem begins to play:
The dancing suddenly stops and, as if by some collective Pavlovian reflex, everyone stands up. A solemn mood descends upon the entire crowd at the sound of the first chords of the national anthem. The military men stand to attention and flaunt their patriotism with their intense salutes…The patriotic homage ends with repeated pledges to die for the glory of the nation, juremos con gloria morir, and then there’s a din of chairs being rearranged until the chaos of laughter and voices returns.
This scene is reminiscent of the scene from the film Casablanca when the patrons at Rick’s Cafe spontaneously erupt into La Marseillaise, yet the situation is ironically turned upside down since we witness things from the “invaders’” point of view; the patriotism takes on a bitter, bleak tone. Early on, we are made aware that Amancio is our killer (this is not as much a “whodunit” as a backwards analysis of how a crime happens and is covered up in a corrupt system of government). But everyone here is guilty in some way: the killer, the victim’s brother who colludes with the killer, the military general who is anti-Semitic and casual in his approach to murder, and torture, even Lascano himself, who is less concerned with justice and more concerned with the internal drama convulsing his life and relationship with Eve. The shifting perspectives allow Mallo to have it both ways: both to get inside the heads of monsters but also to humanize and paint no one as wholly victim or victimizer.
Mallo, who is a former leftist guerilla, seems to look back on the views of these groups with the wisdom of a man well past middle age:
They were part of a youth movement violently indoctrinated by the words of the new prophets, like Che Guevara, who during their brief lives, appealed to them with pompous pronouncements: Let me tell you, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, that the true guerillero is guided by deep feelings of love.
This irony, of course, saves Mallo’s novel from being called reactionary or some belated right-wing justification of these events. His role as guerrilla insider makes the entire resistance to those responsible for the Dirty War seem almost a childish folly. Indeed, Eve, is morally ambiguous as she is not particularly passionate about her cause and willingly abandons it as circumstances force her to take refuge with Lascano.
Needle in a Haystack is the first of three books which feature Detective Lascano and represent his simultaneous take on Argentine history and politics while painting a harrowing story of murder and cover up. It is an auspicious start to what looks to be a strong trilogy.
Gregory McCormick is a freelance writer, editor, and translator. Raised in Idaho, he now lives in Montreal.
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