Lost Books – Two Crimes

Sadly, having read The Lightning of August and The Dead Girls, Two Crimes is the last of Mexican author Jorge Ibarguengoitia’s novels available in English (translated by Asa Zatz in 1984, five years after it was originally published). Another three novels remain untranslated as well as numerous short stories. The pity of this is that Ibarguengoitia is one of Latin America’s most entertaining writers (Juan Pablo Villalobos would be a good example of a modern writer with a similar sensibility) – and Two Crimes is probably his most entertaining book.

The novel begins straight-forwardly enough with a party thrown by Marcos and his wife, the Chamuca (which seems to be Portuguese for samosa leaving me to imagine a lewder interpretation…) to celebrate their wedding anniversary. This, however, is the traditional moment of happiness before their lives fall apart, a collapse which originates in the seemingly innocuous arrival of an uninvited guest, Evodio, who asks to stay the night. Although they know Evodio is a “dedicated activist” they have little idea of the danger this will put them in until they receive a phone call at work the next day to tell them that police are searching their apartment:

“And so that portion of my life came to a close.”

They go straight to the bus station and separate: the Chamuca to her cousins and Marcos to his uncle, Ramon, to borrow money so they can “go somewhere to live until this blows over.” As Marcos is narrating the novel, we follow him to his uncle’s – where he is refused entry by his cousin, Amalia. Unwittingly, Marcos finds himself at the centre of battle for his uncle’s inheritance, but he is able to gain admittance the next day when he returns with his uncle’s friend, Don Pepe. In fact, Marcos’ plan to get money from his uncle has nothing to do with any potential inheritance – instead he tells Ramon he has a business opportunity, an abandoned mine where cryolite can be extracted. He intends to make the money from the ‘costs and profitability study’ he will undertake which, as he tells his uncle:

“…you’ll have to pay me…even if the study should show that it is not an advisable investment.”

The uncle readily agrees, and, to stir things up, tells the cousins that he asked Marcos to come. So worried do they become that they offer to buy his share of the inheritance (without being sure he even has one) and, when that doesn’t work, sign an agreement that they will split the inheritance equally, whatever they get.

To complicate things further, Marcos becomes involved with Amalia’s daughter, Lucero, when he finds her in his room and she gives him “the most perfect kiss, technically speaking, that I had ever had in my life.” He soon doubts whether her apparent attraction can be trusted:

“A little later, when I was putting on my shirt, I noticed that the sixty-one pesos and the copy of the contract that were in the pocket had changed places.”

Not only does this not stop him pursuing her, but when he fails at the first attempt, he turns to Amalia instead:

“…it was an irresistible impulse. I was inside Amalia’s room before I realised it. What a different reception that was!”

The con, however, seems to be working, until the unexpected arrival of Marcos’ wife, and the death of Ramon soon after. Ibarguengoitia’s handling of the plot is masterful, but his stroke of genius to hand the narrative over at this point to a new narrator, Don Pepe. This gives us a different perspective on the first half of the novel – we realise that, for all his enthusiasm, Ramon did not trust Marcos, assuming that he would disappear with the thousand pesos he had given him and the Land Rover he borrowed:

“Doesn’t that story Marcos told us about the beryllium mine sound like hokum to you?”

Don Pepe then drives the narrative forward as he hunts of Marcos after Ramon’s death. The change in perspective works brilliantly, refreshing the narrative when it seems to have reached one conclusion, until we reach another. Marcos is charged with ‘two crimes’ – the original crime of ‘terrorism’ which forces him to go on the run, and his uncle’s murder – but, of course, although two crimes are indeed committed in the novel, these are quite different, and the last one occurs unexpectedly in the final pages. Two Crimes is a thoroughly entertaining novel from a master story-teller, with both its tension and humour working as well today as they did forty years ago.


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9 Responses to “Lost Books – Two Crimes”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    It sounds *really* entertaining, Grant, especially with that change of narrator which does make the original one sound a bit unreliable… It’s always a shame when you run out of translated works by a favourite author…

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    This sounds incredibly clever yet very skilfully executed – not always easy with a premise as intricate as this. For some reason, I thought about Enrique Vila-Matas as I was reading your review, possibly because he also has a flair for creative/inventive fiction, albeit less genre-driven than here? Anyway, someone needs to give you the money to start your own imprint/publishing house to bring some of these lost treasures back into existence!

  3. mikethep!! Says:

    Glad you enjoyed Jorge Ibarguengoitia so much. I was his publisher at Chatto & Windus, for Dead Girls and Two Crimes, at any rate – I moved on before Lightning in August was published. I met him briefly when he came to London in 1983 to help promote Dead Girls. Charming man. Sadly he died in a plane crash later that year.

    • 1streading Says:

      That’s amazing! Thanks for reading my review – you can see that books live on to make an impression long after they are published! Dead Girls is back in print, but I think this too deserves to be read. I still have hope more of his work will be translated!

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