Posts Tagged ‘claudia pineiro’

Books of the Year 2021 Part 3

December 30, 2021

Finally, here are some newer books in translation which impressed me this year.

Dog Island by Philippe Claudel

Philippe Claudel is no stranger to either the crime genre (see Broderick’s Report) or the issue of immigration (Monsieur Linh and his Child), and in Dog Island (translated by Euan Cameron) he combines genre and theme in a tale which also has the same fable-like qualities of his work in general. The novel begins when three bodies are washed up onto Dog Island. The Mayor’s immediate instinct is to cover up the discovery, particularly as the publicity will not aid his attempts to increase tourism on the island, and the bodies are placed in cold storage. When a stranger arrives on the island, however, it is immediately assumed he is a policeman sent to investigate the deaths.  In this way, the novel cleverly explores Europe’s attitudes to immigration: at best, an inconvenience, at worst, a threat.

The Employees by Olga Ravn

Olga Ravn’s The Employees (translated by Martin Aitken) was a surprise (and surprisingly popular) inclusion on the International Booker long list. Set on a spaceship which has left Earth in search of new planets to colonise, it takes the form of a series of witness statements. The investigation is the result of a crisis on board precipitated by the arrival of alien objects which are never fully described. This has somehow unsettled the crew, some of whom are human while others are ‘humanoid’ – and so we very quickly find ourselves questioning what it is to be human. Ravn joins the ranks of those writers who have used the science fiction genre to its fullest extent, both in form and content.

Elena Knows by Claudia Pineiro

As usual, Charco Press delivered many fine books in 2021, but my favourite (at least, at this particular moment) was Claudia Pineiro’s Elena Knows (translated by Frances Riddle). It provides another example of a writer using genre fiction to do something remarkable. In it, the elderly – and rather bad-tempered – narrator, Elena, investigates the death of her daughter, Rita, which she refuses to believe was suicide. In order to do so she must overcome the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease, timing her intake of medicine to allow her to function sufficiently to make the visit she believes will help her. As the novel progresses, we begin to suspect a crime of a different sort has taken place.

Winter Flowers by Angelique Villeneuve

Peirene Press is another publisher with an excellent track record, and in 2021 they published the moving Winter Flowers by Angelique Villeneuve (translated by Adriana Hunter). Unexpectedly, it adds something new to the genre of First World War fiction by focusing on both the fate of those soldiers who were badly disfigured and on those women on the home front in France. At its heart, however, it is a love story, as Jeanne and Toussaint attempt to find each other again after years apart. That Toussaint has been changed by the war is obvious from his badly damaged face, but Jeanne, too, has been altered by the struggle to survive alone with her young daughter. As we wonder whether they can love again, we confront society’s reaction to those it sent to war.

Winter Stories by Ingvild Rishoi

Ingvild Rishoi’s only book to have been translated into English (by Diane Oatley), Winter Stories is a collection of three breath-taking stories. Each one features a character at breaking point. In the first, a mother’s poverty causes her shame in the face of the innocence and goodness of her five-year-old daughter. In the second a man, newly released from prison, hopes he can develop a relationship with his son. And, in the third, a sister, threatened with the loss of her siblings, goes on the run. Each story captures perfectly the experience of those who don’t feel they are good enough, but each one also offers up an act of kindness, a glimmer of hope in a cold season.

Elena Knows

August 23, 2021

Claudia Pineiro is, on the surface, an unusual choice for Charco Press, who have generally specialised in bringing previously untranslated Latin American writers to an English-speaking audience. Pineiro, on the other hand, has already had four novels published by Bitter Lemon Press, and is relatively well know as a crime writer. However, as Fiona Mackintosh points out in her excellent afterward, this has tended to pigeonhole Pineiro’s work and “has perhaps overshadow a broader appreciation of the urgent social scrutiny of contemporary society that her novels undertake.”

Despite this, Elena Knows, translated by Frances Riddle, has all the hallmarks of a crime novel, if an unusual one. There is, first of all, disagreement over whether a crime has actually taken place. Only Elena, it seems, believes that her daughter, Rita, was murdered:

“Elena knows, even though everyone else says something different…”

Rita was found hanging from the church belfry – an obvious suicide according to the police, but Elena believes that Rita would not have willingly gone to church when it was raining due to her fear of lightning:

“Whatever it took to avoid going near that cross on a rainy day. That’s how she’d always been.”

Elena also makes for an unusual detective, not only because she is the victim’s mother, but because she suffers from Parkinson’s disease. This means that she struggles with the simplest of physical tasks, as we learn in the novel’s opening lines:

“The trick is to lift up the right foot, just a few centimetres off the floor, move it forward through the air, just enough to get it past the left foot, and when it gets as far as it can go, lower it.”

Elena is only able to function thanks to the drug Levodopa; as the effect of the drug wears off, she finds herself increasingly immobile, waiting helplessly until she can take her next tablet. This would be a challenge on a normal day, but the novel is set during one particular day as she attempts to travel to a building she and her daughter visited only once years before to find a woman called Isabel:

“If luck is on her side, if Isabel hasn’t move, or if she hasn’t died like her daughter died, she’ll find her there, in that old house in Belgrano that has a heavy wooden door with bronze fittings, right beside some doctor’s offices.”

Elena’s condition adds tension as her quest – involving a train and a taxi journey – is an enormous challenge for her. (In fact, Pineiro divides the novel into sections according to the pills Elena takes).  One of the novel’s strengths is the detailed way in which Pineiro conveys Elena’s difficulties, for example, when she leaves the train stain and is looking for a taxi but unable to raise her head, “like a swimmer who can only see the bottom of the pool.” Elena personifies her Parkinson’s as ‘Herself’:

“She accepts the punishment that Herself, her illness, imposes… It reminds her who’s in charge.”

It makes Elena a more sympathetic character, as otherwise she comes across as difficult, particularly in her relationship with Rita. Early in the novel, for example, she remembers holidaying together:

“They argued. Always, every afternoon. About anything… They fought as if each word thrown out were the crack of a whip, leather in motion, one of them lashed out, then the other.”

The more we learn of their relationship, the more this seems typical, though they are undeniably close, particularly now that Rita is Elena’s carer. Elena’s belief that Rita was murdered is sincere, but also self-serving as she does not have to consider why she may have killed herself. In the end, however, Pineiro’s focus is not murder or suicide but abortion.

The Isabel Elena is trying to locate was a desperate young woman when Rita found her outside a building where illegal abortions were performed (abortion was only legalised in Argentina in 2020). She takes her back to her house, locks her in her bedroom and then returns her to her husband:

“That afternoon, Rita, who was not a mother, and never would be, forced another woman to become one, applying the dogma she’d learned to another woman’s body.”

Every year since Rita and Elena have been sent a picture of the child and so Elena believes that Isabel is the one person who will help her. The truth is, of course, more complicated.

Elena Knows is a perfect example of how a skilled writer can tackle a social issue and at the same time produce a gripping and psychologically convincing narrative. As Elena retreats into the dependency of childhood, Rita encounters the reality of a kind of motherhood for the first time. Simultaneously, the novel forces the reader to question the mother-daughter bond between Elena and Rita, Elena’s belief in Rita’s murder being based entirely on how well she thinks she knows her daughter. The issue, in the end, is wider than abortion: a critique of the ways in which women are forced into physical and social roles they may not want, or even be capable of carrying out. Just like Isabel, Elena experiences for herself what it feels like to lose control of your body.

Thursday Night Widows

March 28, 2010

Thursday Night Widows by Claudia Pineiro had already caught my eye (in a bookshop of all places) before the long-list was announced. Published by Bitter Lemon Press, with its title picked out on both spine and cover in blood red capitals, it would look like any other crime novel were it not for its rather unusual commendation from a Nobel Prize winner, Jose Saramago. It is like any other crime novel in the fact that it opens with a death (three deaths, in fact) and closes by explaining the events surrounding these deaths. In between, however, the novel is more interested in exposing the class divisions of Argentina.

While reading the novel, I came across the following in an extract from Tony Judt’s new book, Ill Fares the Land, in The Guardian:

“But inequality is not just a technical problem. It illustrates and exacerbates the loss of social cohesion – the sense of living in a series of gated communities whose chief purpose is to keep out other people (less fortunate than ourselves) and confine our advantages to ourselves and our families: the pathology of the age and the greatest threat to the health of any democracy.”

This seems to me to provide a good starting point to understanding the novel, set as it is in such a gated community, Cascade Heights:

“It has a golf course, tennis courts, swimming pool and two club houses. And private security…. That’s more than five hundred acres of land, accessible only to us or to people authorised by one of us.”

This narrative voice, what might be dubbed the ‘communal voice’, explains the rules, habits and attitudes of The Cascade with a complacency and smugness that admits no contradiction. It is intermingled with third and first person narration, the third person often focusing on those characters that don’t quite fit in; the first person providing us with a moderately sympathetic character in Virginia Guevara., and preventing the novel becoming an entirely savage attack on the wealthy. There is, however, a certain irony in the fact that the multiple viewpoints do not take us outside the gates.

The novel begins with Virginia’s husband, Ronie, arriving home unexpectedly early from his Thursday card night (the appellation ‘Thursday Night Widows’ is originally a comic reference to the husbands’ absence once a week) and shortly after jumping from the house’s balcony. The necessary hospitalisation that follows means that Virginia does not hear until the next day that the other three regular card players are all dead, apparently killed in an accident. Only at the end does the novel return to the scene of the accident and reveal what actually happened.

In the meantime we become acquainted with Cascade Heights, a name that suggests both superiority and a fall. The culture of the community is conveyed through a series of snapshots, each providing an insight into the families living there. Warning signs are in evidence immediately as Virginia and Ronie get a good deal on their property as the previous owner committed suicide. Virginia is impressed by the house’s study:

“A fully stocked bookcase lined all the walls. The spines were perfect and intact, bound I green and burgundy leather.”

However, the books are false, repeating the same titles over and over.

Cascade Heights is all about appearance. Gustavo may hit his wife, but is respected for his tennis skills. Mariana, desperate for a child, adopts a young girl and her baby brother, but she dislikes the girl’s name, Ramona, and changes it to Romina. Tellingly, when they arrive home for the first time, Ramona is left in the car:

“They went into the house together and the little girl saw the door close behind them.”

As the economic climate worsens, the pressure to keep up appearances increases. This leads to a number of amusing incidents, for example, Teresa persuading Lala to have her lawn reseeded:

“Listen, honey, I know your old man’s got no job and everything’s grim, but this is about more than that.”

Ultimately, though, the novel darkens towards its conclusion.

Could it win? It succeeds both as a crime novel and as an indictment of an unequal society. However, the fact that it is a whodunit (as Ian Rankin will tell you) makes it an unlikely winner.