Posts Tagged ‘elena knows’

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.