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Ernesto Mallo: A master of sensuous South American noir

September 7, 2010

A thick cut of beefy Argentine crime fiction

AS befits the chief export of the country in which it is set Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack is a beefy cut of Argentina’s finest writing – a thriller which bridges gap between the procedural clichés of the crime genre and the kind of sensuous Latin American writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or the work of Chilean poet Eduardo Galeano for New Internationalist magazine.

As all three writers emerged as opponents of dictatorships at times of extreme political upheaval in their countries, their work continues to reflect their backgrounds. Mallo, a former radical pursued by the Argentine Junta, is an essayist, newspaper columnist and playwright, and this, the first novel of a trilogy to be translated to English, is one in which the evil of the dictatorship seeps into, and corrupts, every corner of Argentinian life.

There is a fight for the soul of the country as bodies stack-up. But while in many contemporary thrillers the bodies would literally stack-up for cheap effect, here there are only a few – the wider death that hangs over society is implicit and all the more powerful for it.

The catalyst of the narrative is the hunt by Superintendent Lascano for the killers of three bodies found outside Buenos Aires. That is, only two were called in, but three bodies are found. Lascano knows that two carry the tell tale bullet riddled signs of being casualties of political assassination by the army death squads. The other definitely isn’t. He knows that the case is going to be messy and may potentially lead right to the heart of the corruption of the military régime.

Lascano is a tremendous creation: a man haunted by twin griefs for his dead wife and the country he lived in before the military junta came to dominate every strata of society and, particularly,  the forces of law and order and the state for which he serves.

While sometimes the troubled detective motif becomes a ‘yadda yadda-recovering alcoholic’ riff which unfolds over several books because narrative has come to trump concise, well written characterisation in the more popular ends of the genre, in Needle in a Haystack, Lascano’s grief literally paralyses him and the narrative. He is a spell-bindingly well-written character.

The sensuousness of the book comes not just from the vibrant portrayal of the decaying, neglected but once vibrant city of Buenos Aires itself, but also in the savage claustrophobia  evoked in the surveillance society that baulks Lascano in his fight for the truth. The Junta, and its agents in the military and police hierarchy, want Lascano to ignore the murders; the superintendent, battered by grief and a deep personal morality, decides this is not going to be the case. There is one body Lascano knows is not the latest in long line of Junta casualties, and he can’t let it go.

But, also, the sensuousness of passages where Lascano cooks for the on-the-run young radical Eva are among those that set this novel apart from the pack – as is the well written tense opening sequence when the latter is hiding from a police raid somewhere she shouldn’t be. It kicks off a whole heap of mierda.

This is crime writing of the highest order, actually, it’s just writing of the highest order. Among the ‘goodies’ Lascano and Eva are believably drawn; among the baddies, army major Garibaldi is deliciously Machiavellian, a man whose evil influence and motivations attempt to close all the avenues for Lascano.

There are police procedurals in the US and Britain (perhaps written with TV or the movies in mind) where the narrative spirals over 350+ pages and into ever more dramatic but sometimes unbelievable  places where characters perform acts ill befitting of their profile. In Needle in a Haystack everything comes together in a taut, poetic and densely written 190 pages which would shame all but a tiny elite group of authors working in this genre in English.

For French speakers here is a brilliant video of Mallo talking about the hypocrisy of politically incorrect writing about political history and the roots of his Argeninian ‘noir’.

Needle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo (and translated by Jethro Soutar) is published by Bitter Lemon Press.

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