Eduardo Sacheri, The Secret in Their Eyes (La pregunta de sus ojos), translated from the Spanish by John Cullen (New York, Other Press, 2011 ) 5 stars
Opening line: Benjamin Miguel Chaparro stops short and decides he’s not going.
I’d been looking forward to reading The Secret in Their Eyes ever since seeing Juan José Campanella’s film adaptation, which won the 2010 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Happily, the novel was as pleasurable to read as the movie was to view – a complex, multilayered narrative of genuine humanity and warmth.
Benjamin Miguel Chaparro is newly retired from his position as Deputy Clerk of an investigative court in Buenos Aires. Now a man of leisure, he decides to write a novel about a case that has haunted him since 1968 – the murder of a young wife, Liliana Colotto, in her own home one summer’s morning. Oscillating between the past and the present, and spanning twenty-five years of Argentine history, the narrative tells the story of the murder and its repercussions for those left behind: grieving husband Ricardo Morales, investigator Benjamin, and the murderer himself.
While undoubtedly crime fiction, The Secret in Their Eyes is also partly a historical novel, exploring the time before, during and after Argentina’s Guerra Sucia or Dirty War. This period (1976-1983) saw a state-sponsored campaign of violence against citizens deemed to be leftist and/or politically subversive, resulting in the ‘disappearance’ of between 13,000 and 30,000 Argentinians. Both narrative strands – the criminal and the historical – provide an in-depth consideration of the nature of justice, and the impact of a justice that is delayed or denied. But at the same time, the novel can also be viewed as a pair of love stories – that of a husband and wife (Ricardo Morales and Liliana), and of long-time co-workers (Benjamin and his boss, Irene Hornos) – as well as the moving chronicle of a friendship (Benjamin and his colleague Sandoval). Beautifully written, with complex and often endearing characters, the novel is a rich, satisfying read.
As soon as I finished the novel, I watched the film again. What a fabulous adaptation this is, especially in its use of the visual to bring out key themes (close-ups of eyes and gazes, for example, and the symbolism of the colour red – look out in particular for Irene’s roses). The acting is superb, and the wittiness of the script really captures the dynamics of Benjamin, Irene and Sandoval’s relationships.
But it was also interesting to note some modifications to the plot: Irene is much more of a participant in the film than in the novel (which I liked), and there were a couple of other changes towards the end designed to provide some extra drama (which I wasn’t so keen on). However, the latter certainly aren’t deal-breakers. It’s rare that a novel and film adaptation complement each other so well, and I’d recommend both wholeheartedly.