#45 / Eduardo Sacheri, The Secret in Their Eyes

Eduardo Sacheri, The Secret in Their Eyes (La pregunta de sus ojos), translated from the Spanish by John Cullen (New York, Other Press, 2011 [2005])  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 ArgentiniansBoth 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.   

If you’re interested in further Argentinian crime set during this period, see Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack.

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Out with the old, in with the new. Happy 2014!

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

I always love those quiet days between Christmas and New Year. They’re the perfect time for reading, and – for the bloggers among us – provide a great chance to tie up loose ends and plan ahead.

Some loose ends now neatly tied up in a bow:

  • I took part in two reading challenges last year, the 2013 Global Reading Challenge and the 2013 Translation Challenge. I completed both, and enjoyed the global challenge in particular, as it made me reflect on the geographical distribution of my reading (somewhat biased towards Europe and the US). You can see which books I read for the challenges here.
  • I’ve managed to finish my two Christmas reads, which complemented one other very well. Patricio Pron’s My Father’s Ghost is Climbing in the Rain is a literary memoir exploring a father-son relationship and the legacy of Argentina’s military dictatorship. It’s an interesting read, but took a little while to get going (it would probably benefit from a second reading, as the significance of earlier sections becomes clearer in the light of later ones). While not a crime novel, criminality is a key theme and the genre is frequently referenced, albeit in slightly contradictory ways. For example, the narrator comments: ‘I understood for the first time that the children of young Argentines in the 1970s were going to have to solve our parents’ pasts, like detectives, and that what we were going to find out was going to seem like a mystery novel we wished we’d never bought’ (p.152). But then a little later it’s suggested that exploring ‘social crime […] through the artifice of a detective novel’ is inadequate, because ‘the resolution of most detective stories is condescending, no matter how ruthless the plotting, so that the reader, once the loose ends are tied up and the guilty finally punished, can return to the real world with the conviction that crimes get solved and remain locked between the covers of a book, and that the world outside the book is guided by the same principles of justice as the tale told inside and should not be questioned’ (p.153). Of course that’s not always the case: lots of contemporary crime authors have pushed the boundaries of the genre to explore the absence of justice for state crimes. I wonder if Pron has read Ernesto Mallo’s outstanding 2006 crime novel Needle in a Haystack (see my review here), which examines the same historical period? It’s precisely the lack of a resolution/punishment for the crimes committed by the junta that gives the narrative its power.

  • My other Christmas novel was Jan Costin Wagner’s Light in a Dark House (Harvill Secker 2013), the fourth in the German/Finnish Kimmo Joentaa series, which was an excellent read. Even though each installment is made up of quite similar elements, the quality of the characterisation and narrative construction is such that they never appear formulaic. The starting points in Light in a Dark House are the disappearance of Kimmo’s secretive on-off lover, and the murder of a nameless, comatose woman in a hospital. Intriguingly, the only clue left by the murderer is ‘lacrimal fluid’, or tears.
  • And the connections between the two? The legacies of past violence, unresolved traumas, and the damaging effects of silence. These issues are presented quite differently in each, which makes them an interesting pair to read together.

Looking ahead:

  • Santa was kind enough to bring me a number of crime novels, including Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects (Phoenix 2007), Eduardo Sacheri’s The Secret in their Eyes (Other Press 2005/2011) and John le Carré’s A Delicate Truth (Viking 2013). I’m going to make the Sacheri my first crime novel of 2014, as I enjoyed the Oscar-winning film adaptation of 2010, and am keen to read the original novel. That’ll keep me going on my Argentinian reading path as well for now.
  • As a 2014 Petrona judge, I need to pick up the pace of my reading. Thus far I’ve read 20 of the submissions, which means I have rather a lot to go. (This is by way of a confession to Karen, Barry and Sarah, but I will get cracking now, promise…once I’ve read the Sacheri, that is).
  • More generally, 2014 is going to be different compared to other years, as I’m on research leave for a semester from the end of January *happy face*. More on my plans for that interlude another time…

Wishing you all a great start to the year and many hours of good reading!