Luis Sepúlveda ‘The Shadow of What We Were’


–There in the middle of the assembly, Coco Aravena felt euphoric. The commission for agitation and propaganda of the Marxist-Leninist Communist Revolutionary Party, Mao Tse-Tung Thought, Enver Hoxha Tendency, IMG_1249which was very different from the liquidationist clique that called itself the Marxist-Leninist Communist Revolutionary Party, Mao Tse-Tung Thought, Red Flag Tendency, had commissioned him to read a resolution from the central committee, a resolution destined to change history.


Three acquaintances forced to go underground after Augusto Pinochet’ coup in Chile in 1973, meet up more than thirty years later at the behest of “The Shadow” to carry out one more job. Cacho Salinas who had just come back from exile in Paris, Lucho Arancibia who had stayed in Chile only to lose his family and to have been tortured himself until his head was no longer “right”, Lolo Garmendia who had been sent in exile to Ceaucescu’s Romania only to find somewhere worst than Chile. The three of them had known each other all those years before in the splintered microcosm of Chile’s revolutionary left, illustrated by the opening quote and parodied by Monty Python and had each separately known and learnt to trust ” The Shadow”

From their discussions with each other, whilst waiting in Arancibia’s garage for the man that had reunited them, a picture of Chile, and the complications and absurdity of life and of their exiles and that of the thousands of other “Young Communists” is slowly distilled to the reader. They are so altered by their experiences that without ever having met before, they are able to recognise other Chileans who have been through similar experiences as epitomised by the following conversation between Salinas and the man selling him roast chickens, the story of why Salinas hated chickens is in itself an anthology of the absurdity of the revolutionary thought of the seventies pushed to the limits:


–Are the chickens fresh? Are they tasty? That’s what I want to know.
The vendor closed his newspaper, glanced out at the street and then up at the ceiling of the shop. “Look friend, I don’t know where these chickens come from and I don’t care, they’re all the same, exactly the same weight, they come frozen, hard as rocks and glassy-eyed. I defrost them, stick skewers up their asses and out through the back of their necks, smear them with a sauce that comes in a plastic bag and after forty minutes on the spit they turn into something edible. Happy now? Don’t make things any more complicated than they are.”


This book was read as part of Spanish lit month 2017

in parallel within the book a second story concerning another returning emigre, who had not been taken seriously by anyone during those revolutionary years, Coco Aravena is wound into the first story line as a dispute between Coco and his wife, as she throws books and his phonograph out of the window, leads to a highly improbable coincidence as his phonograph falls on “The shadow” and kills him, but even this is surpassed by the absurdity of real life as not knowing what to do, they go down to street level to examine the body:


–The rain was still falling, and the body was still on the sidewalk. His black clothes shone wetly, but there wasn’t the slightest sign of either the lethal phonograph or the books.
“Fucking people,” Coco Aravena muttered.
“What do you mean?” the woman said. I don’t understand what you are talking about.”
“Look Concha,” Coco replied, pointing to the dead man’s bare marble-like feet. “They stole his shoes.”


This is a book based on “The Last of the Summer Wine”type caring humour.

First Published in Spanish as “La Sombra de lo que fuimos” in 2009 by Espasa Calpe .
Translated into English by Howard Curtis as “The shadow of What We Were” and published by Europa Editions in 2010

Alicia Plante ‘The Murky Waters of the Tigre’


–Garcia Mejuto, he said, the anguish hidden by the sweets he rolled between his teeth and the handkerchief covering the mouthpiece. IMG_1248Note down the spot where you’ll leave the money, thirty thousand pesos. And don’t try to be clever***


Alicia  Plante’s book has two settings, one in Tigre, on the Tigre delta, a town 30 kilometres north of Bueno Aires Where a labyrinth of canals twist and turn between the islands and where the wooden houses built on stilts and much appreciated by the city dwellers, the second setting is in Buenos Aires itself.

This book was read as part of Spanish lit month 2017

There are two stories that will meet up later in the development, an initial story having its roots in the dictatorship, Raúl lived with his mother in Buenos Aires and remembered one day, when he was young, having seen his neighbour the Gallego , who had been a supporter of Franco coming home with a young baby, this was Uruguay in the mid seventies and Raúl’s mother was sure it was a stolen baby:


–She had heard things about this, friends from the parish knew women who had grouped together to look for their missing children, young women, mostly students or workers who weren’t in agreement with the military takeover….And she had also heard that when the young women were pregnant, their new burns were taken away from them and the military kept them for themselves.***


The second story was of a couple who had committed suicide in their wooden house in Tigre. Julia who also owned a house nearby was talking with Cadenas, the local handy man, who doesn’t believe the official version of the man shooting himself and also the blond he was found with:


–A bloke who every chance he gets comes to sleep in his run down house “to make the best of it”, he said, and who turns up one morning on the water bus with his clothes, his wellington boots some books and a type writer…Did you know he was a writer? Anyway what I wanted to say, Julia, was I don’t swallow that story, this bloke who was happy, all of a sudden he shoots himself…and whilst he was about it he bumps of the blond in the high heels***


As these two stories wind towards each other, we learn that there is only one story and it doesn’t reinforce our faith in human nature. Alicia Plante puts together some very good descriptions of people as crimes from the murky past come to the surface and those involved will use their old methods to keep them hidden.

First Published in Spanish as “Una Mancha Más” in 2011 by Adriana Hidalgo S.A.
Translated into French by François Gaudry as “Les Eaux Troubles du Tigre” and published by éditions Métailié in 2016
*** My translation

Antonio Sarabia ‘The Woman of Your Dreams’


–It is said that justice is blind, Hilario Godínez, and it’s for that reason that it is represented blindfolded but, in your country, IMG_1247justice consists first and foremost of avoiding the blindfold and keeping your eyes wide open in order to spot the exact moment when it is best to look away.***


The Mexican author Antonio Sarabia died last month, and this story, The Woman of Your Dreams, is my first encounter with his work.

This book was read as part of Spanish lit month 2017

This story is narrated by an all knowing third person who addresses the main protagonist, Hilario Godínez, throughout the book as illustrated in the opening quote. The story is set in Mexico where the violence of the drug lords is part of everyday life and where no one ventures onto the streets after dark, giving rise to the name of ghost towns, corrected by Godínez through the voice of the narrator:


–Even if you, Hilario Godínez, for whom semantic precision has become a vice, you believe as it happens that “ghost town” wasn’t the appropriate literary form. It would be more accurate to speak of the town as a “random cemetery”, since either way the next day, on open your newspapers, breakfast includes its daily helping of severed heads and dismembered bodies.***


The book relates two parallel stories, firstly there is room for hope and room for love when, as suggested by the title, Hilario has been receiving anonymous letters from a secret admirer, signed the Woman of Your Dreams, over a fifteen year period, letters which he reads with interest and even waits for eagerly, not being able to work out who she could be. She describes herself as invisible:


–She began by continuing the story of her life at university. In contrast to Descartes, she thought but she wasn’t. And she began her professional life still in this sort of non-existence….she remained invisible to all the people that really counted for her.***


In contrast to this storyline Sarabia presents the desperate and hopeless side of Mexico. Hilario, a sports journalist at the local newspaper investigates the disappearance and violent deaths for no known reason, and without ransom demands of a rich kid and then a famous footballer, with any investigation in Mexico possibly concerning drug lords being next to impossible, but as a respected football journalist he was tolerated. He discovers a drug lord that bribes players to lose matches because he has discovered the difference in market value of a first and second division team and he wants to buy the club cheaply.

Of course he is party to the resolution of the murders mystery but how will the Woman Of Your Dreams mystery end?

First Published in Spanish as “No tienes perdon de Dios” in 2017
Translated into French by René Solis as “La Femme de tes Rêves” and published by éditions Métailié in 2017
*** My translation

Don Winslow ‘The Power of the Dog’


–And yet the guns will have to come through America and not Mexico, as crazy as the Yankees are about drugs coming across their border the Mexicans are even more fanatic about guns, IMG_1246as much as Washington complains about narcotics coming across from Mexico Los Piños complains about guns coming in from the United States. It’s a constant irritant in the relations between the two countries that the Mexicans seem to feel that fire arms are more dangerous than dope, they don’t understand why it is that in America you will get a longer jail sentence for dealing a little marijuana than you will for selling a lot of guns.


I read Mario Puzo’s Godfather in 1971, two years after its release (waited for the paperback) and have never read anything like it since, well not until now. Don Winslow does for the Barrera’s and their Mexican Cartel what Puzo did for the Sicilian Mafia in New York, and with style. Winslow takes away the decor and shines the harsh cold light on America’s war on drugs. The opening quote explains these two goverments just don’t understand each other.

Winslows book is a sweeping saga over a thirty year period of the Barrera family at the head of the Mexican drug Cartel and the DEA’s war against drugs, against the background of America’s relentless war against communist regimes in South and Central America. His main characters are Art Keller from the DEA a half Mexican American who had learned from a young age to be a YOYO (your on your own) and Adán Barrera, who becomes the leader of the Cartel. The story begins with the Mexicans, with the “tactical” help of America wiping out the Marijuana plantations in Mexico and Art, with the help of Adán’s father, the police head Michael Angel Barrera, capturing the head of the drug trade. Thus leaving the way free for Barrera to create the Cartel.

This is a book spanning many events and many years as Art tries to chase down the Barreras and early on Arts colleague Ernie Hidalgo is captured and tortured to death  for information only Art has. As the book progresses we understand First of all that Adán can turn almost any event to profit:


–Between the DEA and the Mexican Cartel there is a blood feud still from the killing of Ernie Hidalgo, Art Keller sees to that, and thank God for that Adán thinks for while Keller’s revenge obsession might cost me money in the short run in the long run it makes me money and that is what the Americans simply cannot seem to understand that all they do is to drive up the price and make us rich. Without them any bobo with an old truck or a Leakey boat with an outboard motor could run drugs into El Norte and then the price would not be worth the effort but as it is, it takes millions of dollars to move the drugs and the prices are accordingly sky high. The Americans take a product that literally grows on trees and turn it into a valuable commodity without them cocaine and marijuana would be like oranges and instead of making billions smuggling it I’d be making pennies doing stoop labour in some California field picking it and the truly funny irony is that Keller is himself another product because I make millions selling insurance against him.


The second truth we learn is that the war on drugs is high on the political agenda but low on the real covert agenda of the CIA, fighting communism, and as the Head of the CIA program “Red Mist” which was the code name for scores of operations to neutralize left wing movements across Latin America and which needed covert funding, points out to Keller:


–Hobbs stares at him then asks
what do you know about red mist what the hell is red mist Art wonders, Art says look I only know about Cerberus and what I know is enough to sink you
I agree with your analysis now where does that leave us
with our jaws clamped on each other’s throats art says and neither of us can let go
let’s go for a walk
they hike through the camp past the obstacle course the shooting range the clearings in the jungle where cammy clad soldiers sit on the ground and listen to instructors teach ambush tactics
every thing in the training camp Hobbs says was paid for by Michaël Angel Barrera
Jesus
Barrera understands.
understands what
Hobbs leads him up a steep trail to the top of a hill Hobbs points out over the vast jungle stretching below what does that look like to you he asks
Art shrugs, a rain forest
to me Hobbs says it looks like a camels nose you know the old Arab proverb once the camel gets his nose inside the tent the camel will be inside the tent. That’s Nicaragua down there the communist camels nose in the tent of the central American isthmus not an island like Cuba that we can isolate with our navy


I guess you can say that sending GIs to fight communists in the Americas was no longer possible after Vietnam, instead a whole generation was sacrificed knowingly to Crack Cocain in order to provide, via the Cartel, the secret funding to continue the war on communism.

There are dozens of well constructed characters in this impressive thriller of which I have not even scratched the surface, if you have not read it you must, and like the Godfather there is a sequel to avoid you going cold turkey!

First Published in English as “The Power of the Dog” in 2006 by Random House Inc

Philippe Grimbert ‘A Secret’


–Only child, I’d had a brother for a long time. They had to take me at my word when I told this tale to my relations on holiday, to my passing friends.IMG_1136 I had a brother. More handsome, stronger. An older brother, glorious, invisible.***


Fifteen years after his parents suicide, Philippe Grimbert brings us this story of his and his families life told mostly by his young self from the fifties. This family drama was turned into a successful film in France and the book translated into many languages.
Philippe tells us how he grew up in the Paris area with his mother and father, he had health problems and was a weak child so he invented an older brother to give himself courage. His parents were both good looking and athletic and Philippe liked to imagine their youth and how they met.
Philippe, however, was brought up in a family with a secret of which only he was unaware:


–My friend opened one by one new chapters, the events for which I had learnt the details in my history books, the occupation, Vichy, the fate of the Jews, the demarcation line were no longer reduced to bold titles in a school manual, they were suddenly alive, black and white photos that had found their colour. My parents had been through it and were much more marked by this than I had believed. Anna appeared out of the night, Maxime’s first wife.***



The story concerns two major events that in Philippe families case overlapped and interfered. Firstly Philippe’s father Maxime fell passionately in love with his own sister in law Tania, a family drama waiting to burst to the surface and secondly Philippes family was Jewish and Maxime had decided to lead them cross the demarcation line in small groups to flee from their fate and whilst Maxime and Tania arriving separately had reached safety, Anna disillusioned is captured with Simon, Maxime and Anna’s child:


–Try to imagine the feelings of my mother in the light of the news. The enemy from from which she had fled had become an ally brushing aside the only obstacle that stood between her and my father, if Anna and Simon didn’t make it, everything would be possible.***


Could anyone live with the weight of having survived in these circumstances?

First Published in French as “Un Secret” in 2004 by Grasset et Fasquelle
Translated into English by Polly McLean and published by Portobello Books in 2007
*** My Translation

Simonetta Greggio ‘Black Messiah’

 –You’re hilarious you are. You’ll make me laugh to death. You watch too much television, but Italy isn’t the USA: IMG_1120we’re at the back of the class, last in the kingdom of heaven. No DNA database here!***

Simonetta Greggio Italian, writing in French takes us to Tuscany –This kind of thing doesn’t happen, not in Tuscany, on the gentle hills where happy breakfast commercials are shot.*** In this her first crime novel, a number of murders resembling those of thirty years earlier, a true story concerning the monster of Florence, a serial killer who killed seven young couples in their cars whilst they were making love and who was never captured:

–In their torch beams, dozens of insects undulated like the northern lights. The clearing  pulsated with fireflies, but the carabiniers made no move to brush them aside. They stood there still, astounded….The young girl seemed to watch them with her staring eyes. Naked, crucified on a cross in the form of an X,  upright in the middle of the gap, her tortured face looked down on them, arms and legs stretched apart.***

As the book advances and once again young people and couples are targeted, young girls as always are particularly vulnerable. We follow two main characters, Miles, American whose Italian wife died in mysterious circumstances and who has moved to his wife’s country with his daughter Indiana for a new start and Jacopo, an Italian brigadier who was already in the police and on the unresolved case of the monster thirty years earlier, who too has lost his wife and has daughters the age of the victims.

These two characters are on a slow collision course up to the final confrontations in the story. And yes, as the opening quote from the killer leads us to understand, Italy approved its first DNA database in 2016, after the events in this story.

First Published in French as “Black Messie” in 2016 by Stock
*** My Translation

Sandro Veronese ‘Terres Rares’

–Today’s news is the prawn warning. It’s in all the papers, and not only in the local pages for Rome. Killer prawns from Louisiana.IMG_1119 There is a worrying tone to the articles because this particular strain, imported from Louisiana about fifteen years ago by a farmer from lake Bracciano, has flourished in the whole of Latium thanks, if would seem, to its exceptional reproductive ability. From ditch to ditch, from irrigation channel to irrigation channel they have advanced to the Malagrotta waste dumps and from there, once again according to the press, last night they launched their assault on Rome by crossing the Via Aurelia at the thirteen kilometer marker.***

Pietro Paladini, the main protagonist from Veronesi’s previous book Quiet Chaos, who lived in Milan and which concerned a reaction to the sudden loss of his common-law wife Lara, finds himself several years later in a seemingly stable situation living and working in Rome. As with the opening quote, where there is in fact a rational explication, to the irrational newspaper article, all is not as it seems, there are indications waiting to be read of the instability of his situation. Firstly he has a steady relationship with a woman of his age, D, but keeps his life with her separate from his life with his daughter: 

–Nevertheless, whilst I feel a tenderness towards her, hold her in high esteem,  feel a need to protect her, share a complicity, respect, besides a physical attraction that can’t be ignored, all of these indications have never converged to a shining cohesive whole. I don’t believe that I love her, you see, at least not in the traditional sense of the word and I do not think that she loves me.***

Pietro works with an old school friend of his, Lello, whose company repossesses luxury cars which Pietro then sells. Suddenly one day Pietro’s life falls to pieces, all is not as it seems, when, as for the first time, he is asked to recover a car from a young starlet who escapes from him at high speed and as he pursues her, his world begins to unravel. He is stopped by the traffic police for speeding and is found to be over the limit, in quick succession he loses his driving license and his telephone, his daughter leaves home, D leaves him and Lello disappears as the fraud squad take over the company’s offices.

Pietro then decides to disappear and is slowly forced to review the whole of his life beginning even before the death of Lara, his relationship with his wealthy father who ran off to live in Switzerland with the nurse he had hired to care for Pietro’s mother in her final illness, with his daughter who has not fully come to terms with her mother’s death, with Lello who had used him without his knowledge as a respectable front for his criminal business, even up to his own represssed love for another woman and as he is eventually forced to understand:

–Humility is being humble with those that humiliate us.***

This story is full of anecdotes linked to the previous book, it can be read independently but is better read after the Strega Prize winning Quiet Chaos.

First Published in Italian as “Terre Rare” in 2015 by Bompiani
Translated into French by Dominique Vittoz and published as ‘Terres Rares” in 2016 by  Grasset
*** My Translation