Wednesday, November 10, 2010

*Needle in a Haystack, by Ernesto Mallo

Bitter Lemon Press, 2010
Original Spanish title: La aguja en el pajar, 2006
translated by Jethro Soutar
190 pp.

Needle in a Haystack is set in the late 1970s during Argentina's "dirty war," when a military junta has seized power and the regime is constantly on the lookout for anyone opposed to its rule.  Anyone the government considers subversive is picked up and is either killed, imprisoned, or simply disappears.  As the book notes prior to the beginning of the novel, Ernesto Mallo was one of these "anti-Junta activists" who was "pursued by the dictatorship," so I realized right away this was going to be a readworthy novel: it is factually based from someone who actually lived through the terrors of the time.  And I was not disappointed -- considering this is the first in a planned series, it's a definite winner.

As the story opens, detective Superintendent Lascano is assigned to look into a case of two bodies found on the riverside.  When he arrives, he actually finds three bodies, two of which he immediately ascertains are the victims of the military death squads, leaving the mystery of what happened to the third.  Eventually the body is identified as one Elias Biterman, a Jewish moneylender who survived Auschwitz and eventually arrived in Argentina, toughened by his life experiences. But this book is not really a mystery; the reader knows who Biterman's killer is -- the author explains who and why as he moves backward and forward through time up through the 1970s present.  The death of Biterman and the who and the whys really serve as a vehicle to explore this time in Argentina's history.  This is not to say that the book is not an intense novel of crime fiction, because it is -- but it's also much much more.

What really strikes me about this book is the characters and the well-evoked sense of place and time. Mallo has created an incredible conglomeration of people in this book whose stories come together to form the whole of this novel:
Lascano, whose wife recently died in a car accident, and who believes in justice and yet knows when to look the other way;  Eva, a political dissident accustomed to danger who survives a raid only to be found and taken in by Lascano, who is taken aback by her resemblance to his dead wife; callous Giribaldi, a major in the army who believes in helping out his old friends  yet at the same time won't let anyone or anything such as the law get in his way, creating his own justifications for getting rid of those who do; Amancio, who grew up rich, spent his childhood on the family's 20,000-acre ranch or on vacation in Europe, now living on his family's prestigious name but without a penny in his pocket as a result of a dwindling fortune and living the life of a playboy; Lara, his wife, who married into the family but is now looking for escape and more money no matter what it takes; the Biterman brothers -- Elias, the tough moneylender whose life has left him bitter toward the moneyed classes and Horacio, who grew up in Argentina and never really knew hardship.
And always running through the  background of this novel, the author never lets the reader forget that a) it's difficult to know who to trust under these conditions, b) the power over life and death lies in the hands of the military, and c) anyone, at any time, can become a victim:
In the street below, the army has just set up one of its checkpoints. A jeep blocks the entrance to the street. Two soldiers with machine guns are positioned on each corner in the shadows. Three others have placed themselves a few feet further back and three more stop any car that happens by.  The soldiers search the vehicle thoroughly, demand to see the identification papers of the passengers, split them up and bombard them with questions.  The officers hunt for inconsistencies in their stories, for firearms, documents, evidence of something whatever. The slightest grounds for suspicion means being thrown in the back of a van and driven to one of many clandestine military prisons spread across the city, to undergo a deeper, more pressing interrogation....Time passes by, ...the streets are empty, the soldiers, trained for action, grow bored and distracted, until at last the approach of a car brings them to attention. They aim their guns at the heads of the civilians in the car, their trigger fingers twitching as they feel their own fear levels rise, fear being the food that nourishes the soldier.
Although the book is not lengthy, it is extremely compelling and one you won't soon forget. Mallo's writing is excellent and more to the point, realistic: he is able to communicate this brief episode in a horrible period of Argentine history succinctly yet powerfully.   I'd recommend it to people interested in this time period, or readers of translated crime fiction or translated fiction in general.

 fiction from Argentina


  1. Thank you for your review. It helps anauthor to keep on writing.
    Ernesto Mallo

  2. You are very welcome! I am seriously looking forward to more of your most excellent work. Thank you!!

  3. Well, here's the news. The second novel of the Lascano trilogy will be published by Bitter Lemon Press under the title of "Sweet Money". The release is planned for July 2011 in the UK/Europe and in October 2011 in the US/Canada.
    Best wishes,

    Ernesto Mallo


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