Bitter Lemon Press, 2013
originally published as Las grietas de Jara, 2009
translated by Miranda France
"The lack of underpinning caused structural collapse, which then set off a series of movements causing the ground to shift..."
I absolutely love Claudia Piñeiro's writing and this time she's outdone herself. A Crack in the Wall is absolutely superb. The only bad thing about Piñeiro's books is that there aren't more coming out in rapid succession. Let me just say up front that while this isn't simply a novel of crime fiction per se, the crime that does occur has a great deal to do with the rest of the story. Metaphorically, this is a story about a man whose personal and moral ground undergoes a seismic shift, leading him to decide to "rediscover something that, until recently, he didn’t even realize he had lost."
Set in Buenos Aires in 2007, this very character-driven novel focuses on architect Pablo Simó, who works in a dead-end job. He's been there for more than twenty years, and has never made it to a higher level in his career the entire time. At the office, when he's not working, he spends time drawing the same eleven-story tower over and over again -- a building he would make real if he could, and not "on the rubble of something else," the modern reality in Buenos Aires, where land is simply not available, and old buildings have to come down for the new ones to go up. It is also an old city that is being transformed as profit margin starts edging out the old for the new. As an example, Pablo loves to go to a particular café where
"the same waiters have been toiling for years, shouting their orders over to the bar with enviable brio, and where there are white cloths over the wooden tables and old-fashioned glass sugar-shakers with metal spoons,"and hates the chain that's been "scattering identikit cafés throughout the city."
Pablo's firm specializes in cheap housing; the owner is Borla, and there is also Marta, who has a thing going with her married boss. Pablo is married to Laura, has a teenaged daughter Francisca, and his life is very routine. He also spends a lot of time conversing with an old friend Tano, whom he hasn't seen for a while, in his head -- Tano is also an architect, and their "conversations" are like a dialogue where Pablo engages with his conscience. Into the office one day, one that Pablo "had always feared might one day come to pass," comes a young, 20-something woman named Leonor asking for Nelson Jara. Her visit shakes them all up, because they know where Nelson Jara is, and they don't want to think about it. In fact, they've spent the last three years trying not to think about Nelson Jara, a man who'd come into the office to complain about a crack in the wall of his apartment. He claims that construction of a building that Borla's company is working on is causing the crack, and he shows Pablo some photos that prove how the crack has progressed. Pablo does his best to convince Jara otherwise, but he's not listening. Eventually Jara gets down to the nitty gritty:
"...there may be a structural problem here that ends up affecting other apartments too, and my silence has got to be worth something, don't you think?"Jara starts to get under Pablo's skin, but not just because of the money or the extortion attempt -- Pablo recognizes he too has a crack, one that, like the one on Jara's wall, has been widening for some time. This notion hits him most especially before a trip around the city with Leonor, who has asked him to pick "the city's five most beautiful buildings, according to the architect Pablo Simó" for a photography course assignment. An imagined conversation with Tano reminds him that he used to be a person with ideals, making him wonder where that other person is now. His growing awareness of the crack in the wall dividing who he is and who he knows he can be spreads out to other areas of his life as well, encompassing the realization that his life over the last twenty years has been one consisting largely of compromise -- moral and otherwise.
A Crack in the Wall is an excellent novel, one that will satisfy readers of more literary-styled crime fiction, but it rises well above the usual fare, as do all of her books. There's so much going on in this book that's beyond great in terms of the writing, and kudos to the translator as well. In all of her novels, Claudia Piñeiro has this way of getting into private lives and exposing the cracks that exist there, personally and within various types of relationships, bringing her characters to a point where they're forced to examine themselves. If that sort of thing appeals, you can't ask for a better book. Very highly recommended.