Friday, May 24, 2024

The Dead Girls, by Jorge Ibargüengoitia


Picador, 2018
originally published 1977 as Las muertas
translated by Asa Zatz
194 pp


(read in April -- slowly but steadily trying to catch up)

Wandering through my bookshelves one afternoon looking for something off the beaten path, I found this book, which I'd completely forgotten that I owned. I picked it up, started reading and completed it almost overnight because I couldn't put it down.  It is goes well beyond mere crime fiction into a realm of its own.  

The Dead Girls opens with four people in a "cobalt-blue car" making a long trip to the small town of Tuxpana Falls.   The group arrives at San Juan del Camino where the only woman in the group goes into the church there and offers a prayer for "good luck" in a particular "undertaking," which will happen within the next three hours.   In Tuxpana Falls, one of the group asks a woman where he might find a bakery, learning in return that there are actually three in the town.  It's at the third of these that they find the object of their search, a certain Simón Corona; it's also there where all hell starts to break loose as the woman, Serafina Baladro, is handed a gun and starts shooting.  While Corona and another woman who works at the bakery take cover under the counter, one of Serafino Baladro's companions sets the bakery on fire.   Serafina and the three men go back to the car and drive away.  As the police ask questions, it turns out that the shooter was no stranger to Simón Corona  -- he had lived with Serafina on and off in the past, until the last time when they'd traveled together to Acapulco and he'd finally called it quits and left.  In a strange twist, two weeks after the shooting, officials called for a second round of questioning with the baker that ended up costing him a six-year stint in prison.  

What unfolds as the author reveals the reasons behind the shooting and Simón Corona's imprisonment is the story of two sisters who own a couple of brothels in rural Mexico.   While "All the characters are imaginary," as the author notes before the novel even begins, "Some of the events described herein are real."  The real-life inspiration for The Dead Girls is the story of the Poquianchis, four sisters, who like the Baladro sisters in the book, owned several brothels.  During the course of their operations between 1945 and 1964, they are known to have been responsible for 91 deaths, although the article I've linked to above notes that the body count might actually be as high as 150.  Ibargeüngoitia's version of the story is not simply a retelling, as he has constructed a narrative moving back and forth in time, incorporating testimony, police reports, interrogations and other forms of reportage that give the novel a sort of true-crime feel, while at the same time bringing into focus the corruption and other factors that allowed it all to happen.  It's a dark book, to be sure, but while reading it's almost impossible not to laugh at some points.  It has a sort of absurdist, black-comedy aspect that made me feel horribly guilty every time I'd feel a chuckle coming on. In its own way, it also offers more than a bit of stinging social criticism, examining issues that continue to plague Mexico today.  

I can most definitely recommend The Dead Girls to readers who want more out of their crime fiction and who enjoy books based on real events, as well as to readers who, like me, enjoy Latin American literature in general.  I loved this book.