December 13, 2011 by markstani
Human Rights groups estimate that somewhere in the region of 30,000 people were ‘disappeared’ during the reign of Argentina’s military junta between 1976 and 1983. Carlos Gamerro’s An Open Secret (pub. Pushkin Press) focuses on one of those – Dario Ezcurra, an activist and playboy from the small Pampas town of Malihuel.
Gamerro’s narrator is a young man who returns to Malihuel some twenty years later, with the pretense of writing a fictional account of a small-town murder: Ezcurra’s, it seems, as he begins to at first reminisce with a circle of old friends, may fit the bill.
Word soon spreads about the intentions of the would-be novelist, and as more locals are cajoled into sharing their memories of the circumstances of Ezcurra’s demise, a numbing truth begins to emerge: that they are all, to some extent, complicit.
‘An Open Secret’ is as far from a classic whodunnit as a murder story is ever likely to get. Gamerro’s colloquial, sparsely punctuated prose does a fine job of conveying the confusions and contradictions of those involved in recounting their tales (translated, it must be said, painstakingly well by Ian Barnett). Gamerro’s vast cast of characters, sometimes referred to by different names, is often bewildering and requires frequent flick-backs, yet this narrative tumult – different voices clamouring over each other to be heard – is clearly entirely intentional, and the book’s major strength.
Gamerro does an excellent job of conveying the chronic paranoia of the times; a sense which still lingers, more than a quarter of a century after the junta were finally overthrown. It pitted neighbour against neighbour and, by imposing its will so publicly, rather than surreptitiously, say, in the dead of night, it made everyone accessories: as his old school teacher opines to the narrator late in the book, ‘silence can be spread by word of mouth’.
If its experimental narrative conceit makes ‘An Open Secret’ a challenging read, then it is all the better for it. There is enough momentum, in extracting truths from lies and then, in a stunning denouement, unearthing the narrator’s true intentions, to sustain Gamerro’s story to its end, putting it right up there with the best of the exciting new wave of Argentinian fiction.
(It is worth noting that another Gamerro novel, ‘The Islands’, will be published in translation by And Other Stories in May next year)