Tuesday, June 01, 2010


Buenos Aires, under the military dictatorship in the 1970s.

Superintendent Lascano [aka Perro The Dog] is sent to investigate a double murder and finds three bodies. Bodies one and two are a boy and a girl both dressed in jeans and polo necks their features smashed by several bullets. The custom is that each member of the Juntas death squads fire into the victim to ensure their mutual responsibility. But body three is a tall man of about sixty in a suit and tie, with one bullet wound in his stomach.
While on a raid Lascano finds Eva, a young dissident hiding from the Army, who bears an uncanny resemblance to his late wife Marisa, who tragically died in a car accident. Lascano had been deeply depressed by this event, and had only survived his loss with help from his friend Fuseli, the forensic pathologist.
Lascano keeps Eva in his apartment and carries on with his work, as they begin to cook together and fall in love.
He and Fuseli are able to identify body three as Elias Biterman, a moneylender and Auschwitz survivor turned hard and bitter by his past life, and also produce evidence that he was not a victim of the death squads.
Lascano digs deeper into Biterman's business transactions, and we learn about his wartime experiences. Moving back in time we are introduced to Biterman's younger brother Horacio, a playboy born in Argentina, and therefore spared the traumas that have toughened Elias.

Unfortunately Horacio has introduced his brother to his decadent friend Amancio.

He was an awful student guided by an indifferent father, from whom Amancio inherited the sense of life already accounted for, nails growing long like those of a Chinese mandarin. Work was not meant for the likes of them................

The sacrifice, the massacre of one thousand Indians per day, wasn't considered excessive in return for securing the family's wealth for three or four generations.

But Amancio's expensive lifestyle, and his beautiful wife Lara, have reduced him to the verge of bankruptcy.

......Lara is already putting her black dress on, a garment which set him back, the price of five Hereford cows when he bought it for her in Paris.

When Elias Biterman puts pressure on Amancio to clear his debt to him, Amancio took advice from Horacio, and then asked for help from a friend, Major Giribaldi.

Needle in a Haystack was written by Ernesto Mallo, and translated from the Spanish by Jethro Soutar. Mallo as well as being a essayist, newspaper columnist, screenwriter and playwright is a former anti-junta activist, who was pursued by the dictatorship.

I don't think my plot synopsis can do justice to all the different sub-plots and great characters, or to the atmosphere of both decadence and fear that Mallo creates. This book is a lesson for those authors who think you need to write 600 pages to produce a complex book. One hundred and ninety pages of great narrative, and cleverly manufactured dialogue, have produced a novel that is a mini social history of a rotten to the core Argentina, as well as being a very tense thriller.
How nice to live in a country where you don't have to worry about the knock on the door in the middle of the night. Well not yet anyway.

With one simple call to his friend Jorge, Giribaldi finds out that the policeman sticking his nose into the Biterman affair is not called Lezama but Lascano.

For once I entirely agree with the cover blurbs about a book especially this one:

'This man knows. He knows about guns, knows about women, knows about dead bodies...But above all he knows how to narrate.'
Ana Maria Shua, author of El Peso de la Tentacion

This is the second book I have read for the South American leg of Dorte's 2010 Global Reading Challenge.


Blogger Jose Ignacio Escribano said...

I'm certainly tempted to read this one.

10:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

These word encourage to keep on writing. Thank you. Ernesto Mallo.

1:02 PM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Jose thanks for your comment, you are lucky you can read them in the original language.

Ernesto, I am really looking forward to reading the other books in the series

5:22 AM  
Blogger Maxine Clarke said...

This is an excellent novel, I've just read it and will be writing up a review soon. I hope we get the next two in the series in English soon.

Very good review, Norman, and how nice of the author to comment here.

1:09 PM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks Maxine, I was really chuffed to get that comment from Ernesto Mallo.
I look forward to reading your review, and agree about getting the next two books in English. I do like authors who can give us a decent plot and interesting characters in less than 500 pages.

1:42 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Ernesto skilfully creates a vivid gallery of characters, of good, bad and indifferent private and public morals. Cant wait to see who turns up in the next volume, him having killed off the least prepossessing - except maybe for Biterman (well named) whose journey with the wheel barrow I'd liked have had expanded.

6:10 AM  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Catherine thanks for your comment, I also can't wait for the sequel.

6:44 AM  

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