El secreto y las voces, Two Reviews.
1. A Silent Conspiracy
“At night, after turning on the light,” writes Fefe, protagonist and narrator of El secreto y las voces – “the voices won’t let me sleep: as if the echoes of them all resonat-ed within my skull, the voices heard during the day return, arguing discourteous among them, interrupting and contradicting one another, trying to drown one another, attempt-ing to obtain my approbation, mi attention, or at least my ear.” These different voices, this web of voices that overwhelm Fefe’s ears, constitute the narrative matter of El secreto y las voces, Carlos Gamerro’s excellent third novel. And as the title announces, these voices and their at times contradictory echoes trace the contours of a secret Fefe must disclose. This is why he returns to Malihuel, a small town in the province of Santa Fe, after twenty years of absence. He goes back to the village where his parents were born, where he used to spend the holidays of his childhood and adolescence, in an at-tempt to reconstruct a crime committed twenty years ago – Februay 25th, 1975 – and write novel that postulates the possibility of a perfect crime: “A crime novel, I thought. I thought this would be a good setting for it. Let’s say a crime was committed in Mali-huel. Three thousand inhabitants. Everybody knows each other. There were no strangers in town, that night. The murderer must be one of them. Everybody suspects everybody else. Or perhaps it is a conspiracy, in which the whole town is involved.”
But in the course of the varied interviews he conducts, Fefe reconstructs a story that is also his own, and one that transcends the limits of the town to become inscribed in the history of the nation as a whole during the last military dictatorship. Because the crime Fefe reconstructs is that of Darío Ezcurra, the wayward son of one of the funding families, murdered by the chief of police of Malihuel with the explicit consent of a number of Ezcurra’s lifelong neighbors. As in Poe’s “the Purloined Letter”, the perfec-tion of the crime lies in is perfect visibility: as it was committed before everybody’s eyes, all potential witnesses were turned into actual accomplices. In this way, Malihuel revives, by inverting them, its traditions: if in El sueño del señor juez, Gamerro’s previ-ous novel about the origins of the town, Malihuel was the locus of rebellion, a sort of Argentine ‘Fuenteovejuna’ in which the then scattered inhabitants rebelled against the tyranny of the omnipotent Justice of the peace, in the days of the military dictatorship the same village will collaborate in a state-ordained crime. A crime that remained in its state of perfection until, twenty years later, the town decides to speak.
Questioned by Fefe, those who directly ort indirectly participated in the crime begin to talk. Their voices, their confessions, their testimonies, organized by a first person narrator, constitute the story. A story that recovers the truth and gives meaning to this amalgam of contradictory and incomplete versions. The novel thus postulates a certainty: the certainty that truth can be found by weaving together the versions of the perpetrators, the bystanders and the protagonists; and the certainty, as well, that if truth is established, at least some kind of justice is possible, because these testimonies fill up the void the absence of the state of the law has resulted in, and also reestablish false identities and concealed family ties.
“Paint your village and you will be universal,” Tolstoy offered, urging writers to portray the whole of society through a small but concrete story. El secreto y las voces fulfills that twofold obligation. On the one hand, in the line of Manuel Puig’s Betrayed by Rita Hayworht, the novel depicts that kind of small-town knowledge based on ru-mor, gossip, slander and prejudice. On the other, in reconstructing the closely knit knot of loyalties and vested interests in which both the inhabitants of the town and the police and military forces concur, the novel denounces the responsibility of ordinary citizens in the proceedings of state terrorism.
Located in the same setting as El sueño del señor juez – the imaginary but none-theless very real village of Malihuel; and recovering some of the central characters of Las Islas, El secreto y las voces vigorously consolidates Gamerro’s narrative project, establishing him as one of the leading writers of the contemporary Argentine scene.
Sylvia Saítta,La Nación, Nov 24, 2002.
2. Terror in the Midst of Silence
One might venture that what makes a book good – and Carlos Gamerro’s last novel doubtlessly belongs in this category – is the capacity of posing problems and ar-riving at solutions both felicitous and provisional. But for those problems to go beyond a merely technical framework, their layout must be intimately linked to that which is being narrated. The author knows well the manner in which truth works in a country like Argentina. Connecting the clues is not enough – even though El secreto y las voces does have the structure of a crime novel –, one must listen to all the different versions, while avoiding the temptation of considering truth a merely relative result of this accu-mulation. It was in this way that the policy of state terror, or the truth about the Malvi-nas War, could be established. There were no determining clues, proofs or confessions: but truth came to light anyway
This book, Gamerro’s third, skillfully manages to weave these versions into a delicate pattern where the facts can be slowly put together from the deviations, contra-dictions, unchallenged rumors, often colored by the interests at stake, and the multiple readings of a single fact. Because one of the lessons of the truth, in these cases, is that complicity might also be the result of silence, of unspoken versions.
The village of Malihuel was the setting for a single disappearance during the dictatorship. An event that, given the smallness of the town and the tight web of its social life, seemed impossible to conceal. In order for this to happen a very closely knit web of silence and complicity had to be woven, and it is this web that Fefe, returning to the place where his childhood summer holidays were spent, will attempt to unravel; and what first transpires is the fact that the chief of police had to obtain the consent of many prominent citizens in order to execute the disappearance of Darío Ezcurra.
This sinister plot is part of the memory of a town at first alien to Fefe, but the further he delves into it, the more the story becomes his own. Going over the interviews carried out by chief of police Neri in the past, the story winds itself in an ever tightening spiral, until the fate of Ezcurra and his body can be established. But Gamerro knows that a fiery patience is necessary if one is to tell a story like this. His text does not stop at the causes and the manner of the crime, but tries to establish which were, if so they can be termed, the spiritual conditions that made it possible. This is where El secreto y las voces goes beyond crime fiction and sets itself a more ambitious task. It is remarka-ble the manner in which we hear the inhabitants of Malihuel justify or blame themselves, how carefully some construe the versions that will redeem them, while others – emblematically represented by Dr. Alexander, the town physician – justify everything that was done. In this lies another of the novels’ achievements: The voices of power do not sound phony, as happens in so many texts that attempt to pry into the enemy’s point of view – but are able to own up to their own monstrous logic. This moral landscape constitutes the novel’s main goal and it is in this sense that the town of Malihuel – a place closer to the miseries of Onetti’s Santa María than to the prodigies of Macondo – becomes the laboratory where Gamerro can pose his main question: How was it possible for this horror to take place in the midst of silence?
El secreto y las voces does not aspire to give a final answer, it does so in the provisional way that only good literature can attempt: with a story that precedes the conclusions of both author and reader and offers a mode, one of the most interesting, of thinking about the recent past, and of lending ear to the multiplicity of voices that await their turn to emerge form silence.
Marcos Mayer, Diario Clarín. December 14, 2002.