Too clever for it’s own good?

Where there’s love, there’s hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo

Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Kessica Ernst Powell

casares ocampoReviews earlier this year by Jacqui and Kaggsy alerted me to this story, and I picked up a copy from the novella table at Waterstones, Piccadilly on one of my trips to London.

This little mystery was the only work that this husband and wife team wrote together; individually, both were giants of Latin American literature from Argentina and had a close association with Borges. I will admit to  having read little Latin American literature and don’t have much knowledge beyond the research I did for an article about Brazilian lit for Shiny New Books during the last World Cup finals in Rio.

The story is narrated by Professor Humberto Huberman, a doctor en route to his holiday retreat where he will work on his book. He is expounding to his companions in the dining car:

Sharing my table were a couple who were friends of mine – dabblers in literature and fortunate with livestock – and a nameless young woman. Bolstered by the consommé, I explained my intentions: in search of a delectable and fruitful solitude – that is to say, in search of myself – I was on my way to the new seaside resort that the most refined nature enthusiasts amongst us had discovered: Bosque del Mar. (p3)

Immediately, we realise that Huberman is a snob from his sneering at his companions (the authors jokingly putting themselves into the story I learned from the introduction). Later, he is having problems sleeping:

A pointless effort. I was still a night away from those pine groves. Like Betteredge with Robinson Crusoe, I resorted to my Petronius.(p4)

Luckily, I have read The Moonstone and got this reference. I could see that Huberman would, like the butler in the first detective novel, introduce us to all the main characters and play a large part in what follows, although of course reading Robinson Crusoe (sic) is beneath him.

Bosque del Mar, where Huberman has imposed himself upon relatives who own one of the local hotels, turns out to be something of a disappointment – a newish resort with a duneless and groyne-less beach; its only feature being a shipwreck (the Joseph K – another tongue-in-cheek literary reference). The place suffers from sandstorms so violent, all the hotel windows are sealed against the abrasive grains’ ingress.  Huberman’s cousin Andrea explains:

“Two years ago, our lobby was on the first floor; now it’s in the basement. The sand rises constantly. If we opened your window, the house would fill up with sand.”

The hotel’s other guests make up for the resort’s lack of character. There are two sisters, Mary and Emilia, Emilia’s fiancé Atuel, a couple more doctors for starters, plus the young boy, Miguel.  After dinner, Mary is urging her sister to play the piano:

“Emilia,” she said, “you should play the Forgotten Waltz, by Liszt.”

The pianist froze, staring rigidly at Mary. I thought I detected in her eyes, blue and diaphanous, the frigidity of hatred. Then, suddenly, her features calmed. (p29)

Another sandstorm keeps everyone in the hotel, providing the classic closed room for a murder to occur, and the next morning Mary is found dead, poisoned. Naturally Emilia is prime suspect – but when the police Commissioner finally arrives, Huberman, who has been getting stuck in to investigating with the other doctors, is strangely protective of her:

“Your explanation is psychologically impossible. You remind me of one of those novelists who focuses entirely on action but neglects the characters. Do not forget that, without the human element, no work of literature would ever endure. Have you thought closely about Emilia? I refuse to accept that such a healthy girl (albeit, a bit redheaded) could have committed this crime.” (p67)

I wonder which novelists that authors were referring to there?

Huberman is so self-important, you have to laugh at him. He grumbles about being distracted from his writing, but is desperate to get in on the action, interfering all the while. The murder investigation is secondary really to Huberman’s snobbish judgments and pontifications – as a narrator he is a glorious figure of fun for us readers. We are meant to dislike him of course, and I wondered whether his name alluded to Lolita’s protagonist Humbert Humbert, then I remembered Lolita was published after this story! It is ironic though, that the snobbish Huberman has one of the commonest German surnames, Huber being derived from hide – a unit of land that will support a family.

The text also has some superb non-comic one-liners, beautifully translated, such as:

Dreams are our daily practice of madness. (p70)

At times I loved this short novel, at other time I wondered whether it was too clever for its own good. Was it a little snobbish itself with all its very literary referencing about the genre it is spoofing? I found I couldn’t quite tell if the authors were Christie fans or not… It was a fascinating short read though. (7.5/10)

* * * * *

Source: Own copy.

Where there’s love, there’s hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo (1946), trans Suzanne Jill Levine and Kessica Ernst Powell, Neversink Library 2013, paperback, 112 pages.

2 thoughts on “Too clever for it’s own good?

  1. It’s good to see another take on this novella, Annabel – and thanks for the pingback, much appreciated. I’m glad you enjoyed certain elements of it even if it didn’t quite work for you in its entirety. I loved Huberman’s pompous behaviour and the nods to various elements of the detective-story genre. I’m sure the authors must have had a lot of fun writing this one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *