Translated by Sarah Moses
I’ve been reading a bit more Latin American literature in translation this year. All in translation from Spanish, but from a range of countries: Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Argentina, to be precise. Most of these novels have also been noirish or had a psychological thriller feel, but all have been unashamedly literary in their style, and most British publishers of Latin American novels in translation concentrate their efforts at the literary end of the market. Of course, this isn’t a bad thing at all, and I’ve loved reading these books, but they do tend to have slower burning action, concentrating on the study of character and place, the authors having a fondness for being wordy. Sometimes I find myself wishing for something more immediate…
And that is what Pushkin Vertigo have found in Urgent Matters! It is a thriller, a police procedural and a character study all in one, and it’s under 250 pages long, so it certainly moves along at a lick, but in its own way! It begins in the aftermath of a train crash:
Dust raised by the impact falls slowly onto the bodies. The thickest particles are struck by a shaft of light, and amid the sparkling dust, a St Expeditus holy card hangs suspended in the air and in a silence that could mean life or death. Expeditus flutters over the heads, doesn’t decide on any of them. Because who isn’t a shit in the end? He seems to be enjoying the suspense. Then suddenly, he floats upwards, collides with the roof, flips face down and takes a nosedive towards Hugo, the highest point on a mountain of bodies. Hugo’s hand reaches for the holy card, his neck twisted in the direction of Buenos Aires, facing the barrio of Liniers like the other bodies, which are piled up, jumbled together, crushed against the walls of the carriage, spilling out the window, dislocated, broken, busted.
Hugo is injured but still alive, and clutches the holy card of the patron saint of urgent causes in one hand, checking his phone with the other. There are texts from Marta telling him the police are looking for him. He was meant to take the bus to a job, but took the train instead.
Cut to Evelyn, their daughter, who has done something naughty – she stole a mobile phone at school. When the police arrive she thinks they’ve come for her at first. Detective Dominguez is after Hugo though, Marta directs him to the bus stop, and once he’s gone, she makes a snap decision telling Evelyn to pack a few things, they’ll go to her sister Mónica’s, they assume Hugo is dead. Now, the train crash is on the news, many died, there are still unidentified body parts, the reporter is El Rifle, a former student colleague of Hugo’s who succeeded on the journalism course as Hugo failed.
These opening sections are brief, introducing us to the key characters and three key timelines. Hugo who, wanted for murder, will escape the hospital, Dominguez who will find Hugo’s phone at the train wreckage and not hand it in as evidence using it to bait Marta, and Marta, Evelyn and the God-fearing Mónica who works at a casino and has a sideline in selling sex toys! These are interspersed with news reports.
Hugo, of course, isn’t dead, but is now on the run. Once a small time crook, always a small time crook until something went very wrong and someone died. Thus, begins a cat and mouse game largely between the detective who has Hugo’s phone and the protective Mónica who sets up a prayer circle chanting rosaries at the house, asking for justice for Hugo who they presume is probably alive, but are behaving as if he is unidentified dead – as such they attract the attention of the media who are very happy to feature the women praying.
The other main thing that stood out was the corruption that permeates the entire society. Everyone has a side hustle, more often than not it’s illegal, and more often than not it’s needed to make ends meet when you live in the poorer neighbourhoods. The police aren’t immune either of course. With the media whipping up the equivalent of a tabloid storm, it feels like life is one long struggle or power game, depending who is in the ascendant at any one time.
Few of the chapters are longer than a handful of pages. Each is written from one point of view which thus changes constantly and you need to keep up! This novel had none of the languor of the other others that I’ve read, instead it had pace. Admittedly, the supporting cast was a little two dimensional, but the main characters were well fleshed out. Mónica was a stand-out for me with her duality: the devout Catholicism vs managing the slots at the casino and those sex toys, one of which Evelyn ends up finding! Dominguez too is interesting in his readiness to bend the rules. Rodriguez does manage to find room for some more flowing passages like the one that opened the novel above and the translation felt seamless.
I’d like to see more of this kind of Latin American thriller come into translation. Urgent Matters was a great read.
You can get a double dose of reviews for this book today if you now head over to Shiny New Books, where you can see what Harriet thought of it too.
Source: Review copy – Thank you!
Pushkin Vertigo, C Format paperback original, 240 pages.
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