Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Argentina Noir

In film and literature, Argentina is a country that lends itself to noir and neo-noir. In the underrated Nine Queens (2000), which had only a brief run in the United States, the late director Fabián Bielinsky portrayed Buenos Aires as a city of con-men (and women) constantly seeking an edge over their victims and even each other; set in the Patagonian lakes district, his second feature El Aura (2005) is a drama of deceptive identity.

Both films starred Ricardo Darín, as did Juan José Campanella’s El Secreto de Sus Ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes), which won this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. According to Publishers’ Lunch Daily, Eduardo Sacheri’s novel - the template for Campanella’s film - will soon appear in English translation under its original title - "The Question in Her Eyes" - thanks to New York City’s Other Press.

Given Argentina’s increasingly high profile, the country has also attracted foreign writers who have a harder time of it, such as US novelist Nathan Englander in the well-meaning but overrated Ministry of Special Cases (2007), set during the 1970s “Dirty War.” More recently, Scottish author Philip Kerr, who specializes in pre- and post-war Germany, has dispatched his Berlin detective Bernie Gunther to Buenos Aires in A Quiet Flame - in the company of Adolf Eichmann and other disreputable fugitives from post-war European justice in 1950.

Unjustly accused of war crimes, Gunther himself soon finds himself in the Casa Rosada, Argentina’s government house, in the company of Juan Domingo Perón and Evita, where he is assigned to track down a serial killer whom Gunther may have investigated in pre-war Berlin. Kerr’s depiction of Argentina’s political intrigues, which owes much to journalist Uki Goñi’s The Real Odessa, is plausible, especially given the notorious “Directive 11” that made it official government policy for Argentina to reject Jewish refugees in the pre-war years (Argentina, of course, was not the only country to refuse Jews entry).

Kerr’s book, though, is fiction, as there is no evidence for the existence of a “Directive 12” that would have established concentration camps in Argentina itself (Juan Perón’s government only declared war on the Axis Powers, opportunistically, in the final days of the conflict). It would be a more credible story had Kerr deigned to visit Argentina - in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, he admits that -“I thought about it and decided that what I wanted was a historic picture, rather than the Argentina of today.”

That’s particularly unfortunate because he could have benefited from visits to Jewish community sights such as Retiro’s Museo de la Shoá, which shows how Argentine Jews were treated during this period and how some died in the Holocaust. He might also have avoided some egregious geographical errors that undercut the book’s strong points - Spanish author Manuel Vásquez Montalbán’s gourmet detective Pepe Carvalho gets around much more credibly in The Buenos Aires Quintet (1997), an excellent novel on "Dirty War" themes.

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