Thursday, February 24, 2022

Post-WWII Argentina - Fact or (Detective) Fiction?

In my previous post, I reviewed one of my favorite streaming series with a link to southernmost South America but, while I’ve been unable to travel there (spoiler—I’m scheduled to fly to Buenos Aires on March 6th), I haven’t been purely a video couch potato. I’ve also been reading and, while I love detective stories, I’ve been doing it in a way that has more content than just potboilers.

In A Quiet Flame, German detective Bernie Gunther investigates a possible serial killer in Argentina.

Over most of the last year, I’ve been recovering from ankle surgery that requires me to do rehabilitation exercises three times daily, followed by elevating the joint to reduce the swelling for 15 minutes at a time. I use that time to read and, recently, I read the late Philip Kerr’s novel The One from the Other, in which Bernie Gunther—a former Berlin detective and anti-Nazi drafted into the Schutzstaffel (SS) during WWII—tries to track down war criminals and finds himself unjustly incriminated. Kerr’s plotline is so complex that I won’t go into more detail here, except to add that, in the end, Bernie has to flee to South America in the company of some pretty notorious “comrades.”

In real life and the novel, the Giovanna C carried both refugees and war criminals from Italy to Argentina.

That, of course, aroused my interest—especially so when the edition I read included the first chapter of A Quiet Flame, which describes Bernie’s 1950 arrival in Buenos Aires on the steamship Giovanna C in the awkward company of two notorious Nazis, including Adolf Eichmann. As in Germany, Gunther doesn’t hesitate to make fun of his companions, and Kerr gives provides him dialogue no less acerbic than Raymond Chandler gave Philip Marlowe and Dashiel Hammett gave Sam Spade. In one case, Bernie remarks that he repels an opponent with a punch that he compares to legendary Argentine boxer Luis Ángel Firpo.

Bernie Gunther claims to pack a punch like the legendary Argentine heavyweight Luis Ángel Firpo, who once knocked Jack Dempsey onto the canvas (Firpo now resides in Recoleta Cemetery).

Like his companions, Bernie arrives under an alias but, in a meeting with then-President Juan Domingo Perón (and Perón's poodles), he has to reveal his true identity and, under pressure, he’s persuaded—forced, rather—to investigate a murder and another disappearance with links to a German-speaking community in Buenos Aires and the northern province of Tucumán (with additional links to a cold case he failed to solve in pre-war Germany).

Unlike Marlowe and Spade, Gunther had worked as a private detective when employment under the Nazi regime became untenable—a situation that may well have contemporary parallels (He had also served in Ukraine, for what that's worth). Parenthetically, Bernie manages to make some blatantly sexist comments about Evita Perón’s appearance, but also sympathizes with the health problems that killed her just a few years later.

Bernie's investigation leads him to a sinister site in the subtropical sierras of Tucumán Province.

More significantly, Bernie learns of the notorious Directive 11, by which the Argentine government denied Jewish refugees entry into the country. Through him, Kerr speculates as to the existence of a Directive 12, which would have established a concentration camp in Tucumán’s subtropical forests.


According to a 2009 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Kerr (who died in 2018) decided against visiting Argentina because “I thought about it and decided that what I wanted was a historic picture, rather than the Argentina of today.” In my opinion, though, even allowing for poetic license, this novel would have benefitted from a visit to the country. In one instance, for example, Kerr appears to confuse the Argentine capital’s central shopping district of Florida with a neighborhood in the town of Vicente López, in the city’s northern suburbs—where the Nazi refugees had a safe house and Eichmann later resided for many years. Through Bernie, he's also unnecessarily harsh on a Tucumán he never saw (though it's clearly a different place today). At the very least, the publisher should have hired a proofreader familiar with Argentina—the airport city of Ezeiza, a southern Buenos Aires suburb, is consistently misspelled “Ezeira.”

Uki Goñi's book details the Perón government's complicity with the Nazis. 

At the risk of being labeled a pedant, I’ll still recommend both these novels and others by Kerr, who manages to convey the complexities of surviving in an authoritarian or even totalitarian ambience while still seeking truth and justice—even for a flawed figure like Bernie Gunther. What I'd really like to see is somebody turn all 14 novels into a streaming series.

In the course of writing A Quiet Flame, the novelist relied on Uki Goñi’s The Real Odessa, an historical account of the Nazi presence in post-war Argentina, including documentation of the Perón government’s complicity (Full disclosure: Goñi is a personal acquaintance).



Another personal acquaintance of mine, the late geographer Dan Gade, had direct contact with another ex-Nazi, the SS officer and ethnobotanist Heinz Brücher, but it was only after Brücher’s murder in 1991 that Gade unearthed the extent of Brücher’s role in WWII and continued adherence to Nazi ideology. Questioning the impartiality of Brücher’s South American research—he also worked in Paraguay—Gade’s article might suggest that Goñi’s extensive and incisive research was only a starting point for a continued assessment of the post-war German presence.


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