#12 Ernesto Mallo / Needle in a Haystack

Ernesto Mallo, Needle in a Haystack [La aguja en el pajar], translated from the Spanish by Jethro Soutar (London: Bitter Lemon Press 2010 [2006]). This crime novel paints a searing portrait of 1970s Argentina under military rule  5 stars

Opening sentence: Some days the side of the bed is like the edge of an enormous abyss.

This is a hard-hitting crime novel, set against the backdrop of Junta-controlled Argentina in the late 1970s, where power lies primarily in the hands of the military, and ‘disappearances’ of young political activists – supposed ‘subversives’ – are common. Such extra-judicial detentions and executions are typically not questioned by the police (the very body that should be protecting the nation’s citizenry), as doing so is perceived as a pointless exercise that would have extremely negative consequences for the individual.

Superintendent Lascano is a recently bereaved detective (see also Kimmo Joentaa), struggling to maintain his integrity in this morally bankrupt society. In the opening chapter, we see him leaving the house at the beginning of the day, trying to ignore the presumably common sights of bus passengers being searched, and a boy and a girl being driven away in a convoy of military trucks. The girl makes desperate eye-contact with Lascano ‘and then she is swallowed up by the fog’ (8). When Lascano is directed to investigate a report of two bodies dumped by the riverside, he finds that there are now three dead lying there. Unable to investigate the first two, who are clearly the victims of the death squads, he is drawn into investigating the third, and soon finds himself in danger as he treads on some highly-placed military toes.

In the process of following Lascano’s investigations, the reader is presented with a finely-drawn portrait of a corrupt Argentina and its ‘Dirty War’. The narrative is told from a number of viewpoints, giving us multiple perspectives of life under the regime, from a member of a guerrilla cell opposing the Junta (Eva), to the honest cop (Lascano and his friend Fuseli the pathologist), the decadent Argentinian (Amancio, Lara and Horacio), the Jewish businessman (Biterman), the right-wing major (Giribaldi) and the major’s wife (Maisabe). Maisabe is procured a baby by her husband – the newborn son of a young ‘subversive’, who has almost certainly been killed by the regime. The focus is very much on the enormous human price that the younger generation – ‘the kids’ – paid for trying to oppose the regime. The author, who is himself a former member of the anti-Junta movement, would have been the same age as these characters in the 1970s, and it’s hard not to see the novel as a lament for his lost contemporaries and their suffering.

One element I found very interesting was the way that members of the Junta were styled as National Socialists in the novel. For example, we’re told how shortly after a couple have been arrested, the military return to their flat to cart off their possessions: ‘Various conscripts come in and out carrying furniture … and they put everything in the back of a truck, supervised by an arrogant blond captain’ (113). For me, this scene immediately brought to mind the deportations of Jewish citizens in Germany, and the appropriation of their property by the Nazi state (signalled here by the presence of the ‘blond’ captain). Lascano is also Jewish, so there seems to be a fundamental opposition being posited in the novel between good versus evil along the fault-line of Jews:Nazis. The kind of right-wing equivalences being made here also reminded me of Imre Kertész’s 1977 novel Detective Story, which is set in an unspecified South American dictatorship and features a police-man whose interrogation methods are modelled on those of the Nazis. (Kertész is a Hungarian Holocaust survivor and writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, and the novel, which can loosely be viewed as a crime novel, is well worth a read – published in translation by Vintage in 2009).

It’s notable (and rather fascinating) that the English translation of Needle in a Haystack was funded by the ‘Sur Translation Support Program of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Worship of the Argentine Republic’. This suggests that the novel is viewed as part of a national project of engaging with the crimes committed in the Argentine past. The first two novels are also being adapted for film in Argentina, which will undoubtedly help them reach a wider audience.

Needle in a Haystack is a compelling, absorbing and unsettling read. I’d recommend Mallo to anyone who likes quality crime novels that address serious political issues and the legacies of difficult historical pasts. It’s the first of a trilogy and the second, Sweet Money, is already out with Bitter Lemon Press.

Mrs. Peabody awards Needle in a Haystack an outstanding 5 stars.

Update: for a recent article on the process of bringing former members of the junta to justice for the theft of babies from female political prisoners, see here.

22 thoughts on “#12 Ernesto Mallo / Needle in a Haystack

  1. Wonderful, perceptive review which bought back to me why I enjoyed this book so much, and chose it for my personal winner of the International Dagger 2010 (though it was shortlisted, it did not in the event win, unfortunately). I have recently read the second one (Sweet Money) and liked that very much too, although I was not sure if I was going to after the first few 10s of pages as it seemed to be the kind of topic that does not interest me much (prison thriller, organised mobsters) — but I bore with it and I am glad I did. However, I did find that there was such a long gap between the two books coming out that I had forgotten some of the details in the first that were relevant to the second, so I recommend reading the second one soonish, unless your memory is better than mine (not difficult!). Among other things, the second novel is a good example of how to develop a series in an original way, rather than rehashing a formula.

    • Thanks very much Maxine 🙂

      I took both Needle in a Haystack and Sweet Money on holiday with me, and had the pleasure of reading both back to back. I did also like Sweet Money very much (though perhaps not *quite* as much as NIAH), and agree with you that it’s a good example of how to develop a series without being formulaic. I actually think NIAH would have done very well as a standalone novel (for reasons I can’t expand on without giving the end away!). An amazing use of the crime novel to explore a very complex historical subject.

  2. Very good review of this very tough book to read, only because it tells a story set during a brutal military regime’s reign, when horrific acts were committed.
    You bring up some excellent points, the parallels with the Nazis, and also, the funding of the translation by an Argentinian government program.
    There is an excellent movie about an Argentinian middle-class couple who have a young child. Slowly, the origins of the child come up and the woman’s consciousness grows, as truths about the junta are revealed. It’s “The Official Story,” and stars the great Argentinian actress, Norma Aleandro. This is a movie which should not be missed. It is shocking and brilliant.

    • Thanks very much, Kathy. I haven’t heard of “The Official Story” before, but will seek it out right away. Clearly there are significant attempts being made to engage with this very difficult past through literature and film.

  3. This really is a rich and fine review :-). You know, I hadn’t thought about the author’s age and history before. In thinking of it, I see exactly what you mean about Needle in a Haystack being as you say a lament. What a complex society Mallo depicts, and he shows the reader all of the aspects of it. That’s why I’m glad that you brought up the different viewpoints expressed in the novel. I think that strategy helps the reader see a bit of that complexity and although multiple viewpoints can be distracting if they’re not done well, I think they are in this case.

    • Thanks very much for your kind comments, Margo. Yes, I very much liked the multiple perspectives too and thought that these worked very well indeed – Mallo manages very convincingly to show each character’s mindset. The dissection of the twisted logic of the military, as represented by Giribaldi, was particularly well done in my view.

  4. I bought the DVD of The Official Story on Kathy’s recommendation but have not managed to watch it yet. However, there is a newer film that is also very good, The Secrets in Their Eyes, which is not directly about the disappeared but is in the context of Argentina in those times, and is very good I think. It won the foreign language oscar last (?) year, and is being shown on TV now in the UK. The film is based on a book which is now being translated by Random House I think – should be a good one as it is one of those films which seems to be about much more than is going on on-screen.

    I know what you mean about the ending of NIAH – I was wondering how there could even be a sequel!

    • Oh yes, The Secrets in their Eyes! I’ve actually seen this, and thought it was extremely good too. I didn’t realise that it was based on a book – delighted to hear that the translation is coming our way. One to look forward to. In relation to the ending: yes indeed. And in some ways it would have been very powerful to leave things there. Will be very intrigued to see which direction Mallo chooses to take in the final part of the trilogy.

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  7. Hi there Mrs P, I have just finished NIAH and have been reading various reviews of it. Have to say, your review is really excellent. At first I found this book difficult to engage with, I think all the different characters were hard for me for keep track of, also I think this is a book which needs to be read at as few a sittings as possible. Once I got going though, I thought it was really quietly brilliant – without any showy stuff it gave a mulit- layered portrait of Argentina under the military regime, something which I know very little about, in fact I think this might be the first book set in Argentina I have ever read?? A bit cross though about the clunky summary of the story on the back of the book, which gave away part of the story, and also that they tell you this is the first of a Lascano trilogy which spoils the ending???? Anyway, another satisfying read thanks to Mrs P Investigates.

    • Again, I’m very glad you liked this one, Blighty. Not the easiest of reads, as you say, but there’s lots of goodness packed in to a relatively small package! I felt like I had learned a great deal about that period by the time I’d finished, and was keen to go away and find out a little more.

      I know what you mean about the back-cover blurb – I try to avoid reading these in advance where possible, as I’ve learned the hard way that they sometimes include spoilers. Maddening…

      I’m keen to read some more Argentinean crime – will let you know if I find anything juicy. Do let me know if you discover some others too 🙂

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