Mi reseña de Betibú, de Claudia Piñeiro

Claudia Piñeiro returns to the scene of the crime

Claudia Piñeiro has established herself as one of the key names in Argentine literature, as far as readers are concerned, riding on a series of fortunate events: the runaway hit of Las viudas de los jueves (Clarín Novel Award 2005, international bestseller, adapted into a blockbuster film) followed by a successful reissue of her previous thriller Tuya, and then the critically acclaimed Elena sabe and the awarded Las grietas de Jara. Now the hat trick is complete with another bestseller, Betibú.
This first paragraph begs for the followup “a writer struck on a formula for bestsellers and is riding it big time,” if it weren’t for the fact that it is actually difficult to find that many similarities between the books. Las viudas de los jueves struck gold with its detective story set in the secret spaces of a gated community (with plot sometimes yielding to the portrayal of the infamous life of the rich and secluded, a major part of the book’s appeal), but Elena sabe was more about disease than crime and Las grietas de Jara was more about the growing pains of its middle-aged protagonist than the suspense of its enigmas. She does perform clever variations of the crime fiction pattern, with shades of noir even, and she develops in all these books an evolving craft for fleshing out interesting characters and weaving plots full of twists and turns in all the right places, but that is where similarities end, and in all other respects her writing is uncompromising – say what you want about it, but it is neither copycat nor written to please. And yet, readers can’t get enough of her. In Argentine literature, this is as rare as a unicorn playing jazz guitar. In a tutu. On the moon.
Betibú is rare, also, because Piñeiro makes her career and reputation a centerpiece in the story through Nurit Iscar (a strange name indeed, and an anagram for “satiric run”, but if there is a meaning behind it Piñeiro is yet to reveal it), “the queen of detective fiction,” a washed-out crime novelist who stopped writing after a catastrophic attempt at a romantic tale and a scathing review it got in El Tribuno, the country’s leading newspaper. The setting of the story, which begins with an apparent suicide in a country club (the husband of a woman who had been murdered on the same house, a not-at-all-veiled allusion to the García Belsunce case) and takes place mostly within its well-guarded boundaries, also looks back on Las viudas de los jueves, but reverts the perspective: this time, the outsiders are looking in and treading foreign ground as workers or temporary guests which are not used to the Kafkaesque security routines, feel baffled by the mechanics of the lifestyle and cannot fully grasp the web of prejudice and perverseness behind it all.
The plot revolves around those deaths and the dark secrets behind them, but also about El Tribuno and the role of the press. An old-school crime journalist, Jaime Brena, has been demoted to writing absurd stories on “general interest” trivia, and his role is now filled by an unnamed youngblood who knows everything about Google and nothing about police sources and digging up stories beyond the official version. When the suicide makes headlines, Brena watches from the sidelines as the kid botches the coverage of a case he had first investigated. Nurit is then called by the newspaper’s sinister editor (and her former lover) to set up shop at a loaned house inside the country club and write a daily feature on the case, as a crime novelist. Power games will unfold, along with discussions on leather-sole vs. online journalism, how information gets thwarted and slanted, what interests get in the way of its dissemination and how crime stories transmogrify in a country where corruption rules and there are essentially no clean guys.
At first sight, one feels tempted to think that Piñeiro is not a stylist – her prose does not offer those gleaming passages that leave you in awe. But then you realize that her writing just flows, and that you have devoured the 345 pages (generous type, spacing and margins lend a helping hand here) in a couple of days. This happens only when a story grabs you by the neck and is delivered in a language that works for the tale rather than for its own sake, and is the mark of an author confident enough to rely more on the mechanics of storytelling than the fireworks of verbal flare.
But it is not all narrative muscle here: the story has a heart as big as a house, and is filled with humour – some of it wry, much of it at the expense of Piñeiro and the literary scene (including a delightful jab at a particularly dimwitted so-called book reviewer). It is clear that the writer is exorcizing some of her own demons in the figure of Nurit Iscar and several other features of the book, but she pulls it off without putting herself on the spot or being self-condescending and never lets herself get in the way of her novel – another jazz-playing unicorn in a literary scene so utterly dominated by mountain-sized egos. The book does slacken in some chapters burdened with too much exposition (although there is much effort put on making that exposition integral to the plot) and the retelling of a hazy marihuana night is not that satisfactory, but it is a solid read regardless.
Claudia Piñeiro’s writing career, which actually started in the early 90s when she was a young and dissatisfied corporate accountant, gained momentum a decade later in her mid-40s, and the results speak for themselves. If attention has been put in recent years on young writers and some biographical gimmicks (He works on TV and discovered spirituality! She was an anorexic!), her meteoric rise reminds us that, deep down, it’s all about the story and how well you tell it, and that certain qualities in writers must be allowed to blossom if the writing is to stand on its own merits.
Publicada en el Buenos Aires Herald el 16 de septiembre de 2011

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