Costa Rica: searching for solutions

This book was one of a pile of tempting-looking titles that Richard from now-defunct Aflame Books very kindly gave me earlier this year. I had originally been planning to try to source some other recommendations for Costa Rican literature and had in fact had some leads from Cherie at Palabras Errantes. She suggested Anacristina Rossi and Carmen Naranjo as two respected writers from the country.

However, when I tried to track down their books, there was a problem: translations by these writers are extremely thin on the ground. Only a couple of Carmen Naranjo’s short stories seem to be available in English, while Anacristina Rossi’s work is either untranslated or prohibitively expensive – the English translation of her novel The Madwoman of Gandoca that I finally managed to track down would have cost me more than £100 to buy and ship.

That was a bridge too far for me, particularly when I already had a Costa Rican novel peering down at me from the shelf above my desk. Cadence of the Moon by Óscar Núñez Olivas it would be.

Based on the crimes of Costa Rica’s first recorded, and as yet unidentified, serial killer, the novel follows young journalist Maricruz and jaded, divorced police detective Gustavo as they ply the tools of their respective professions to try to solve the case. The extreme sadism and skill of the murderer and the compromised nature of the organisations in which they work test their ingenuity, endurance and professional ethics to breaking point. With only their intelligence and consciences to guide them, do Gustavo and Maricruz have what it takes to find the killer and see justice done?

Gender politics play a huge part in the book. From the ‘game of Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf’ Maricruz is forced to play to win her male colleagues’ cooperation every day of her working life, through to the gruesome, female-focused mutilation rituals of the murderer, this is a novel about how men and women interact. Some of the observations can feel a little two-dimensional and cliched, as when Maricruz’s gay friend Pedro launches into a lecture about the narrowness of straight men, however there are some nice touches that lift the narrative and the handling of the relationship between the two central characters is generally good.

Olivas also does tension well. While working a series of outlandish elements into the story – among them the occult, an underground political movement, and the symbolic significance of the phases of the moon – he manages to keep the plot moving and make it believable. Nevertheless, readers (at least those who can get hold of a copy of this now out-of-print translation) will probably find the ending surprising, given that here the narrative veers sharply away from the conventions of the murder-mystery form, having adhered to most of them throughout the book.

This is probably due to the fact that the things Olivas seems most interested in as a writer are only tangentially connected to the murder case. In many ways, the real focus of the novel is on the politics and compromises that riddle big organisations, such as Maricruz’s newspaper and the police. During the course of the story, both of these come under pressure from outside influences, ranging from advertisers and funders in the case of the newspaper, through to public opinion and government interests in the case of the police – although it must be said that some of the ethical dilemmas Olivas poses his characters are a little underwhelming. Maricruz’s initial reluctance to cultivate Gustavo as an off-the-record source because she believes she should publish everything she discovers, for example, comes across as more than a little naive.

Interestingly, while Olivas, himself a journalist, is relentlessly scathing about the European publisher Mr Grey – who makes crass pronouncements about the ineffectualness of Costa Ricans and all but strangles the newspaper in his desire to micromanage it – the writer is more chary when it comes to the police. Alongside the FBI expert who sweeps in to draw up a psychological profile of the killer, Gustavo and his colleagues appear bumbling and crude in their methods. Whether this is a reflection of the status quo or not I don’t know, but it seems odd that Olivas does not try to balance the exposure of the Costa Rican police force’s weak points with some observations about how its methods might compare favourably with the clinical, anonymous approach of the US agent.

All in all, however, it was a pleasant surprise to find that this book was more than it was cracked up to be. From the cover picture of a gagged woman on a full-moon night, I assumed I’d be getting a brutal and sensationalist whodunnit. In fact, the contents where a lot more subtle and thought-provoking. Hmmn. What’s that old adage about books and covers again?

Cadence of the Moon (En Clave de Luna) by Óscar Núñez Olivas, translated from the Spanish by Joanna Griffin (Aflame Books, 2007)

Austria: compacted meaning

 

They say that good things come in small packages, and, with literature from 196 countries to read and blog about this year, I’m inclined to agree. So I was particularly pleased when the first book for this project arrived, courtesy of a recommendation from Heide Kunzelmann at the Ingeborg Bachmann Centre for Austrian Literature, to find that it was a mere 123 pages long.

Slender though it may be, Frozen Time rivals many a weightier tome for depth and scope. Written by South Korean-born Anna Kim, who moved to Austria from Germany aged seven and regards German as her mother tongue, the narrative follows a young researcher in Vienna’s Red Cross Tracing Service as she attempts to help a Kosovan man discover what happened to his wife during the war in former Yugoslavia.

The narrator finds herself drawn more and more into the man’s trauma, and, as the lines in their professional relationship become blurred, she is forced to confront unfinished business of her own in Kosovo.

Kim is one of those rare writers who manage to combine economy of language with rich significance. At times she condenses so much meaning into her spare sentences that they feel more like poetry than prose. This impression is strengthened by the way the layout and structure of the text reflect the shredding effects of loss on a psyche: sentences tail off into dashes, paragraphs hang broken on the page and the narrative leaps between times and perspectives, as though unable to stay focused on any one train of thought for long.

Kim’s presentation of the way trauma plays out in the mind is equally impressive. From the horrific images and memories that crash into mundane activities, to the paranoid projections that twist the memory of the beloved (reminiscent at times of Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances), she provides a masterclass in dysfunction.

Translator Michael Mitchell writes about the difficulty of rendering some of the subtleties of meaning in the text — in particular the shift between the formal German ‘you’ (Sie) and the informal version (du) — in his introduction. Nevertheless, he has created a powerful version in which the frequent modulations between registers of language (formal, professional, intimate and child-like) mirror the mental shifts the text describes. Highly recommended.

Frozen Time by Anna Kim (translated from the German by Michael Mitchell). Publisher (this edition): Ariadne Press (2010)