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April 25, 2017
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Women in the dark

Perdidas en la noche,  by Fabián Martínez  Siccardi (Tusquets);  208 pages, 319 pesos.
Perdidas en la noche, by Fabián Martínez Siccardi (Tusquets); 208 pages, 319 pesos.
By Nicolás Meyer
For The Herald

Night and darkness are concepts that are meant both literally and figuratively in Perdidas en la noche, a novel in which they are plentifully referred to. The references begin with the title itself, which means “(Women) Lost in the Night.” Within the story there are also references to blindness or the threat of blindness, to depression and to searches pursued with low hopes of success, all of which can be regarded as related to one or another of those two concepts. And yet here’s something that needs to be quickly added. It isn’t, believe it or not, a dispiritingly lugubrious work.

This compact text by Fabián Martínez Siccardi, a prize-winning Argentine novelist, deserves to receive close consideration. Despite the fact that its opening chapters are set in Argentina there is also a scene-setter in the US, for the story flits back and forth between the two countries and takes a flatness of tone that hardly hints at the subtleties, the touches of cleverness and the whiffs of wisdom to come.

One thing that’s evident from the outset of the book, because of that alternating setting Buenos Aires and Blackstone, Virginia, is its author’s international outlook; the front-cover flap reports that although hailing from Río Gallegos in deepest Patagonia, he has lived in various cities in Argentina, the US and Spain.

Here he has entwined two storylines, both about young women. One of them is a compulsive painter of murals, hailing from San Francisco, who has gone missing in Buenos Aires. Her mother, who arrives here to try to locate her, is another permanent presence in the novel. The other youth is a survivor of a horrible crime who needs to come to terms with its meaning or, more precisely, its lack of meaning.

The element bringing the two stories together is the first-person narrator, a man whose occupation is that of English-Spanish interpreter at events like congresses and conferences. This position as a fulcrum between two languages and, in practice, two countries, can also be taken symbolically, and in fact Martínez Siccardi may be pushing that aspect of it a tad too strongly towards the end, though without doing serious harm. On the other hand, with regard to any parallels or at least resonances that the reader may find between the cases of the two girls, he seems to find just the right measure and doesn’t overstress them.

One matter that pervades the novel is that of “street art,” to give it a name that’s generally too flattering for it, yet not always so. Without everybody having noticed it, the appearance of Buenos Aires is being altered by this phenomenon, and Perdidas en la noche is, among other things, a novel about this process alluding to everything from the usual, senselessly damaging graffiti done in the misunderstood name of “expression,” to skilful and authorised murals that go beyond the merely eye-catching.

There are some narrative missteps: actions or attitudes that just don’t make sense. When the narrator’s mother dies, he feels compelled to explain how it has come to pass that “the only person who could take charge of funeral matters was I.” Of course he was her son, for Pete’s sake! (And for all we’re told, the only one).

The woman who has voyaged from San Francisco to BA for the single purpose of looking for her daughter gets a tip, in a conversation, about a place in Barracas where there may be leads in the case and she doesn’t ask the address of the joint before ending the conversation, leaving it to somebody else to do so. She pursues another lead at a tattoo parlour and shows the proprietress a photo of a friend of her daughter’s, without bringing up her own girl until late in the conversation.

She is told about the discovery of a corpse that might be the missing girl’s, and instead of rushing over to the morgue, she walks.

She asks the narrator, who has made a reference to his own daughter, “What led you to think of her?” As if parents needs a reason to think about their children. To emphasise again, this comes not from some unnatural child-hater but from someone who has travelled all the way down here out of worry about her daughter.

Nevertheless, despite having the above and more on the debit side, the balance of the novel easily manages to be well on the positive side. It achieves this with an overall story, peppered with some fine observations, that steadily grows in maturity and perceptiveness, leading to a thunkingly satisfying finale.

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