On Claudia Piñeiro’s “Elena sabe” (Elena Knows) – “Elena weiss Bescheid” (2007)

Elena sabeElena weiss BescheidElena et le roi détrône

Claudia Piñeiro is an Argentinian crime writer. Most of her novels have received prizes. This one is no exception. It received an Argentinian and a German prize. The good news—most of Piñeiro’s novels have been translated. The bad news—for reasons I really don’t get, this is one hasn’t been translated into English, but you can read it either in Spanish Elena sabe, French – Elena et le roi détrôné or German Elena weiss Bescheid. I suppose there are other translations.

Ever since I read Piñeiro’s All Yours – Tuya  in 2012, I knew I wanted to read more of her novels. Not sure why it took me so long. Two weeks ago, I thought of her again and ordered this one and another one, Thursday Night Widows.

Elena knows tells the story of a woman, Elena, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. Her daughter, Rita, has been found dead in a belfry. The police have ruled that it was a suicide but Elena cannot accept that. She is sure that Rita was murdered. The book follows two alternating timelines, both from Elena’s point of view. The first is set firmly in the present, while the second timeline tells Elena and Rita’s story in flashbacks up until the suicide/murder. Since the police have stopped the investigation, Elena has decided that she will investigate on her own. Since she suffers from advanced Parkinson’s disease, this is a difficult task. The timeline set in the present follows her on a journey from her apartment to someone else’s apartment. She hasn’t seen this person in twenty years but hopes that she will “lend” her her body and investigate on Elena’s behalf.

What a breathtaking story. So well done and with an amazing twist at the end. I can’t say I knew a lot about Parkinson’s before reading this novel. I do now. I had no idea how awful this is. Elena’s days are an ordeal. Every single thing needs careful planning. Even the most mundane, routine acts. She cannot lift her head anymore, due to atrophied muscles in the neck. She cannot move, walk, etc, unless she takes tablets that take a certain amount of time to kick in and whose effect dwindles all too quickly. The flash back sections tell us that she lives with Rita, a forty-year-old single woman and that their relationship is one of love and hate. They exchange sentences that feel like the cracking of whips. Needless to say, Rita is the one who takes care of Elena. From what Elena tells the reader, we can deduce that Rita’s disgusted by her mother’s illness.

Following Elena on her trip to the other end of the city, is painful to read. But it’s equally painful to read about Rita’s life with her.

In a novel that is told like a taut crime novel, Claudia Piñeiro explores topics like illness, getting older, the responsibilities of women to take care of the elderly and of kids. She shows us women trapped in situations from which there’s no escaping. The end came as a shock but made perfect sense.

This is an outstanding novel. Sharp, taut, and unsparing. Highly recommended.

Claudia Piñeiro: All Yours – Tuya (2003) An Argentinian Crime Novel

I had never heard of Claudia Piñeiro before I saw her book All Yours reviewed on Guy’s blog. I wanted to read more Latin American literature this year and an Argentinian crime novel sounded like a good start.

All Yours, or Tuya as it is called in Spanish, is as entertaining as it is amusing. It introduces us to the world of Inés, a middle-aged housewife, mother of Lali and wife of Ernesto. A real perfectionist when it comes to her home and keeping up appearances, a master in the art of self-delusion. More than once while reading I was exclaiming “What a nutter”.  Of course I was glad that she was such a nutter as this is why Tuya is so entertaining.

When Inés discovers a lipstick-written note, a heart signed “All Yours”, in her husbands briefcase, we are at first startled to hear that she doesn’t think it’s all that bad. After all, she believes, sooner or later all men cheat on their wives. The outcome purely depends on how gracefully the wife handles it.

Since her own unfaithful father left her mother after having been confronted with his infidelity, Inés decides not to act but to observe. One night when her husband is called to his office – there seems to be a computer related emergency which happens quite frequently -, she follows him. Of course he doesn’t drive to the office and Inés observes him while he meets with his secretary in Palermo Park. They are fighting and at one point Ernesto pushes the secretary away. The woman trips, falls and breaks her neck in the fall. How wonderful, Inés thinks, she will help her husband to cover up the whole incident. She will provide him with an alibi… But for the time being, she stays in the dark, drives home and doesn’t say a word that she has watched everything. Inés is happy, she believes that the secretary was Ernesto’s lover, and now that she is dead, nothing can separate them anymore. Right? Not quite, as we will see and from here on, things do not go as planned at all.

This isn’t the only instance in which Inés is wrong and we start to learn that absolutely nothing is at is seems in this novel and that what Inés pretends to be a picture book family is in reality rotting from the inside.

All Yours is told in alternating points of view. The most important parts are Inés’ first person narratives. Being a highly unreliable narrator, she tries to pretend everyting is fine until the very end of the book. Other parts of the story focus on Lali, Inés’ daughter. They are in dialogue form and reveal that the daughter has as much to hide as her parents but that she knows everyting about the two of them. Lali blames and hates her mother more than anyone else and towards the end of the book we realize she may have reason. Some of the chapters are police reports and third person narratives. Each of these elements together give the reader the full picture.

All Yours reminded me a lot of German crime writer Ingrid Noll’s novels in which seemingly harmless and invisible women start to develop their criminal and vengeful side. They are perfectionists, driven by an urge to save appearances at any price. We don’t warm to these women, we don’t feel for them but we enjoy the delicious frisson that we experience while following them on their journey towards retribution.