Murder, they wrote


Guillermo Martínez may be a clever, calculating author at the top of his game – but he is no Borges



The Book of Murder
Guillermo Martínez, translated
by Sonia Soto
2008, Penguin
215 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

AS A JOURNEY into the deceptive parallel world of causality entered by writers as they labour on their prose, The Book of Murder is, indeed, a clever book, although the hyperbole that it excited among some critics – notably Britain’s Independent on Sunday which, with weary predictability, compared Martínez with Borges – does it no favours.

For Martínez is no Borges, and this crime thriller – if a culturally embedded gambit on the high-wire separating reality from illusion that can be stretched so taut in a country like Argentina – is proudly contemporary, even if it poses old-fashioned philosophical questions and Borges himself did say that it smacks of fiction that Buenos Aires, where this tale is woven, was ever founded.

This is not intended as a criticism of this carefully structured and original work, which achieves a rich and very real tension, nor is it a particularly important observation. For Argentine writing has come a million miles since the old man laboured between the racks at the Biblioteca Nacional (see Cecilia Szperling’s article in this edition) and ignorant comparisons such as that of the Independent are merely the meat and veg of unimaginative journalists still trapped in an Oxbridge timewarp.

Nonetheless, Martínez, a mathematician by academic trade, is one of the most successful writers of his generation, and clearly has a great admiration for the giant of Argentine letters, offering in Borges y la matemática (Planeta, 2003), for example, a dissection of how he uses abstraction and logic in his stories.

Pared-down Buenos Aires

Set in the restricted, pared-down Buenos Aires of writers who spend much of their lives indoors, The Book of Murder tells the story of a mysterious series of deaths of individuals close to Luciana, an increasingly troubled typist serving the needs of rival novelists.

The tedium of the writers’ lives make her secretarial skills less alluring than her young body, and it is through the frustrated desire of the older scribe, Kloster, that she becomes the apparent focus of a deadly plot derived from biblical lore to kill all those near and dear to her.

Narrated by the other, unnamed writer, ten years on from his initial encounter with her, The Book of Murder explores several themes – from the godly power of the novelist and the lethal cannibalism of writers to the false prophecy of the printed word. Telling references to Henry James and the Schofield study bible suggest that perception and judgement are forces that the author believes exercise irresistible power over the imagination to such an extent that it can bend consciousness itself. A sympathy for randomness and conjecture suggest a mathematician at work, pondering the fatal interaction of order and chaos.

By the end we remain unsure of Kloster’s guilt, as we should. But Martinéz leaves us in awe of his power to convince, and his potential as a calculating killer: if words could kill, then Kloster could well be the worst of assassins. If only he would turn his attention to the literary critics of The Independent.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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