A few weeks ago I promised I would return to a country which, in these pages at least, has been sadly under-represented. As we approach the end of our round-up of the best crime fiction from World Cup-winning nations and sit on the cusp of a footballing feast between Germany and Argentina, let’s go right back to the beginning of the World Cup journey and take a look at its very first winner, Uruguay. Actually, to be accurate this isn’t a post about Uruguayan crime fiction, but about a single Uruguayan crime writer. Not because there isn’t a lot of crime fiction by Uruguayan writers, although I won’t argue with you if that’s your view, but because Uruguay boasts, as we saw a few weeks back, a genuine literary heavyweight.
Born in 1933 Daniel Chavarria is a novelist, screenwriter, translator, political essayist, professor and revolutionary. He has been awarded a clutch of prestigious literary prizes, including the Dashiell Hammett Award, the Edgar Allan Poe Award and the Bartolome Hidalgo Prize awarded by the Uruguay Book Chamber. Uruguay is rightly proud of its literary son, and in return, Chavarria was filled with pride to receive his country’s praise. When fascinates me about him is that since 1969 he has lived and worked in Cuba. In his own words,
I’m a Uruguayan citizen and will never stop being one, but at the same time I’m a Cuban writer, because as a novelist I started here writing about Cuba, the country, its exploits and its people.
For many years, Chavarria was a professor of Latin, Greek and literature. His field of interest and expertise was the origin and development of prostitution, a theme which floods his literary work. Drawn to Cuba by its revolution Chavarria stayed and built a life, and a second career. Cuba flocked to him and has decorated Chavarria with some of its most prestigious awards. In 2010 he won the National Literature Award, the country’s highest honour. The official press release said that Chavarria had been chosen for,
…the dazzling imaginative and linguistic richness of his many works… the key to a new look for detective novels set in Latin America.
He has done too much, achieved too many things for me to do them all justice here, so let’s focus on that last sentence and on his crime fiction stories. They are uncompromisingly Latin American, which as we saw last week, can be a very powerful thing. I wanted to draw your attention to two of his books.
- Adios Muchachos (1994), is a novel about a bicycle hooker from Havana. No matter how many times I read that description I like everything about it. It was the first novel that Chavarria wrote that was translated into English and I urge you to read it. Set in 1990s Havana it is funny, erotic, black and chaotic. It shows Cuba as Chavarria sees it and the pages of the novel drip with hustlers, grifters, hookers and losers. Alicia, the bicycle hooker, attracts clients by causing motor accidents and then sleeps with the driver. She rides her bicycle around the streets of Havana wearing very little. This distracts drivers and causes accidents. Once hooked she meets the men at her house, so her mother can cook for them. She sleeps with them, takes their money and their offer of new kitchen appliances (which she promptly sells for more money) and moves onto the next client and the next accident. When someone dies during role play Alicia and a wealthy foreign client¸ hatch a plan to cover everything up. Castro’s Cuba, in all its post-Cold War glory is laid bare in this award-winning novel which is wonderfully Latin American and pulp fiction at its best.
- Tango for a Torturer (2001) could not be more different. It is not funny, in any way. It is horrific, or at least what it represents is horrific and Chavarria doesn’t shirk his responsibilities as a writer when it comes to addressing one of the most shameful facets of Latin American history. For most of the 1970s and 80s, a military junta ruled Argentina and the period became known as The Dirty War. The junta was responsible for the kidnap, imprisonment and torture of tens of thousands of people. The victims were, and still are, known collectively as Los Desaparecidos (The Disappeared) and mothers of the victims still protest in Buenos Aires for information about their children. Human rights groups disagree about the exact number of the victims, but it is somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000. Fewer than 600 bodies have been recovered. The whereabouts of the rest remains a shocking secret that provides the backdrop to Tango for a Torturer. When a victim of The Dirty War who was lucky enough to escape moves to Havana he learns, via a prostitute, that the man who tortured him, the feared Orlando Ortega Ortiz, also known as Triple O, is alive and living under an assumed name. What follows is a literary masterclass in revenge and an expression of the notion that time does not heal.
As a writer, you would be proud of having been able to demonstrate the mastery of either one of these styles. To be able to do both, in addition to his many other skills, is what sets Chavarria apart. Uruguay doesn’t have the same crime fiction history as other nations. But when you have Chavarria in your team you really are tough to beat.
Enjoy the final. Next week I will do a round-up of my favourite crime fiction from the winner.