A Crack in the Wall by Claudia Piñeiro is a contemporary mystery from Argentina (available August 6, 2013).
Pablo Simó and two colleagues at the architecture firm where he works know precisely what happened to Nelson Jara. That happens to be information they swore to keep to themselves, however, and they’ve kept their vow for three years. Then one day, quite unexpectedly, a young woman visits their office and inquires about Nelson Jara. Does anyone there know him? The architects exchange significant glances. What do they do now? Surely not tell her the truth. And yet:
How can Pablo deny what he knows, and what Marta knows, and what Borla knows: that Nelson Jara is dead, buried a few feet beneath the heavy-wear tiles over which the three of them walk every day on their way into or out of the office, under the concrete floor of the parking lot, exactly where they left him that night, three years ago.
Within the first six pages of A Crack in the Wall, Claudia Piñeiro eases us into the day-to-day doings of a bored and unremarkable middle-aged architect, then flips his life upside-down so we see there’s a great deal lurking beneath the surface of his ordinary existence.
One of Argentina’s top-selling authors, whose books have earned cover blurbs from no less than Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, Piñeiro is known for her ability to probe the behavior and psychology of everyday people—their fears, their weaknesses, their desires, their deceits. The scope of this book is quite small; the story entirely character-driven and engaging. The life of Pablo Simó—middle-aged architect, married, one child—appears to be the quintessential example of “quiet desperation.” He’s living inside his own head and emotionally cut off from everyone, even those who should be closest to him. Yet he’s only now beginning to realize this is how his life has played out and to wonder how he reached this point.
Pablo waits, but his daughter doesn’t ask how he is or say anything else. He moves to leave, then as he’s turning the handle thinks better of it and turns to ask her:
“Tell me something, how do you see me?”
“What?” she asks
“I don’t know, I mean—do I look good to you or bad, old or fat, or old-fashioned? How do you see me Francisca?”
“I don’t see you, Dad. You’re my father.”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“Just that I don’t see you; I don’t look at you.”
The question for Pablo now is how to make himself “reappear.”
It’s tempting to invoke Kafka here because of the book’s exploration of the small man trapped in a large world rapidly becoming beyond his comprehension. Pablo even refers to himself as “vermin”—a la The Metamorphosis. But that would sound too pretentious, and this book is not pretentious.
The story of a man who has allowed his life to be governed by inertia is universal and familiar. That’s where Pablo is when we meet him—floating, and almost able to convince himself he’s swimming. Now, with the help of the mysterious young woman who’s hunting for Nelson Jara, perhaps he’s about to be given a chance to make amends for doing the wrong thing—or, more accurately, for not doing the right thing. What will he do with that chance? What will he do to change the direction his life has taken?
If you’ve been to Buenos Aires, you might recognize the neighborhoods and buildings Piñeiro uses as both a backdrop and a metaphor for the preservation, destruction, and rebuilding of one’s life. If you haven’t been to Buenos Aires, you’ll be tempted to make a list of the buildings she mentions for your own “someday” walking tour—assuming they haven’t been pulled down to make way for “progress” by then (another condition of life with which we’re all familiar).
The pleasure of A Crack in the Wall is Piñeiro’s gift for taking the themes we know (sometimes all too well) and reshaping them to make them newly provocative, leading to a surprising and satisfying conclusion.
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Leslie Gilbert Elman is the author of Weird But True: 200 Astounding, Outrageous, and Totally Off the Wall Facts. Follow her on Twitter @leslieelman.
Read all of Leslie Gilbert Elman’s posts for Criminal Element.