Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Review of The Buenos Aires Quintet by Manuel Vazquez Montalban (Serpent’s Tail, 2005 [1997])

As a favour for his uncle, Barcelona-based private detective, Pepe Carvalho, agrees to travel to Argentina to find his cousin, Raul, who had been in political exile in Spain.  Raul was one of the ‘disappeared’ before his uncle cut a deal to free him.  However, his wife was shot dead, his baby daughter adopted, and his company taken over.  Now he seems intent on raking over the past, disturbing the tentative peace his fellow dissidents have created for themselves, as he seeks to locate his daughter.  Carvalho is out of place and almost out of his depth in Buenos Aires as he searches for Raul, inevitably ruffling feathers of some powerful people and making life uncomfortable for himself.  To pass the time he attends tangos, cooks the occasional gourmet meal, and investigates other cases, all the while hoping for a resolution so that he can return to Spain.

The Buenos Aires Quintet is a somewhat curious book using a Spanish detective out of place on a case in the Argentine capital as a means to explore the legacy of the military government period (1974-1983) in which several thousand left-wing politicians and activists ‘disappeared’.  Pepe Carvalho’s task is to find his cousin, Raul, who having been in exile in Spain has returned to find the daughter stolen from him and his dead wife.  The story is told in five parts, each focusing on a different case, but with overlapping characters – Carvalho, Raul and his co-conspirators who have all survived the purges but at varying costs, members of the military regime who still wield considerable power, and the new masters including a seemingly straight cop.  Each character and each sub-story and the overall piece seem to act allegorically to reveal the multi-layered and complex social relations of post-military government Argentina.  It’s an interesting and thought-provoking read that often has nice philosophical asides and well-observed scenes, but it is also a little long-winded and uneven at times.  Carvalho is also somewhat of a slippery character who I never quite resolved in my mind’s eye.  However, the macabre sub-story set in an upmarket restaurant is worth the read alone, being a wonderful, darkly humorous set piece.


Rick Robinson said...

Why is it called a quintet? Your review seems to indicate a single novel.

Rob Kitchin said...

Hi Richard, the story is told in five parts that overall tell the main story arc and case but each part focuses on a different aspect or sub-case.