By Marcelo Birmajer
Toby Press, £14.99
‘Almost all good jokes about paranoid people converge on a single, serious doubt. Is paranoia a state of alienation which imagines dangers where there are none, or a state of lucidity which perceives real dangers invisible to everyone else? All paranoid people who are not psychotic will claim the second explanation; the wives of paranoids will go for the first.”
Such wry observations have seen young Argentine author and screenwriter Marcelo Birmajer labelled “the Woody Allen of the Pampas”. Stuff and nonsense: Birmajer is much the more concise writer of the two. His Jewishness is grounded in deep knowledge and a real empathy for his faith, and, more to the point, Woody Allen, who famously never leaves the city, wouldn’t know the Pampas from a hole on Fifth Avenue.
The three musketeers in question are three young Argentine Jews who effectively signed their own death warrants when they joined the left-wing Montoneros guerrilla group in the dark days of the “Dirty Wars” of the ’70s and ’80s. But one, Elias Traum, survived and made it to Israel. Twenty years later, he returns to Buenos Aires finally to mourn his two friends and perhaps offload a secret or two.
Our narrator is Javier Mossen, a thoroughly disaffected and lust-lorn Jewish journalist who balances his waking hours between evading writing assignments for a popular Argentine red-top and losing himself in ever more convoluted sexual fantasies. His editor’s secretary is one such fantasy: “The thickness of her lips pointed to a full body with little subtlety about it. She must have had the rear end of an untamed mare, or at least dominated only by the higher authorities at the newspaper”. Reason enough to be an editor, I’d have thought.
Mossen is not especially well regarded by his editor, Pesce (himself holder of more shadowy secrets than is healthy), but he is at least given the Jewish jobs on the paper. Indeed, Mossen “was rushing headlong to turn himself into a gentile newspaper’s decorative Star of David. This was the unavoidable alternative for the children of Israel in exile, wallowing in the oasis of a tolerant newspaper”.
One such Jewish job is to meet, greet and interview Traum on his return to his homeland. Mossen could have never dreamt how many twists and turns his life would take from the moment he stepped into the airport terminal.
Secrets and lies, paranoia and parable, Israeli Intelligence and Jewish wit dry as the Sahara when the sun’s up; all are ladled and stirred in this wonderfully engaging cholent bowl of a novel. Marcelo Birmajer as Woody Allen? Flattery indeed… for the speckled, bespectacled old New Yorker. Birmajer is a rising star worthy of attention.