When so many blogs – Jacquiwine’s Journal, 1streading’s Blog, Pechorin’s Journal, The Mookse and the Gripes - opined favorably on Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo’s 1946 novel, Where There’s Love, There’s Hate (Los Que Aman, Odian), I felt obliged to investigate the work myself. Several elements aroused my interest: a tragedy set atmospherically in an isolated hotel on Argentina’s coast; a series of untoward events leading to a corpse; a search for the killer, who might be anyone; a cascade of literary references that implied more promising fare than the mysteries one spurns in airport boutiques; and a most extraordinary narrator. Plus, as the authors hailed from within a Buenos Aires circle of glitterati whose ringleader was one Jorge Luis Borges, it’s likely they had more going on upstairs than those Grishams, Pattersons, and Scottolines whose flashy covers litter bookshop windows and fill the idle hands and fatuous minds of readers on public transport, broadcasting the decadence of our time.
I had better things to do. I’d been profoundly immersed in the Italian masters: Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto in all his solemn chivalry. The great Tasso, as yet unread, stared accusatorily from the nightstand. Taking but an hour to read an 125-page Agatha Christie-style pot-boiler would wrench me away from such important work. But from time to time the mind needs repose from its strenuous efforts, and, I reasoned, an indulgence in light-hearted fare could reinvigorate my capacities for serious study.
I brewed a pot of black coffee from the Ethiopian highlands, set a few Walkers ginger-stem biscuits on a plate of Deruta porcelain passed down through family generations, and, after dabbing a few drops of tea tree oil on my temples to stimulate my mental faculties, settled into the divan. Wrapping about me the shawl knitted by dear Aunt Louisa, I adjusted the lamp ever just so, such that its light would fall squarely on the reading matter at hand. No matter how slight a work might turn out to be, I will not leave myself vulnerable to critics suggesting that any lack of enthusiasm on my part might be ascribed to poor lighting.
Opening the book with the gentle reverence I extend to great volumes, I immediately saw that my ornately-carved ivory blade would be unnecessary. Yet another flimsy modern paperback with pre-cut pages. Heaving a sigh for civilization and adjusting my lorgnette, I thought of my literary endeavours, murmured “Farewell, Tasso!” and plunged into the realms of tawdry mystery.
But right away, a literary reference - to Petronius! Most propitious. The narrator, a doctor named Hubert Humbert or some such thing (probably a premonition of that salacious book by Nabokov) seemed, like myself, to be of a literary cast. He had come to the hotel on the sands – “a literati’s paradise,” as he calls it - on holiday in order to engage in translating the Satyricon. I have seen that movie, a typical modern abomination, though in frankness I cannot yet boast of having read the book. Still, though I maintained a vigilant and healthy skepticism regarding this Huberer’s literary bona fides, I prided myself on “getting” his references, both of them.
Knowing that I was in for a mystery (thoughtless, those bloggers, to spoil that for me), I impatiently skimmed the pages, awaiting the critical “whodunit” part worth reading. This consumed no small amount of time and required a second cup of coffee, though again I patted myself on the back for recognizing references that accrued with each passing page - Oblomov! L’Atlantide! - even if looking them up would have required an effort incommodious to the ideal reading environment I’d worked to create. I admired too the novel’s exceptional setting: the hotel’s ground floor already invaded by sand; the windows closed upon the wind-whipped grains, resulting in a plethora of flies; a great storm keeping everyone inside like in Jamaica Inn (the movie, not the novel, which I have not read). “We are being buried in sand here. Anywhere you turn, there is sand; it’s infinite,” complains Humert, as I would have myself in his gumshoes. Sand everywhere, a veritable book of sand.
Finally, though: habeas corpus! The authors produced the body. It belonged to Mary, with her sister Emelia a guest of the hotel, both girls apparently involved romantically with Emelia’s fiancé, a Mr. Atuel or Atwell (the spelling obviously one of those maddeningly impenetrable South American peculiarities such as whether to call - to pick one of these gaucho names at random - Mr. Gabriel García Márquez “García Márquez,” or “Márquez,” or “Señor”). Mary had killed herself or been poisoned. Instantaneously I deduced, from reviews identifying this as a murder mystery, that this was murder. The rather disagreeable Hulert Hulot, inserting himself into every scene, claimed strychnine poisoning. I questioned his judgment, as I would that of anyone who practices a specialty while simultaneously attempting to translate the classics, a division of mental aptitudes that could only diminish one’s credibility in both domains.
But as the investigation increasingly captured my interest, so too did the doctor’s finer attributes. He adamantly assures the reader – almost as though he were speaking of my own virtues - of his generous ability to register “with equanimity” his defeats and his victories, culminating in an irrefutably bold declaration: “May nobody call me an unreliable narrator.” My doubts evaporated. I now recognized that all along Huberman (That is the name! I have written it down) had been the first to offer reasoned hypotheses about the crime. If these proved largely incorrect or baffling to the less perspicacious, that could hardly be blamed on a man of such solid literary discernment. One need only look at the other doctors in the hotel, one a physician in name only and the other a louche dipsomaniac, to see my point. Further, none of the other personages appeared to have the slightest ability to understand literature, the police commissioner notwithstanding in his expressing admiration for a no doubt frivolous Victor Hugo book about a man who laughs (I know neither the movie nor the book, but it strains credulity to imagine that either could be good). When this Atuel/Atwell and a Mr. Manning spend a night reading every book in Mary’s library in order to find clues – she was, after all, a translator of detective novels – they demonstrate a narrowness of purpose that a true lover of literature could not abide. What, I wonder, did they retain of those volumes? Could they even distinguish between Michael Innes and Eden Phillpotts, or between Phillpotts and Harrington Hext? Any uncultured savage can “read” a book if it’s but a matter of searching for a particular passage.
One little sprite of a character I did very much like, the hotel owners’ son Miguel, whose fondness for animals I myself share. In one scene, a bloody albatross appears in the dead woman’s room. I shuddered with horror at the waste of such a magnificent bird and shed a tear for the ancient mariner’s ancient regret, but breathed with relief when I saw later that Miguel had stuffed the great fowl in order to display it as any hunter worth his salt would do. This was followed by a momentary resurgence of distaste, like mounting acid reflux (the third cup of coffee, perhaps), for mon semblable littéraire, mon frère Huberman, who, when, following the dictates of his deductive powers, ripped apart the chest of the glorious oiseau empaillé assured that Mary’s jewels, missing since the night of her murder, had been sewn inside. They had not been. A pity, but nothing a skilled taxidermist could not fix.
Any fickleness in my fidelity to Huberman, however, could not last long. He was so like me, driven by insatiable curiosity, yet gracious even when pursuit of the truth got the better of him. Witness his restraint in this passage, which might have been written by myself: “Whenever I come across someone reading, my first impulse is to snatch the book from his hands. I offer, for the curious, an exploration of this impulse: could it be an attraction to books, or impatience at finding myself displaced from the center of attention? I resigned myself to asking him what he was reading.” And when the good doctor risks going outside in the storm and falls into a bog of crabs, I could not help but feel, as I allowed myself another cup of coffee, as though my own skin were crawling. Such atmosphere! The black winds howling, the tormented waves scouring the whispering sands, legions of horrid crustaceans swarming my hero as he tumbled into the esparto grass. A risk-taker! I admired his inner compulsion to involve himself in the civic duty of helping to solve a grievous crime, much as I felt compelled to explore this novel on my own rather than chance a wrong-headed opinion that could see in such courage only an element of spoof. One must make sacrifices. As Huberman himself muses,
Why had I, having adopted as a fundamental rule of conduct never to expose myself to danger, never having signed any protest against any government, having favored the appearance of order over order itself, if in order to impose it violence would be required, having allowed people to step all over my ideals, in order not to defend them; why had I, having aspired only to be a private citizen and, in the lap of luxury of my private life, find the “hidden path” and refuge against dangers both external and within, why had I - I again exclaimed - involved myself in this preposterous story and followed Atwell’s senseless orders? To bribe fate, I swore that if I got back alive to the hotel I would benefit from the lesson and never again allow vanity, sycophancy or pride to induce me to act without premeditation.
Why indeed! I might have said the same thing about embarking on this slight work, so beyond the limits of refined taste. But the exercise soon reached its terminus. I finished the tiny book and chuckled mightily in case anyone might be watching. That such a thing could have been written by people whose lives suggested they knew something of literature… Perhaps I had missed something. Perhaps this bit of fluff disguised a clever roman à clef concerning the authors’ circle in Buenos Aires; is it not too much to suppose that even this Borges himself is represented? My bet is on Miguel, the little scamp, enjoying his capricious escapades and his little boat, the Joseph K (a perplexing name for a watercraft). If only the authors had provided more clues such that one might, with minimal effort, match the characters to the persons they were intended to represent. Perhaps too if they had aimed high and omitted this nonsense about a murder so that decent people, like myself and Huberman, could go about our business undisturbed. I can only echo the great man’s vain cry: “When will we at last renounce the detective novel, the fantasy novel and the entire prolific, varied and ambitious literary genre that is fed by unreality?” Imagine, I wondered while following a seventh cup of coffee with a heavy dose of bicarbonate of soda. The authors might have written literature.
© Álvaro Sánchez-Montañés from his portfolio Indoor Desert
I inhaled Where There’s Love, There’s Hate for Spanish Literature Month, kindly hosted by Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos and Stu of Winstonsdad’s Blog. Please have a look at reviews by: Jacqui, Max, Grant, Trevor.