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Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Martín Solares: The Black Minutes (Los Minutos Negros)

Barcelona: Mondadori, 2006. 384 Pages. €18.50

Translated into English by Lucy Lawton

Making your debut with a four hundred page novel is a risky business.  The Mexican Martín Solares (born in 1970) has been working on this for seven years.  The Black Minutes is without a doubt one of the most ambitious police novels to come out of Mexico since the great works of Paco Ignacio Taibo II – if we don’t take into consideration the novels of Juan Hernández Luna, which have still not been translated into German.  So the reason why this novel does not shine in all its splendour, despite it being brilliant in many ways, is very hard to explain.

ImageDrug cartels, serial killers and corruption
Solares tells, in an unusually epic way for the genre, of the fictitious town of Paracuán in Tamaulipas, a state which adjoins the Gulf of Mexico which is little mentioned in literature.  Paracuán is situated near Tampico and Ciudad Madero, towns which actually exist and which are the most important petroleum ports of the region.  At first, policeman Ramón Cabrera, called the ‘maceton’, investigates the case of murdered journalist Bernado Blanco who is the victim of a ‘Colombian tie’ style of assassination, that is, his throat was cut, and his tongue pulled through the opening. The style of the murder is the reason why a drug cartel, increasingly dominated by Colombians, is suspected  to be behind this assassination.  Or maybe not?  In any case, the dead man was working on a book about a criminal occurrence from the 1970s.  Maybe he was on the right track.  Before Cabrera can close his investigation, he is hit by a car and taken to hospital seriously injured.  This first plot is, however, cut short on page 99, in order to make room for another which fills the following 300 pages.

The second plot takes place in 1977-78.  A serial murderer kills young girls, chops them up, and leaves the bodies in different spots around the town.  Policeman Vicente Rangel is in charge of the inquiry.  Soon, suspicion fall upon Jack Williams, the son of an American industrialist.  However, the municipal president forbids the police from harassing foreign powers.  But suspicion stays with Rangel – and with the reader.  In the end, the killer is someone very different, and this is what makes up the real scandal which Bernado Blanco hoped to reveal: some of the most important political careers of the town were built on the bodies of the murdered schoolgirls.

It is only on page 337 that the plot returns to the present and shows the connections between both stories.  It is a shame that, after more than two hundred pages of intermezzo, the reader has forgotten some of the names and details of the first plot and so has to refer to the index of characters which appears at the beginning.  The similar configuration of both stories, and the numerous nicknames don’t help matters either.  But it’s not that bad.  Solares presents a complex and well adorned novel which above all merits praise.

Sparing violence in a plausible context
In a conscious and ingenious way, Solares is sparing with his descriptions of violence.  The reader’s sight never falls directly upon the mutilated bodies of the girls, but somehow the reader knows what happened to them.  The narrator only describes the effect which the horrific sight of the dismembered bodies have on the police, a technique which recalls the technique of teichoscopy in theatre.  However, the narrator proceeds in a different way when describing the violent deeds undertaken by the hand of the law.  Employees of the Direccion Federal de Seguridad (Federal Security Agency) punish an informer by cutting out his eyes, as an example to others.  These descriptions, laconic but clear, allow the reader to see the scene directly in their minds eye.  This difference in the descriptions makes a detailed social criticism possible.  The serial killer – an uninteresting psychopath – is not the one who can tell us anything about Mexico and the real world, because he is ill.  A detailed description of the disfigured bodies of the girls would therefore be pure voyeurism.  What happens in the higher social classes to cover up the crime becomes, through the same technique, abominable.  We can tolerate that people are tortured, that an innocent young man can spend his life in prison, and that others, like Bernardo Blanco, lose their lives.  This is the price that an ever more corrupt society pays to protect an ambitious few.  And because this is a reality, we confidently believe Solares, since similar scandals appear every day in Mexican newspapers.  The blind Romero continues:

“Everyone made a pact: the government made a pact, the president made a pact, they made a pact on the bodies of the girls.  As happens all over the world, the town grew up on top of graves” (331).

The novel does not lack irony either, and in a self-reflexive gesture, which is achieved through the evocation of some literary characters and similar authors of the genre (for example Rubem Fonseca, Truman Capote, Dürrenmatt, Stevenson, Hitchcock).  Historical figures such as Traven Torsman (a German exile) or the well known criminalist Quiroz Cuarón, who in his time was known as the “Mexican Sherlock Holmes”, also create a an ironic distance within the work.  Quiroz Cuarón is asked for help as an independent expert and he takes the opportunity to prove his mathematical formula for solving serial killings, which works effectively.  Quiroz knows in just a few days who the killer is.  Unfortunately, he does not manage to make it known, because he is poisoned, and he takes to the grave his brilliant formula that the world is still waiting for.  In Solares’ Mexico, there is no room for such panaceas.

Grey mass, loose ends
At first glance, it seems like the author did everything right: a terrifying crime with terrible consequences immersed in a certain social context with the necessary depth, convincing characters, a multi-voiced narration and a little twist at the end.

But Solares slightly loses sight of the reader, who has to make an effort to unravel the accumulation of events. To top it all, each of the almost countless characters has their own story which is in turn related to the case through memories or certain literary motives.  The elements of the plot, well thought out in principle, blur in a sea of similar events.  Solares whisks up a hundred fine ingredients which in the end just result in a grey mass, in which the raisins can’t be found.  Suspense deteriorates rapidly in some parts because of too many elements which slow down the action.  And so the ‘mass’ becomes even tougher.

The Mexican also leaves some loose ends.  A reader of police novels would have liked to have seen them tied up.  And not just a reader of police novels, but any attentive reader who questions the function of every element of the plot.  For example, after a complicated investigation at the scene of the crime, it is discovered that the child killer threw the body parts out of the bathroom window of a restaurant.  Why he did this, Solares never explains.  Similarly irritating is the late discovery, by the forensic medical examiner, of wool under the nails of the victims and his conclusion that the killer must have attracted the girls with lambs.  But how and why did he do this?  Solares could have saved these and other details, since their function is never known.    

Conclusion: patient readers will be compensated in many parts of the novel.  But on the other hand, the novel is not recommended for impatient lovers of suspense.




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