A pawn in the political violence that racked Argentina like an unshakable fever in the 1960's and 70's is the protagonist of this haunting, relentless novel, the first of Vazquez Rial's work to appear in English. Ironically, the author, born in Buenos Aires to exiles from the Spanish Civil War, lives in Spain, to which he fled from the lawless reign of the generals in the land that once served as his parents' haven. Another irony: his protagonist, one, Cristobal Artola, nicknamed El Triste, is obviously the author's political opponent, a hired assassin in the pay of the murky forces of the right—the military, the police, the wealthy dabblers in fascism (that Vazquez Rial leaves them in shadows adds to the dread he evokes). Born to a washerwoman and a pimp in a slum on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Triste has to make it as best he can. Who his paymasters are and what they ask him to do aren't matters that really concern him, although in his code it is dishonorable to shoot a man in the back. Against the odds, he becomes a sympathetic character. Ultimately, what proves his undoing—his inability to stomach the torture methodically meted out in Argentina's network of detention/extermination camps—makes him worthy of respect, almost as though the author shakes his hand across a great political divide, finding brotherhood in a common revulsion. Told in paragraph-length sentences that begin without an initial capital and are broken by colons where a period would be expected, the story conveys the sense that history can become, as it did in Argentina, an unswayable, unstoppable meat-grinder. The translation is decidedly British and not always idiomatic, but none of the infelicities seriously weakens this intense and implacable tale.
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