A brutal murder is the starting point for this strange, compelling journey through Argentina’s criminal-justice system; the Argentinian writer’s 2005 novel inspired the same-named film that won the 2009 Foreign Language Oscar.
Buenos Aires, 1968. Chaparro is a deputy clerk in the Palace of Justice. That title suggests a nobody. He’s not. He oversees police work at crime scenes, such as the murder of Liliana Colotto, a young married schoolteacher. She has been raped and strangled. The conscientious 28-year-old also accompanies the detective to inform her husband, a bank teller. Chaparro bonds with the devastated Morales, who is not under suspicion, and intervenes when two dark-skinned workmen from the building are brought in and roughed up, blatant racial profiling. He has them released and files a complaint against their accusers; then, with masterful insight, he singles out the likely suspect as Morales is sorting through old photographs. One young man, Gómez, is gazing at the future victim, the adoration clear in his eyes. Chaparro’s hunch proves correct, but the whereabouts of the presumed killer are unknown, so Chaparro must bend the rules to keep the case from being sealed. All this intrigue is handled beautifully, as are the subsequent twists and turns: the arrest of Gómez four years later on an unrelated charge, his imprisonment, his surprise release and Chaparro’s own sudden vulnerability (he must be whisked out of town to a safe jurisdiction). Morales is memorable, too, a baleful presence intent on only one thing: revenge. Still, the novel is hardly without flaws. There is a secondary story line: Chaparro’s undeclared, lifelong love for a married judge. The story starts languidly with Chaparro’s retirement and his decision to write about the Morales case. At intervals, the clerk turned writer pauses to wonder how he should proceed. These are irritating distractions from the novel’s theme: a good man working to secure justice in a fractured system.
A view of the world as a dark place illuminated by personal loyalties.