A missing persons case is merely the starting point for Scottish writer MacInnes’ mind-bending debut, which takes impersonation, infection, and simulation as its metaphors for the unstable nature of reality.
An unnamed police inspector is called out of retirement to investigate the disappearance of a man named Carlos from a family dinner at a restaurant in an unspecified city somewhere in Latin America. A series of early discoveries rapidly signals that things are not what they appear. The grieving mother the inspector thought he was interviewing turns out to be “employed by the mother to speak on her behalf.” The financial institution where Carlos worked—“in the process of a large and complex merger, leaving it for the moment without a name”—populates its office with pretend workers from a “performance agency” to make a good impression on prospective clients. “Trust me,” the agency’s director tells the inspector, “they appear much more convincing in the role of hard-working employees than such employees do themselves.” At first, it seems that all this play-acting screens a sinister mystery that could actually be solved: the corporation has been sued by activists claiming it has illegally occupied land belonging to indigenous peoples illegally resettled, and the inspector follows this trail into the country’s rain-forest interior. There, however, reality and the inspector come completely unglued—a development forecast by a chapter bluntly subtitled “Suspicions, Rumours, Links,” which offers multiple explanations for Carlos’ disappearance and many other puzzles while making it obvious that all explanations are provisional and suspect. MacInnes skillfully creates an atmosphere of lowering menace, aided by excerpts from an enigmatic anthropological text, Tribes of the Southern Interior, while deft satires of forensic analysis and ecotourism keep the tone from getting too misty. The inspector is the only person drawn with any depth, but characterization isn’t the point in a narrative that aims to unsettle and provoke.
Vividly suggestive and filled with haunting images, though probably best appreciated by readers with a strong taste for the avant-garde.