Thursday, May 19, 2022

Elena Knows, by Claudia Piñeiro


Charco Press, 2021
originally published as Elena sabe
translated by Frances Riddle
152 pp

(read earlier, in March)

  I bought Elena Knows last July, set it aside, and just recently took it off its shelf when I learned it is one of the books on this year's International Booker longlist.  The fact that it went on to make the shortlist was no surprise to me --  I'm a huge fan of Claudia Piñeiro's novels; I think I've read each one that's been translated into English and they've all been excellent.   I've also become a huge fan of Charco Press, a small publisher with a track record of great books, and Elena Knows is no exception.   

Elena's daughter Rita died on a rainy afternoon, found by some boys sent by the priest to ring the bells ahead of the 7:00 mass.  Her body was hanging by a rope in the belfry; her death declared a suicide.  But Elena knows that her daughter would never take herself to the church while it was raining; if she was there, she thinks, it must be that someone had "dragged her there, dead or alive."  No one will listen to her, not the coroner, not the police inspector, and not the priest, but she knows Rita would never have killed herself.  After all, "No one knows as much about her daughter as she does."  It had to be murder, but Elena knows she could never prove it on her own.

 The reason Elena can't do anything more about her murder theory is that she suffers from advanced Parkinson's, which she calls her "fucking whore illness," or "Herself," a disease that severely limits Elena's movements but not her mind, so 
"Even if she uses all the tricks in the book, she won't be able to uncover the truth unless she recruits another body to help her."
Believing that a woman named Isabel, whom she hasn't seen for twenty years but feels that she is someone who "feels the need to repay a debt" is the right person to help her discover the truth about Rita's death, Elena sets off across the city of Buenos Aires to find her.   The novel is divided into three sections, each corresponding to the timing of Elena's meds; she only has a certain amount of time during which her pills allow her legs to function.  Elena's life is measured in this way; not in hours but in intervals of medication.   Beginning with her second pill of the day, the story  captures Elena's difficult, painful but determined journey to find Isabel, while  flashbacks reveal her somewhat conflicted relationship with her daughter as well as the burdens not only of the disease on Elena, but also those taken on by caregivers.   As Elena faces the difficulties in navigating the streets of Buenos Aires (which are explained in  detail), we also learn just how difficult it is to navigate those bureaucratic agencies meant to help someone in Elena's condition.  While the going seems slow in spots, it's the final section that packs the major punch as Elena and Isabel finally meet and Elena comes to realize exactly what it is she doesn't know. 

Throughout the story, of course, it's also impossible not to ponder the mystery of Rita's death in the back of your mind.  As Dr. Fiona Mackintosh of University of Edinburgh notes in her Afterword to this book, Elena is presented as a very unlikely "elderly detective-heroine,"  an 
"objectionable and outspoken woman suffering advanced Parkinson's who stubbornly persists against the odds in investigating the death of her own daughter."
Yet as is the case in the other books I've read by Piñeiro, crime fiction is the vehicle by which the author makes astute observations on society, and in this book she raises, again quoting Mackintosh, issues that are "universal, timely and complex," including "the obstacles of a woman's right to control her own body, the myths and realities surrounding motherhood, the mental and physical constraints on women's daily routines, and the increasing challenges of an ill and ageing body."   In point of fact, bodies loom large in this novel.  There is much, much more of course, but I don't want to give anything away that might constitute a spoiler.  Let's just say that in a very big way, this book is definitely timely, and I'll go out on a limb to say that it's a necessary read, especially given what's happening here in the US at the moment.  An absolutely powerful story that overpowered me and made me cry (I'm sure because of the excellent translation by Frances Riddle), I would recommend this book to anyone.  I do hope Charco Press will bring more of this author's books into translation -- she is absolutely one of my favorite writers and has been for a long time. 

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