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Swimming Without Getting Wet by Carlos Salem

April 7, 2013 16 comments

Matar y guardar la ropa by Carlos Salem. 2008 French title: Nager sans se mouiller. Not available in English, sadly.

Remember last week I mentioned I bought three crime fiction books at Quais du polar? Well, here is the billet about the first one I read, Matar y guardar la ropa, the second book by Argentinian writer Carlos Salem.

Salem_NagerIn the first chapter, we meet Number Three in the course of action: he’s killing a man in an elevator, in cold blood. Not surprising since Number Three is a professional killer. His real identity is Juanito Pérez Pérez and in appearance, he’s a successful but dull executive in a large corporation. He’ll turn forty soon, is divorced from Leticia and has two children Antonio (10) and Leti (15). After finishing his job in the lift, he’s on holiday, going to a camp-site with his children for he first time in two years.

On his way to pick up his children, Number Two, his boss in the Firm contacts him to send him on a surveillance job right away. Juan must watch the victim of a future job, the driver of a certain car in a campsite. Unfortunately, Juan knows the licence plates of the car since it belongs to his ex-wife. Unable to walk away from the job, he drives to the camp-site with Leti and Antonio, only to discover that they will be staying in the camping space right beside his ex-wife and her new lover, the judge Beltrán who shouldn’t be there without bodyguards since he works on touchy cases. Who is he supposed to watch? His wife or the judge? Anyone would be ill-at-ease in such delicate circumstances…especially when the campsite happens to be for nudists.

So here is our Juanito, on a job for the Firm, a job that possibly involves his ex-wife or a judge he admires for his valuable contribution to the justice of the country. And in the said ex-wife’s eyes, he’s just Juanito, boneless, boring corporate executive. When his childhood friend Tony, the one he injured twice while trying to protect him, shows up in the same camping with his lethal blondie of a girlfriend, Juanito thinks the world is kind of small. When he accidentally stumbles upon his co-worker Number 13 in the lavatories, he starts thinking these are two many coincidences to be true. Is he really on a job or did the Firm decide it was time to eliminate him?

In a way, Matar y guardar la ropa is the mid-life crisis of a professional killer. Juan regrets not finishing medical school, wonders about his unofficial job and is plagued with guilt about what he did to Tony. He’s in a stressful moment of his life. He’s mulling over the failure of his marriage, he doesn’t have a real connection with his children, he’s still haunted by the death of his mentor, the former Number Three, the one he was ordered to kill. When he meets young, beautiful and sexy Yolanda in the camp site, he turns into a horny teenager and starts re-assessing his life. Can he start a new relationship? Can he mend the broken bond with his children? He has trouble reconciling the official Juanito, a person who needs to be a wallflower to be invisible and cover his illegal activities with the efficient Number Three he has become for the Firm. It’s the first time he has to be the two persons at the same time under the eyes of his children and ex-wife and his two personalities permeating into one another. His conscience starts nagging at him about the people he killed, his life style. But is quitting his job at the Firm even an option?

Salem’s style has a steady pace, showing the events through Juan’s eyes. The absurdity of the location, the nudist camp site, is an opportunity to bring comic situations into the mix. How do you conceal a weapon when you have to go around stark naked? How do you behave when you’re ruining the romantic getaway of your ex-wife with her new lover and that you’re there with the children? It brings light moments in the heavy atmosphere, since after all, a life is at stake.

Salem’s novel is gripping in many ways. It’s a page turner as the reader wants to know the ending (What’s behind the surveillance? Who’s the real target?). I became engrossed with the personal anguish Juan feels and I wanted to know what was going to happen and what turn Juan’s life was going to take.

Highly recommended. Well, to those who can read in French or in Spanish…

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