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Spanish Lit Month: One-Way Journey by Carlos Salem

August 6, 2017 9 comments

One Way Journey by Carlos Salem 2007 (Original Spanish title : Camino de ida). French title: Aller simple. Translated by Danielle Schramm.

Dorita mourut pendant sa sieste, pour achever de me gâcher mes vacances. J’en étais sûr. J’avais passé vingt de nos vingt-deux années de mariage à lui inventer des morts fantasmatiques. Et quand enfin cela arriva, ce ne fut aucune de celles que j’avais imaginées. Mettant de côté les attentats les plus divers, les poisons et les piranhas dans la baignoire, qui étaient surtout des exercices innocents de réconfort, j’avais toujours su qu’elle mourrait avant moi et dans un lit. Mais je ne pensais pas que ce serait comme cela dans une ville inconnue, dans un hôtel qui mentait d’au moins une étoile, et de façon si soudaine. Dorita died during her nap to finish off ruining my holiday. I knew it. I had spent twenty out of our twenty-two years of marriage inventing her fantastical deaths. And when it finally happened, it was none of the deaths I had imagined. Setting aside various attacks, poisons and piranhas in the bathtub, which were only innocent outlets, I had always known she’d die before me and in a bed. But I never thought it would be in a strange town, in a hotel that lied upon at least one star and that it would be so sudden.

As you can read from this opening quote, a Spanish lady, Dorita Rincón suddenly died in her hotel room in Marrakech (Morocco) while she’s on vacation with her husband Octavio. And Octavio is not sorry that his wife passed away. His first reaction to her death is relief and a refreshing sense of freedom because she controlled his every move. However, he’s afraid to be accused of murder. This explains why, instead of calling the authorities and taking care of the formalities, he procrastinates and decides to have a drink and enjoy his newfound freedom.

He stumbles upon an Argentinean con artist, Raúl Soldati. Soldati is in Marocco for business. He tried to sell ice-cream to Bedouins but his business venture went bankrupt because he couldn’t pinpoint where to set up his ice-cream truck, with Bedouins being nomadic and all. Now, he’s unattached and he takes Octavio around town, crashing parties and posing them as rich guys. At some point, they steal money and documents from a Bolivian official to pay their way. They will later realize that they stole forged dollar bills.

Octavio and Soldati get to know each other and wallflower Octavio explains his predicament to flambloyant Soldati. With the ice-cream business, Soldati owns a refrigerated truck and they decide to go back to the hotel to take Dorita’s body and bring her back home to Barcelona. Problem: when they arrive at the hotel, Dorita’s body is gone and they have the Bolivian officials chasing after them.

Soldati and Octavio barely make it out of the hotel, take Octavio’s car and leave Marrakech to escape their attackers. They start driving through the Atlas. On the way, they meet a man who says he’s Carlos Gardel, the famous Argentinean tango singer.

Gardel wants to go to Spain with them, in order to kill Juglio Iglesias. Soldati, an amateur tango singer who put Gardel on the logo of his ice-cream business, is in awe. Octavio doesn’t know what to think, because Gardel died in a plane crash in 1935. How can he be alive and living in Marocco? Is he the real Gardel or a crazy fan who pretends to be him? Octavio makes a decision:

J’étais persuadé que c’était bien lui, pour aussi insensé que cela paraisse, que c’était bien Carlos Gardel qui renaissait de l’oubli pour tuer Julio Iglesias coupable du crime impardonnable d’avoir enregistré un disque de tangos.

I was sure it was him, even if it was insane. I thought he was really Carlos Gardel, somehow coming back to kill Julio Iglesias who was guilty of recording an album of tango songs.

You may think that he’s so upside-down that he decides for suspension of belief. The three of them embark on a hilarious road trip, full of twists and turns and of colorful encounters. It’s funny as a Monthy Python film and as surreal as Arizona Dream.

Apart from the zany developments and spicy dialogues, this trip soon becomes an initiatory journey for Octavio. They go from funny adventures to chases, meeting with incredible people along the way. Octavio reacquaints himself with his true self. Without Dorita’s imposing figure, he reflects on his life, on what he wanted to be as a child.

Cette nuit-là, je dormis dans ma voiture, réchauffé par la couverture et le whisky que m’avait donnés Soldati. J’avais le .38 dans la main et, sur le siège d’à côté, mon enfance oubliée me tenait compagnie. Je serais pianiste, pompier, pirate, explorateur. La seule chose qu’ils me laissèrent faire fut le piano. Et encore. Il n’y avait pas d’argent en trop à la maison, mais mon père rêvait pour moi de quelque chose de mieux qu’une usine d’après-guerre pour charnego.

(1) un charnego est un Espagnol travaillant en Catalogne. 

That night, I slept in my car, warmed by the blanket and the whisky Soldati had given me. I had the .38 in my hand, and on the passenger’s seat, my childhood was riding shotgun and keeping me company. I would be a piano player, a fireman, a pirat, an explorer. The only thing they let me try was the piano. Barely. There wasn’t much extra-money at home but my father dreamed of something more for me than a post-war factory for charnegos (1).  

(1) a charnego is a Castillan worker in Catalonia.

The more he’s away from Dorita and the constraints of his old life, the better he feels. He adjusts to his crazy trip, chooses to trust Soldati and Gardel, remains open to new people. He wakes up from a sleepy and policed life. Salem’s book is entitled One-Way Journey because Octavio is told that life is a one-way journey. There’s no going back, only going further and this trip is the same. Octavio is slowly learning that it’s time for him to enjoy the ride.

Besides Octavio’s coming-to-life, there are also thoughts about tango and fame. Carlos Gardel died when his career was at its peak. He never sank into oblivion. He remained young and famous in the mind of the Argentinean people. Carlos Salem was born in Buenos-Aires in 1959 and has lived in Spain since 1988. He knows both countries and Gardel belongs to his DNA as an Argentinean. In the book, Gardel is nostalgic of Argentina. He misses the food and specific customs of his country. One-Way Journey is also a melancholic tale about exile, self-imposed or not.

As you must have guessed by now, I loved One-Way Journey. It’s a fun read, with a fast-paced story and an incredible style. Salem has an excellent sense of humor, a knack for burlesque and his own way with words. I love his style, sharp and imaginative. He can pull off a vivid description in a few words:

Il avait une moustache fine, la peau sombre, et essayait de rentrer un ventre qui était en train de gagner subrepticement la bataille. He sported a thin moustache, had a dark skin and was trying to pull in a stomach which was surreptitiously winning the battle.

Can you picture this man? I can see him perfectly, physical appearance and misplaced pride in one sentence.

I’m sorry to report that One-Way Journey is not available in English. Definitely a Translation Tragedy. Someone needs to publish Salem in English, really. I vote for Duane Swierczynski’s publisher. There’s something in common between Octavio’s crazy trip and Charlie Hardie’s insane adventures. I dream of a panel at Quais du Polar where these two were in the same room. For readers who can read in Spanish, the original title is Camino de ida. Apparently, it’s only been translated into French, so francophone readers can get on their knees and thank the publisher Actes Sud for taking a chance on Carlos Salem and bringing his books to our attention.

One Way Journey by Carlos Salem is my second contribution to Spanish & Portuguese Lit Month, hosted by Stu and Richard.

PS: I can’t resist this last quote for the road.

Jorge Luis me regardait comme regardent les chats, sans compromettre leur sagesse avec nos folies. Jorge Luis [a cat] looked at me the way cats look at us, without compromising their wisdom with our follies.

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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