Justice for the disappeared

Mapuche by Caryl FereyThis year, Europa Editions brings Caryl Férey’s Mapuche to English-speaking readers. Europa Editions publishes literary fiction, high-end mystery and noir, and narrative non-fiction from around the world. Mapuche is translated from the French by Steven Rendall, and it’s one of the most fascinating and intensely engaging novels I’ve read all year.

A transvestite, Luz, appears to be randomly murdered one night at the Buenos Aires docks where she works. The police aren’t interested in finding the killer, so Miguel, a.k.a. Paula, also a “tranny,” seeks the help of her friend Jana, a sculptress and the eponymous Mapuche — Jana is descended from indigenous Argentine Mapuche, who were driven from their native land in the late 19th century. When Jana tries to hire private investigator Reubén Calderon, he refuses to get involved with the Luz murder – Reubén concerns himself only with los desaparecidos, the thousands of innocent people who disappeared and were tortured during the repressive Argentine dictatorship between 1976 and 1983.

Reubén himself was abducted in 1978, but he returned from the torture and exile, unlike his father and sister. Both Jana and Reubén are emotionally broken, but they are mentally strong and fiercely loyal to speaking out for those who’ve been silenced and dispossessed. They come together in purpose when a photographer and daughter of a prominent industrialist vanishes, and there’s a connection between her and the transvestite, Luz.

Layered with complexity, never faltering in its tension, Mapuche unfolds in scenes of pursuit, confrontation, history and investigative untangling. Each new level of intrigue is smartly paced, and the cliffhangers are so gripping in some scenes it’s hard not to find relief by reading ahead. (I’m not one to read ahead and yet, I couldn’t stand the intensity and so flipped the pages ahead but didn’t read them, as if the act itself could offer relief in the pause.) And then, there is romance, drawing us in even closer to these two colorful and very likable protagonists.

There are torture scenes, and they are horrific; however, Férey describes these scenes just enough to illustrate what’s happening and then retreats before it becomes unbearable (at least for this reader).  What makes this dark, fast-paced shocker so powerful is the plot’s deep roots in Argentine history, and the brutality is part of that history.

Mapuche is brilliantly conceived, thrilling crime fiction.