Fuentes, Eugenio - 'At Close Quarters' (translated by Martin Schifino)
A young, single man lives in a flat in a medium-sized coastal city in Spain. Looking out of his window in the morning, he sees a beautiful woman among the mothers taking their young children to the bus stop on the way to school. After the bus leaves, the woman walks away, pushing a younger child in a buggy. The man, Samuel, is intrigued by the woman over the ensuing days, and wants to know more about her. Because he is at work when the mothers come to collect their children in the afternoon, he sets up his camera in his window spot to take photos at short intervals around the time he thinks the afternoon bus will arrive. Viewing the photos, however, Samuel is distraught to see them record a teenage boy being attacked, apparently killed, by a pit bull terrier. Upset, he stores the pictures in his computer and resolves not to continue his spying.
The next chapter of this delightful book turns to Captain Olmedo, a senior army officer who has been asked by the military chiefs to report on the viability of the local barracks, an anachronism in the days of modern technological warfare and 'peace-keeping', but a source of traditional pride and employing a considerable number of residents of the surrounding area. Olmedo is an honourable, old-school man who will do his duty, despite the attempts of his colleagues, and superior officer, to affect the outcome of his research, which he has to present at a hostile meeting.
Every chapter of the book tells events from the perspective of a different character in this rich novel. At its heart it is a classical detective story, in which private investigator Ricardo Cupido, with his Dr Watson-like assistant Alkalino, are hired to find out whether a suicide was in fact murder. This is not the first book to feature Cupido, though it is the first I have read, and he's evidently had a busy and dramatic past in his previous cases. His style in his investigation is to calmly approach each person who had any connection to the victim, and though an almost psychotherapeutic analysis, he manages to find out more than the police, who have long since closed the case.
The novel is much more than this story. By switching the perspective between the characters, the author conveys many insights into human nature, as well as fascinating glimpses into Spanish society and attitudes. There are the soldiers, barely coming to terms with the end of compulsory military service and coping with the influx of volunteer recruits from Spain's former colonies, trying to cling on to their old traditions of war and honour, as well as coping with the shadow of their Francoist past. The middle-class suburbanites have evolved their own ways of life as they lose touch with the land and their agricultural heritage. Some characters are in the grip of tragedy, others see opportunities arising from misery, some are struggling to lead an ethical life but can't work out how from the moral dilemmas they face, and others are simply too trustworthy. It is hard to see how Cupido's case will be resolved, as all the leads gradually run out. The reader has one piece of knowledge which the detective does not, however, which is an awareness of Samuel's film. Somehow, this is going to be relevant to breaking the case, we are sure.
It was possibly the most complex case he had ever encountered, because it had all the difficulties of several investigations rolled into one: the ambiguity of a death that he couldn't even say hadn't been suicide; a variation of the locked-room enigma; a hermetic environment for the prying detective; a client who regrets having hired him and fires him, further complicating matters; the lack of any certainties to rely on; the useless passage of time, while the likelihood of finding new information seems ever more remote.
I found this a wonderful book, both in its confident telling of the story with no need for over-complicated, violent solutions, and in the author's fantastic ability to write from the perspective of the teenager, the old man or woman, the widow or divorcee, the soldier, the businessman or the maid. And in the telling, the country and its people come alive before your eyes. Without a doubt, a five-star read.
Maxine Clarke, England
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