Book Review - An Open Secret

From 1976 until 1983, thousands of left-wing Argentinians were killed or "disappeared", victims of the state-sanctioned violence that became known as the Dirty War. Carlos Gamerro tackles this difficult subject in his novel, An Open Secret, by focusing on the disappearance in 1977 of one young man in a small town. Twenty years after DarĂ­o Ezcurra disappeared, Fefe returns to Malihuel where his grandfather was mayor. Staying with childhood friends, he starts asking questions about Ezcurra, claiming that he plans to write a fictional account of "a murder in a small town".

What he uncovers is both haunting and disturbing. The truth is obscured by a web of lies, suggesting that the townspeople are both distrustful and afraid of the past. Ezcurra had annoyed many people with his outspoken newspaper articles, his left-wing leanings. His philandering and even his arrogance had won him enemies. Most of the town now accept that the former local chief of police murdered him, but at whose behest, and why did nobody warn Ezcurra?

Gradually, by piecing together events, separating truth from lies, Fefe has to face the fact that many of the townspeople were complicit in Ezcurra's murder and that his own family had been involved. It was "the perfect crime... committed in the sight of everyone... there are no witnesses, only accomplices."

Experimental in style, An Open Secret is paced like a taut thriller that challenges but, ultimately, rewards the reader. It is not always an easy read and Ian Barnett's lucid translation is laudable. The multitude of voices is, at times, overwhelming and readers may find themselves tracking back and forth to remind themselves of the characters and their relationships. The deliberate lack of punctuation during speech also takes some getting used to, but is necessary for the overall effect of chattering voices. A host of colourful characters have their own explanations - some are intent on hiding their involvement, others attempt to settle old scores by shifting blame. Gamerro creates a vivid sense of how gossip can poison a small town.

Ezcurra's "disappearance" comes to represent the thousands who were summarily executed during Videla's military dictatorship. Just as many victims were taken on planes to be thrown into the Atlantic, Ezcurra's mutilated corpse lies at the bottom of the town's lagoon. As well as the eponymous secret, there is another devastating revelation in the novel's final pages. Gamerro's novel serves not only to remind us of this brutal period in Argentina's past, but also how its repercussions continue. Memories fade and guilt is alleviated but, it suggests, blame cannot merely be laid at the feet of the regime – the entire nation has a responsibility towards those who disappeared.

Originally published in the Independent 4 November 2011