No One Loves A Policeman by Guillermo Orsi, trans. Nick Caistor

Cries and crimes from Argentina

Barry Forshaw
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:33

If you're feeling like a change from British skies to a sultry Latin climate, then perhaps Guillermo Orsi's novel is your passport. However, the Argentina you will be taken to - while memorably evoked - is not a comfortable place. It is 2001, and the country is in the grip of violent conflict between a rioting populace and brutal police. Amid this unrest, the economy teeters on the brink of collapse (Greece 2010? Plus ça change). Mounted police hold back angry crowds with water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets. Fires have been set in the street and buildings ransacked. This is the chaotic backdrop to Orsi's pungent and atmospheric book, which comes across as a synthesis of hard-boiled detective story, political novel and road movie.

No-one Loves a Policeman is narrated by a jaded ex-copper, Pablo Martelli, once a member of a police department known as the "National Shame". A lonely man damaged by a collapsed relationship, he has in his new career further torpedoed his self-esteem: he is scratching a living by selling bathroom appliances. To add to his problems, Martelli is unable to forget a mysterious woman he encountered in a Buenos Aires dance hall.

But his dispiriting routine is interrupted when he is called to the house of a friend on the coast. By the time he arrives, this friend is dead and the latter's girlfriend has disappeared. Martelli sets out on a phantasmagoric journey to discover the truth behind the death of his friend. Burning tyre rubber on the roads of his benighted country, he discovers a variety of truths. He is steadily disabused of any illusions he has about his Argentina, his dead friend and - most tellingly - himself.

Seeing the familiar in an unfamiliar way was how Coleridge defined the imaginative experience. Orsi has done just that in his beguiling novel, which is essentially a Chandlerian narrative yanked out of steamy Los Angeles and sutured into equally sweaty Argentinean locales. In Nick Caistor's idiomatic translation, this Latin American odyssey meanders, it's true, but that is perfectly in keeping with the protagonist's struggle to find a focus that he evidently possessed in his younger days. From the halcyon time of Dashiell Hammett onwards, the detective story has been pressed into service for a pitiless dissection of a corrupt society; Orsi shows that the strategy still has plenty of mileage.

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