This is a transcription of Argentina: Tango to the End of the World.
David: Hello. Welcome to Strong Sense of Place.
Melissa: In each episode, we focus on one destination and discuss what makes it different than any other place on Earth.
David: Then we recommend five books we love that took us there on the page.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan.
David: I’m David Humphreys.
David: We’re going around the world one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
David: Welcome to Strong Sense of Place. Today we get curious about Argentina. In Two Truths and a Lie, I’m going to tell you about one of the greatest bank heists of all time. Then we’ll talk about five books we love.
Melissa: I’m recommending a murder mystery, with a little bit of a love story, by Argentina’s most popular crime novelist
David: I’ve got a very spooky little book that won a National Book Award. But first, Mel’s going to bring us up to speed with the Argentina 101.
Melissa: Argentina is in the southern part of South America. It’s huge! It’s the second largest country in South America, and, get this, it’s about 1/3 the size of the United States. On the west, the Andes mountains run between Argentina and Chile. To the east, is the Atlantic Ocean and Uruguay.
Melissa: The capital city is Buenos Aires. Almost half of the population lives there, and it’s sometimes called the ‘Paris of South America.’ There’s stunning architecture — neoclassical, art nouveau, art deco, Spanish baroque, plus beautiful gardens, antique markets, museums, steak houses, and a devotion to cafe culture. Let me tell you about some of the neighborhoods. The Recoleta is cosmopolitan with former palaces, fancy boutiques, and elegant townhouses that look like they were drop-shipped from Paris. It’s also where you find the Recoleta Cemetery. That’s where Evita and other Argentine luminaries are laid to rest. I love a stroll through a major cemetery.
Melissa: La Boca is Recoleta’s colorful, artistic cousin with street art and boxy houses painted bright colors. On the pedestrian street Caminito, musicians sit in the doorways of cafes and play tango music while dancers do the tango on the streets and sidewalks.
Melissa: Argentina has been a country of immigration for most of its history. It’s estimated that more than 7 million European immigrants arrived in Argentina between 1880 and 1930. That explains why about 97% of Argentines are of Europe origin, mostly Spanish and Italian. The official language is Spanish, and you’ll also hear a lot of Italian, German, and Arabic. About 42% of Argentines speak English.
Melissa: Let’s take a quick romp through colonialism! The Spanish arrived in 1516 and stuck around for 300 years. Then in 1806, the British attacked Buenos Aires and the Falkland Islands. Locals recaptured the capital, but not the islands. Four years after that, across the Atlantic, Napoleon captured all the major cities in Spain. So, while their Spanish overlords were distracted, the Argentines reclaimed their country and gained independence in 1816.
Melissa: The 20th century was about authoritarianism. Juan Perón and his famous wife Evita were in power. I’ll be talking about them later, so for now, I’ll just say, she was adored for her devotion to helping the poor, but they were both problematic. The 1970s and 80s were known for a military ‘dirty war.’ Since 1983, Argentina has been a democracy.
Melissa: Let’s talk about awesome things to do there! Because the country is so vast, its geography and climate quite a bit. Today, we’ll take a quick tour through each region and daydream about the things we could see and do there.
Melissa: We’ll start with the Pampas. It’s flat grassland in the interior of the country with a humid climate. It’s where the cattle graze and crops like wheat and soybeans grow. There are also clumps of pampas grass. If you’re not familiar, it looks like fluffy beige feathers perched on slender green stalks. Even in still photos, it looks like it’s swaying in a breeze. The Pampas has charming old villages and ranches and gauchos.
Melissa: Those are Argentinian cowboys. They wear wide-brimmed hats, wrangle cattle, and have starred in literature and folklore since the 1800s. Today, you can go on a gaucho day tour or visit The Gaucho Festival in November. The Pampas is also the place to eat at a traditional barbecue called an asado. There’s red wine and salads, but the star of the show is grilled meats and sausages, like spicy chorizo and blood sausage called morcilla. There will also be chimichurri to drizzle on the meat. It’s a magical sauce made with a lot of olive oil and a little red wine vinegar that’s seasoned with garlic, chiles, oregano, and lots of fresh parsley. It’s grassy and spicy and when you drizzle it on grilled meat, it tastes like herb heaven.
Melissa: Moving to the northeast… this part of the country is also hot and humid, but it’s green with lush jungles, wetlands, and the famous Iguazú Falls. The falls are taller than Niagara Falls in Canada and wider than Victoria Falls in Africa. The surrounding national park has trails and bridges that let you get into the splash zone. The most dramatic section is called the Devil’s Throat, a massive wall of roaring white water. The jungle there is home to tapirs, giant anteaters, howler monkeys, ocelots, jaguars, and caimans.
David: What are caimans?
Melissa: They’re in the alligator-crocodile family.
Melissa: Now we’ll go west toward the Andes and Mt. Aconcagua, the highest peak outside the Himalayas. At the foot of the mountains are red volcanic plateaus, scrubby desert, and one of the best wine regions in the world. In the far northwest is the city of Salta La Linda. That means Salta the Fair — and there is an argument to be made that it’s the most beautiful city in Argentina. It has ornate colonial architecture set against the stunning backdrop of the Andes mountains.
Melissa: Heading south, we get to Patagonia, which is almost like another country within the country. It’s sparsely populated and very rugged with arid steppes, shockingly blue lakes, volcanoes, craggy mountain peaks, and glaciers. This is where you want to go Action Jackson outdoors. There’s hiking, horseback riding, kayaking, biking, ice climbing, mountain biking through landscapes that are otherworldly.
Melissa: On Patagonia’s Atlantic coast, you can go whale watching and see elephant seals. It’s also the home to the world’s largest population of Magellanic penguins — named for the explorer Magellan. They’re super cute and sort of have white racing stripes on their heads and chests.
Melissa: Finally, at the very southernmost point of South America is Tierra del Fuego. It’s an archipelago shared by Chile and Argentina, and it is the definition of dramatic. Snowy mountains, glaciers, tundra, trees fighting to take a stand against the wind. On the main island is the resort town Ushuaia which is called ‘the end of the world.’ You can ride a steam train there that used to transport timber to the jail. It was known as the Train of Prisoners. Now it’s the Train at the End of the World because it’s the southernmost railway on Earth.
Melissa: When the outdoor adventuring is done, you’ll want some food and music. There’s world-class Italian food, of course, and you’ll want to try empanadas. Those are hand pies filled with spiced meats. And milanesa. That’s like South American schnitzel made with a beef cutlet that’s breaded and fried. And fugazza. That’s Argentinian pizza.
Melissa: I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about two more delicious things: dulce de leche and yerba mate. Dulce de leche is like caramel but woe to the person who says it is caramel. Caramel is made from WATER and sugar. But dulce de leche is made from MILK and sugar, plus a little vanilla. So it’s creamier and richer. It’s drizzled on ice cream or used in alfajores, sandwich cookies made by sticking two round shortbread cookies together with a healthy layer of dulce de leche.
Melissa: And now: yerba mate. It’s the most consumed beverage in Argentina, and one of the videos I watched said, it’s the most loyal friend that you don’t have. Mate is a bitterish green brew made from the dried leaves of the yerba mate plant, which translates as ‘gourd herb’. It has about as much caffeine as coffee. It’s traditionally served in a hollowed-out gourd and sipped through a metallic staw called a bombilla.
Melissa: It’s not only the national drink of Argentina, it’s a cultural ritual. It’s social. When you share it with friends, you sit in a circle and pass the gourd around, clockwise, refilling the gourd from a thermos of hot water.
Melissa: Finally, speaking of friendship, because of the European influence, Argentinians like to stand close, gesture with their hands while they speek, and it’s not unusual to get the dual-cheek kiss instead of handshake.
Melissa: If you’re socializing with Argentinian friends, always be on time for lunch, for the theater, and for futbol. But for social events like an asado or a dinner party, arrive 30-60 minutes late. Being on time to a party is considered impolite. And that’s the Argentina 101.
David: Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?
Melissa: I am!
David: I’m about to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel doesn’t know which one is the lie. Here are the three statements. One of the most famous Argentines is probably Pope Francis. He is the current pope if you need to catch up on your papal history. He was elected a little over ten years ago. He was the first pope from South America and the first from the Western Hemisphere. Glad to see that they’re broadening their hiring practices at the Vatican. Here’s the statement: The Pope was a bouncer at a club in Buenos Aires.
David: If you were born in the US, you probably encountered the phrase, ‘Dig a hole to China.’ It was frequently seen in old Bugs Bunny cartoons, where a character would start digging and come up in some racist vision of China. That brings us to the second statement: If you want to dig to China, you must start in Argentina. And three: A team of Argentine bank robbers executed the greatest heist of all time.
Melissa: Those all sound true! Good job.
David: OK. One at a time. The pope was a bouncer at a club in Buenos Aires. I like saying that because it sounds like a Tom Waits lyric: ‘I danced at the eucharist and flirted with St. Mary / When the pope was a bouncer at a club in Buenos Aires.’
David: And, beyond being fun, that’s also true. When he was working on his priesthood, the pope worked the door at a club in his hometown. While I was doing the research for this, I also found out that Pope Francis is a Tolkien fan. Which created the delightful image in my head of a bored twenty-something sitting on a stool outside of a club in Argentina, sometime in the 1950s, flipping through Two Towers, waiting for his shift to end, so he could go home and study up on how to be pope someday. How it started. How it’s going.
David: Statement two: If you want to dig to China, you must start in Argentina. That is not true, but it is true in spirit. Theoretically, you could dig a hole to China from any country. But what we’re really talking about is two points opposite each other on the globe. We have a name for those. They’re an·ti·puh·deez — which, on the page, looks like ‘anti-podes’ to me, but that’s not what people say. If the earth were a basketball, and you were going to hold it with your index fingers, you’d want to put your fingers on the antipodes.
David: Argentina is the antipode of China. Beijing and Buenos Aires almost line up. If you dug a hole through the earth, and figured out how to survive the white-hot molten core and the incredible pressure, you could jump in just outside of Buenos Aires, and 42 exhilarating minutes later, you would come out near Beijing.
David: If you want to get an idea of how much of the earth is water, look at antipodes. Only about 4% of the planet has land on both antipodes. If the world were a basketball, you’d have a hard time holding it and not getting your hands wet.
David: Bonus fun fact: the Pacific Ocean is really, really big. That’s not the fun fact. We’ll get to the fact in a second. The Pacific is so big that you could float all seven continents in it, and still have room for a swim-up bar. It is as big as the earth’s other oceans put together. There’s a lot of water. And mysterious beasts we don’t know anything about. So. Keep your hands in the submarine.
David: Here’s the fact: the Pacific Ocean is its own antipode. Back to the basketball thing — If you put your finger on the Gulf of Tonkin, just off of the South China Sea, your other finger would be just off the coast of Chile. And both of your fingers would be in the Pacific Ocean.
David: Statement three: A team of Argentine bank robbers executed the greatest heist of all time. That’s a lie. Because I think we don’t know about the best heist of all time. I believe that team is living anonymously somewhere, content with their lives and what they did, and happy to be quiet and extremely wealthy.
David: Which, now that I say it, seems like an unusual combination of personalities — ‘master thief’ and ‘content with one’s life’ — but maybe it’s happened. But this story is different. This is a heist we know about. And, as far as heists we know about go, this is easily in the top five.
David: It started just after noon in January 2006, in a well-to-do suburb of Buenos Aires. Police are told that there’s a bank robbery in progress. They show up, and they establish a perimeter. The thieves are still inside. But so are 23 hostages. Classic bank robbery setup. Pretty soon, the press shows up, and the entire nation watches this unfold live on TV.
David: The cops set up communication with a man inside. He calls himself Walter. Walter says that, while they realize they are surrounded, they will not give up! – The mood inside the bank seems oddly cheerful. At one point, two robbers sing “Happy Birthday” to one of the hostages. At 3:30, Walter orders pizza. He says everybody’s getting hungry. Pizzas are delivered. And then Walter goes quiet. The police aren’t sure what to do. Do we storm the place? Do we wait? The hours tick by.
David: Around 7pm, a team of special forces officers burst into the bank. It’s quiet in the bank. They look around. They find the hostages. But no thieves. But they found what the thieves were after. In the basement, there are 400 safe deposit boxes. About 140 of them have been popped and emptied. Argentines don’t trust the banks. For reasons. As recently as 2001, the national bank system collapsed. Ever since then, people have been using safe deposit boxes.
David: The cops find a few other things. There’s a row of toy guns left behind. And above the guns there’s a handwritten note. It says, ‘In a neighborhood of rich people, without weapons or grudges — it’s just money, not love.’ The thieves disappear. The news said they lifted almost $20 million in cash and valuables. The police had no leads. Now, I’m going to fly over a lot of this story, because there’s a lot of story here, but here are the highlights.
David: The team of thieves included seven guys. Two of them were old friends — guys who had grown up together. One of them was the mastermind, and the other was an engineer. He had mechanical talents. The team also involved two guys — one of whom everyone called Doc and another Beto — they were the muscle. There was also — nd I am not making this up — a stylish, charming, and retired cat burglar who had done well for himself but came back for just one more heist. He was Walter, the man the cops spoke with. That’s five — two friends, two muscle guys, and a cat burglar. There was a driver. And there was a man who, to this day, has never been identified.
David: Their plan from the start was to make it look like they had already lost — like they had nowhere to go. And then leave the bank by going down. They got out by building a tunnel into the bank from the sewers beneath. The engineer had spent weeks in the sewer digging that out, leaving just a half-inch or so for game day. They got in, and broke that. They hauled the loot down there, descended into the sewers, and pulled a heavy cabinet over the hole. Then they used motorized rubber boats to get further away. From there, the loot was loaded through a manhole into a van. When the police broke through the bank door, the team was home, eating pizza and watching TV.
David: The thieves did many clever things. They left behind what appeared to be a getaway vehicle. That was just a decoy. They had hoped the cops would find it and assume they would come back out the main door. – When they left the bank, they spread hair clippings they’d gotten from a barber all over the scene, in hopes that it would cloud any DNA results. The day after the robbery, the engineer took all the credit cards they’d found in the safe-deposit boxes and scattered them around the city. People would see the cards, try to use them, or turn them in. Every time a card came up, the cops had to investigate.
David: Ultimately, they got busted because of Beto, the muscle. Five weeks after the heist, Beto was out for a drive with his girlfriend when the cops pulled him over. That really pissed off his wife. She called the cops and turned them all in.
David: The police rounded up five of the guys. When they did that, they only recovered a small fraction of what was stolen. When they asked him about the money, Beto said, “You know, when they arrested me, I got a big knock on my head. I can’t remember.”
David: If you want to know more about the story, there are many books and a few movies. Netflix has a full-length documentary called ‘Bank Robbers: The Last Great Heist.’ Four of the thieves talk about their roles in the robbery. GQ also did a fantastic article. We’ll point to all of it in our show notes. That’s Two Truths and a Lie.
David: Are you ready to talk about books?
Melissa: I am!
Melissa: My first recommendation is The Gods of Tango by Carolina De Robertis. It’s set in Buenos Aires in the early 1900s, and it’s a lush story about immigration, found family, tango, and sexual identity. In real life, there was a massive wave of immigration of Italian and Spanish immigrants to Argentina in the late 19th century.
Melissa: In this book, it’s 1913. Our heroine Leda leaves her Italian village to join her husband in Buenos Aires. She’s just 17 years old — with a small trunk and one family heirloom: her father’s violin. On the up side, she knows her husband. He’s a lifelong friend from the village, and their plan has to been to escape their small, claustrophobic life together to start fresh in the Americas.
Melissa: When she arrives at the dock in Buenos Aires, she’s met by a stranger. Her husband Dante has been killed by the police at a labor protest. She makes her way to the tenement that was supposed to be their home.
Melissa: Before I tell you what she does next, I want to talk about immigrant life in Buenos Aires. The urban tenements in Buenos Aires were called conventillos. They were big mansions repurposed as living complexes with dozens of people sharing one kitchen and one or two bathrooms. Whole families lived in one room — and a group of, say 6 or 8 bachelors might share one room, and sleep in shifts. The women worked from home, doing laundry or light sewing to make a little extra money. It created a sense of communal living where they shared meals and common spaces, waiting in line for the bathroom or for water together. And on Sundays, after a shared lunch in the courtyard, they’d make music. That’s where the tango was born.
Melissa: So… Leda is living in the conventillo with very limited options. She’s a widowed, single woman — not even a woman, a teenager — she doesn’t want to be a prostitute, but she has no family and no opportunities. Except that she loves music, and she has a natural gift for playing the violin.
Melissa: But women cannot play music — it’s frowned on at home, it’s IMPOSSIBLE in public. Then Leda gets a diabolically good idea. She chops off her hair, binds her breasts, dresses in men’s clothing, and takes her husband’s name. Leda becomes Dante.
Melissa: It’s exhilarating. The first time she walks down the street as a man is a revelation. She realizes she can go anywhere she wants and no one will mess with her. She’s out at night. Alone! She works on her swagger. She sees another man spit in the street, so she tries that. And most of all, she can play the violin in public. She’s been liberated.
Melissa: But there are dangerous logistical challenges, too, like bathing in the shared bathroom or wriggling out of the post-show trip to the brothel. If her truth is found out she could be killed or raped. Dante is also struggling with his identity because he realizes that not only does he feel more comfortable as a man, he loves women.
Melissa: This story gives us the whole arc of Dante’s life from immigrant girl to male musician, and it has everything: There are brawls and heartfelt conversations. Smokey bars and elegant dance halls filled with the sensuous sounds of the tango. Moments of real camaraderie among Dante’s found family and heart-breaking betrayal.
Melissa: The author is very good at writing about music. The descriptions made me feel the yearning that tango created in the musicians and the dancers. I want to read you a snippet from the first time Leda-Dante hears the tango in the courtyard of her coventillo:
‘He counted to four. And then it happened. Music. It surged out of string and finger in harsh communion, weeping from the terrible pleasure of the bow. Guitar strings shook and deepened the well of sorrow. Carlo sang. Something about the night clutching his heart, something about a woman… The sound ensnared her. It invaded her bones, urged her blood. She didn’t know herself; it now occurred to her that she knew nothing about the world, could not have known a thing when she didn’t know the world contained this sensation, such sound, such wakefulness, a melody as rich as night.’
Melissa: This is also a fascinating exploration of gender roles. In addition to Dante, there are his hypermasculine bandmates, and a woman club owner who defies all the social norms by running the club herself — unheard of for a woman at the time. There’s a very feminine tango singer who wears a suit and fedora — with mascara and lipstick — when she performs. That character was inspired by a real tango singer named Azucena Maizani. I’ll put a video of her singing in show notes.
Melissa: Having said all that serious stuff, this is a very entertaining book. The plot kept me turning pages because I needed to know what was going to happen to Dante, and the author really nailed the ending. That’s The Gods of Tango by Carolina De Robertis.
Melissa: A final note if you want to go all-in on immigrant experience: You could pair this with Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle for a take on the American experience of tough working conditions and living in tight quarters, while keeping homeland traditions alive in a new place and forming a new community.
David: My first book is Who is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht. I feel like the title and the cover are a strong head-fake on this book. The title — in particular — makes me think of those movie trailers from the 90s: ‘Meet Vera Kelly. She’s a down-on-her-luck twenty-something, just trying to make a difference.’ And this book is very much not that.
David: The book starts — paragraph one — with Vera almost overdosing on tranquilizers. And not in a goofy way. It also introduces Vera’s unsympathetic mother. From there, this story unfolds about a young woman who’s a spy for the CIA in the mid-1960s. For most of the book, Vera is in Buenos Aires, monitoring the oncoming coup. There are stakes in this story.
David: The coup is based on history. In June of 1966, President Illia gave up control of the country to General Juan Carlos Ongania. In part because Ongania had tanks rolling in the streets.
David: So, there are two layers to the book. There’s a spy story. And there’s a historical fiction story. But there’s another layer. ‘Who is Vera Kelly?’ is mostly the coming-of-age story of a young, capable, lesbian trying to figure out her life in the middle of the 1960s. The blend of those things is pretty glorious. Just from a writing level, those stories intertwine and support one another. It is told in alternating timelines.
David: In the first chapter, we get Vera in late 1957, growing up in Chevy Chase, Maryland. In the next chapter, Vera is in her mid-20s, doing spy work in Argentina. Knecht doesn’t give us anything to tie those things together for quite a while. There are short chapters where we bounce back and forth between the two timelines. Eventually, we find out that Vera is estranged from her family, and that she’s in Buenos Aires to do some wiretapping and to infiltrate a group of student activists. They might be Commies.
David: The lack of information really drives this book forward. When we meet Vera, we’re given enough information to care about her. And no more. And then, when we’ve finally got a handle on who she is, we’re hip-deep in a bunch of trouble that she’s gotten into. A gun has come into her possession. A bomb is being built somewhere. The state has fallen. Her friends might have abandoned her. There are a lot of questions about who she can trust and what’s happening.
David: The author does an excellent job of exploring the idea that being a closeted gay person with a horrible mother might qualify you for espionage. Vera is not only good at subverting her identity, reading the room quickly, and using coded language, but she also considers herself expendable. Here’s a bit from the book:
‘As Gerry had said, if things went bad, I could be killed. And yet, in the place where my fear should have been, there was a blank space. I felt that I had been living for a long time in a place beyond fear, where my life was contingent and didn’t amount to much anyway. Back home, I had known that if I was arrested at a dyke bar I would lose my job, and if I lost my job I would end up in a flophouse or worse. I went out anyway, because living was a dry waste if I didn’t. When I started working for Gerry and made enough money to keep some in the bank, I knew that if Gerry found out I went with girls, I would be fired twice over—the CIA did not pay out to homosexuals, because they were too easy to compromise.’
David: This book has some things to say about Argentina. If you’re headed there, this book will give you places to look for. But it’ll also broaden your appreciation for the recent history and what the people must have gone through.
David: One of the things that Knecht explores is the idea of a population that routinely goes through coup d etat. We meet a restaurant owner who’s upset because he doesn’t know anyone in the incoming regime. Not that they’re rolling tanks in his hometown. That he doesn’t know anyone in the incoming government. That gave me a big taste of what that must be like — that you must not only run the restaurant, but you must also be on the inside with the ruling power and distance yourself from the toppled.
David: This book is the start of a trilogy. All three books are out now. The second book is set in the Dominican Republic, and the third in Los Angeles in the early 1970s. According to the reviews I read, all three are thrillers that follow Vera’s growth as a person, and all three explore the evolution of queer culture during their respective eras.
David: This book kept me going. It’s a good historical spy story with shifting alliances and trust issues. It’s also a good coming-of-age novel about a woman growing up during hard times. And Knecht does a great job of using one story to support the other. That’s Who is Vera Kelly? by Rosalie Knecht.
Melissa: My second recommendation is A Quiet Flame by Philip Kerr. This is a hard-boiled noir thriller set in 1950 Buenos Aires with flashbacks to 1932 Berlin. It features one of my all-time favorite heroes, or maybe I should say antihero: Bernie Gunther.
Melissa: Bernie stars in 14 novels. Most of them explore his experiences as a police investigator and later, as a private eye, during the WWII era. A great thing about this series it jumps around in Bernie’s history — it’s not chronological — so you can read them in any order. So this one is a fine place to start.
Melissa: Let’s talk about Bernie. Bernie is your classic decent man in bad circumstances. He’s a mostly well-intentioned detective with a high close rate on his cases, a sardonic sense of humor, and a troublesome weakness for damsels in distress. He often falls desperately in love with the wrong woman and either ends up in mortal danger or with a shattered heart. If he’s on your side, you’re in good hands. If he sets his sights on you as an enemy, look out.
Melissa: And he hates Nazis. HATES them. He’s a native Berliner with a live-and-let-live philosophy, so fascists really rub him the wrong way. But he’d also like to keep breathing, so on and off, he finds himself working alongside Nazis and trying to bring them down from within. The voice that Philip Kerr gave Bernie is very distinctive. Here’s an example of Bernie describing someone else:
‘I’ve seen healthier-looking men in coffins. He was about five feet, six inches tall, with lank, greasy, gray hair, eyebrows that looked like two halves of a mustache that had been separated for its own good, and a rat’s narrow… features. He wore a cheap suit and a vest that looked like a rag in a mechanic’s greasy hands… There was a bottle in his coat pocket that was probably his breakfast and, in the corner of his mouth, a length of drooping tobacco ash that had once been a cigarette. As he spoke, it fell onto the floor.’
Melissa: This book opens in 1950 Buenos Aires. Bernie has been falsely identified as a war criminal, so he’s taking advantage of the open arms offered by Argentina. He’s going to start a new life on the other side of the planet. He’s traveled under a false name, but it’s not too long before the local police realize they have a star detective in their midst. And Bernie is pressured into investigating two cases — a gruesome murder and a kidnapping — that seem to have a connection to one of his unsolved cases from Berlin in 1932.
Melissa: In real life, Argentina was officially neutral during the war, but kept close ties to Germany — because there were hundreds of thousands of German immigrants living there. After the war, President Juan Perón secretly set up what are called ‘ratlines’ to smuggle high-ranking Nazis out of Europe. Historians are divided on whether Evita was a Nazi sympathizer; there are rumors that she accepted gold stolen from Jewish families during the Holocaust. But so much documentation was burned after Perón’s eventual fall from grace, it’s unclear if Eva was in on it or not.
Melissa: As Bernie investigates the new cases and revisits his memories of the old one, he gets dangerously close to Evita and her husband. His suspects include a slew of unlikable rich people, plus a who’s who of Nazis hiding out, including Josef Mengele, the Angel of Death who experimented on prisoners in the Auschwitz death camp, and Adolf Eichmann, one of the organizers of the Holocaust.
Melissa: The author Philip Kerr dives into research the way, say, Eric Larson does for his nonfiction books. I found a great video I’ll put in show notes where Kerr talks about how important it was for him to walk the streets of the places he wrote about. It shows in all of his books. This one taught me all kinds of things I didn’t know about Argentina and WWII — but it’s woven into the story in a way that doesn’t make it feel like research on the page.
Melissa: This story is chilling and suspenseful — and because Bernie is Bernie, he falls hard for a beautiful woman who is actually good for him — but that romance reveals other heartbreaking truths.
Melissa: This is the book for you if you like WWII stories and snappy dialogue and bad guys getting their well-deserved comeuppance — all mixed in with fascinating history that drives a page-turning plot. A reviewer described his books as ‘history lessons as escapism,’ and I wish I’d thought of that. It’s A Quiet Flame by Philip Kerr.
Melissa: I should also mention that I reviewed two other Bernie Gunther books on our website. One is set in 1941 Prague, it’s called Prague Fatale, and the other is set in 1942 Yugoslvia, in what’s now Croatia. It’s called The Lady From Zagreb. I’ll put links in show notes.
David: My second book is Seven Empty Houses by Samanta Schweblin and translated by Megan McDonell. This is a collection of short stories that are described as literary horror. It could be the thesis for a Master’s in creepy.
David: To me, these stories feel a lot like a bad dream that started when you’re drifting off, thinking about your house or your to-do list — and then things get weird. Details are amplified. People — maybe your friends — start doing something they don’t normally do. And before you know it, you’re wide awake and thinking, ‘What the hell was that?’ All of the stories in Seven Empty Houses start as domestic tales about people who seem to be just on the other side of a breakdown.
David: In the first story, two women — a mother and a daughter — are driving around, looking at houses in an upscale neighborhood. We don’t know why they’re doing that. But it’s clear that they’ve done this many times before. And then mom — mom’s driving — mom tries to turn the car around and gets caught in a yard. The wheels are spinning, but the car isn’t moving. And while they’re trying to get out, they’re wrecking the lawn. They’re caught by the woman who lives there. The woman seems very unhappy about this development. So, we’ve got this weird, tense scene with tones of racism and classism where, as a reader, we still have questions about paragraph one. … And we’re only at the bottom of page two or so.
David: Things just keep getting deeper and deeper for mom and daughter. Eventually, the daughter, who’s narrating the story, tells us that her mom has this habit — this compulsion — that drives her to go out to straighten other people’s yards. Schweblin writes:
‘For as long as I can remember, we’ve gone out to look at houses, removed unsuitable flowers and pots from their gardens. We’ve moved sprinklers, straightened mailboxes, relocated lawn ornaments that were too heavy for the grass. As soon as my feet reached the pedals, I started to take over driving, which gave my mother more freedom. Once, by herself, she moved a white wooden bench and put it in the yard of the house across the street.’
David: That is not the bottom of that story. That’s a mid-arc reveal.
David: There’s another story about a man who simply can’t seem to accept his son’s death. That brings up a lot of ideas about how we haunt one another. And what is an appropriate level of grief?
David: There’s another story that centers around a man’s parents – they’re older – and, for most of the story, they’re out in the backyard, naked, dancing, and playing with a water hose. This happens while the man inside tries to host his ex-wife, their kids, and her new boyfriend. It’s not going well.
David: There was a second for me in that story where I was wondering if the point was that the author thought we should all be out, naked, dancing in the backyard, playing with the hose. What’s the problem there?
David: The story I think made the biggest impression on me is called, “Breath from the Depths.” This is longer, maybe a novella even. It’s about an older woman Lola who starts in a bad position and goes downhill from there. The first couple lines of the story are:
‘The list was part of a plan: Lola suspected that her life had been too long, so simple and light that now it lacked the weight needed to disappear. After studying the experiences of some acquaintances, she had concluded that even in old age, death needed a final push. An emotional nudge, or a physical one. And she couldn’t give that to her body. She wanted to die, but every morning, inevitably, she woke up again.’
David: As that story goes on, she slowly spirals into dementia. She forgets things. She grows paranoid, and starts making up stories that don’t seem to have any truth to them. She realizes something is wrong, but can’t quite put her finger on it. Lola writes lists to help herself manage but then she’s also surprised by the list when she sees it again.
David: The story is written so that it felt like I was going through the stages as Lola was. In the end, I was also trying to figure out what was real and what was fabricated. When did we write that note? Is the kid next door conspiring with the husband?
David: I know that’s not a ride everyone will want to take, but I found it compelling. I want to mention the translator. All of Schweblin’s books that are available in English have been translated by Megan McDowell. She’s a very gifted translator. Together, she and Schewblin won the 2022 National Book Award for Translated Literature for this book. McDowell has also worked with another Argentine woman who writes dark short stories — Mariana Enriquez. McDowell translated The Dangers of Smoking in Bed and Things We Lost in the Fire. In my imagination, these three women have a lively but intense tea party every year or so.
David: If you’re curious about exploring the lives of Argentine women through the words of a short-story writer with a dark bent, I recommend you give this a go. It’s Seven Empty Houses by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDonell.
Melissa: My final recommendation is a mystery novel called Betty Boo. It’s by Claudia Piñeiro and translated by Miranda France. This story takes place in modern Buenos Aires in two radically different and really fascinating settings: the newsroom of El Tribuno newspaper and a posh gated community called La Maravillosa, which is loosely translated to something like The Wonderful.
Melissa: La Maravillosa has absurd levels of security. The story opens on a Monday morning outside its security gates. A line of domestic workers — housekeepers, gardeners, plumbers, carpenters, electricians — snakes along the road, waiting to show their credentials to get into work. IDs are checked, bags are searched. The security guards make an inventory of any valuables they’re taking in so at the end of the day, they’re not accused of stealing on the way out. La Maravillosa is a secure place for the rich to live safely outside the fray of city life.
Melissa: So it’s doubly shocking when a housemaid reports to work and finds her employer sitting in his favorite chair with his throat slit.
Melissa: The dead guy was a very wealthy industrialist, and his murder is big news not only because he’s super-dead but because his wife died mysteriously a few years before, and many people believe he murdered her — although it couldn’t be proven.
Melissa: This book is about the search for the truth of who murdered him and why. But instead of following a detective through the evidence, we walk alongside three reporters who are writing about this high-profile murder.
Melissa: Jaime Brena is a crime reporter who’s recently been demoted to writing a Society column. He has decades of experience busting crime stories wide open, but now he’s writing about inane stuff like the percentage of women who sleep on their backs.
Melissa: His replacement on the crime desk has a real name, but is called Crime Boy throughout the book. He’s a total newbie who has no idea how to get out and interview people to get a story. All of his research is done online. As you might imagine, he and Jaime are like oil and water when the story begins.
Melissa: And the heroine of our story is Nurit Iscar. She’s the Betty Boo of the title because she resembles the cartoon character — she’s curvy and has black curly hair, but more than that, she’s sexy and sassy and modern. Nurit, or Betty Boo, is a novelist-turned-ghost-writer. She’s also the former lover of the editor of El Tribuno newspaper.
Melissa: The editor uses their past affair as leverage to convince her to write about the Maravillosa murder. Betty Boo temporarily takes up residence in a home in La Maravillosa to live among the privileged and write color pieces about the murder investigation — while Crime Boy will handle the straight reporting. Before too long, the three writers — Betty Boo, Jaime, and Crime Boy — team up to investigate. And what they find is much darker and more complicated than they ever suspected.
Melissa: There is so much to love about this book.
Melissa: Betty Boo has very solid friendships with two other women, and it’s a joy to spend time with them. They have standing tradition one Sunday a month that I love: They meet at one of their houses and the hostess buys all the Sunday newspapers. While she cooks lunch, the others pull apart the newspapers, hunting for interesting things to share. Then they eat, and after lunch, they drink coffee and read to each other.
Melissa: Also, this book would have fit well into our newsroom episode. There’s a lot of insider detail about the workings of the newspaper and how reporters doggedly follow a story, doing things and going places that police can’t.
Melissa: One of my favorite things is that the main characters are full-on adults. Betty Boo and her girlfriends and Jaime — they’re middle-aged or older. They’ve had disappointments and have the emotional scars to prove it. But they’re also experienced and self-aware — and those qualities are what make them succeed. All of that is in service to a mystery that reveals a truly chilling event from the past.
Melissa: And now, full disclosure, I have to tell you about something that might be a problem for some readers. The book is written in the present tense with very long paragraphs — like, sometimes the paragraph is more than a page long — and there are no quotation marks around the dialogue. I know! It makes it sounds terrible. Here’s my argument in favor: The chapters are pretty short; on my Kindle, they took about 10-15 minutes to read, and it’s always clear who’s speaking. But fair warning.
Melissa: I really enjoyed the journey with these characters, and the ending has a little twist that is very, very satisfying. It’s Betty Boo by Claudia Piñeiro and translated by Miranda France.
David: Those are five books we love, set in Argentina. Visit our show notes at strongsenseofplace.com for links and details. We’ll send you on one of the greatest heists of all time. And introduce you to some lovely music.
Melissa: The author of The Gods of Tango, Carolina De Robertis, is really interesting and very well spoken. I have a link to an excellent interview with her in show notes, plus more info about the gender-bending tango musicians of Buenos Aires. And I’ll be sharing a recipe for milanesa.
David: Mel, where are we going for our next episode?
Melissa: We’re going to eat popcorn and cotton candy and soft serve ice cream then go on roller coasters until our tummies hurt. We’re getting excited about Amusement Parks.
Top image courtesy of Nicolas Taylor/Unsplash.
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