• Overheard

Review of Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro

by Kavan P. Stafford


(Charco Press, $15.95/£9.99)



Readers in English might know Argentinian author Claudia Piñeiro from crime novel Thursday Night Widows (trans. 2010) but those that pick up Elena Knows, translated by Frances Riddle for Charco Press, will find something rather different. A blended novel, part crime, part lamentation on the cruelty of age and disease, part passionate advocation of access to abortion, it offers a new dimension to the usual investigative fare of the genre.


The novel starts off with the death of Rita, middle-aged daughter of Parkinson’s sufferer Elena. Rita was found hanging from one of the bell-ropes in their local church by the priest and the police arrive record the death as a suicide. Elena thinks differently, becoming obsessed with the idea that there is more to her daughter’s death than meets the eye.

All of this is described in flashback. The story proper concerns Elena, making her own slow and painful way across Buenos Aires, hampered by the developing symptoms of her Parkinson’s, a disease she refers to as “Herself,” in search of help from a young woman, Isabel, who Rita once talked out of an illegal abortion and who, Elena believes, therefore owes their family the use of her body as an investigator since Elena herself is no longer able to travel easily.


Bodies dominate the text, Elena’s at the forefront. The novel takes place over a single day and the reader travels with Elena through the slow decline of the life-saving drugs in her system. Her disabilities define how the reader sees the world of Buenos Aires. Elena is permanently hunched and many people she meets are described not by their faces but their shoes and legs. Though a relatively simple journey, every aspect of it is amplified by the difficulties Elena faces from tasks like getting out of a taxi or finding a street address when she is unable to look up to see the buildings.


Elena’s body has come to dominate her daughter’s life as well. From dealing with the unsympathetic and circular logic of disabilities charities and healthcare systems, in frustrating Kafka-esque scenes reminiscent of the plight of newly blind Sammy in James Kelman’s Booker Prize winning How Late it Was, How Late (1994), to the realisation of how far the disease is going to progress. A doctor says that, “in a short time you [Elena] may not be able to get out of bed, you won’t be able to feed yourself or go to the bathroom without help” (p. 135) and it gradually becomes clear that Rita’s suicide may have been the result of from a hopelessness at the thought of her mother’s condition and eventual need for round-the-clock care.

It is not just Elena’s body which is the focus of the novel. Elena mistakenly believes that Isabel, who now has an adult daughter of her own, will feel some gratitude for Rita’s role in making sure that she carried the pregnancy to term. The reality is different. Isabel is in fact resentful and hates Rita for making her finish the pregnancy. What follows is an eloquent attack on anti-abortion rhetoric. Isabel says, “I would have sworn that I’d never even have considered having an abortion, but […] People confuse thinking with knowing, they let themselves confuse the two. When I read the results and saw that it was positive, I knew that what I had inside me wasn’t a child and that I had to deal with it as quickly as possible” (p. 127). Isabel’s unwanted pregnancy is compared to Elena’s Parkinson’s to great effect. Both cause an unasked for and potentially irreparable change in the body against the women’s will. Isabel refuses to let her body be used for someone else’s ends again and will not help Elena with her investigation.


The novel is written with clarity and sure-footedness by Piñeiro and translated beautifully by Riddle. The story is appropriately separated into three sections based around when Elena should be taking her medication, thereby making the reader as invested in that schedule as she is. Piñeiro uses flashbacks well, allowing them to flesh out the story of the present without overwhelming it, and Elena as a protagonist is a breath of fresh air. Piñeiro’s choice of narrating the novel through the thoughts of a disabled old woman makes the story feel fresh and challenging.


Elena Knows both is and is not a crime novel. Certainly, it has a corpse and a mystery around the death but the unconventional investigator, Elena, and the unresolved ending —we never learn whether Rita killed herself or not — cleverly undermine the reader’s expectations of the genre.However, an argument could be made that the crime is not the death of Rita but the callous use of the body of Isabel and, by implication, thousands of women throughout Argentina until the long-awaited abortion legislation in 2020, for which Piñeiro was a prominent campaigner. With that in mind, Elena Knows is a crime novel on a national scale and well worth the read.



 

Kavan P. Stafford is an author, poet, and reviewer who lives and works in Glasgow, Scotland. His work has appeared in many publications including ‘The Common Breath’, ‘Beir Bua’, ‘Piker Press’, ‘The Sock Drawer’, ‘Reservoir Road Literary Review’ and others. For his day job he works in Glasgow’s central library, The Mitchell. You can find him on Twitter @KPS1533.

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