Furia de invierno, or Winter’s Fury (Buenos Aires: Edhasa, 2019), the latest novel by the award-winning Argentine author Perla Suez, presents the story of Luque, a loner who leaves behind his desolate life in Buenos Aires shortly before turning thirty and crosses the border into Paraguay to create a new future for himself in a new country. He has high hopes, but doesn’t realize that the past is inescapable and his fate has already been sealed. Luque is a pawn in a game of chess who always makes the wrong moves. Even when opportunities for a way out present themselves, he allows others to determine the endgame. Although critics have referred to Winter’s Fury as a psychological thriller, given it incorporates such familiar elements of crime fiction as violence, corruption, contraband, bribery, murder, sex and rape, pursuit and flight, the author herself insists that it is much more than a novela negra. Mempo Giardinelli, the Argentine author of such thrillers as Luna caliente and La última felicidad de Bruno Fólner, has said that the modern noir novel offers the reader an x-ray view of society and an opportunity to reflect upon the origins of the violent and unjust world in which we live. This is certainly Suez’s intention for Winter’s Fury as she trains her lens on the intimate lives of the most marginalized members of society, outsiders and lowlife drifters whom she refers to as “invisible zombies.” Like Roberto Arlt’s characters, they have to do what they must to survive. As in the case of her previous novel El país del diablo (Edhasa, 2015), which garnered Suez the prestigious 2020 Rómulo Gallegos Prize, pivotal moments of Argentina’s history serve as the backdrop for the personal tales of her characters, whose individual misfortunes collide with the nation’s collective tragedies. Readers familiar with Argentina’s history will find clues to the novel’s historical framework in the three section titles: “Buenos Aires, July 1979,” “Ciudad del Este, October 1983,” and “Buenos Aires, July 18, 1994.” With her trademark minimalist prose whose compact words detonate like highly explosive charges, Suez traces the course of the final fifteen years of her protagonist’s life in 95 vertiginous pages, interspersing memories and dreams that reveal a traumatic and abusive childhood. The novel opens in 1979, in the midst of the Argentine dictatorship (1976-1983), when Luque leaves the country for Paraguay. The next and longest section, which begins in 1983, details how Luque earns a living as a two-bit smuggler during the corrupt years of neoliberalism, a time when consumerism and corruption ran rampant and black market goods readily crossed the borders between Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil. In the final and shortest section, the novel comes full circle as Luque returns to Buenos Aires, once again in the winter month of July, on a day that is forever linked to one of the darkest moments in Argentine history. I won’t spoil the ending for the reader here, but suffice it to say that the unexpected conclusion will leave you astounded, gasping for breath.
Buenos Aires, July 1979
Luque rushed into the train station and ran straight to the ticket window. He stood by anxiously while the clerk waited on a girl, then quickly bought a second-class ticket to Asunción.
As he walked along the platform, he heard the whistle of the locomotive. The train had already begun to pull out and he was going to miss it.
He ran and managed to grab the hand rail and climb the small staircase of the caboose. He entered the train car flustered, looked for his assigned seat and settled in.
He was tall and slender, with chestnut brown hair and a Roman nose. He wore tennis shoes, jeans, and a wool jacket zipped up to the neck.
Luque took his time scrutinizing the passengers traveling in that car.
He rested his head against the window remembering how his father used to say it was better to sleep to keep from thinking. Lately he felt things were happening that made it seem he was turning into his father more and more. He’d been out of work for nearly a year and his wife had left him a few months earlier. He didn’t want to end up depressed, wandering around the house in pajamas, and was glad to leave it all behind.
He’d chosen Paraguay because he had a cousin living there who’d lend him a hand. He was almost thirty and not afraid to start over in another country.
His gaze blurred as the train made its way across the plain. The clattering of the passenger cars relaxed him, and he slipped into a deep slumber.
The train came to an abrupt, jolting halt. A peddler selling pears and apples roused him from his stupor, and he sat up straight.
Suddenly the image came back of the plum tree behind his house, laden with black plums ready for picking. He could still see the sky turning red at sunset, as it once did. And then he saw his mother on the ladder and himself waiting at the foot of the tree for her to toss them down. Mother and son lingered there a bit longer, as if they had something more to say. Then, as night fell, he took a bite of a plum.
That murky vision disturbed Luque and he began to doubt whether his mother was there that evening amidst the plum branches. He sat watching people getting on and off the train, and tried to clear his mind, taking deep breaths. By the time he settled down, the train was crossing a bridge over a river.
Before falling fast asleep, he heard the wheels scraping the rails and then dreamed that he saw a young man, no more than thirty years old, reading a newspaper. Luque was surprised that they were dressed exactly alike. The man wore the same tennis shoes, the same jeans, and the same jacket. He stared at the young man as he stood up and crossed the coupler. Luque felt distraught when he realized the two of them were identical. He followed him down the aisle, crossing from one car to the next without catching him. Suddenly, the young man stopped in front of a sash window, slid it open from the bottom, and stuck his head out with his eyes closed. Luque saw the wind battering his face. The young man stepped back, closed the window, and continued walking.
The very idea that this man could be his double was unbearable. Luque thought he couldn’t allow someone to steal his identity. So he decided to kill him. It was the only way to get rid of him. The young man walked frantically, as if trying to escape. He made it to the caboose, and Luque wondered how far he thought he could go with no more cars left to the train. A few steps away, Luque froze when he saw him jump.
The shout of the conductor announcing the next station awakened him.
Just as everyone said, leaving Buenos Aires was relatively easy. At the border, getting through customs was a simple procedure. He presented his passport at Immigration, and everything was in order. Fifteen minutes later, he was on Paraguayan soil with a strange feeling of relief.
When he got to Asunción, Luque changed his money, then went to an information desk and inquired about a public telephone. An employee told him there was one at the entrance.
He took out a piece of paper on which he’d jotted down his cousin’s address and telephone number. He called but no one answered. He tried again. He thought perhaps the phone wasn’t working and asked for directions. They told him it was nearby.
He decided to go straight to the house because it had been a while since he’d gotten back in touch with his cousin and told him he was coming, although not exactly when.
After walking a bit, he came to a shop with a kiosk just outside and a lottery booth inside. He entered, and from behind the counter a man about fifty years old asked, “How may I help you?”
“Don’t you recognize me?”
The man glanced at him, and then rushed over to greet him warmly.
“It’s been such a long time! I wasn’t expecting you. How are you?”
“I called you a few times, but no one answered,” Luque replied firmly.
“Yea, the phone’s been out for a week. Can you believe the last time I saw you was at your mother’s funeral when you were just a boy, and you haven’t changed one bit.”
“How can you say that if you didn’t even recognize me when I came in!”
His cousin chuckled, but Luque said nothing. He wanted to change the subject, but didn’t know how to bring up that he needed a job, so he just stood there watching him smoke, exhaling blue vapor through his nostrils.
“And your wife?”
“She stayed in Argentina.”
“Are you alone?”
“Yea, I came by myself.”
Luque tensed up. His cousin kept asking him things he didn’t want to talk about. Then he said he’d close the shop so they could get something to eat.
“Wait for me, I’ll let them know I’m leaving and we’ll go. I want you to tell me all about yourself,” he added, and then disappeared into the back of the shop.
Luque felt a prickling sensation all over his body. He thought it would be better to keep his cousin at a distance because he didn’t want to stir up his past. When he heard him calling, he hurried on.
Robledo, the owner of the boarding house, showed him the last room he had available.
“What brings you to Paraguay?”
“Work,” Luque replied.
“What do you do?”
“I’m a taxi driver, but I do a little bit of everything.”
“Know anything about plumbing?”
“No, not that.”
“How about electrical work?”
“Not that either.”
“So what do you know how to do?”
Luque looked at him, annoyed. He didn’t like that Robledo was asking so many questions.
“Sorry, I was asking to see if you could help me with this old house.” He hesitated and changed the subject. “Not many Argentines come here to live.”
A boarder who’d been listening to them came over.
“The Argentines who come to Paraguay are always running away from something.”
Luque’s face changed, and Robledo noticed it immediately.
“Don’t pay attention to him, Luque. Rubén, it’s none of your business!”
“I was just joking, Robledo, don’t be that way. He looks like a nice enough guy.”
Although the boarder didn’t say another word, he kept standing there as if it didn’t register that he needed to go away. Luque restrained himself.
“Do you like the room?” Robledo asked, changing the subject.
“Yes, I like it, I’ll leave you the deposit.”
“I knew you’d like it. It’s the largest one I have, and it has a window on the street.” Then he said, “What are you still doing here, Rubén?”
Robledo turned back to Luque and told him, “we should continue our conversation in the kitchen,” and laughed, showing his yellowed teeth.
The light was red when Luque came to the corner. At that moment, a hearse was passing by loaded with wreaths, followed by a caravan of cars moving slowly.
He waited and then recalled that morning when he was nine years old: it was raining, they were walking in the funeral procession and his cousin covered them with his umbrella. His father could barely stay on his feet. He was only thirty-five but seemed like an old man, with a blank look in his eyes. Luque was just a boy, and they’d lied to him the day of the funeral and told him that his mother hadn’t died. He kept asking for her, over and over, pestering his father until he made him shut up. He stood still, grumbling noisily, then took a deep breath and suddenly ran away.
That day he stood in the doorway for a long time, barefoot and half-naked, his milky white skin exposed. There was no way to convince him that they had to go. Adela, the neighbor, tried to dress him and he resisted.
In a fit of anguish, he put his arms around her and clung to her neck.
Luque saw the traffic light turn green and rushed on.
Translated by Rhonda Dahl Buchanan