El asesinato de Laura Olivo. Jorge Eduardo Benavides. Madrid: Alianza Literaria, 2018, 323 pages.
In his latest novel, El asesinato de Laura Olivo, Peruvian writer Jorge Eduardo Benavides explores the expressive possibilities of the detective novel, not only with narrative dexterity but also with originality. Hailed as a “literary, multicultural thriller,” this novel won the 19th Unicaja Fernando Quiñones Novel Prize in Spain.
El asesinato tells the story of Apolinario Larrazabal (known as “El Colorado” to his friends), an Afro-Peruvian ex-policeman of Basque origin, who one day finds himself forced to flee Lima after receiving a death threat as a consequence of a case of corruption in the government of Alberto Fujimori in Peru. Now living in a traditional neighborhood, Lavapiés in Madrid, which has become home to migrants, Larrazabal manages to survive by performing tasks for Tejada, an expat Peruvian lawyer with whom he maintains a close friendship. He falls in love with Fátima, a Moroccan, who not only guides El Colorado in his risky work in Spain, but also becomes a silent accomplice in his police investigations.
Larrazabal and Fátima become lovers when El Colorado successfully resolves the kidnapping of Rasul Tarik, her father, at the hands of the Albanian mafia. Soon thereafter, the detective is hired by a Mrs. Luján, his landlady, to solve the assasination of Laura Olivo, a temperamental literary agent of a dubious reputation, whose lover, the young journalist Lucía Luján, has been accused of her death. Simultaneously, Tejada is suddenly assassinated in his office.
The novel’s plot develops as the mysteries of the two crimes unfold with a primary focus on the first one, while at the same time revealing Larrazabal’s astuteness in conducting his investigations, yet demonstrating his naiveté about Spanish culture, one in which his blackness never goes unnoticed. As the novel develops, it becomes evident why it has been labeled “a literary, multicultural thriller.” On the one hand, we are experiencing a novel of intrigue that seems to comply with the norms of this genre, that is to say, a detective who follows all the leads of a crime (that point to Lucía Luján as perpetrator), by interviewing diverse characters and providing a resolution to an enigma that has more than one surprise. However, Benavides complicates this classic narrative formula of the detective novel when Larrazabal begins to discover, along with the reader, the underworld of the Spanish publishing industry, a world in which there are as many calculating, greedy literary agents as there is a diverse gallery of egotistical and neurotic writers. Throughout the narrative’s nine chapters, Larrazabal uncovers stories about stolen manuscripts, flagrant plagiarism, personal jealousies, and betrayals. At the same time, if parody is a form of tribute, the novel reflects its most successful moment in the Spanish publishing world, to wit: the appearance of the famous generation of the 1960s Latin American Boom, represented by the presence of the Chilean Jorge Edwards. Transformed into a fictional character, Edwards not only represents the living memory of the Boom, but also becomes a key figure to help Larrazabal initiate a new path of investigation by pursuing the life of Marcelo Chiriboga.
An apocryphal writer created years ago by the Chilean José Donoso and the Mexican Carlos Fuentes, Chiriboga reappears here as an unjustly forgotten Boom writer, who, according to Mario Vargas Llosa, “is the best kept secret in Hispanic American literature” (280). To everyone’s surprise, during his lifetime, Chiriboga left some manuscripts containing his last masterpiece, which would, after much poking around, help Larrazabal resolve a homicide that could be easily called “a literary crime.”
Throughout this playful plot, replete with comings and goings and sprinkled with subtle irony, it is important to remember that if a detective novel can be read in contemporary times as an x-ray of everyday society, El asesinato de Laura Olivo ably completes the task. Benavides provides an enjoyable narrative focusing on the cartography of Madrid as a city that is both traditional and now multicultural. Larrazabal is not only an Afro-Peruvian detective proud of his Basque roots, but also one of many migrants who wander the streets of Lavapiés, as he repeatedly wonders about his true identity. In reality, upon close examination, Larrazabal is nothing more than the product of recent globalization, a world in which migration is commonplace, as well as the consequential search, by migrants, of an elusive sense of belonging. Such is also the case of Fátima (La Morita), a woman who, like Larrazabal, lives split between the archaic, traditional world of her parents and the modernity of Spanish society. Other characters appearing in the novel are Laura Olivo and Lucía Luján, who mantain an openly gay relationship; Albert Cremades, a writer who is as Catalán as he is egotistical; and Cosme, the perfect Madrid doorman, who is as traditional as he is eloquent in the way he expresses himself.
El asesinato de Laura Olivo is a well-written narrative; its prose is agile and precise, with the right dosis of suspense required by a detective novel. It contains vivid descriptions of cities such as Madrid and Barcelona, whether evoking their popular neighborhoods, or the worlds of the upper classes, which gives a face to the diverse, multicultural nature of contemporary Spain. Spanish characters share spaces with people from everywhere (Africa, China, Latin America, and Eastern Europe), along with the typical mismatches that this diversity can provoke. In this context, Larrazabal, a unique yet multifaceted detective, manages to survive in Lavapiés, having been made the axis of a story that captivates the reader, all of which is made possible by the artistic virtues of this story, as well as by the narrative craft exhibited by Jorge Eduardo Benavides, a writer worthy of our attention.
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Translated by Dick Gerdes