The novel is a brilliant psychological thriller and several other things as well—a very quiet love story, a narrative of a remarkable friendship between two men, and an exploration of the corruption rampant in Argentine politics in the late 60s and 70s.
The Secret in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri. Translated by John Cullen. Other Press, 320 pages, $15.95.
By Roberta Silman.
By sheer coincidence my husband and I watched the movie of this book while I was reading it, and reading and seeing simultaneously became an interesting lesson in something very rare: a wonderful movie made from a wonderful book. (A friend of mine once said that only second-rate books make wonderful movies; her example was Sophie’s Choice, but we won’t get into that now.) In any case, there seemed some logic in the coincidence, since the movie actually came out and won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2010 before the book was published in English, and on its cover there is a medallion that reads “Basis for the Oscar-winning film.”
It is easy to see why moviemakers were drawn to this material because it is a brilliant, psychological thriller and several other things as well—a very quiet love story, a narrative of a remarkable friendship between two men, and an exploration of the corruption rampant in Argentine politics in the late 60s and 70s when the country was plunged into the “DirtyWar” that wrought such untold suffering on so many of its citizens. The book is also an investigation into the problems of writing a novel, especially when so much of it is based on the past, yet a past that still reverberates so powerfully in the present.
Although Sacheri is still young (he was born in 1967), he has absolute command of all these divergent threads, and although his protagonist, Benjamin Chaparro, seems to be working his way through the problem of how to tell his somewhat complicated tale, the reader is never confused by what happened when.
In crystal clear prose, the book begins when Chaparro, a loner who has harbored a secret love for one of his colleagues, who has been married, unsuccessfully, twice, and who is now retired from his job as a detective, is faced with that awful question: What is he going to do with the rest of his life? He is so engaging that his musings never feel like whining, and when he decides to try his hand at writing about a brutal murder that has haunted him for more than 25 years, the reader is happy to go along.
One beautiful May morning in the Buenos Aires of 1968, a young woman, Liliana, recently married and two months pregnant, was raped and strangled for no apparent reason leaving her widowed husband, Ricardo, totally devastated and unable to think about anything but revenge. Moving from the present tense and the third person to tell us about himself now and the past tense and the first person to narrate the past, Benjamin reveals his frustration at sorting out the details of the murder, which he solved by searching the faces in some photos shown to him by Ricardo.
There is a catch, though. Although the murderer was tried and imprisoned, he has been released because of a personal vendetta waged against Benjamin by one of his former colleagues, a grudge only possible within the framework of the corruption at that time. The question now is What has happened to Isidoro Gomez, the young murderer who pined for Liliana and decided soon after her marriage that if he couldn’t have her, no one else would.
So we realize as we read, there are two mysteries here—the murder in the past and how it was solved and the disappearance of the murderer, which no one but Benjamin seems to care about, especially because his dear friend, Pablo Sandoval, the brilliant drunk with whom he worked so closely, is dead. There is also the mystery inherent in Benjamin’s secret love. Here he is, realizing how he managed to find the murderer by looking at the photograph of Gomez looking at Liliana:
Gomez’s way of looking at Liliana had indeed called my attention to him, and I’d interpreted his gaze as a silent, futile message to a woman who couldn’t or wouldn’t understand it; all that was true. But I’d noticed that look because—and this is what I hadn’t told Baez—I myself had gazed at a woman in just that way. It had been fourteen months since I’d first met her, and as I’d often done in those fourteen months, once again on that hot night in December 1968, I bitterly regretted that she wasn’t my wife.
By revealing so much of what Benjamin feels, both then and now, Sacheri does the exact opposite of what you might expect. Never getting in the least bit sentimental, he uses Benjamin’s secret to ratchet up the intensity and urgency of his search into the past. By braiding these strands together, you have the feeling that Benjamin’s need to find the answers is exactly what it turns out to be: a matter of life and death. Because, in the end, the widower Ricardo’s life and his blind need for vengeance turns out to be the saddest of all—the proof that grief and suffering can lead to a kind of madness that can never be totally explained.
I loved this book too much to give away its ending but was very surprised to see how different it was from the movie. Because the book is quieter and Benjamin’s secret is more nuanced, it poses more questions and lingers in the mind. But when you see what the producers of the movie did, you can understand their need to make it more violent and hard-hitting, creating an almost breathless tension in the last third of the film. Yet, they also manage to develop a love story that is both believable and touching and, even, hilarious in its missed chances.
So here we have two impressive works of art from the mind of this young, talented writer named Eduardo Sacheri. Indeed, anyone interested in exploring the process of how a book becomes a prize-winning screenplay should turn to The Secret in Their Eyes. I would not be surprised if this book has a whole new life as a text in film courses. And I can’t wait to see what Sacheri will come up with next.
Roberta Silman is the author of Blood Relations, a story collection, three novels, Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning The World Again, and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. She can be reached at email@example.com.