By Lucas Spiro
This is hard-hitting neo-noir parable whose dark humor delights as it strikes at the corrupt heart of business as usual in Argentina.
Like Flies from Afar by K. Ferrari. Translated from the Spanish by Adrian Nathan West, 204 pages, $25
Like Flies from Afar is the first of K. Ferrari’s books to be available in English, which will excite those who are familiar with the lauded Argentine writer, who is employed as a janitor in the Buenos Aires metro. Adrian Nathan West’s translation captures the grit and the poetry of this existential novel, a hard-hitting neo-noir parable whose dark humor delights as it strikes at the corrupt heart of business as usual in Argentina. The plot follows the twisted odyssey of Mr. Machi, the craven and misogynistic owner of an extravagant nightclub, over the course of one very bad day. Numerous ghosts haunt the contemptible oligarch, but, until now, they haven’t disturbed his obsession with immediate pleasures.
Everything for Mr. Machi is a matter of asserting personal control, power for the sake of power. He is a commodity fetishist par excellence: Machi cares more for his Armani shirts and collection of Italian silk ties than for any living thing. Ferrari is not subtle about his distasteful protagonist: Machi’s name resonates with both machismo and Machiavelli, to the point that the honorific “Mr” becomes an insult.
Machi falls hard from a climactic high at the outset of the narrative. We find him in the expert carnal grip of his mistress, his head in a cloud of Cuban cigar smoke, his ego stroked by lines of primo coke. After he dismisses the courtesan, he calls his wife and demands that she have breakfast waiting for him by the time he comes home. This coming and going is a mediated, commodified experience: Machi’s climax is only possible because of “the little blue pill … which guarantees his still-relentless organ a slow, even cavalier diminution.”
Speeding on the Panamerica Highway in his $200,000 custom BMW, “a black bolt of lightning,” Machi’s thoughts turn to his success. Winning is not an abstract game, “because he can feel it in the potent purr of the accelerator beneath his right foot, in the cushioned upholstery, in the power steering, in the sunlight and the stares of astonishment and envy reflecting off the BMW’s gloss finish.” After blowing out a tire (another encounter with deflation) when his car runs over some caltrops, Machi discovers a corpse, its face blown off, in the trunk. He spends the rest of the day trying to dispose of the body and to destroy any evidence that might be able to trace it back to him.
Scenes of Machi hastily driving his conspicuous car through working class neighborhoods in Buenos Aires, neighborhoods he left behind long ago for the gated communities of the superrich, are cross-cut with him rummaging through memories of people who might be trying to frame him. Machi thinks of himself as nothing more than a businessman, although he admits some of the deal-making has been plenty dirty. Still, the dead body generates a paranoia he hasn’t felt since the workers at a factory he owned previously were on strike. This fear is amplified by the fact that his tire had been punctured by caltrops, which he remembers the workers used as part of their action. The caltrops become a Proustian image, triggering Machi’s memories of those who might feel that they were wronged by him.
Machi’s “doubts fan out, stir up the fetid air full of familiar names, unconsidered possibilities.” He “feels there’s no bottom to the pit he’s fallen in.” The list of names of those who might have it in for Machi is very long. It could be his mistreated wife; any of the girls he has lured into his harem; his security chief, a psychotic killer who may want to get out from under the boss’s thumb; the wronged employees he has fired from his nightclub for such “egregious” infractions as not coming in on their day off; the family members of a former competitor who never saw their father alive after a meeting with Machi’s security chief; the “Trotskyites” in his factory whom he turned over to the anti-communist death squads manned by right-wing Peronists dedicated to purging leftists.
For all of Ferrari’s disdain for Machi, the story is not about condemnation so much as it is a parable open to a number of interpretations. The tip-off is the selection of opening epigraphs, each of which suggests yet another take on the protagonist and the economy he thrives in. One is from the prototypical American noir writer Jim Thompson—“There can’t be no personal hell because there ain’t no personal sins”—which condemns society. Another is a description by Karl Marx of a man whose greed for wealth is only outpaced by his hatred for those he exploited to achieve his wealth. That suggests Like Flies from Afar is a Marxian fable about primitive accumulation disguised as a crime novel. David Goodis, whose noir stories and novels inspired the cinema of the French New Wave, offers yet another angle: “If there was a market, he would have sold his chances for one thin dime.” The final epigraph, drawn from the work of Ferrari’s countryman and fellow writer Rodolfo Walsh, gives permission for the reader “to read this book as a regular old thriller.”
The truth is probably an amalgamation of the four points of view — or none of them. If you choose the thriller option, be forewarned. There is no neat resolution; the interpretative scramble of “unconsidered possibilities” is Ferrari’s point. As Machi moves from suspecting “rivals, competitors, employees, associates” to fearing the machinations of “enemies,” his increasing paranoia only makes his problems more damning. Underneath the man’s growing psychological panic festers the practicalities of trying to make the material manifestation of his sins, the faceless corpse, disappear. He can’t manipulate his way out of his self-imposed punishment because he can’t choose inaction: “Everything he decides leads him into another predicament. Every answer spawns unforeseen questions.” The resolution of the mystery, a clarification of the whodunit, is not meant to offer satisfaction. There’s no justice in this tale, just the ceaseless motion of possibilities — and more specters.
Lucas Spiro is a writer living in Dublin.