10 may. 2015

Xavier Aliaga's Dos metres quadrats de sang jove - A Review

Xavier Aliaga, Dos metres quadrats de sang jove (Barcelona: Alrevès, 2014). 187 pages.

It is rather regrettable that the name of my home town has become synonymous with insufferable levels of political corruption. Valencia is the setting for this short crime nouvelle by Xavier Aliaga. The protagonist is detective Feliu Oyono, a Catalan-speaking policeman of African ancestry, who is quite obsessed with sex and the female body.

I may be picking at straws here, but one of Chandler’s commandments for writing good crime fiction says that the novel needs to be “realistic in character, setting and atmosphere”, and should deal with “real people in a real world”. Far be it from me to rule out the possibility that a black Valencian-born policeman exists. Anyone would most likely agree with me that such a fictitious character is less than likely to speak and write the local language the way Oyono does, though.

Against a background of dirty play and internecine wars within the ultraconservative political party in government – the PP is never mentioned, but the references are obvious – Oyono and his assistant Amalia Vigarany must find out who killed a young idealist journo called Manel.

Manel is (was) one of the founders of a web-based investigative newspaper, La ciutat digital. Their reports denouncing the ever-present corruption networks and the misappropriation of public funds (in this sense, Aliaga cannot be accused of making up too much!) have already earned them the wrath of ruling politicians and senior bureaucrats. One night while he’s alone at the newspaper offices someone whose face is covered with a balaclava breaks in and slashes his throat in one swift, highly ‘professional’ cut. Manel’s colleagues are naturally quite devastated.

Feliu Oyono and Amalia interrogate the journalists but find nothing much – they all seem to get along quite well. Yet setting up a newspaper from scratch is neither easy nor cheap, so they decide direct their detective skills towards the source of the funding that has made La ciutat digital possible. What they find is that Enric, co-founder and rival to Manel for the sexual favours of the only female reporter, has been receiving monies from an obscure company based in Buenos Aires. What is really going on?

It appears that Manel and Enric were not on such amicable terms anymore when the former was murdered while typing on his keyboard and bled to death, leaving two square metres of young blood on the office floor. Oyono and Amalia turn the screws on him but it all seems to be a red herring: they might not like each other that much, but that should be no reason to murder your former friend and colleague. Or should it?

In the end, the reason Manel was savagely murdered happens to be quite unrelated to the murky financing he had been arguing about with the co-founder of the newspaper. The plot meanders rather aimlessly: Aliaga throws in the story of Amalia’s affair with a radical Basque youth while she was serving in Navarre. Its inclusion seems rather unwarranted, and given how short Dos metres quadrats de sang jove actually is, the reader may wonder about its purpose.

The novella’s structure is developed mostly by means of monologues. At times this works, but other times replacing dialogue with dramatic monologues feels too artificial. The inclusion of blog posts written by Manel before his death and later released as they had been programmed by the deceased journalist adds some spice. But Aliaga is at his best when he lets the characters speak. His dialogues can be witty, lively, full of force and irony:

- Listen very carefully, you son of a bitch! Why should we believe an impostor? ‘Oooh! We’re a persecuted media! Manel has paid with his life for the work we do unveiling corruption! Me! Me! Me! It could have been me! Why haven’t they come after me? I cannot sleep thinking about all this!’… Do you think we’re stupid?
- I… I haven’t said that… What I believe is that you’re going the wrong way about this. Neither Alberola nor anyone around him knew that Manel had found out about the scam. I hid that information, I wasn’t interested, please believe me, I was certain Manel would let it go to the keeper… The thing with his blog has taken us by surprise.
- And how can you be so sure Albarola didn’t know?
- He would’ve told me. Like all politicians, he’s a bit paranoid.
- And now you’ll tell me, you piece of shit, that you’ve had no contact with him since Manel’s death, that you’ve told him it’s over.
- No, I’ll tell you the truth, we spoke at length. Alberola was amazed, he was shocked. And very worried, too. He said that maybe we had lost our grip on things, that some of his rivals hadn’t taken in the issue too well. I think he was being truthful. He’s a very ambitious pollie, he’ll go to any lengths to crush those who bother him, but I don’t think he’s capable of such an atrocity, to be honest.
- And how did he intend to handle the situation?
- He asked not to meet with us again for a long while and to fuel the conspiracy theory from La Ciutat. To do that for a few months and wait until the storm cleared up… But it will not clear up… And I can’t take this anymore, I’m on edge…
- You’re lucky we’re not at the station, ‘cause I’d give you another kind of edge over there. You know what I think, arsehole? That you told everything to your friend the minister in order to protect your grubby deal. In the best of cases, you washed your hands of it, you played dumb, ‘whatever will be, will be’, you thought. And I also think you had another reason not to be concerned about what might happen to Manel: you have never been able to swallow the fact that Empar preferred him, that she was still in love with a man without your physique, without your charisma, but with so big a brain and so big a heart that the office was not big enough for him. An honest, upright person. The opposite of you, you piece of shit, you filthy sewer rat. Know that we’ll go all the way, you’re up to your neck in shit, you retard…
- That’s enough, Amalia.
- Did you get it, you bastard? We’ll get you!
- For fuck’s sake, Amalia! That’s enough, I said! (p. 139-141, my translation)

Had Aliaga worked further with the manuscript (which incidentally contains some typos in the few Spanish passages it includes) Dos metres quadrats… would have probably increased its length and its literary attractiveness. As it stands, it is a rather lame specimen of crime fiction, its shortcomings outnumbering its virtues.

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