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Argentinian Narrative 101: Horror Meets Police


Modern narrative is associated with two genres: the short story and the novel. In Argentina, in the first half of the 19th century, there was no narrative except for a few isolated cases. This late appearance of short stories and novels indicates that the most appropriate way of thinking about the Argentinian narrative, is outside the genres traditionally associated with it. It could even be affirmed that the best examples of the art of narration in the first Argentine literature are not limited to the short story and the novel, but instead has many other forms. Likewise, the biography, the essay, the political pamphlet, the chronicle, the causerie, the letter, the testimony, and other forms of prose writing coexist with the short story and the novel to give consistency to the narrative in its proliferating diversity.

These 101 series proposes a journey through Argentinian narrative, taking into account this formal and generic variety and working with it, from the founding moment to the present.

The Argentinian Narrative 101 series is divided into five parts:

  1. Argentinian Narrative 101: The Creation of The Perfect Enemy

  2. Argentinian Narrative 101: The Voice of The Gaucho

  3. Argentinian Narrative 101: Gothic And Horror

  4. Argentinian Narrative 101: Horror Meets Police

  5. Argentinian Narrative 101: Violence and Gender Dissidence

Argentinian Narrative 101: Horror Meets Police

The police genre has put into discussion the relationship between truth and law, and has analyzed the hidden connections between money, crime and delinquency. The police genre in Argentina usually manifests itself as an iteration of the conventional interpretations of the genre, for example: a know-it-all detective, a funny side buddy, or even a poor woman in distress. The police genre has its origins in Argentinian literature, with authors who saw a narrative system full of possibilities and that, even today, has its traces in many contemporary narrative poetics. The privileged place that the police occupies today, as a narrative form increasingly frequent in many authors, suggests the refiguration of the classic status of literature and the transformation of the modes of reception and circulation of it.

Associated Press. (1946). Raymond Chandler. [Photograph].

As it has been seen throughout this 101 series, the social and political context has always influenced the Argentinian narrative. The mass media, most of the time, critiques social events under the magnifying glass of the police genre. State crimes, corruption in public ministries, the association between sectors of the police institution and common crime, drug trafficking and money laundering, are some traces of the empirical evidence that generate a social debate on the constitution of the State and of society, ultimately influencing the convergence of the police genre with horror. The genre discusses and polemicizes with many reasons; it disturbs the natural state of things, and causes a crack in the rules and norms of good social functioning. What is the law? What is delinquency? What is a crime? Those are some of the questions and interrogations that sustain the best police stories. In this sense, Raymond Chandler, in The Simple Art of Murder, reflecting on the practice and social value of the genre, affirmed:

"The writer of this genre who is concerned with the realism of his story writes about a world in which criminals and thugs can rule nations and take over cities; where hotels, apartments and restaurants are owned by men who made their money running brothels; where a movie star can be the boss of a gang and that nice guy who lives next door is the boss of a gang of bookmakers; a world where a judge with a basement full of bootleg booze can send a man to jail for having a bottle of whiskey in his pocket" (Chandler, 1989, p. 341).

Meese, J. (1955). Raymond Chandler: The High Window. [Illustration].

During the 1940s and 1950s, there was an increase in the collections dedicated to the police genre and an appreciable number of stories produced by local writers. In Argentina, the impetus to the genre can be attributed to Jorge Luis Borges, who places the police at the center of the literary debate. On the one hand, together with Adolfo Bioy Casares, they wrote stories between the fantastic genre and the police genre that became milestones in literature; on the other hand, he directed with Adolfo Bioy Casares a specific collection dedicated to the dissemination of the genre. In 1945, both writers created the series The Seventh Circle, being responsible for the first 110 titles. With this series, both authors began to collect North American novels within the police genre for their subsequent translation. However, said collection not only produced a translation of that material, but also began the editing of some national authors who were beginning to venture into the genre: Silvina Ocampo, Manuel Peyrou and Angélica Bosco, among others. Rodolfo Walsh, in his book Ten Argentinian Police Stories, the first anthology of the genre based on national authors, accurately dated the beginnings of the police narrative in Argentina: “Ten years ago, in 1942, the first book of police stories appeared in Spanish. Its authors were Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares. It was called Six Problems for Don Isidro Parodi.” He affirmed with an optimistic statement: “Detective geniuses, previously exclusively Anglo-Saxon or French, emigrate to other latitudes. It is already admitted that Buenos Aires is the scene of a police adventure” (Walsh, 1953, p. 5). Buenos Aires, being the capital of Argentina, was where most authors started publishing their work.

Stern, G. (1951). Jorge Luis Borges. [Photograph].

The second great moment of the police genre occurs at the end of the sixties where, for the first time, American novelists such as Horace McCoy and Jim Thompson really began to be recognized and spread systematically. Again, the genre became the center of a great literary controversy. The collection, Short Stories of The Noir Series, directed by Ricardo Piglia had the virtue of differentiating, for the first time in the Spanish language, the contributions of the North American police from its predecessor, the English police. If in the traditional English novels the order of society was sanitized by the intelligence of the investigator, the so-called "novela negra" (noir fiction), brought with it a different regime. They are narratives that recount what the classic crime scene excludes and censors, stories where causality is not a mystery nor an enigma, and money is the only reason for the crime. This type of narrative, of North American influence, meant a different inflection from the classic Argentinian police genre, conceived as an enigma novel whose plot unfolds in a logical reasoning that advances until the resolution of an unknown. The noir fiction is not so much based on an enigma, but rather exacerbates a realistic and disturbing look at the world as a struggle of conflicting interests. Furthermore, the line between criminals and the forces of order is not very clear since, many times, police and criminals are entangled in the same networks of power, money and corruption.

Steenhuisen, J. (2018). The Musgrave Ritual. [Digital Illustration].

If the enigma police detective is an amateur (generally an aristocrat) who trusts in the ability of his deductive reasoning, the detective in Short Stories of The Noir Series is a paid professional who advances in determining causes from action and, in more than once, he exhibits his limitations, doubts or misunderstandings and, in general, manifests himself as a loser, trapped by the intricate springs that capitalist society moves. Ricardo Piglia’s collection, despite its scarce eighteen volumes, plays an important role erasing the borders of literary production, whose development continues to this day. Many renowned Argentinian authors rescue the genre considered not long ago as minor or marginal, outside a certain ideology of literature.

In general, Argentinian literature maintains off-center and equivocal relationships with the models of the police genre, with its themes and procedures. It could be said that there is rather a deviated and indirect mode of relationship: a political use of genre. Cultural identity is often defined in the displaced and lateral dialogue with the forms assumed by a foreign tradition. Jorge Luis Borges has been able to define, in his brief essay The Argentinian Writer and Tradition, the political way in which secondary and marginal literatures are placed against central and hegemonic cultures. The possibility of a proper and irreverent use of Argentinian literature would be the central hypothesis of the essay that allows reviewing the complex phenomenon full of misunderstandings about the formation and establishment of a national culture. The best attempts in Argentinian literature have demonstrated that the use of the narrative conventions of the genre and its rules are not simply reduced to the simple transposition of codes, figures and stereotypes. In the narrative productions of recent decades, rather, the use of certain narrative strategies is verified: the mixture with other genres, such as forms that come from the classic historical novel, journalism, science fiction, but especially horror.

Unknown artist. (2021). Jorge Luis Borges. [Digital Illustration].

The police genre, on many occasions, had served to talk about politics when censorship or repression were the most usual in Argentina. In other words, the police genre allows the writer to touch on politics from within a popular and massive literary tradition. It takes the horrors of real life and gives birth to a genre intrinsically linked to the context of the country. In this sense, the committed author no longer needs the modes of the traditional and realistic novel to describe the world. Thus, for example, the innovative novels of Rodolfo Walsh arise, where a journalist-detective investigates real political crimes. From another perspective and with a different aesthetic, Manuel Puig demonstrated that narrative experimentation can be developed with the forms of popular culture, in areas traditionally alien to the conventional status of literature. In this sense, the minor genres become modes of narration that allow the forms of the novel to be renewed. In The Buenos Aires Affair. A Police Novel, Puig tells the story of a painter harassed and persecuted by the arbitrariness of an art critic and, in a police cell, will stage the struggles and competitions for cultural legitimation.

The Argentinian literature of recent decades has worked on the edges of the police genre, used the record as a way of narrative experimentation or used it as a way of rethinking the relationships between politics, horror and literature. Towards the hard years of the last Argentinian military dictatorship, it became, on more than one occasion, a form of political allegory. It could be said that if the State in those years had deliberately assumed the form of a criminal State, the best texts that adopted the genre revealed the traces of the empirical. That is why it has been seen the insertion of a popular and massive genre that is inserted and develops with its own tones and modalities in a literary context typical of Argentina.

Bibliographical References

Borges, J. L. (1982). El Escritor Argentino y La Tradición. [The Argentinian Writer and Tradition]. Buenos Aires: Emecé.

Chandler, R. (1989). El Simple Acto de Matar. [The Simple Art of Murder]. Buenos Aires: Emecé.

Piglia, R. (1979). Cuentos Cortos De La Serie Negra. [Short Stories of The Black Series]. Buenos Aires: Centro Editor de América Latina

Puig, M. (1973). The Buenos Aires Affair: Una Novela Policial. [The Buenos Aires Affair: A Police Novel]. Buenos Aires: Seix Barral.

Walsh, R. J. (1953). Diez Cuentos Policiales Argentinos. [Ten Police Argentinian Short Stories]. Buenos Aires: Hachette.

Visual Sources

Author Photo

Antonella Cosentino

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