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lip lit: eduardo sacheri, the secret in their eyes

It’s a shame it took an Oscar award-winning foreign film adaptation of Eduardo Sacheri’s debut novel, The Secret in Their Eyes (La pregunta des sus ojos), for the English-speaking literary world to sit up and take notice. First published in its original Spanish in 2005, the novel was finally translated into English in 2011 on the back of the successful 2009 film adaptation. I saw the movie and I couldn’t wait for the release of the English version of the book. Despite seeing the film before reading the book, I wasn’t disappointed. The contrast between deceptively simple language and complex plot pulled me into the story and refused to let me out until I reached the final word.

The novel opens with newly retired Argentinian detective, Benjamín Chaparro, deliberating over how best to write down the story of a crime he was involved with years before. His investigation of the rape and murder of a young woman sparks a spiralling conglomeration of repercussions, stretching for years after the crime took place. The book changes between the present, older Chaparro, written in the third-person, and the past, younger Chaparro, written in the first-person. This creates a buffer between the central crime story and the present day, constantly reminding the reader how much time has passed between the central crime and Chaparro’s retelling.

The book constantly toys with ideas of revenge, punishment and justice, although I was pleased to find the novel rejected the stereotypical revenge-hungry widow found in many crime novels. Instead, Sacheri’s narrative questions exactly what justice is and how it should be served.  Is it acceptable to take the life of the guilty, who stole the life of the innocent? Is that even punishment enough? These questions ripple through the novel like small waves insistently lapping the shore, relentlessly pressing the reader to consider how they would react under such circumstances.

These ripples spill over to Chapparo’s present life as he mulls over situations which have haunted him for years. He often thinks too much and doesn’t act enough, until he rediscovers what motivates him to go after what he really wants. Of course, nothing is cut so black and white between acting and not acting and there are consequences behind every action, but what, if anything, makes the consequences worth it? Sacheri achieves a stark contrast between the mindsets of the older and younger Chaparro, showing a growth of character throughout an entire lifetime.

The author’s descriptions of Buenos Aires and the details of the inner workings of the Argentine judiciary system give the novel such a sense of authenticity that it is at times hard to remember the novel is a work of fiction. The characters are believable and the plot never appears contrived or created, each twist and turn resonating as plausible as the last.

The one downside of the novel is one which comes from most, if not all, translated texts: the feeling that English could not adequately recreate the expression the original Spanish could. I found it difficult not to berate English at times for its limitations, despite the fact translator John Cullen managed to beautifully craft the narrative together in English. I wish I knew Spanish well enough to read the original because it felt like a crucial ingredient was missing. Perhaps seeing the movie first did taint my expectations: the film had English subtitles so I still got to experience the Spanish and also understand what was going on while watching the film. Although the absence of Spanish is noticeable, it is not enough to ruin the experience of reading the novel.

I still find it hard to accept that it took a film adaptation to prompt the English translation of such a powerful novel. It makes me wonder what other brilliant works of fiction the English-speaking world are missing out on simply because they are not available to us. Still, I am grateful the film did manage to catch the literary world’s attention. The Secret in Their Eyes is a beautifully written novel, questioning what compels some people to act and what allows others to let life rush straight past until it is almost too late. 

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