Gesell Dome

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

“Welcome to the belly of the beast,” says one character in GESELL DOME, the monumental, blackly comic novel by the Argentinian writer Guillermo Saccomanno.
Another character, Moore the veterinarian, puts it a little differently: “We are like hyenas in an African game preserve,” he observes. “We’re all scavengers. And, besides, we laugh.”

The subject in question is Villa Gesell, a seaside town located about 200 miles south of Buenos Aires. It is Saccomano’s home town, one which he has fictionalized in GESELL DOME along with hundreds of its inhabitants. Over the book’s 616 pages we follow them as they play out their violent, corrupt, sex-crazed lives. Among the main characters are the Quiroses, descendants of the lawyer who represented Don Karl, the escaped Nazi who founded the town after WW II. Known locally as the Kennedys, the Quiroses were brought up to be top dogs, especially Alejo, the eldest. A lawyer, he was also a fixer and a schemer, planner of the Villa’s destinies along with the Mayor, Alberto (“Cachito”) Calderon. “Smiling, paternal, a good ol’ boy politician who does favors for everyone,” is how the author describes him, adding, “Don’t ask how he made his money.”

Another kingpin is Atila Dobroslav, “the Villa’s Speer.” He is a Croatian promoter “who erected the greatest number of buildings by cutting down the trees...Power covers up everything: ecological disaster and the death of Bolivian workers on his construction sites.”

On the more positive side is Dante, left-wing publisher and editor of the local newspaper, “El Vocero.” He knows everything that happens in the Villa but can’t write honestly about the crooked stuff, if only because Alejo owns the newspaper. Dante assuage his conscience by writing the novel we are reading–or, as he puts it, “By playing the guide to the Villa’s depravity.”

GESELL DOME’S story does not unfold in traditional, linear fashion. The scenes are laid out like a vast mosaic or mural, with multiple, sometimes overlapping points of view and voices. The author, like John Dos Passos before him (in “USA Trilogy”), uses song lyrics, advertisements, personal correspondence and random thoughts to spice up his narrative. Dense and complicated as it is, it never falters, never loses its grip on you, thanks to the author’s skillful way with language and, above all, to his sardonic sense of humor.

The novel does have a time frame. It begins in the winter, when the townspeople, 40,000 strong, are trying to survive “the cold winds from the sea that bring raindrops like Thelonius’ keys.” Pummeled by these ferocious storms, running short of food and cash, the idled locals can’t wait for summer, when they can go back to fleecing the millions of tourists who flock to the Villa’s beaches, bars and hotels. The two-month season is their brief salvation. When it’s over they will go back to betraying, robbing, insulting, exploiting and murdering each other, fueled by booze, drugs, jealousy, starvation and greed.

Such a summary can only hint at the richness and complexity of the book. It is, as the author himself says, a mountain of a novel, one that keeps collapsing on him like a sand castle. “But I’m going to shovel sand until I can’t do it anymore. And then some more.”
The heroic translator of GESELL DOME is Andrea G. Labinger. “Neo-noir fiction...often depends on subject matter and specialized argot with which the general public may not be familiar. I relied heavily on the linguistic and cultural expertise of the much-acclaimed Argentinian noir novelist Alicia Plante, whose familiarity with ‘lunfardo’ in all its permutations was invaluable. ‘Lunfardo,’ whose origins can be traced to the late 19th and early 20th century in the Rio de la Plata area, is a form of popular speech originally associated with immigrant groups, especially with the influx of working-class Italians at that time...Many ‘lunfardo’ expressions, once the private domain of a very specific population and social class, have become commonplace, even standardized...

“Linguistic issues aside, GESELL DOME presents an even more fundamental challenge for the translator: that of tone,” she continues. “While Saccomanno adheres closely to the traditional noir diet of relentless violence and mayhem, he tempers his tale with outrageous humor and compassion as well. Much of the grisliness is over-the-top, clear evidence of the author’s background as a writer of comic strips. GESELL DOME is by no means a tale for the squeamish, but its humor, brutal honesty and the tenderness concealed in its murky heart make it irresistible, at least to this reader.”

(Open Letter, $18.95 pb.