translated by Annie McDERMOTT
Femicide is generally defined as the murder of women simply because they are women. According to the Femicide CensusIn Argentina this number is far higher, with 278 cases registered for that same year. Following the success of The Wind That Lays Waste (Charco Press, 2019), internationally acclaimed Argentinian author Selva Almada publishes Dead Girls (Charco Press, 2020): a work that dives into the heart of this problem.
In this journalistic novel, comparable to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or John Hersey’s Hiroshima and written in response to the urgent need for attention to a serious problem of our times, Almada narrates the case of three small-town teenage girls murdered in the 1980’s. Three unpunished deaths that occurred before the word ‘femicide’ became widely known. In brutal but necessary prose, Almada brings to the fore these crimes committed in the interior of the country, while Argentina was celebrating the return of democracy after several years of military dictatorship. Three deaths without culprits: 19-year old Andrea Danne, stabbed in her own bed; 15-year old María Luisa Quevedo, raped, strangled, and dumped in wasteland; and 20-year old Sarita Mundín, whose disfigured body was found on a river bank. Almada takes these and other tales of abused women to weave together a dry, straightforward portrait of gender violence that surpasses national borders and speaks to readers’ consciousness all over the world.
This is not a police chronicle, although there is an investigation. This is not a thriller, although there is mystery and suspense. The real noir element of Dead Girls lies in the heart of the women described here and of the men that have abused them. With her unique style of prose that captures the invisible, and with lyrical brutality, Almada manages to blaze new trails in this kind of journalistic fiction.
See below for an excerpt from the novel...
I was born and raised in a provincial town, in what here we call ‘the interior’ of the country or la Argentina profunda. The 1980s, the decade of my small-town adolescence, were another world: no internet, no cable TV, barely any telephones (telephones had to be requested from the company, and it could be a decade or more before one was finally installed). In my house, for example, we didn’t have a telephone, and we received calls at the house of a neighbour, the only person on our block who did. This seems unreal now. We found out about the news mostly from the radio, because there weren’t many terrestrial TV channels or national newspapers. There were small papers in each city or town that covered local news. We lived atomised lives, in a fragmented reality, focused only on what went on nearby. Like islands in the middle of nowhere. Some people found it comfortable and safe to live that way, in closed societies where we all knew one another. I found it suffocating. As a girl, I sensed that there wasn’t really anywhere I was safe. I’d already seen the signs. At the age of eight, when I was walking to my mum’s work one afternoon after church—my mother was a nurse and worked in a clinic a few blocks away—a boy on a bicycle pulled up in front of me and said: Let’s fuck! I can clearly remember the knot in my stomach, the way I froze in the middle of the pavement, my eyes filling with tears, unable to say anything or run away. I remember him laughing at my frightened face before riding off on his bicycle. It’s not the only example I have, or the worst, but if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all, as my grandmother used to say.
Violence was normalised. The neighbour beaten by her husband, the teenager next door who put up with her jealous boyfriend’s tantrums, the father who wouldn’t let his daughters wear short skirts or make-up. All the responsibility for what happened to us was laid at our feet: if you stay out late you might be raped, if you talk to strangers you might be raped, if you come back from a dance by yourself you might be raped. If you were raped, it was always your fault.
(Buenos Aires, 2020)
(IN WHICH THE QUEVEDOS CONSULT A PSYCHIC)
The Quevedos, after reporting their sister’s disappearance to the police and being met with the usual response—that they should wait, that she must have gone off with a boyfriend and would be back in no time—decided to consult a psychic. A Paraguayan woman, who saw people in a modest little house. The large patio, which ran right up to the street, accommodated the visitors and their woes. They piled in, jostling for the meagre shade under the trees with some dogs that were always hanging around.
Despite setting out more or less at sunrise, they found plenty of people waiting by the time they arrived. One of the Paraguayan’s assistants, whose job it was to keep the crowd in order and deal with the fights that broke out whenever some chancer tried to push in, approached them and asked what they’d come about. They explained. The assistant listened carefully to everything they said and then went into the hut. He emerged right away and beckoned them over. She’ll see you now, he said, leaning in slightly and whispering to avoid the complaints, which came regardless when they were spotted going in first despite being the last to arrive.
The psychic didn’t tell them much: only that yes, she would come back, that it was Friday now and by Sunday it would all be over. Eduardo, Andrea’s boyfriend, also decided to consult a psychic. Two, in fact. The first somewhat by chance, because the man came to buy a few things from his family’s shop. A little sheepishly, Eduardo took him to one side, over by some shelves, and asked if he could look into his girlfriend’s death. The man stared deep into his eyes, horrified, and told him he didn’t mess with the devil’s business.
Later, one of Andrea’s cousins had the idea they should consult another: Luis Danta, who was a very famous psychic back then and saw people in Paysandú, a Uruguayan city some twelve miles from Colón, where Eduardo lived. Many people crossed the General Artigas international bridge every day to see Danta.
They went on the motorbike.
After you cross the bridge, the greenery by the roadside turns to riverside plants, because of the wetlands that reach almost to the tarmac.
Eduardo was riding at full speed, Andrea’s cousin clinging round his waist. Neither was wearing a helmet—back then almost nobody did. His long hair kept hitting her in the face, forcing her to squint and surrender to the power of the machine. Their visit to the healer hadn’t given them any answers. Just ambiguous phrases, here and there in the trance. Eduardo was thinking about Andrea, thinking about her was all he ever did, and about solving the mystery of her death. Hence the speed, too, he was like a madman, nothing mattered, if he had to be killed in a crash so be it, maybe that would bring some peace to his heart and head, and his endless questions: who, why.
Just before they crossed back from the Uruguayan side of the bridge, a jararaca viper almost two metres long appeared suddenly in the middle of the road. The creature was half-coiled on the tarmac, though as the bike got closer Eduardo thought he saw it rear up, ready to spring and attack. The thick body, pale brown with dark patches, and the pale speckled belly, glittered in the sun. He swerved instinctively to avoid running it over, and he and Andrea’s cousin were almost flung onto the scorching road. He’d always imagined dying that way, but what shook him was seeing the jararaca in their path after the first psychic had talked of the devil’s business. He took the encounter with the snake as a sign.
When I was little, my grandma and I also used to go to a healer, Old Man Rodríguez. He lived in a shack on the edge of town, near a poor neighbourhood called Tiro Federal.
It made me nervous, but at the same time I liked going to his house and didn’t mind having to traipse all the way across town, always with a sore head or stomach, because if my grandma was taking me it was because I had indigestion or worms. I found the Old Man a bit frightening. He was very thin, as if his own body were sucking at his flesh from the inside, and this made him stoop, his skin shrunken like a freshly washed shirt. I don’t remember his face, but I do remember he had long fingernails like a woman’s. Dirty and yellow, his emaciated claws would slide over my swollen belly, tracing the shape of a cross a few times while he murmured things I didn’t understand.
His very gauntness made him look holy.
The room where he saw people was small and dark, badly ventilated. The flames of the candles burning here and there, always in different places, showed only a fraction of the room, which was whitewashed to ward off the vermin. I never had a full sense of what that room was like or what furniture there was, and I never recognised the faces in the prints on the walls or clustered atop the little makeshift altar.
He lived alone and on what we gave him. Sometimes cash, sometimes yerba mate, sugar, spaghetti, sometimes a piece of meat.
As well as curing parasites and indigestion, Old Man Rodríguez knew the secret of burns, sprains, shingles and even pata de cabra, that disease which can eat away at a baby and boil it in its own stomach juices.
I don’t know where his powers came from. Whether he’d inherited them from his mother or whether he’d been born with them, like a blessing that every now and then became a curse. When his powers took a dark turn, the Old Man wouldn’t answer even if people beat down his door, even if hordes of children were crying outside and the mothers were begging to be let in. Inside, most likely flat out on his camp bed, the Old Man would sleep off his drinking binge, taking a break from his secrets and powers, his body unconscious after the battering from bad wine, his mind blank. On those days there was no point waiting in the sun for night to fall. We could only turn back, insides crawling with worms, stomachs like drums, heads muddled.
Rodríguez the healer died long ago, in a bed in San Roque hospital, where old people who are alone in the world, with no family and no money, end their days. He would have had a pauper’s funeral, his body placed in an unsanded, unvarnished coffin, badly made and with no bronze handles, because why bother if there were no mourners to lift it. A casket barely stronger than an apple crate. He can’t have weighed much, the poor guy. Without a prayer for his soul or a priestly blessing, since there’s no mercy for those who know the secret, those whose powers offend God. He’d have been buried in an out-ofthe-way plot, right up against the wire fence separating the cemetery from the neighbouring fields, barbed wire to stop the cows getting through and nibbling the stems of the flowers that wilt in the vases on summer days. An out-of-the-way plot, where people are buried when they have no one.
I come to the Señora on the recommendation of some writer friends who consult her when they have to make important decisions. They trust her sound judgement and her tarot cards.
When I call to ask for an appointment, I explain that my request might seem unusual: I don’t want to see her on my own behalf, but on behalf of three women who are dead. She tells me it’s more common than I think, and we agree a day and time.
No one’s ever done a card reading for me before and I’m slightly nervous at the thought. I’m worried she hasn’t understood that it’s not me I want to find out about but María Luisa, Andrea and Sarita. I don’t want to know my future. I don’t want her to dredge up any festering trauma from my past.
I felt confident when I went to Old Man Rodríguez because I was going there to be cured, but the gypsies terrified me because they could see the future. Every now and then they stopped in our town, on the same area of waste ground used by circuses and funfairs. They put up a big tent under the eucalyptus trees that surrounded the field, almost on the tarmac road known as Tráfico Pesado—for heavy vehicles—which joins Avenida Urquiza and then Avenida 131, to Villaguay. They made a living buying and selling cars. By the tent, along the roadside, they parked a line of cars and trucks, which displayed their chrome paintwork, gleaming in the sun, to everyone who passed.
In the weeks and even months they camped there, you’d often come across the women out shopping or walking around the town. Always in pairs or threes, sometimes with small children in tow, wearing those flowing gauze skirts and with scarves partly covering their very long, loose or plaited hair, their arms a mass of golden bracelets, their ears heavy with those golden hoops, and their feet clad in high-heeled shoes. No one trusted them: when they went into the grocer’s and other shops, an employee always watched them closely because everyone said their fingers were lightning quick. People said they stole children, too, that they snatched them away and sold them in the next town where they camped. They seemed to find all this suspicion entertaining. Whenever they walked past anyone, they’d shout out an offer to read their palm. That was what I found so terrifying, that they might grab my hand just like that, turn it over and read everything my palm could tell them, right down to the day of my death.
Once I saw something that made me look at these women differently. I’d been out running errands, I must have been around ten, and some way off I saw a gypsy couple. You didn’t often see the men in the street like that. It seemed they’d come out of a shop and were arguing on the pavement. He was waving his arms around, and as I got closer I heard him yelling. I kept at a safe distance, pretending to look in a shop window, because I was scared to walk too close to them. Out of the corner of my eye, I went on observing the scene. The man, a young guy, was talking very loudly, in a language I didn’t understand. She was listening to him, head bowed. At one point he shoved her in the shoulder. The woman’s body was thrown slightly off balance, but she didn’t fall. He turned and marched off with long, determined strides. Instead of following him, and I think he was expecting her to follow him, the woman sat down on the kerb and stayed there for who knows how long. I watched him vanish into the distance and grew tired of waiting for her to get up and leave. I screwed up my courage and walked straight past, behind her. She was hunched over, staring at her knees, and using a twig to draw in the loose dirt that had gathered by the roadside.
The Señora is a slim woman, with long, black hair and a blunt fringe. She wears miniskirts, and her lips and fingernails are painted red. She has tattoos. She must be around my mother’s age, but she looks like a young girl. As we go up the two flights of stairs, we talk about our mutual acquaintances. In her studio, she waves me towards a very comfortable chair, with wooden armrests and soft upholstery. She opens the windows slightly. The studio is built on the flat roof and has rectangular windows running all along two walls, and glass doors on the third through which cacti in pots can be seen dotted here and there on the brick-red tiles. She sits in a similar chair to mine, though hers looks more like a throne: a fair bit larger and made of wicker. A coffee table stands between us. There’s nothing on top but a green cloth folded in two.
I repeat what I told her over the phone and reveal a little more: in two of the cases the relatives consulted psychics, but pretty much nothing came of those experiences. Maybe it was too soon, and maybe now it’s too late, I venture.
It’s never too late. But I think everything in the next world is tangled up together, like a ball of wool. You have to be patient and keep tugging at the end, a little at a time. Do you know the story of the Bone Woman?
I shake my head.
She’s an old, old woman and she lives deep in her lair of lairs. A wild old woman who clucks like a hen, sings like a bird and makes noises that are more animal than human. Her task is gathering bones. She collects and looks after everything that’s in danger of being lost. Her hut is full of all kinds of animal bones, but wolf bones are her favourite. She’ll cover miles and miles, scale mountains, wade through streams, burn the soles of her feet on desert sands to find them. Back in her hut, with her armful of bones, she pieces together the skeleton. When the final bit is in place and the figure of the wolf stands splendid before her, the Bone Woman sits by the fire and decides which song she’s going to sing. Once she’s decided, she raises her arms above the skeleton and begins. And as she sings, bone after bone is covered with flesh, and the flesh with skin and the skin with fur. She sings on and the creature comes to life, takes its first breaths, pricks up its tail, opens its eyes, leaps up and bounds from the hut. At some point in its headlong rush, whether from the speed, from the splashing water as it crosses a stream, or the moonbeams piercing one flank, the wolf turns into a woman who runs, free and unfettered, into the horizon, her laughter filling the air.
Maybe this is your mission: to gather the bones of these girls, piece them together, give them a voice and then let them run, free and unfettered, wherever they have to go.
Order Dead Girls direct from the publisher here.
Selva Almada (Entre Ríos, Argentina, 1973)—whom has been compared to Carson McCullers, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Sara Gallardo and Juan Carlos Onetti—is considered one of the most powerful voices of contemporary Argentinian and Latin American literature and one of the most influential feminist intellectuals of the region. Including her debut The Wind that Lays Waste, she has published three novels, a book of short stories, and a kind of film diary (written in the set of Lucrecia Martel’s most recent film Zama, based on Antonio di Benedetto’s novel). She has been finalist of the Rodolfo Walsh Award and of the Tigre Juan Award (both in Spain). In 2019 she received the ‘Juana Azurduy de Padilla’ Honourable Mention from the Argentine Senate for her efforts and commitment to condemn violence against women and young girls in Argentina. Dead Girls is her second book to appear in English after The Wind that Lays Waste (Winner of the EIBF First Book Award 2019); both published by Charco Press.
Annie McDermott’s published and forthcoming translations include Mario Levrero’s Empty Words and The Luminous Novel, Feebleminded by Ariana Harwicz (in a co-translation with Carolina Orloff, Charco Press), City of Ulysses by Teolinda Gersão (in a co-translation with Jethro Soutar) and Loop by Brenda Lozano. Her translations, reviews and essays have appeared in Granta, The White Review, World Literature Today, Asymptote, the Times Literary Supplement and LitHub, among others. McDermott also edits books for Charco Press, including Julián Fuks’ Resistance and Giuseppe Caputo’s An Orphan World. Her translation of Almada’s third novel, Brickmakers, will come out with Charco Press and Graywolf in 2021.
(top right) ‘Foundational Myth,’ © Marcelo Brodsky (2020)
(top left) Selva Almada, © Pablo José Rey2020)