An Open Secret
In An Open Secret, author Carlos Gamerro, a native to Argentina, weaves together a complex murder mystery that explores how the death of a single man both affects and implicates an entire community. Twenty years after left-wing journalist Dario Ezcurra vanished from the small town Malihuel during Argentina’s Dirty War (a time during which thousands of political dissidents were murdered, their bodies disposed of and never found again), Fefe shows up under the pretense of writing a fictional account of Ezcurra’s disappearance. Fefe is no stranger to Malihuel—the grandson of the town’s former major, he spent his childhood summers there.
Through a series of interviews with the townspeople, Fefe reveals the complicity of the entire town in Ezcurra’s murder and subsequent disappearance. Ezcurra had a reputation as an arrogant philanderer, which led to a strange bet between the Colonel and the Superintendent. In possession of an unwavering and idealistic faith in humanity, the Superintendent asserted that the townspeople would refuse to be complicit in Ezcurra’s murder, despite any personal grudges. However, when the Superintendent talked to families around town, the people did not voice any dissent. Although the police chief was directly responsible for Ezcurra’s murder, anyone could have saved him by speaking out. Their resentment against the philandering journalist and their fear of facing a similar fate decided the outcome of the bet.
[The Superintendent] thought people’s natural reaction to an imminent crime would be to stop it, or report it. His need to lie paradoxically reveals his faith in people. It never entered his head that the perfect crime is precisely the one committed in the sight over everyone—because then there are no witnesses, only accomplices. His premise was correct—in a two-bit town like this you can’t waste a prominent inhabitant without everyone knowing: because it only takes one person to find out for everybody to know. He mistakenly concluded that, in the face of such vigilance, impunity wasn’t an option. Of course it wasn’t, as certain distorters of public opinion repeat ad nauseam, because the policemen of his generation had notions of morality, honesty or honour that were later lost; no, it was simply narrow-mindedness, intellectual laziness—a eureka moment, a Copernican revolution, the Superintendent was simply too old for it. All he needed to arrive at the right solution was a leap, a flip of the imagination that stood logic on its head and set the clockwork going—the realization that you can hold your tongue while talking out loud, that town gossip can work the other way round. That silence also travels by word of mouth.
The prose itself is difficult to wade through: a majority of the text is written as extended quotations from Fefe’s interviews, with punctuation stylistically omitted. Overall, this makes the panic and tension palpable for the reader, almost as if characters are speaking directly at them. It is easy for the audience to become immersed in the story line and submerged in a sense of confusion while attempting to piece together the loosely intertwined narratives. As the story moves forward, it becomes more and more apparent that the stories presented in the interviews are secondary to the tone itself—the novel itself is primarily composed of many unique voices interweaving into a sociological record of the town during a desperate time. Each person’s character is created largely out of their dialogue, and the bulk of the story itself is presented as a series of soliloquies. Truth is interspersed with contradiction and lies, and everyone is motivated by their own self-interest throughout Fefe’s interviews, either trying to hide their own involvement in Ezcurra’s murder or simply trying to lay blame on individuals they personally hold grudges against. This is undoubtedly a reflection of the self-serving attitudes individuals would have displayed twenty years prior, when faced with the possibility of saving Dario Ezcurra from his impending death.
The discovery that Dario Ezcurra’s mother Delia falls victim to a similar fate, quite likely because there were complaints that she was bothering the townspeople with her inquiries, makes the sense of horror evident in the panicked dialogues of the novel come to a head, and fuels the revelation that Fefe is Ezcurra’s illegitimate son. This explains Fefe’s investment in a story that beforehand simply appeared to be significant for the sake of childhood nostalgia, because he did not seem deeply concerned with writing the book itself.
And yet, for the sake of the book’s plot, this fact about Fefe being Ezcurra’s son in and of itself is not the most striking part. It is the change in human behavior as evident by a difference in tones of the dialogues of the characters that is observable after the revelation that is significant: people who were complicit in the murders of Fefe’s father and grandmother now offer their condolences, altering their behaviors to fit their audience. The murders themselves, in light of Argentina’s Dirty War, are not unique. What is new and significant is the idea that the responsibility for the murders, in this case and perhaps in many others, does not rest simply with the authorities and the government. Ordinary people are to blame, both by their silence and their choice of words when they spoke out. Perhaps history might have unfolded differently if people had listened to a left-wing journalist pointing out the injustices befalling the community. This book is more than just the story of a man documenting the life and death of the father he never truly knew—it is a sociological record commenting on the behaviors of people under the pressure of not only other people but under their own personal bias against one another.