After the successful English-language publication of her debut novel The Wind That Lays Waste, Argentinian author Selva Almada returns with Dead Girls, a journalistic novel centered on the unsolved murders of three young Argentinian women in the 1980s. Translated from Spanish by Annie McDermott, Dead Girls is out this week with Charco Press. In the excerpt below, a family remembers the various femicides that have taken place in their region in recent decades, and the narrator discovers an additional case from the 1950s.
After Sunday lunch one day, Coco Valdéz, my father-in-law, tells me about the time he saw a dead girl. They were having dinner one night with his wife’s parents, who had a little café opposite the train station. Someone knocked at the door and he went to see who it was. A boy he knew, whose surname was Lencina, asked if he could use their phone to call the police. Yes, of course, come inside, but what was going on? On some waste ground, not far away, Lencina had come across the body of a woman. He couldn’t be sure because it was night-time, although the moon was bright, but he thought she was dead and he didn’t want to touch her.
They waited in the café, which was closed at that hour, for the police to arrive. The officer came on a bicycle because the patrol car was at the garage being repaired.
Have you got a vehicle? he asked Coco. Come on, come with us.
Lencina led them through the wasteland. In the weeds, by the side of a path that had formed by being used as a shortcut, they found the girl. When the police officer shone a torch on her face, the three of them looked at one another, stunned. She was a Carahuni, the daughter of a traditional family in the town, and related to Coco Carahuni, a well-known car dealer. Someone had stabbed her in the stomach.
My father-in-law drove away in his truck with the girl’s corpse, the police officer and Lencina, who had quickly turned from a witness to a suspect, though they released him the next day. The boy had nothing to do with it, he’d just had the bad luck to be crossing the wasteland.
The Carahuni crime remains a mystery, forty years on. At the time, a man from Rosario who’d recently moved to Villa Ángela was arrested for the girl’s murder, but they never found a motive. Apparently the man had threatened his wife: If you don’t stop messing me around, I’ll deal with you like I dealt with that Carahuni girl. And she reported him to the police.
Someone else around the table recalls a more recent case, from 1997, involving Andrea Strumberger, a girl of sixteen and a secondary school student. She was an Evangelical Christian and that Sunday she set off on her moped for the Asamblea de Dios Evangelical church. She never arrived, and the next day her body showed up in some wasteland. She’d been raped and beaten to death. Her brother-in-law was arrested for the murder. Everyone knew him, because he was the relative who’d called the most vocally for the case to be resolved.
On Monday I go back to Sáenz Peña. Uninvited, without calling ahead, without agreeing a time or place. I get there in the morning. I’m going to find Yogui Quevedo whatever it takes, and we’re going to talk.
Not that it will be easy. The helpful man I spoke to on the phone a few months ago has suddenly turned evasive.
I call his mobile as soon as I arrive. No luck despite several attempts, always the voicemail.
It’s mid-morning and I’m in the city center. Last time I was here I saw it from a bus, then a taxi, then I walked a few blocks. Today I have more time, and since Yogui isn’t picking up, I set off down the pedestrianized street in search of a bar. The heat is stifling and a cold drink somewhere with air con would be good. Wait in the shade. The pedestrianized Calle San Martín must be about ten blocks long, and I walk all the way down it looking in shop windows. There are no bars. On my whole expedition I find just one. I look in from outside and see several tables with people at them, all men of fifty or more, drinking whisky or beer, smoking and talking in loud voices. Surely I passed more than one bar, I think, and I walk up and down the street again. But no, it seems the bar full of shouting men is the only one. I ask in a kiosk: where can I find a bar that’ll do me a soft drink, somewhere quiet. They point to an ice-cream parlor. I don’t want an ice cream, I want a cold drink. Yep, you can get that there too. I head towards it with misgivings, thinking they’ve seen I’m not from around there and are playing a joke on me. But no, the bar I was looking for is an ice-cream parlor. Later I learn that in Sáenz Peña there are almost no bars. The teenagers and young people don’t normally go to bars to drink. Instead they park their cars, motorbikes, and pickups outside the kiosks and drink on the pavement until it’s time to go to the nightclub.
I order a Sprite in the ice-cream parlor and they bring me a liter bottle, they don’t sell anything smaller. It’s almost like a premonition, because I’m in for a long wait. After more failed attempts, someone finally answers Yogui’s phone. It’s not him; another man says that yes, this is Quevedo’s number, but he can’t talk because he’s in a meeting and I should call back at midday.
I take a book someone lent me out of my rucksack. It’s called Twenty-Five Murders from the Sáenz Peña Crime Pages, by the local historian Raúl López. One story catches my eye, the one about the Polish girl and the Paraguayan guy, which took place in the fifties.
Rosa was the daughter of a Polish couple. She was a sportswoman and worked in a shop, La Ideal, one of those big stores that sell everything: clothes, shoes, wedding dresses, cuts of fabric, bed linen and towels, catering for all the family. As captain of the women’s volleyball team, she’d won a handful of medals and trophies in provincial and national games. The photo accompanying the article shows her on a trip with her teammates: she was a beautiful girl, robust and healthy. In the same club where she achieved this sporting success, she met the person who would be first her lover and then her murderer: Juan, a young Paraguayan who’d got a job in the sports club bar. The attraction was immediate: she a little cautious, shy; he overpowering, persistent, sticky like the scent of the orange blossom that scatters the streets of his country. They began dating. Her parents didn’t approve of the relationship, but she was ready for anything, she’d never been so in love, never had anyone whisper such tender words in her ear, never felt so womanly or so desired as she did on that cheap hotel bed where she made love with Juan whenever she could sneak out of the house.
However, her boyfriend soon showed himself for what he was: a possessive, jealous, and violent man. Rosa, even head over heels in love, was a woman of character. The ladies’ volleyball captain got the better of the dreamy girlfriend and she broke off the relationship. Needless to say, Juan didn’t take it calmly. After the entreaties and passionate declarations came threats. And a letter printed in the town paper describing every last detail of his relations with the girl. An equivalent to the videos posted online by malicious ex-lovers more than fifty years later: the public exposure of a woman’s privacy. Rosa must have thought he couldn’t go any further, that nothing could be worse for a decent, hardworking girl like her than to be stripped naked and shamed by that letter. She must have thought that if she’d survived public humiliation at the hand of her ex-boyfriend, he had no weapons left that could crush her. She got used to looking over her shoulder: no matter where she went, sooner or later she’d see him. Rejected, he’d turned to drink and lost his job. So not only did he follow her around, but when they crossed paths he yelled abuse at her, the wine slurring his words, which were always offensive.
As a precaution, she tried not to go out alone. Her mother went with her to work every day, and met her outside when she finished. One morning, the two of them were walking along arm in arm. They saw him on a street corner, but that wasn’t unusual and they carried on past, brisk, indifferent, heads high. So set on ignoring him that the hand must have come as a surprise, clasping her shoulder from behind and pulling her around, and Juan’s bloodshot eyes that seemed to beg her one last time, then the same hand drawing her towards him and the other sliding a knife into her flesh, and then her tumbling, both of them tumbling to the pavement as he stabbed her again and again, and her mother screaming, running for help. Rosa staring at him, still not understanding. Taking a long time to die. Him on top of her, thrusting the knife in and out. Her beneath him, just like in the cheap hotel bed. Him splattered all over with blood. Then, unable to bear Rosa’s blue-eyed gaze, Juan slit her throat from side to side, before plunging the same knife into his own stomach. The two bodies in a heap, spilling blood onto the pavement, just outside the shop.
From Dead Girls by Selva Almada, translated by Annie McDermott. Published September 3, 2020, with Charco Press. By arrangement with the publisher.