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Nicolás Giacobone: El cuaderno tachado (The Crossed-Out Notebook)

Like the author, Pablo Betances is a scriptwriter. He had not always wanted to be a scriptwriter. Indeed, his initial ambition was to be a musician but he soon realised that starting at the age of nineteen to play the guitar was far too late, so he determined to be a writer.

Initially, he wrote detective novel called Absolutely Still but it didn’t work. He then wrote a story about a paedophile priest but showed it to his mother, who was horrified so he destroyed it. He then read Beckett and Borges but eventually got tired of Borges. He then turned to scriptwriting. That is how he got to know Santiago Salvatierra, the greatest living Argentinian director and, in his own eyes, the greatest in the world.

Pablo lives in a flat in Buenos Aires with his widowed mother. Salvatierra lives in San Martín de los Andes and he invited Pablo for the weekend. Pablo told no-one – not his mother, nor his friend Lisandro. This turned out to be a mistake as Salvatierra kidnaps him, locks him a basement and makes him write a script for what will be the greatest film ever.

At the start of the novel, Pablo, now aged forty-five, has been in the basement for five years. In that time, he has not seen daylight and has no news of the world or, more particularly, of his mother. He is fed. He is given a MacBook which is not connected to the Internet but is loaded with Pablo’s favourites – the Beatles (as a group but not individually – he abhors the post-Beatles Beatles).

All day he spends his time writing, sleeping or masturbating. One of the key issues is that Salvatierra cannot write so has to use Pablo to write for him. Salvatierra does not admit that he cannot write. Indeed, he sees Pablo merely as a tool for his great work, just as he sees the actors and technicians as merely tools for his genius. Indeed, he takes credit for all the writing on his films, not least because he then gets membership of the Writers’ Union, giving him worldwide health insurance.

The basic routine is that his food is brought to him by Norma, a Mexican woman who does not speak (to him) but is armed with a revolver. Salvatierra appears on a regular basis to check up on his work, telling him how to do his job. The rest of the time, he is on his own.

Inevitably he ruminates about his previous life, about literature, about his imprisonment, about sex and about the script.

Not surprisingly, Salvatierra occupies much of his thoughts. He stresses on several occasions that Salvatierra cannot write. A lot of directors can’t write. Santiago’s problem is that he thinks he can write. Ninety nine percent of directors can’t write. You directors shouldn’t worry about it. There are thousands of screenwriters scattered around, living in ditches like Beckett characters, just waiting for the chance to help you out.

Salvatierra looks at Pablo’s scripts and makes corrections. I use about ten percent of his notes. I usually use about thirty percent of his ideas.

So why is he still there? When he was first kidnapped, Salvatierra threatened him with a gun. When Pablo refused to write, Salvatierra pulled the trigger. Twice. It did not fire. Pablo was not going to risk a third time.

Pablo does write scripts but, as the title tells us, he keeps a notebook and then crosses it out. This is what we are now reading. Salvatierra finds the notebook and removes it so he then writes an encrypted Word file.

He also ruminates on literature, music and cinema. He loves the Beatles while Salvatierra loves Pink Floyd. They argue about it. Salvatierra loves Borges, Pablo has gone off him. They argue about Borges. They argue about film. Who is the best director – Haneke or Tarkovsky?

It’s absurd to compose music after Mozart.
Absurd to write after Ulysses.
Absurd to make movies after Tarkovsky.

Reading this novel, while you clearly feel sorry for Pablo, you wonder why he could not, on some occasion, have attacked either Salvatierra or Norma. Had I been locked up in this way, I would certainly would have taken the risk and, I’m sure, most people would have done. He is getting no credit (nor any payment) for the script so why does he churn it out?

Of course, for much of the novel, as in other novels, the reader is wondering what is going to happen, in this case, to Pablo. Will he go on writing scripts for Salvatierra forever? Will Salvatierra (or Norma) kill them? Will the cavalry arrive? Will he somehow escape? Or has Giacobone got something else under his sleeve? Of course, all is revealed at the end.

I suppose you could say that the novel is somewhat disturbing, as Salvatierra’s actions are clearly totally unacceptable, even in the service of great art. At the same time, you cannot help but feel that Pablo could have made a greater effort to escape or even sabotage Salvatierra’s efforts. Despite that, it is a reasonably original idea though I did wonder if Giacobone had read Stephen King’s Misery, whose theme is not entirely different.

Publishing history

First published by Reservoir Books in 2018
First English translation by Scribner in 2019
Translated by Megan McDowell