Alberto Fuguet: Tinta roja [Red Ink]
Our hero is Alfonso Fernández Ferrer, who is fifty-one when writing this book but whom we meet when he is younger. He was going to be a famous novelist but it did not happen. He published some successful stories, was courted by agents and publishers and published his book of stories that did fairly well. He then started on his novel – called Human Resources – which started off well but, somehow, he has never managed to finish. He did write a successful telenovela, based on Manhattan Transfer but it is not what he really wanted to do. So he is now writing this novel which is about his younger days and a particular period of that time.
Right now, he is not too happy with his life. The truth is I have never been what he [his son Benjamin] believes me to be nor, even less, what I would like to be. My current state is, depending on the day, total paralysis or severe torpor.
Benjamin does not live with him. Indeed, he has not done so for some while, as he lives in Durham, North Carolina with his mother and his stepfather.
However, in his younger days, Alfonso studied journalism and hoped to be placed with the (fictitious) El Excelsior for his probation but he ended up with El Clamor, also fictitious but based on the tabloid La Cuarta. Most of this novel is about his time there. He and the other university trainees are not welcomed with open arms by Omar Ortega Petersen, the deputy director of the paper. He is known as The Jackal and it is said that he has made a pact with the devil. He is not friendly.
Alfonso is sent, against his will, to the police section where he works under Saúl Faúndez, known as Little Yellow. Saúl is as tough as The Jackal. When Alfonso meets Roxana Aceituno, apparently the toughest crime reporter in Santiago and she learns that he is working for Saúl, her comment is Shit, I really pity you. They have really dropped you in it.
We follow Alfonso who, together with Saúl, El Camión (The Lorry), who is the driver, and Escalona, the photographer, drive around Santiago reporting on crimes and other violent deaths. They cheat, they lie, they play dirty. Saúl is very good at seducing grieving widows, getting information and photos out of them and then returning a week later with the photos and further comforting the widow, at least if she is attractive,
We follow Alfonso’s induction into this world. In particular, we learn about the horrible deaths and injuries that occur on a daily basis in Santiago. Fuguet spares us no details. Alfonso’s first introduction to this world is a suicide in, appropriately, a cemetery. Saúl makes him study the body. It will be far from the last gruesome body he will have to examine and far from the last detailed, bloody description Fuguet gives us.
For the four men (and their colleagues from the competition), it is all about getting to the scene of the crime first, before the police if possible, getting juicy, gruesome photos, and getting information from witnesses and friends/relatives/neighbours of the deceased or even of the perpetrator(s). They are, on the whole, very successful at it.
We follow the usual crimes – crimes of passion, gang murders, drug-related crimes, random killings, robberies, local disputes and so on. We also learn of suicides and traffic accidents, particularly those that have been particularly bloody or involved multiple deaths.
Of course, there are rules. If a member of the military committed the crime it did not happen. The same applies to relatives of the rich and powerful. On the other hand, if Saúl decides someone is guilty, (s)he is guilty and the story is written in a such a way that no judge would dare let this bastard go.
Saúl is very particular about how a story is written. He is highly critical of university education for journalists, saying you can learn all you need to know about journalism on the streets, though to our surprise and Alfonso’s surprise, he used to be the theatre critic but gave it up as it was too boring. However, he does welcome Alfonso’s writing skills. He stresses the idea of not writing a straight reportage but writing from a point of view.
Inevitably, four street-hardened men behave as you might expect. They drink heavily, they break the law. They occasionally visit prostitutes (though not Alfonso). They are unfaithful to their spouses/girlfriends. They swear. (Reading this book, I learned a lot of Chilean slang.) They have health issues. They are not all bad, however. Saúl reminds Alfonso, when reporting on a crime or death, that it could be he who is the victim and to treat the victim with some respect.
While the focus is on the investigations and reporting, we learn about their lives, particularly that of Alfonso and Saúl. Alfonso has a girlfriend, Nadia, who is also a trainee journalist on the paper (doing the entertainments page Alfonso wanted to do). They have what might best be described as an up-and-down relationship. We learn about Alfonso’s family. He has barely seen his father for many years and is happy that the situation does not change. Saúl is married with a child with Down’s syndrome. He is devoted to his son, less to his wife. He also has a prostate problem. These issues inevitably interfere with their daily work.
The novel takes its course with the description of all the bloody deaths and assaults and how they deal with them. However, things get more difficult when the world out there gets closer to home, starting with meeting a now released killer and Alfonso witnessing a murder.
Fuguet clearly shows us that Santiago is a bloody city though, I suspect, there are many other cities in the world where things are worse. We see the deaths in gory detail and sometimes see the sufferings of the survivors, including the families of the victims. The four men mainly though not entirely remain somewhat removed from this suffering, concerned only with getting a story. He also shows us that this has more or less been the highlight of Alfonso’s life, with everything else being downhill from that point. But if you can read Spanish, you will remember this book for the blood and gore,
First published by Alfaguara in 1998
No English translation