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Santiago Gamboa: Perder es cuestión de método [Losing is a Question of Method]

Our hero is Victor Silanpa (his name reminded me of the Finnish writer Frans Eemil Sillanpää and, later in the book, he will claim that Sillanpää is his great-uncle), a Colombian journalist working in Bogotá, specialising in crime reporting. He works for the (fictitious) El Observador. (There used to be an El Observador but it ceased publication in 1969. There is a magazine of that name but published in Medellín.) He receives a phone call from Captain Moya, a police officer. Silanpa seems to have a very cosy relationship with the police or, rather with Captain Aristófanes Moya. Not only does the Captain keep him informed of crimes, Silanpa will take a very active part in the investigation.

Silanpa has a girlfriend, Mónica. She used to be with Oscar but dumped him for Silanpa. However, when Silanpa is busy or misses a date, she goes out with Oscar. This happens more and more during the book and eventually, they seem to break up.

The phone call from Moya is about a body found near the Sisga dam (link in Spanish), on the outskirts of Bogotá. It seems that the body has been impaled and has been for a while, before it was seen by some canoeists. Silanpa heads out to the dam and sees the badly battered body. A post-mortem will reveal that it has multiple wounds. It is clearly the body of a man in his fifties.

Moya’s initial approach is to get everyone who has reported a missing person in the past few months to come and examine the body. Interestingly, while he shows the body to the friend/relative, it is Silanpa who interviews the only person who thinks the body could be that of someone he knows. Ósler Estupiñán thinks the body may belong to his older brother, a taxi driver who has disappeared. He is unsure for two reasons. Firstly, the body is not in good condition. Secondly, he barely knew his brother.

Meanwhile, as in any good detective novel, we are following other related issues. The relationship between Silanpa and Mónica is not going well. Silanpa is also suffering badly from haemorrhoids. He also has a doll in his flat to which he frequently talks. Moya is very much overweight, a legacy of his childhood, as his parents had a market stall selling fried food and he used to eat a lot of it. His wife has persuaded him to go to an evangelical WeightWatchers and we follow his attendance at these meetings and, indeed, we gradually listen to him telling his life story.

We also meet Guzmán. Guzmán and Silanpa studied journalism together However, Guzmán was much more successful. Both men worked for El Observador but Guzmán soon moved up the ranks and became an editor. He was always the first person to arrive in the morning and the last to leave at night. In short, he overworked. To keep himself going, he drank heavily and took drugs. Eventually, it was all too much and he had a breakdown. He is now in a mental hospital and it seems unlikely that he will fully recover. However, Silanpa visits him regularly and also elicits his aid in this case.

We are also made aware of various dirty deeds. Silanpa himself blackmails a man, as he needs the money to repair his car. We also learn of some sort of conspiracy, involving building and land, which may be linked to the killing. Silanpa, sometimes assisted by Ósler Estupiñán, investigates various lines on enquiry, though Moya seems to be little involved. The main people involved in this land deal – and there are quite a few – tend to be the standard villains – one gambles and seduces his much younger secretary, another drinks heavily and is a thug and so on.

Silanpa gets very much involved in the investigation, so much so that he neglects and then loses Mónica, despite the fact that she gives him numerous chances to redeem himself. He starts neglecting himself – you look like a tramp, Mónica says, seeing him with blood on his jacket and his clothes torn. He has to flee his flat as the thugs are after him and, indeed, they move in to wait for him. He sleeps elsewhere, primarily in the flat of a prostitute friend. He even gets involved in a car chase, wearing only a towel, which comes off as he tries to fire his gun at his pursuers. In short, the investigation takes over his whole life and everything else – his job, his girlfriend, his whole life – is ignored.

The novel also shows the level of corruption in Colombia with the bad guys up to no good but, fortunately for the investigation, they fall out with one another. While the police are not shown as corrupt, they are shown as very incompetent. Captain Moya tells his story but he is currently more concerned with his weight-watching and, on one occasion when Silanpa goes to his office to visit him, he is making a plastic model of the Graf Spee. Indeed, the investigation is almost entirely conducted by Silanpa, with the police only occasionally involved, when fire-power is needed.

It is not a bad novel, even though many of the standard clichés of the detective novel are there – the car chase, the incompetent police, the heavy drinking, the woman with the gun, the villains falling out with one another, the dishonest investigator who is really not all that dishonest, corruption in high places and so on. The focus, of course, is on Silanpa, a man obsessed with finding the truth, at whatever the cost, even though he is frequently out of his depth.

By the way, the title comes from a novel called Nombre de torero by the Chilean writer Luis Sepúlveda in which a character says in a letter Perdí. Siempre perdí. No me irrita ni preocupa. Perder es una cuestión de método [I lost. I always lost. It does not annoy me or bother me. Losing is a question of method.]

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1997 by Norma
No English translation
Published in French as Perdre est une question de méthode by Métaillié in 2003
Published in German as Verlieren ist eine Frage der Methode by Wagenbach in 2000
Published in Italian as Perdere è una questione di metodo by Guanda in 1998
Published in Portuguese as Perder é uma questão de método by Edições ASA in 1999
Published in Swedish as Förlora är en fråga om metod by Tranan in 2005
Also published in Basque, Czech, Polish and Russian