By Claudia Piñeiro
Translated by Frances Riddle
On Jan. 24, 2021, abortion became legal in Argentina for the first time since 1886. This landmark shift was the result of decades of committed grass-roots agitation by activists from various walks of life, including the renowned writer Claudia Piñeiro.
Hailed by some as “the Hitchcock of the River Plate,” Piñeiro is a well-known crime writer in her native Argentina and around the world. Yet though her books are global best sellers and four of her novels have appeared in Britain, many Anglophone readers remain unfamiliar with her work.
Piñeiro’s short and stylish novel “Elena Knows” is an ideal way to get acquainted. On the surface, it’s a tight and terse mystery with a decisive protagonist. But it’s also a piercing commentary on mother-daughter relationships, the indignity of bureaucracy, the burdens of caregiving and the impositions of religious dogma on women. A woman’s right to choose to terminate her pregnancy in a conservative and deeply Catholic society ends up being a key component of this story.
Elena, 63 and stricken by Parkinson’s, serves as an unlikely detective. After the body of her devout daughter, Rita, is discovered hanging in the belfry of the church she attended, authorities hastily declare it a suicide. Dissenting and alert, yet underestimated and impaired because of a disease she refers to in profane terms, the irreligious Elena refuses to accept that conclusion.
The book’s structure — its three sections are titled “Morning,” “Midday” and “Afternoon” — is governed by Elena’s medication schedule, which she must follow lest she lose even her minimal ability to control the adversary she personifies as an intruder in her body. Elena is no sweet old lady, telling her daughter’s boyfriend, Roberto, to “go to hell” when he offers to help in her daughter’s sudden absence. When Father Juan, her daughter’s priest, accuses Elena of the sins of “pride and arrogance, to think that you know everything, even when the facts show something else,” he’s not exactly wrong about Elena’s flaws, but Piñeiro keeps you rooting for her difficult heroine anyway.
The author intercuts Elena’s quest across Buenos Aires — to call in a dubious favor from a woman named Isabel, which might solve the mystery — with flashbacks to the quarrelsome past she shared with Rita, whom Elena mistakenly believed she knew through and through. Because of her sickness, this simple act of traversing a city is a struggle on par with Odysseus’ journey home. It evokes Joyce’s “Ulysses” too, unfolding in a single city over the course of a day.
Even if Piñeiro is not unknown to some readers, she remains known only incompletely, as her translator Frances Riddle notes in her prologue. Her efforts as a “committed supporter of various high-profile campaigns including the legalization of abortion in Argentina and the #NiUnaMenos movement against femicide” are often overshadowed by her reputation as the “Queen of Crime Fiction.” The publication of the page-turning and political “Elena Knows” provides a more complete picture of the author’s concerns and commitments.
When Elena reaches her destination, the revelations are brutal. “‘Never’ isn’t a word that applies to our species,” Isabel says. “There are so many things we think we’d never do and yet, when put in the situation, we do them.” Through all that Elena is and is not able to know — her stubbornness, her blind spots — Piñeiro shows the foolishness that arises from misguided conviction, as well as the pain of embodiment in a world where forces beyond our control too often control our bodies.