Book & Movie: The Secret in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri (translated by John Cullen)

Everyone has a secret in Argentinian author Eduardo Sacheri’s novel (released in English earlier this month by Other Press).

Benjamín Miguel Chaparro has retired after a long and storied career in the Buenos Aires’ judiciary system.  Unsure what to do with the surplus of free time he decides to stick with the classic retiree pursuit and write a novel.  He chooses an old case: the 1968 rape and murder of a beautiful, newlywed girl.   As he tells the story  of Liliana Colotto de Morales and her husband, Benjamín revisits events from his own life – which became intertwined with the Morales case.

The Secret in Their Eyes is about more than the repercussions of a murder .  Spanning three decades it provides a snapshot of the brutal political situation in Argentina in the 1970′s & 80′s.  Sacheri’s novel is also an exploration of the pitches of human love – obsessive, secret, unrequited, enabling, lingering.  This sounds heavy-handed, but I think it was the result of serendipity rather than the author’s careful planning.  I don’t say this to in any way minimize Sacheri’s skill.  The best stories take on a life of their own.  They become animate and unpredictable – develop unexpected quirks of character.  I could be assuming too much here but there is a naturalness to the plot and characters of The Secret in Their Eyes that, despite the more macabre aspects, sets it completely in the realm of the possible.  Nothing that happens feels preordained or contrived.  What occurs appears part of the logical progression of events, marked by the choices and motivations of the participants.  The omniscient author is completely obscured.

The Secret in Their Eyes is as a result completely and absolutely riveting.   Sacheri’s prose, indeed the structure of his narrative, is a powerful example of understatement.  The way he builds suspense owes more to Edgar Allen Poe and Agatha Christie than to contemporary television and cinema.  There is an art to foreshadowing.  Sacheri has mastered it.  He respects the intelligence of his reader and seems to understand that sometimes the most effective thing an author can do is to leave blanks in his story  To omit some details for the readers to imagine.  Less is often more.

The film adaptation of The Secret in Their Eyes won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film  (which is probably why English readers have been treated to this wonderful translation).  I don’t normally read a book and watch the film in conjunction, but the movie trailer promised “an unwritten ending”.  How could I resist moving it to the top of my Netflix queue?

It’s not only the ending that’s different.  Someone (the director? screenwriter?) chose to fill in all those blanks Sacheri left for his readers.  Nothing is left to the imagination… even the smallest of mysteries is spelled out and explained.  I would say that the film The Secret in Their Eyes stays true to the spirit of the novel but it plays fast and loose with the letter.  The political setting is almost completely removed.  My favorite character of the novel, Benjamín’s friend and co-worker Sandoval, is given a smaller and drastically different role to play.  Irene, the unrequited love of Benjamín’s life, is made a more prominent part of the story.  Minor characters who in the book make significant contributions to the plot are almost completely absent from the film.

Yet, despite these changes, it is a fantastic movie.  The actors, whose physical appearances I had to sometimes resolve with the mental image I carried of the characters, all give brilliant performances.  A scene at the beginning – when Benjamín arrives at the crime scene and first sees the naked, brutally beaten body of Liliana – is visually staggering in a way that the same scene in the book could not be.  All because of the look on the actor’s (Ricardo Darín’s) face.  The way he breaks off his conversation with the police officer in charge.  You understand why the Morales case – the image of that poor, dead girl – haunted Benjamín.  So while the film is different from the novel I think the one enhances the other.   N.C. Wyeth said he created illustrations that furthered the narrative beyond the text.  Director Juan José Campanella has done that here.

Publisher:  New York, Other Press (2011).
ISBN:  978 1 59051 450 4

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