Urgent Matters by Paula Rodriguez, translated by Sarah Moses

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Reviewed by Harriet

Dust raised by the impact falls slowly on the bodies. The thickest particles are struck by a shaft of light, and amid the sparkling dust, a St Expeditus holy card hangs suspended in the air and in a silence that could mean life or death. Expeditus flutters over the heads, doesn’t decide on any of them. Because who isn’t a shit in the end? He seems to be enjoying the suspense. Then, suddenly, he floats upwards, collides with the roof, flips face down and takes a nosedive towards Hugo, the highest point in a mountain of bodies.

This has been a serious train crash. Many people are already dead, others dying, most gravely injured. Hugo is injured too, and the chances of his surviving are slim; how will he even get out? And will St Expeditus help him? He is, after all, the patron saint of urgent matters – Hugo doesn’t believe in him, but he prays to him anyway.

At home Hugo’s partner Marta, alone with their young daughter Evelyn, is in a panic. She’s had a visit from Detective Dominguez and knows Hugo is a wanted man. She texts him to come home and he manages to reply: ‘I fucked up’. So Marta decides to get out. She grabs all the essential paperwork – birth certificates, ID cards – packs some essential clothing, and heads for her sister Mónica’s house. It will be a long and expensive journey.

Evelyn is in a panic too. Not about her father – she has no idea what has happened and why they are leaving home, but she fears it may be connected with something she did at school, something she feels terribly guilty about and expects dreadful punishment if she’s found out.

Mónica is praying. She’s in charge of the slot machines at the Casino, but as she walks around she fingers her rosary, muttering ‘I offer you the wounds ofourlordjesuschrist to heal the wounds of our souls’. She sees that some of the regulars are praying too, over their slot machines, crossing themselves, kissing crosses or medallions. She knows there’s a problem with Marta and Hugo, but always knew there would be, so no surprises there. At home after work, she starts preparing for her sister’s arrival and making use of one of the many sex toys she keeps in stock, to sell as part of her lucrative sideline.

Nobody knows if Hugo is alive or dead – he’s not among the known survivors of the crash, but though they’ve got the bodies out they haven’t found him either. Perhaps his body was so badly damaged as to be unidentifiable? Most people assume he’s dead, but Dominguez is sure he isn’t. But where is he? 

Mónica and Marta’s mother Olga turns up. She’s a tough woman: ‘She’s the one who deals the surprises, not her daughters. A mother like Olga can cause permanent paralysis’. Soon she’s on national TV, talking about her daughter’s disappeared partner. The media loves Olga and even better, Mónica has organised a prayer group near the studio which is sure to draw a large audience, though the Station Manager has to request a rather less gloomy prayer.

By the way – we’re in Argentina. I don’t think I’ve ever read an Argentinian novel before, but if this one represents the state of the country, I’m not very tempted to go there. However, it was fascinating to read about a country rife with corruption in which religion, crime and sexual excess seem to be pretty much co-existent. This is a fast-moving story which switches rapidly between the different characters and their stories. Some of it made difficult reading for me, but overall I admired its panache and its dark wit. All kudos to Pushkin for bringing this debut novel to the English speaking world, thanks to an excellent translation by Sarah Moses. 

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Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Paula Rodriguez, Urgent Matters, trans. Sarah Moses (Pushkin Vertigo, 2022). 978-1782278139, 240pp., paperback original.

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