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  • The Dead-Ends and Detours of HistoryFilm Noir Trauma in Juan Martini's El fantasma imperfecto
  • Erik Larson

Latin American detective fiction is already a common vehicle for investigating history. Figures associated with the neopolicial such as Paco Ignacio Taibo II or Ramón Díaz Eterovic use the genre as a mode of searching for justice, or a sort of ajuste de cuentas for the crimes of the past. The more biting social content of their novels lies in their exposure of a system utterly devoid of lawfulness or confidence in the state. Such disillusion undoubtedly marks the novels of another key figure of the Latin American policial, Argentine Juan Martini. However, beyond this sense of political malaise, Martini's introspective and metaphysical detective novels sew a web of intertextuality with U.S. film noir in order to pose the very problems of trauma and historical representation itself. Indeed, by engaging with other cinematic texts, a novel like El fantasma imperfecto 1986) ironically gestures toward what is lost within textuality, namely, those moments of trauma that seem to defy representation.

Like other Argentine noir novels of the 70s and 80s by writers such as Osvaldo Soriano, José Pablo Feinmann, and Mempo Giardinelli, Martini's work initiates an intertextual dialogue with key figures of the North American hard-boiled school as well as their silver screen renditions. Soriano's watershed 1973 noir novel, Triste, solitario y final, for example, takes its title from Chandler's The Long Goodbye (1953), and casts Philip Marlowe as its protagonist alongside a fictionalized version of Soriano himself as an Argentine journalist on assignment in Los Angeles investigating the whereabouts of Laurel and Hardy. Later on, novels by Feinmann and Giardinelli attempt to translate the formalistic cinematography of directors like Ulmer or Lang to the written page in novels such as Últimos días de la víctima (1978) or Qué solos se quedan los muertos (1985). Beginning in the early seventies and continuing to the present day, Martini's novels betray a consistent fascination with Hollywood and the detective genre. For example, Los asesinos las prefieren rubias (1974) oscillates inexplicably between Buenos Aires and Hollywood, while Marilyn Monroe, Orson Welles, and Frank Sinatra are among its principal characters. Far from relinquishing their ties to Argentina, however, Martini's novels and those of the aforementioned writers invite a comparison between contexts. While their novels conjure the specificity of U.S. film noir and its historical discontents, [End Page 264] they also speak allegorically about Argentina's own political upheaval in the 70s and 80s.1

In a personal interview, Martini himself referenced the importance of film noir, and black and white film in general, for his novels: "A partir de Composición de lugar y a lo largo de las cuatro novelas protagonizadas por Juan Minelli, trabajé con films como Casablanca y La Dolce Vita. Los dos también en b/n. No fueron ajenos a esta decisión los policiales negros, El sueño eterno, El halcón maltés, Tener y no tener y muchos otros" (Martini, Juan E-Mail message). As he states, the explicit or implicit citation of these movies puts into play an intertextual dialogue. According to him, these cinematic citations "fueron recursos para trasladar la trama de la novela a las tramas de las películas … Es decir, la voluntad fue crear una intertextualidad entre historias que no tenían que ver entre sí pero que sin embargo podían hablar unas de otras." In other words, the novels self-consciously comment on film, while film also illuminates the novels. And if Martini's elliptical and incomplete texts so often beg the reader to fill in the holes, then film noir can act as a provocative textual supplement that teases out the problems of historical representation.2 As we shall see, in his 1986 novel El fantasma imperfecto, Martini constructs an intertextual dialogue with U.S. film noir in order to dramatize the search for a narrative in the face of historical trauma. Ultimately, the noir form posits the uncanniness of historicity itself, which challenges any clear distinction between a rational sense of historical movement and the latter...


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