Elena Knows—Claudia Piñeiro

[I read the first two parts of this short novel first, then wrote about them. Then I went on to read  the final part.. Spoiler alert: If you read this running commentary, you will find out everything that happens in the book as I read it.]

27 May 2021
I, Morning (second pill) and II, Midday (third pill)
So far, this is an almost unbearably claustrophobic novel. We are locked into a single appalling experience, and it’s hard not to be thankful that it’s short. If it went on for much longer it might lose some of its intense concentration. This is a day in the life of Elena, the 63-year-old victim of a devastating form of Parkinson’s. She is making her painstaking way to visit a woman called Isabel, the only person she can think of who might be able to help her cast some light on the death of her daughter. To the police, it’s an open-and-shut case of suicide. But Elena knows—a phrase that echoes through the chapters—that under no circumstances would her daughter have ended her life in the way that the evidence suggests. She’s sure somebody killed her.

Claudia Piñeiro is well-known in Argentina both for her activism on behalf of women’s rights and for the kind of crime writing that reveals the dark underside of her country. It seems to me that this book isn’t really, or isn’t only, a crime thriller. Elena, locked into her ‘fucking whore illness’—her phrase, often repeated—is, I’m guessing, an archetype of how women live in the self-satisfied patriarchy that is Argentina. Why does Elena choose to think of her illness as female, disempowering her mind, a dethroned king with no power to move her body? Why is Rita, the daughter, shown as so pitiless in her complaints to her mother of how far short of any ideal of femininity she has allowed herself to fall? Why does Piniero have Rita insist, on the day which becomes that of her own death, that Elena be given a full makeover because she can’t bear to look at the toothless old crone she had become?

What makes this less of a crime novel than something else is the fact that the details of Elena’s life, and Rita’s when she was alive, are given far more space than any crime element. The facts of the case are simple: Rita was found by altar-boys hanging in the belfry of her church, a turned-over chair beside her. But it was raining, and Rita had an obsessive fear, whenever it rained, of the church. ‘The city’s lightning-rod,’ her father had called it and, alongside other fears and superstitions, her avoidance of it in wet weather became an unbreakable rule. Besides, although I can’t remember this having been asked, why would Rita kill herself after having made Elena clean herself up for nobody’s sake but Rita’s own? Elena tells all this to the ‘inspector’—no such thing, in fact, but a cop caught literally with his pants down and now assigned to the most tedious of duties—and he humours her in meetings she keeps insisting on, and that are more interesting than his other duties. And that’s it.

Is she right? I’m not sure it’s important. Somehow, the villain of the piece is the society they live in, and the lives that people have to lead. This doesn’t mean I think there will be no actual perpetrator, but I can’t imagine Piñeiro offering her readers any kind of straightforward solution. Unless Rita really had reached the end and, rain or no rain, simply couldn’t bear it a moment longer….

As I wrote at the start, it’s short and intense. So far, in the first two-thirds of the book, we have followed Elena through her excruciatingly difficult journey to Buenos Aires and the door of the house where she last saw Isabel. The narration is almost entirely first person limited, in the present tense for those sections dealing with the way she has to medicate before she can even, literally, put one foot in front of the other before we are forced to follow her every step of the way. Her Parkinson’s has made it impossible for her to look straight ahead, so the details are of paving-stones, shoes and the voices of people she can’t see above knee-height. Her ‘fucking whore’ illness has imprisoned her in a carapace of disability, but she dreads people’s interest, tries to avoid any offers of help. When, finally, she is able to board the train at the end of the five blocks (I think) that she has had to count from her home, the dread of not being able to sit is almost overwhelming—as is the relief when, unexpectedly, a man offers her his seat. And we are there, in her head in these moments. Is it stream-of-consciousness? It’s more like a stream of the wretchedly petty details of walking and travelling that she used to take for granted.

Interspersed with the gruelling journey come details of her life, mainly in the past few months or so. Narrated in the past tense, these are often based on Elena’s own memories—they are as much from her point of view as details of present-day journey—but, just as often, are useful background information we simply need to know. And we find out how unsatisfactory everything has been. Her husband, dead from a heart attack in his forties, might have survived if the ambulance hadn’t arrived over an hour after she’d called for it. Her 41-year-old daughter is presented completely unsympathetically, starting with the holidays they used to take after Elena was left a widow. They could only afford to go to the coast every other year, and Rita doesn’t want to take the umbrella to the beach. Elena couldn’t possibly manage without it, so they never go there. Instead, they go for evening walks during which they row constantly until Rita, every time, ends up walking on ahead.

What’s going on? Why is absolutely everything so second-rate, from a welfare system that only works properly if you have somebody to argue your case—Rita, as rude as we would expect from this presentation of her, is very good at this—to the most stunted of emotional lives? Rita has a ‘boyfriend’, described routinely by Elena as a hunchback, and Elena is endlessly suspicious of him. She feels no joy at all at the prospect, quite imminent at the time of Rita’s death, of them marrying. The makeover she is made to have is at the salon of the man’s mother, a woman who has done her best in a strange country to make something of herself. Which isn’t how Elena sees it. All she sees is another mother as appalled as she is by the prospect of her only child being married to somebody so unsatisfactory.

There’s a sense of everybody living on the edge of survival and, without any nudging from Piñeiro, Elena’s particular illness seems a perfect metaphor. Nothing in the way this society works is set up to help, and all the men involved in her life—the priest, the would-be fiancé, the cop—treat her as they would a child. They have no respect for this prematurely old woman. Meanwhile, it’s hard to imagine that the woman she is seeking out, whose address she can’t remember but whose street and door she knows, is going to be able to solve anything for her. As we might have come to expect, Elena isn’t looking for any favours, but she is certain that the woman is so obliged to her for some unnamed favour In the past that she will have to help her. Perhaps there have been clues as to the nature of this obligation, but if so I’ve missed them. At the point I’ve reached, Elena has finally recognised the door she had been looking for—the taxi driver has been very patient—but I’ve no idea what might come next. Elena has taken her third pill a little early, to make sure her body doesn’t grind to a halt before she has done what she feels she needs to do.

Time to read on.

[Later]
The first chapter of III, Afternoon (fourth pill)
This is almost all told in flashback, and we suddenly understand the significance of a birth announcement we’d come across that Rita had kept in a scrapbook. It states, in joyful terms, that Isabel Mansilla and her husband have a daughter, Maria Julieta. This is from 1982, twenty years ago, and Rita hasn’t seen Isabel again in all that time. It’s vaguely mysterious, but during those first two sections we’ve been too involved with Elena’s day, and the picture we get of her deeply unsatisfactory relationship with her daughter, to pay a lot of attention. Now, suddenly, we understand. Had it not been for Rita escorting Isabel in her confusion from outside the nearby clinic that is known for providing abortions, the child would never have been born. Elena had been surprised that Rita had come home early with this desperate young woman, but agrees to escort her back to her home address, which they find on a letter from the clinic she has with her. All these years later, Elena is hoping to find this address and ask Isabel to help her.

What’s going on? This thread is tied up with the lives of three women, one of whom prevented another from doing what she had chosen to do. Piñeiro presents, verbatim, Rita’s account to Elena of how she had insisted to Isabel that the foetus inside her was not a thing, but a child, and that she was already a mother. The reader might have his or her own opinions about that, and the narrator definitely does. ‘That afternoon Rita, who was not a mother and never would be, forced another woman to become one, applying the dogma she’d learned to another woman’s body.’ Piñeiro couldn’t nail her colours to the mast any more explicitly. We’ve already heard about Rita’s arbitrary adherence to some tenets of the Church, usually to do with rituals and expected behaviours, while ignoring others like regular church attendance and what to choose to confess. Rita had no philosophy, only ready-made, usually man-made codes and superstitions. Even her fear of lightning came from a man, her father.

So, how might Isabel be feeling about all of this, twenty years later? That birth announcement tells us nothing, although it allows Elena to choose to believe in the happiness she and her husband were supposedly feeling. Isabel’s married state—she was wearing her wedding ring on that fateful day—had been a clincher for Rita and Elena. How could she do what she intended without her husband’s permission? We can almost hear Piñeiro’s snorting contempt as she writes.

Meanwhile, what about Rita’s childless state? We’ve read in an earlier section that Elena had been so convinced that Rita’s late arrival at puberty, and the lightness of her periods when they came—very different from Elena’s own—were a sign of infertility. She insisted on a scan to prove to herself that Rita even had a womb…. She had, but Elena hardly believed it. By contrast, she had always felt pride in her own fertility and status as a mother—but now, as she tells the cop, she doesn’t know who she is any more. There are words for widowhood and orphanhood, she says, but not one for what she is. What is a mother whose child has died?

Piñeiro isn’t going to make it easy for her. Like her daughter, Elena is locked into codes that aren’t of her own making, but which she feels give her the right to judge other women. So perhaps this is what her illness represents. Not only is she locked in, she’s also prevented from seeing what’s in front of her. And the illness has taken other things from her too. Rita had been appalled by how Parkinson’s had stolen Elena’s pride in herself as a woman, and seemed to think that a makeover would make a real difference. But the realities of the illness, that have turned her body into a useless thing, have made Elena completely indifferent to the idea. Unfortunately, freedom from the imperatives of what is considered acceptable in a woman’s appearance is no freedom at all for her. It’s another loss.

29 May
The rest of III, Afternoon—to the end
This becomes a bitter parody of the revelation scene at the end of a whodunit. There are few real surprises, only Isabel’s confirmation to Elena that she and Rita didn’t do her any favours when they stopped her from doing what she wanted. The reader might have suspected this, following Piñeiro’s frank condemnation in the previous chapter: ‘Rita, who was not a mother and never would be, forced another woman to become one.’

Whatever welcome Elena had been expecting, she doesn’t get it. It takes some time for Isabel to overcome her shock at seeing one of the women who had helped to ruin her life, and for her to begin to explain how. But when it comes, Isabel’s description of her married life becomes the most clear-cut case imaginable for why women should be allowed to choose. ‘I was never in love with my husband, we were both virgins when we married and in the beginning I wasn’t able to open up enough to make love with him, we couldn’t do it. It wasn’t until three months after getting married that we finally did it, and it was violent. He pulled my legs apart and said, you’re going to open up, one way or another.’

This is marital rape, and it gets worse. Despite the bruises after that first time, and ‘a pain that lasted a long time … he kept it up until I got pregnant and then he never touched me again.’ In other words, he had only married in order to father a child—a motive explained when we realise that the only important relationship in his life is with another man, the child’s ‘godfather,’ and with whom he goes out and on holidays.

It continues to get worse. Piñeiro builds what, she must be hoping, is an unanswerable case for a woman’s rights over her own body. Having been returned home by Elena and Rita, Isabel had effectively been imprisoned there until the child was due to be born. After that, nothing. ‘I was never able to nurse her, my breasts were empty. … I didn’t want to be a mother, everyone else wanted it, my husband, his partner, your daughter, you, my body grew for nine months and Julieta was born, condemned to life with a mother who didn’t want to be one,’ But Elena ‘doesn’t listen’ to what she is saying, or doesn’t get it. For Elena, we remember, motherhood had given her a sense of identity. She thinks Isabel must only have felt as she did before the child was born: ‘Until you saw her, now that she’s here, living in your house, calling you Mum.’ But it wasn’t like that. ‘She doesn’t call me Mum, she calls me Isabel, she always knew, I didn’t even have to say it.’

In other words, not all women are alike, and one woman has no right to tell another how she ought to feel—or what she should allow to happen to her own body. As she has told Elena, ‘everyone else wanted it, my husband, his partner, your daughter, you,’ and her list makes Rita guilty and Elena complicit. Isabel’s rage is clear from the start. Before she tells Elena any of the details of her married life, Elena had blithely been telling her she must rejoice having a child to share important family moments. Isabel punctures her cliché-ridden vision with the truth of her feelings. Elena has asked her to help her, to be the able-bodied accomplice in her quest to find out how her daughter died. Isabel is brutal: ‘I can’t help you because I killed your daughter.’ Suddenly, Elena can’t breathe. ‘I killed her by wishing her dead so many times, Isabel clarifies, because she realises she needs to. There hasn’t been a single day in my life that I haven’t wished to some god, some sorcerer, some star, that your daughter would die, and now she’s finally dead.’ And still, Elena can’t breathe. Which is when Isabel begins to turn everything Elena believed about motherhood upside down.

In a way, that still isn’t the worst of it for Elena. ‘Elena knows,’ we have been told literally dozens of times, and Isabel is going to make her realise that she doesn’t know. Not only about what some women might feel about a forced pregnancy, but about what desperation might lead a person to do. She is talking about herself, the day her pregnancy test result arrived, and how she simply couldn’t bear it. ‘One day, some day, like the day your daughter found me vomiting on the pavement, or the day your daughter was found dead in the church belfry, or today, life will test us. For real, not a dress rehearsal. And on that day we will finally realise that we are all alone, forced to face ourselves, with no lies left to cling to.’

Why does she mention the day of Rita’s death? Elena must think the test she refers to is her own, losing her only daughter, and maybe at this moment we are expected to understand it that way. After all, what is Rita having to endure, beyond the normal routine of her second-rate life? Isabel asks the same question, much more graphically: ‘What test could life have placed in front of your daughter to make her do something she never thought she’d do? What could’ve made her decide she didn’t mind going to a church on a day like that? What could’ve been so terrible that she preferred to walk through the thunder and lightning she believed could kill her? Maybe she wanted the very thing she’d been so scared of before, for a bolt of lightning to split her in two. And when it didn’t happen, when she got there and realised it was all a lie, that she was soaking wet but still alive, she chose to climb the tower, tie the kind of knot she’d never thought she knew how to tie, put the rope around her neck, and hang herself.’

It’s like the detective at the end of a crime thriller, giving us a picture of how it must have happened—and we know she must be right because we’re so near the end now. But we don’t know the motive. After this long chapter, which ends with Isabel’s harrowingly plausible description, Elena pieces it together for herself—or Piñeiro pieces it together for us by way of a flashback to the couple of days before Rita’s death. She had gone with Elena to her medical review, and is devastated by what she hears. At first, the doctor tries to be tactful. But after each new detail of her decline, he admits there’s more to come. ‘There’s more, doctor?’ Rita keeps on asking and, as tactfully as he can, he gives more details. But she asks another question, one that’s even more pressing—‘But what about me; what are you asking from me?’

With Elena’s permission and speaking directly to her, he doesn’t hold back on his terrible prognosis: ‘the disease will advance more quickly than we’d predicted, in a short time you may not be able to get out of bed, you won’t be able to feed yourself, or go to the bathroom without help, you’ll only be able to eat liquids or semi-liquid food, it will be impossible to understand your speech, you won’t be able to read, it’s likely that you might even experience symptoms of dementia, forgetting things, memory loss.’ When he tells Rita that time is short, he means the decline will be fast. But she misunderstands, and asks him directly, in front of her mother, if she’s going to die soon. When he tells her no, she asks for his ‘solution.’ It seems his answer seals it for her: ‘There is none, Rita.’

This is what brings her to the point that Isabel had described. Almost haranguing the doctor, she tells him there is a solution. When he clearly doesn’t understand—and why should he?—she comes close to spelling it out: ‘You say, more, and if I can’t take any more there’s one thing I can do. … I’m not sure I can handle any more.’ The doctor tries to persuade her she can, and there’s a dark irony in the way he uses a cliché of an idea to tell her how he is sure she ought to feel. She is going to be able to give back what her mother gave her: ‘you’re going to have to be your mother’s mother, because the Elena we know is going to be a baby.’

Rita is infuriated by the analogy, reminding him that she is nothing like a baby: ‘instead of learning to control her sphincters she’s shitting and pissing herself…’ and the rest. And it’s clear that none of it is based on any concern for her mother. There’s never been any love between them, and she tells him, in Elena’s hearing, ‘I don’t think I can become the mother you’re asking me to become.’ There will be support, he says. ‘For me or for her?’

After they leave, Rita is completely preoccupied with the idea that however bad things are—and she’s never been slow to remind Elena they are very bad indeed—they are going to get worse. Elena is trying to make the most of it when they get home, but Rita locks herself in her room, and lets her mother cook the evening meal as best she can. When she finally emerges, and Elena shows her the pamphlets detailing the available support, Rita burns them over the stove. And two days later, she is found hanging in the belfry.

There are more details, but we get it now. Isabel had wondered what could make anyone desperate enough to do what she tried to do, or to do what Rita must have done. And Pereira has made the parallels explicit. Isabel had never loved her child, just as Rita had never loved Elena—the woman she was going to have to look after like a baby. The idea of motherhood is too much for either of them to bear.

There’s another connection between all three women. It’s to do with the body, and who owns it. Rita, helped by Elena, had taken away Isabel’s ownership of her own, which is why she aligns them with her husband and his partner as the guilty parties. Rita’s presumption, especially, is as bad as any man’s: as both Isabel and Pereira’s narrator both say, Rita had no children and never would, and yet she made another woman’s choice for her. In a different way, Elena is as bad. She needed Isabel to do the digging she couldn’t do for herself—or, as Elena herself puts it to her when she thinks Isabel is in her debt, ‘you could pay back by lending what I don’t have, a body, a body that’s able to help.’ Later, when Isabel reminds her of this—‘You came here to use my body’—Elena denies it.

As for Elena’s Parkinson’s… it’s many things, including a metaphor of Elena’s limitations. But it’s also a reminder that a woman’s body is all she has. Isabel’s control over her own was taken away by force, aided by the attitudes of a patriarchal society and two women who let men do their thinking for them. Elena’s body, on the other hand, has her body’s command centre, which she thinks of as male, brought low by a ‘fucking whore’ illness. Her king, she thinks, has been dethroned—and I can’t help thinking Pereira might believe this to be the best thing that can happen to kings.

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