This unsung jewel of a novella by the decorated couple Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo is a stylish, postmodern-inflected pastiche of an Agatha Christie mystery.
The narrator of Where There’s Love, There’s Hate, like so many of his fellow writers, is continually seeking out “pretexts” to avoid getting down to work. “How solicitously doth reality provide those pretexts,” he laments, “and with what delicate devotion does it conspire with our indolence!” In this instance, the distraction inconveniently supplied by reality is a murder, and moreover one whose investigation Humberto Huberman, a doctor summering in the Argentine resort of Bosque del Mar, feels duty-bound to supervise—even if that means neglecting the precious purpose of his sojourn: a screenplay adaptation of Petronius’s Satyricon.
Originally published in 1946 and now translated into English for the first time by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell, this unsung jewel of a novella by the decorated couple Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo is a stylish, postmodern-inflected pastiche of an Agatha Christie mystery. No sooner has Dr. Huberman settled in among the well-heeled guests of the Hotel Central than a young woman of his acquaintance, a former patient named Mary Gutiérrez, is found dead in her room. Clearly a man with an admirable sense of proportion, Huberman receives this news with a sense of “melancholy premonition.” “I thought of my promised vacation,” he writes, “my literary endeavors. I murmured, ‘Farewell, Petronius.’”
Of course, Huberman could choose to leave the clue-sifting to the official detectives, Commissioner Aubry and police physician Dr. Montes. But as far as he can tell, the latter is an incompetent drunk, and the former’s “modest intelligence” required the guidance of a superior intellect such as his own, especially because this is a nettlesome case; in classic whodunit fashion, nearly everyone is a suspect. The dead girl was last seen kissing her sister’s fiancé, putting both the betrayed Emilia and the errant Enrique in the frame, as well as lending credence to the theory that emotional turmoil caused Mary to take her own life. Then there’s the suspicious behavior of hotelier Andrea’s nephew, who liked killing birds and might have been in love with Mary. And while Huberman quickly ensures that he himself is “shifted from the group of suspects to the group of investigators,” the reader can’t help but recall how, occasionally, the killer in a Christie tale is the unreliable narrator himself. Huberman certainly had the means: the murder weapon was strychnine, a substance commonly used in his specialty of homeopathy.
Huberman enjoys even greater influence over his portrayal than a traditional narrator: as he tells us on the very first page, he is actually writing the account. And, as if to declare his commitment to the facts, he explicitly renounces “the detective novel, the fantasy novel and the entire prolific, varied, and ambitious literary genre that is fed by unreality.” Yet the scenario into which he is thrust is so conventional that it couldn’t possibly exist outside of literature—this is one of Bioy Casares and Ocampo’s many playful ironies. (Another is their cameo appearance in the book’s opening pages, where Huberman dines with them, talks about his plans for a modern-day Argentine version of Satyricon, then worries about having “handed, to that amateur couple, all the necessary elements to steal my ideas.”) But although mystery aficionados may find the routine mechanics of the mildly suspenseful plot less than thrilling, the masterfully conceived voice of Huberman—pompous, erudite, enviably conceited—is a rare pleasure, calibrated with absolute precision in Levine and Ernst Powell’s immensely satisfying translation.
Keen to outline his various admirable qualities and relieved when his exemplariness is recognized—asked to accompany Emilia to her sister’s coffin, Huberman remarks that it is “always a comfort to encounter individuals capable of valuing my qualities as a spiritual guide”—the good doctor’s heroic stance does tend to falter slightly whenever anything gets between him and his food. On the morning the dead body is discovered, he goes to the kitchen to request his “habitual broth with toast points,” only to be “met with a disagreeable sight: Andrea was pale and a tremble in her jaw foretold the imminence of a sob. Barely hiding my impatience, I realized that a delay in the arrival of my soup was all but inevitable.” Bad enough that Mary’s untimely demise is interfering with his writing, for it to disrupt his meals is scarcely tolerable.
Near the end of the story, Huberman has to concede yet another foible: since he is more familiar with art than life, his investigative reasoning alights on what literary convention dictates, rather than the messier possibilities of reality itself. Despite his condemnation of detective novels, he is taken aback when a detail of the case fails to play out as he, aware of the genre’s rules, had predicted—unless, of course, the mistake is a ploy to demonstrate his innocence. He insists:
I will always register my defeats and my victories with equanimity. May nobody call me an unreliable narrator. My error—if this can be called an error—does not offend me. An ignorant person wouldn’t have committed it. I am a literato, a reader, and as often occurs with men of my class, I confused reality with a book.
In the end, however, the logic of the genre prevails: a culprit confesses and order is restored at the Hotel Central. But Bioy Casares and Ocampo save a final subversive wink for their utterly perfect last line: an elegant reminder that, inevitably, reality contains mysteries more unfathomable than any detective plot.