Daniel Chavarria

(Jump down to read a review of The Eye of Cybele)

"Tango for a Torturer"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage JUL 12, 2007)

"Bini was his favorite Cuban whore. And not only in bed; he also liked her brazenness, and that she whored straight, without saying she was a victim of the Cuban crisis, nor claiming to be an intellectual. She treated him like an equal. She could be as happy as a small child, and at the same time violent, mad, even dangerous. She’d been inside. And was also very proud; Once, when he dropped a dollar bill on the floor so she’d pick it up, she left without charging him and avoided him for several weeks. Ever since, he’d treated her with deference, in order not to frighten her off."

Tango for a Torturer by Daniel Chavarria

Whoever thought up the saying “Time heals all wounds” was wrong. Time heals some wounds, but wounds that leave psychological damage never completely heal, and it’s this sort of damage that is at the heart of Uruguayan author, Daniel Chavarria’s gripping, gritty, noir novel Tango for a Torturer.

The novel begins in modern Cuba with a wealthy, middle-aged businessman, Aldo Bianchi. Originally from Argentina, he now lives in Rome. Both of his marriages to gorgeous Italian women have somehow advanced his fortune, and currently divorced once again, he’s in Cuba to enjoy himself and visit friends. Almost immediately, Aldo meets Bini, a gorgeous, tough, and volatile young prostitute. He abandons his plans to meet his friends, spends all his time with Bini, and subsequently announces their upcoming marriage. His friends, Gonzalo and Aurelia, have somewhat different reactions to the news that Aldo plans to marry a prostitute. Gonzalo acknowledges Bini’s beauty and her passionate lure, but psychiatrist Aurelia is horrified and predicts a “disaster.” Just why Aldo plans to marry Bini is beyond his friends’ comprehension. They see the relationship as some sort of sexual fascination, a horrible mistake.

Aldo’s relationship with Bini is central to this riveting roller-coaster ride of a book, an intense revenge tale that sets Aldo Bianchi--a polished, affluent Argentinean against his arch-nemesis, Orlando Ortega Ortiz. Ortiz was known as Triple O or Captain Horror by his many victims during the Dirty War that occurred in Argentina during 1976-1983. The novel echoes with the horror of these bloody years of a military junta rule, when approximately 30,000 Argentineans, known collectively as “The Disappeared,” were victims of horrendous torture and violent death. Entire families vanished. After the military junta resigned in 1983, the horrifying details of the junta’s activities began to emerge. This eventually led to trials and imprisonment of some of those responsible for state-authorized terrorism, but in 1990, the major figures behind the torture and murder of thousands were given pardons by President Menem.

When the novel begins, it’s 1999, and Triple O--now living under the name of Alberto Rios--is enjoying every moment of his leisurely, affluent life. He lives on a luxury yacht, spends his mornings exercising, employs the services of local prostitutes, and is busy writing a book called Fruitful Cruelty. As its title suggest, it’s a book about cruelty--his favourite subject:

He had acquired a wealth of texts and knowledge, hours of video, extraordinary photographs, which enabled him to write two chapters: the first, a very strong lead off in which he described mastication by carnivorous mammals as a loathsome, cruel act, even more so when executed by human beings, the most rational and subtle of them all; and a second, in which he tackled Catholic communion and other rites associated with the phenomenon of cannibalism. He was now sketching out a third that he was devoting to insect cruelties; in particular, those spiders who immediately follow up the act of fertilization by eating the father of their children.

Tango for a Torturer goes back and forth in time and untangles the thread that exists between Aldo and Triple O. On the surface, these two men appear to share many characteristics. They are both approximately the same age, extremely intelligent, in great physical shape, fastidious, used to the finer things in life, and they both practice enormous self-discipline. Both men also have secrets in their pasts. In his teens, Triple O was well into his sadistic practices, and by twenty-one, he joins the Uruguayan police. He’s a natural when it comes to torture, and he excels at the CIA-sponsored course in “Scientific Persuasion.” His personal specialty is subversives and political prisoners, and his enthusiasm for his work stuns even Dan Mitrione, Ortiz’s CIA trainer. And Dan Mitrione was a real person, by the way.

Chavarria’s characters leap-off-the-page, and what makes this book such a wonderful read is the sheer believability of his fascinating, extremely well defined characters. Chavarria understands that as people are exposed to different situations and different stresses, additional characteristics emerge, and this is exactly what happens throughout the course of this dark, intriguing novel. Bini, for example, could so easily have been written as a stock character--the manipulative, opportunistic prostitute, but in Chavarria’s skillful hands, as the plot unfolds, her complexity becomes evident. And as for Triple O, you’d be hard-pressed to find so cold, so cunning, so evil a character who discovers ‘scientific’ pleasure in creating suffering in others. A natural chameleon, Triple O is basically anti-social, but he manages to mask his loathing of human contact with deliberate bonhomie. While he prefers his employees to “detest” and fear him, he respects Bini’s lack of obsequiousness.  It’s easy to visualize every single colourful character in these pages--Captain Bastidas--who decides that Rios (Triple O) might just be a “serious bastard” and an “excellent actor,” an array of colourful prisoners rotting away in a Cuban jail, and Aldo Bianchi--a haunted man who harbors deep, dark secrets. 

Frankly, I can’t praise Tango for a Torturer enough. It’s a wonderfully well-constructed book, and an incredibly, engaging, intense read. There were a couple of points in the novel, I thought I’d discovered a hole in the plot, but I was wrong. Chavarria maps out every detail in the web of this complex thriller, and every single loose end is tied by the time the book concludes. Tango for a Torturer is definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year, and if you like your fiction dark, then I heartily recommend it. To read more on the subject of Argentina’s Dirty War, check out the website www. Nuncamas.org.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 2 reviews
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"The Eye of Cybele"

(Reviewed by April Chase MAR, 16, 2003)

The Eye of Cybele by Daniel Chavarria

Just for kicks, find a quotations site on the Web and look up history, change, time, repeat or any variation on those themes, and it will quickly become obvious that the idea of things not really changing very much over time is far from new. Philosophical-minded folk from Marcus Aurelius ("All things from eternity are of like forms and come round in a circle") to the Eagles ("Things in this life change very slowly, if they ever change at all") have all weighed in on this topic.

Daniel Chavarria's latest novel, The Eye of Cybele, is a perfect example. The tale of a religious charlatan, a fanatic who loves him because he makes her feel better, and a political schemer; it features love gone wrong, political scandals, murder and intrigue. And although the protagonists are named Alcibiades and Lysis, they could just as easily be named things like Bill or Tammy Faye. The supporting characters, with their rivalries, superstitions and quirks, could easily be modern-day fellow citizens. Absolutely timeless.

Atys, self-proclaimed "Keeper of the Sum," founder of the new cult of Cybele, Dionysus and Aphrodite (the "Three-In-One," hence "Sum") arrives in Athens while the city is gossiping furiously about the love affair between the hero Alcibiades and the temple prostitute, Lysis. They are a flamboyant, volatile and (most importantly) wealthy pair. The Keeper is seeking members for his religion so he can support himself in priestly style, which requires many expensive robes of different colors. Using his knack for healing, he meets the epileptic Lysis, and gains her support for his new temple. Lysis undergoes the orientation rite for the new church, which involves getting drunk and sleeping with Atys, and likes it very much. So much, in fact, that she almost forgets the torch she has been carrying for Alcibiades. What a fool she has been! Following the pretty boy around like a lovesick calf! She vows to get revenge for her humiliation.

Alcibiades, meanwhile, finds he has actually fallen in love with Lysis. What he originally started as a publicity stunt has turned into something much more for him. After much pursuing, Lysis consents to see him again, because she wants to make a fool of him; besides, she is pretty sure that he knows where a certain missing jewel is. The Eye of Cybele, an inlaid amethyst prize stolen from the Far East, is near to Atys' heart, which is where Lysis wishes to be, so she hunts it tirelessly. Alcibiades is too self-confident and preoccupied with his burgeoning political career to notice her duplicity.

The mystery of the Eye's whereabouts forms the backdrop of the novel. Everybody would love to get hold of it. Atys wants it so that he can return it to its original home in the Far East, where he is from, and gain fame and fortune with his countrymen. Nicias wants it to secure his political position, show that the gods favor him, and hopefully, finally, oust his hated rival Pericles to gain the number-one position in Athenian government. Pericles wants it to prove Nicias is not, in fact, favored by the gods at all, but is a liar and a cheat, thus getting rid of his opponent's constant nagging presence forever. But the stone remains elusive, and a spate of mysterious deaths among those who have seen it threatens the city's stability.

The eroticism, violence and action of this book are wrapped in a highly literary package, not unlike a mythology textbook, yet the plot is full of twists and turns worthy of any soap opera. Uruguayan-born Chavarria is famous for his noir detective fiction in Spanish, and this scholarly historical mystery follows that mold somewhat. The second English-language novel by Chavarria published by Akashic books, it is an entertaining page-turner, but thankfully there is an extensive glossary for those readers who don't include callipygian and pornae in their standard vocabulary list. They'll be on your list after reading this book, though; it's unforgettable.

The Eye of Cybele also provides some interesting insight into the nature of politics, and the very human motives behind so many "government" decisions, as well as religious policies. As the reader learns Atys' background, we come to understand how this man, born a slave, needs to feel powerful, special - chosen by God. His humble background - working in a saffron field - influences his choices much more than any divine precedent. He ordains that priests of the Sum must never wear saffron-colored robes. Hmmm. We see how Pericles, a fine leader in most ways, is nearly brought to his knees by his family. Their unpleasant proclivities cannot be kept secret, and the public judges him by that, rather than his actual performance. How unfortunate, and how eternal.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 1 review

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About the Author:

Daniel ChavarriaDaniel Chavarria was born in Uruguay in 1933. He has worked as a translator of literature into Spanish. For years he was a professor of Latin, Greek, and classical literature, devoting much of his time and energy to researching the origins and evolution of prostitution. His novels, short stories, literary journalism, and screenplays have reached audiences across Latin America and Europe. Chavarría has won numerous literary awards around the world, including a 1992 Dashiell Hammett Award. Adios Muchachos is his first novel to be translated into English won the Edgar Award in 2002.

Chavarria, a former Tupamaros, hijacked a plane to fly himself to Havana, Cuba in 1969 . He teaches classics at the University of Havana. He also spends part of each year in Italy and Uruguay.

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