February 2009

Beth Harrington


Three Musketeers by Marcelo Birmajer, translated by Sharon Wood

Having never read Alexandre Dumas’s original novel (although I did see the Disney movie starring Chris O’Donnell looking yummy as D’Artagnan), I cannot hypothesize with complete accuracy as to what likeness Marcelo Birmajer saw between his novel and Dumas’s, or whether the lack of a preceding "the" makes all the difference. What I can tell you is that if you are expecting a tale of testosterone-charged, swashbuckling adventure interspersed with moments of chivalrous romance set in the exotic Buenos Aires then this is not the book for you. The plot of Birmajer’s novel is heavier on angst than action: picture a contemporary D’Artagnan and the oldest of the musketeers, sitting around in coffee bars bemoaning failed love and their ethnicity (in their case that they are French).

The book’s protagonist is thirty-two year-old Javier Mossen, an Argentinean Jew, and underachieving reporter at a Buenos Aires newspaper. He spends his days fantasizing about women’s “arses” in general and sodomy in particular. When his boss assigns him to interview Elias Traum, a former Peronist militant turned Zionist who is visiting from Israel, Mossen reluctantly agrees only to get beaten up at the airport when he goes to meet him. Mossen’s boss decides to yank him off the story and tells him to stay away from Traum.

At this point, the seasoned reader thinks they know where the book is going: Mossen, his curiosity whetted, will set aside his instinctual aversion to conflict and hard work and speak to Traum anyway, risking his life several times not only to get the story but to save the life of a valiant, newfound friend. Correct? A little bit. Mossen does overcome his apathy to seek out Traum against his boss’ orders, and Traum is in some measure of danger that is never fully realized in the text. Instead, Traum narrates to Mossen his disjointed memoirs of time spent as part of a trio of leftist Montonero Peronist revolutionaries known as the Three Musketeers -- there’s your titular reference -- of which he is the only surviving member. His main mission in returning to Argentina seems to be to say Kaddish for his two deceased friends.

Mossen is also beset by difficulties in his personal life. He has recently separated from his long-term girlfriend, Esther, his one true love, after cheating on her impulsively with a neighbor in their apartment. Despite their separation, he still sees fit to call her constantly to complain about his situation with Traum and try to discern if she is seeing other men. At the same time, Mossen indulges in a purely sexual relationship with Gladis, an obese and sexually inexperienced woman who bends herself to Mossen’s every command and fantasy, willingly lapping up his spurning abuse. “Only with Gladis the whale -- precisely because I would never do anything more than this with her -- could I attain the heights of primitive man, sexual dominion, absolute possession and total disinterest for the creature at my feet…” If such passages are meant to convey misogyny they hardly succeed because the reader is so attuned to the mindset they are issued from: that of a boy in a thirty-something body with little fortitude or ambition, who obsesses over the woman he loves but knows he does not deserve. That Mossen does hardly anything in the novel other than absorb Traum’s confessions does more to reinforce his lack of character and conviction than to contradict it.

Three Musketeers by Marcelo Birmajer, translated by Sharon Wood
The Toby Press
ISBN 978-1592641932
225 pages