About ten days ago I picked a book from a crate my husband wanted to give away. It was “Triste, solitario y final”, by the Argentinian journalist and novelist Osvaldo Soriano.
It is a kind of telescopic story. At first, Stan Laurel hires Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s detective, to discover why no one gives him any roles anymore, then, years later, Osvaldo Soriano asks for Marlowe’s help to do research for his book on Stan Laurel.
(I see Marlowe as Robert Mitchum, Bogart was too cool for this beaten-up version.)
It is a short book, less than two hundred pages, which is good because the second half is somewhat repetitive: the unlikely duo, the writer and the detective, drink together, quarrel, and get more or less badly beaten up. But the first third, with Stan Laurel alive, is a remarkable piece of writing, with time-shifts making us travel from the here-and-now of Mid-60’s California to the golden age of slapstick comedy, and when you turn a page you never know what are going to witness (a conversation, some crazy brawl, a meeting with a famous Hollywood star) and whether that will turn out to be a scene in a movie. My favourite moments are symmetrical: Laurel on the ship that got him and Charles Chaplin to America, ready to disembark, and the English actor, now famous, about to set foot back on British soil.
I said, the second half is repetitive, yet it is not all bad. There was a moment when I was reminded of Who framed Roger Rabbit , when Marlowe has to follow a woman who may be having an affair; I thought of her as Jessica Rabbit, her hair covering her face, a red dress. That’s when a real virtuoso exploit happens, a couple of fantastic pages describing a chase: Marlowe and Soriano are following the woman’s car separately, both being driven around by weird drivers, one of whom hardly sees a thing. A fourth vehicle, whose occupants are armed, unsavoury types , is racing after all of them, for reasons unknown. When they bump into one of the other cars and then crash into a tree, every two or three lines the narrative focus scoots from one to another of the four cars’ occupants: the woman, Soriano, Marlowe, each of their drivers and the guys who tried to crash into them. It is exhilarating. Had the novel been all like that level, it would have been a masterpiece of post-modernism. As it is, it is a good read.