Review: The Cemetery of Swallows by Mallock, Translated by Steven Rendall
Europa Editions | April 1, 2014 | Reviewed by Elena Overvold
Mallock’s The Cemetery of Swallows, translated from the French by Steven Rendall, pieces together a series of bizarre, fantastical circumstances surrounding the murder of an old man living in the Dominican Republic. The novel portrays an intricate web of crisscrossing narratives from World War II, the era of the Trujillato, and present day Paris and the Dominican Republic.
In a purposefully confusing initial scene, the reader meets the murderer, Manuel Gemoni. An otherwise peaceful, content, family man, Manuel awakes one morning in his Paris apartment with the sudden urge to commit murder. Acting like a man possessed, Manuel travels in secret to the Dominican Republic and carries out his plan to murder an old man he has never met, Tobias Darbier. Later, when questioned by police, he can offer no logical explanation except that this man fills him with an all-consuming hatred.
Back in Paris, Superintendent Mallock is charged with the task of discovering a motive that will set Manuel free before returning him to Paris, where he will await trial for murder. Mallock leaves Paris in the dead of winter for the sweltering heat and vibrant chaos of the Dominican Republic to begin his investigation. Approaching the case armed with European sensibility and practicality, Mallock unexpectedly abandons traditional protocol and adopts unconventional methods—such as hypnosis—as he delves deeper into the case.
Mallock, who at first struck me as your typical withdrawn, cynical detective, surprises his colleagues (and the reader) when he complicates this characterization by validating Manuel Gemoni’s unusual revelations that surface during hypnosis sessions. Among them is Gemoni’s troubling story that pins Tobias Darbier not only as one of dictator Rafael Leónidas Trujillo’s violent brutos, but also as a sadistic SS officer during WWII. Logically, it makes no sense that these two men could be one and the same, as they would have lived decades apart on separate continents. However, given the precision of the details of Manuel’s startling account, Mallock is forced to reconcile this fantastical story with his desire for a logical conclusion.
The Cemetery of Swallows is a suspenseful labyrinth of overlapping narratives, myths, and histories that revolve around the contradictory and enigmatic Superintendent Mallock. As the mystery of the murder begins to unravel, the reader is left to question if there is, in fact, a connection between Darbier and the SS officer, as Manuel suggests. Is Mallock willing to forgo his European logic and accept reincarnation as a plausible explanation? More broadly speaking, the role of brutality permitted under dictatorships is also central to the story line in The Cemetery of Swallows, and begs the question if and how these atrocities can ever be atoned for.
This is a fantastic slice of noir packed with Dominican history and scenery, multilayered characters, and wrapped up in a thrilling mystery that makes for a perfect spring read.