Holy City – Guillermo Orsi, tr. Nick Caistor


 Set in Buenos Aires cover shows the city and a man holding a gun Holy City (2012) is also known as “Ciudad Santa” in Spanish and was written by Guillermo Orsi and published in 2009. The novel  translated by Nick Caistor.  Guillermo Orsi’s novel won the Hammett Prize in 2010.  A little info about the award. As you can see, it’s named after Dashiell Hammett and is awarded annually by The International Association of Crime Writers North American Branch. Turns out there are several branches of the IACW that awards for excellence in crime writing. The organization was set up in part to encourage translation of other writers in other languages and to “speak with a strong voice to defend authors against censorship and other forms of tyranny.” I think that is awesome. The award for this novel was what prompted me to read this book in the first place and after reading the sample, I took the risk and bought it.

In Holy City, this is Buenos Aires after the dictatorship has fallen but it is still a corrupt city said to be on its “last legs.” The opening of the novel starts off with a murder in shanty town. Someone double crosses the wrong person in a prostitution ring. The body is riddled with bullets in a “settling of accounts.” Then a bit later, the Queen of Storms, boarded by foreign millionaires, docks  at the Río de mapla Plata for a week of repairs. The tour guide on the cruise liner runs a drug racket on the side to earn a profit while the ship is aground. He goes off to buy drugs in one of the worst neighborhoods in Buenos Aires, in the middle of the night and gets trapped by some terrorist group and forced to give them a list of the richest passengers on the ship. Soon, tourists are kidnapped off the streets in the middle of the day and held for ransom.  There’s two other sub-threads that involve some undercover work in the Riachuelo market  described as an “open air emporium of smuggled and stolen goods” and another sub-thread involves the kidnapping of a Colombian couple by fake federal agents. There are other threads as well  but I think I’ll stop right here.

Holy City disappoints. The reading experience, told in third person, was infuriating at times and a bit lackluster. The characters were flat with federal police agent, Deputy Inspector Walter Carroza and lawyer Veronica Berruti who has shady clients, lead the character list. The author provides background info but it doesn’t succeed enough into making them memorable characters. Telling instead of showing has never been a favorite storytelling style of mine. The repetition was annoying as well. I mean how many times must we be reminded that a character looks like Che Guevara? The narrative was disjointed and confusing at times. There’s a distance there between the characters and the reader. It’s like the writer/translator created an experience where one can only observe and not be immersed in the story.

What the novel did right – well, I thought the story was somewhat atmospheric and gripping at points.  Social, economic and political criticism are elements in this story and much of that is what made this book readable to me and a not a complete failure. To sum up, Holy City has a serious tone to it that gives readers an inside look at crime and corruption in Argentina among other themes. Holy City had such potential but I think much of it was lost in translation.  Still, I wasn’t put off enough to not give this author another a try. The ideas behind Holy City were good ones but I just felt like there wasn’t much there in a consistent, entertaining fashion. Finis.

10 thoughts on “Holy City – Guillermo Orsi, tr. Nick Caistor

  1. Keishon – Sorry to hear that this one didn’t meet your expectations. That’s always such a disappointment. I’ll admit when I started reading your review I was interested in the setting. But I think I’ll wait on this one. Setting and atmosphere matter to me but not at the expense of solid characters…


    • Hi Margot, this theme has a bug if you use ellipses, sorry! and just fyi. because it causes it to put in quotes between each word. For the book, I felt this novel was such a mixed bag that my experience maybe singular. But I did feel that characterizations in here were not up to the standards I expect. Thanks as always.


  2. Thank you for your honest and informative review. I read and loved ‘No-one Loves A Policeman’ and have ‘Holy City’ on my bookshelf to read. Disappointing that the characters don’t quite deliver in this one, but I will still read it at some point.


  3. It’s good to read a review about a book that disappoints sometimes. It shows that us readers and reviewers usually feel optimistic about the start of a book and have high expectations of our reads. It’s difficult for an atmospheric plot to make up for flat characterisation.


    • Thanks for the feedback Sarah. I was just thinking today that this book, the way that its written might be perfect for those who enjoy a literary crime novel but I know myself. I like my characters to be “real” off the page and while Holy City wasn’t terrible, it just wasn’t all that great of a read for me. I had high hopes but like you said, sometimes our expectations can lead to disappointments.


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