About a Girl: On Sergio Olguín’s “The Foreign Girls”

April 2, 2021   •   By Collin Mitchell

The Foreign Girls

Sergio Olguín

ONLINE, YOU CAN FIND a movie trailer for All About Eve (1950), the classic film about Eve Harrington, an aspiring actress who takes advantage of aging Broadway star Margo Channing for the sake of her own career. In the trailer, Bette Davis, who plays Margo, sits with Newsweek reporter Leonard Slater to talk about the film and its title character, played by Ann Baxter. Amid a cloud of cigarette smoke, Davis describes Eve as “the Golden Girl, […] the Cover Girl, the Girl Next Door, the Girl on the Moon. […] She’s the profiled, covered, revealed, reported. What she eats and what she wears and whom she knows and where she was, and when and where she’s going.”

And then with feigned hesitation, Davis continues to describe Eve as someone of “insatiable ambition and talent,” as “an improbable person” with “a contempt for humanity.”

It’s an interesting choice that Sergio Olguín would mention the film in his novel The Foreign Girls, the second book in his Verónica Rosenthal crime series, skillfully translated by Miranda France. And perhaps there is a hazard in reading too much into it; he quickly describes the movie as “that classic story of ambition and treachery,” in a scene where Verónica, a journalist, is taking some much-needed R-and-R at her cousin’s house in the Argentinian countryside. It’s been nearly a year since she published an explosive magazine piece about a group of boys exploited to play a game of chicken with local passenger trains in an elaborate gambling scheme. After having her life threatened, her trusted informant nearly killed, and her lover murdered during the investigation, Verónica has finally stopped feeling “like a patient in a coma.” When Verónica watches the DVD, she thinks of Davis as the “most wonderful actress ever to appear on screen.”

Where The Fragility of Bodies, the first book in the series, portrays a stark world of poverty, corruptible politicians, and crime, The Foreign Girls presents something more existential: being a woman in a world of men. The novel mulls less over specifics — gender imbalance in the workplace, sexist relationships — than over the larger reality that a woman’s body is often not her own — in life or death. Verónica may be a trenchant journalist and freelance lover, but the threat of her demise (and every other woman’s) looms like a cloud, ever-present. “I always say that the first colony was a woman’s body,” says cultural anthropologist Rita Segato in an interview excerpted in the book’s epigraph. And this is certainly a point that is made with the book’s central crime: the rape and murder of two young women.

Verónica arrives in Cerro San Javier with modest expectations to relax. She’ll find the relative of her cousin-in-law, get laid, and maybe just “spend the rest of her life in the little town.” Verónica takes great care to maintain her independence and career, so this willingness for a provincial life is telling of the harsh toll the article took on her. She’s a bourbon drinker and prefers a one-night stand to a relationship, but she’s changed; Olguín writes Verónica with a little less fury than in his previous book. He observes, “If someone had told her then that at the age of thirty she would take down a criminal gang that gambled on the lives of poor children, she would have been proud. That was exactly the kind of journalism she wanted to do. And she had done it.”

What she gets on her sojourn is better than expected. After a few nights on her own, Verónica ventures into town for a drink, where she meets the beautiful Italian, Petra, and the equally pretty Norwegian, Frida. “It was their voices I noticed first,” Verónica writes in an email to her friend Paula in the series of letters that start off the novel. While the men in the bar leer, the girls raise a glass to “all the idiot men who have ruined our lives.” They’re all hoping to take a break from the opposite sex — unless an opportunity presents itself (they are still young, of course). And on this salient fact, they bond. Verónica invites the girls back to the house, where they spend the next few days together poolside, lingering over meals, drinking, and letting the world fade from mind. It’s exactly what Verónica needed. Admiring her new friends in their bikinis, she considers that her situation would be worse off if she were with two guys. “She wouldn’t be able to feel relaxed or comfortable, not even about the fantasy of hooking up with them both,” Olguín writes. “They were all there having a good time. Period. There was no need to worry about anything else.”

After a week of lounging, Verónica is ready to move on. She persuades the girls to leave the house and make the trip to Yacanto del Valle, where they meet the handsome Ramiro, a relative of Verónica’s cousin-in-law. He’s charming, “ask[s] all the right questions,” and does well for himself, selling art to wealthy tourists from Buenos Aires. Later, the girls join him at a party at an estate filled with art, expensive cars, and a lot more men than women. “I don’t like that guy at all,” Frida tells Verónica while they’re waiting to get a drink. “And I love men. Some of them. But this Ramiro is bad news.” Verónica protests and tells Frida that she’s going to stay.

“I thought you were sharper than that,” Frida says.

It’s the last time they speak.

The novel’s first hundred pages are slow, as Olguín tends to linger in scenes with long conversations about art, observations on objects in a room, and background descriptions that maintain varying degrees of interest. As a screenwriter, he may be making his job easier for the TV series (The Fragility of Bodies is an eight-episode miniseries in Argentina), including as much as he can for the director and writers. Despite what may be extraneous details for some readers, the first quarter of the book is an opportunity to become as intimate with Petra and Frida as Verónica is — we know them as well as she does, and in this sense their humanity, for the sake of the story, is intact. There is nothing else to be said of them that they haven’t already shown us, or that Verónica hasn’t described in her letters to Paula. Verónica speaks for the girls, and in this sense Olguín makes a move to give Petra and Frida substance, to make them the subject rather than the object. Here, he avoids the “dead girl complex” so many crime stories hang their hats on from the first page. On this idea, poet Zefyr Lisowski writes in her essay “On the Endless Parade of Literary Dead Girls”: “A dead girl, it bears saying, is also a way of neutralizing women, reducing their femaleness and turning them into an empty body. It’s a questioning of subjecthood that becomes an imposition.”

Olguín’s approach unravels more deaths, more violence against women, and in doing so, he makes the story about Petra and Frida and the other victims — not their murderers.

The book’s awareness of its responsibility comes in a scene between Verónica’s editor, Patricia, and a rival reporter, Alex. Patricia says about the girls: “So far we’ve got nothing. There are all kinds of theories, ranging from that they were at an orgy and overdid the drugs to that they were two girls investigating modern slavery on large estates.”

“I’m more persuaded by the first theory,” Alex says dismissively. Patricia gives him the cold shoulder and tells him to do his job. Alex goes back to the beat, “[having] to go and investigate the murder of two foreign girls.” Although he never knew the women in life, they’re a blow to his professional ego in death. “Send Kloster or whoever you’ve got on coffee duty this week,” Alex tells the editor, explaining that he’s on the “cover story.” What Olguín makes clear (if he hadn’t already) is that dead girls are commonplace, or not consequential enough for the front of a magazine.

When she learns of the murders, Verónica returns to town in full journalistic mode, working the angles where the police have failed, where the people involved lie, and where things seem too dangerous to get to the truth. During her investigation, she discovers a pattern of rapes and murders spanning decades. “Do you know what the most dangerous road a woman has to cross is?” Verónica asks Patricia during her pitch for a new story. “Impunity,” she says, “the social impunity that sees these crimes as a fact of life, accepted by everyone.” It’s not that people don’t believe these things happen, it’s that they just don’t care.

The novel further fleshes out Verónica’s father, Aarón, a successful lawyer, and Federico, a family friend (and lawyer) whose relationship with Verónica is described as “more like siblings than friends.” Federico acts as Verónica’s protector, staving off a killer hell-bent on getting revenge, all the while working behind the scenes to maintain the sanctity of Aarón’s clients. This is a far cry from their relationship in The Fragility of Bodies, where Verónica operates almost completely on her own. This shift is appealing from a narrative perspective in that the experience of reading two people interact is more entertaining than a one-woman or one-man show. Their relationship is charming and flirtatious, but where Federico is used to best effect is acting as the balance between what’s right for the firm and what’s just, simply, right. And then there are a myriad of subplots: jailed criminals working from the inside; the crime boss, Doctor Zero; a corrupt congressman; a narco police case; the petty differences between rich families.

Men in The Foreign Girls maintain the attitude that Bette Davis describes in the trailer for All About Eve: that women are to be looked at. Their ambition, a threat. After the party, Ramiro asks Verónica what the deal was with Frida. “She seemed a bit unfriendly,” he says, “Whereas Petra’s really nice.” He’s taken offense to Frida’s being, and it’s a subtle, ominous start to the book. The majority of The Foreign Girls is concerned with Verónica’s getting back into gear, unraveling the story. But by the novel’s end, Olguín has presented a world where men, not women, are often not what they seem. When the Newsweek reporter asks Davis about Eve’s ability to manipulate, Davis smiles and asks, rhetorically: “How does any Eve do it?”

The question in the novel isn’t so much about Eve — a stand-in for ambitious women — as it is about men. How do they always get what they want? How do they do it? And what Olguín and Verónica find is that men watch and stay silent: never hearing, never caring for what the girls really have to say.

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Collin Mitchell is a student in the UC Riverside Low Residency MFA program and the author of The Faithful, a historical biography of the opera composer, Giuseppe Verdi. He lives in Palm Desert.