Discover the shortlist: Claudia Piñeiro, ‘I’ve always been very rebellious’
The globally bestselling author and scriptwriter discusses the inspiration behind the unlikely protagonist at the heart of her novel Elena Knows.
As a new Netflix film adaptation of the 2021 International Booker Prize-shortlisted novel is released, here’s our guide to the book, author and translator
In Elena Knows by bestselling Argentinian author Claudia Piñeiro, a woman goes searching for answers after her daughter’s body is discovered hanging in a church bell tower. The acclaimed novel was originally published in Spanish in 2007 and was then translated into English by Frances Riddle in 2021. It was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2022 and went on to win many other international prizes. Propelled by its distinctive protagonist, Elena Knows examines illness and caring, experience and knowledge, religion and dogma, mother and daughter relationships, and a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body. A film adaptation, directed by Anahí Berneri, launches on Netflix on November 24, 2023.
Not satisfied by the police’s judgement of suicide, Elena embarks on a laborious journey across Buenos Aires to investigate the death of her daughter Rita, all while managing the debilitating symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. She is seeking a woman, Isabel, who Elena hopes will help her investigations out of a sense of gratitude for an act of intervention made by Rita 20 years earlier. Traversing Argentina’s capital can be tricky at the best of times, but Elena’s illness makes her voyage – by foot, train, and taxi – an Odyssean quest. Each section of the novel is marked not by time as we know it, but Elena’s pill schedule, which she needs to follow precisely, allowing her short periods of mobility and reprieve from her symptoms. Hence chapter titles like ‘Morning (second pill)’.
Interspersed with Elena’s quest in the present are flashbacks to memories of her daughter. After Elena is diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Rita becomes her carer. But even before this forced proximity the mother and daughter had a complicated relationship, constantly bickering on their annual holidays together.
These memories provide insights into Elena’s solitary investigation, which no one else seems to take seriously. Everyone else – Rita’s boyfriend, the priest, the detective – seems satisfied with the explanation of suicide and responds unsatisfactorily to Elena’s dogged, and occasionally barbative, questioning.
From the very beginning the novel was totally involved with the body, and in thinking about the body as one’s own property and not someone else’s
Piñeiro dedicated Elena Knows to her mother, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and has spoken about how she came to know the disease ‘very intimately’. ‘It’s also a disease that, as Elena experiences, people often look away from’, Piñeiro told Southwest Review in an interview. In Elena Knows, Piñeiro reveals the minutiae of the illness, confronting the other characters, and perhaps even the reader, who might prefer to look away.
Elena’s painstaking voyage across the city becomes ‘one more act of defiance, perhaps the last’, before her symptoms and the many strategies to manage them, become overwhelming. Examples of these are listed in a moving passage of the novel:
‘Ropes to help her stand up from different places, more bibs to catch her saliva, foam neck braces to lift her chin, hard plastic neck braces when the foam ones aren’t enough, adapters for the toilet seat, more ropes, medications that help her swallow, that keep her from urinating on herself more than she already does, medications that make other medications more effective, or that keep the other medications from destroying her stomach, more ropes.’
Elena Knows is informed by social and political issues, but for Piñeiro the starting point wasn’t an idea but an image, as she told Wasafiri during an interview: ‘The initial image was this woman in her kitchen waiting for her medicine to have an effect on her so that she could start to walk.’
Piñeiro also explained that ‘from the very beginning the novel was totally involved with the body, and in thinking about the body as one’s own property and not someone else’s’. For this reason, an early idea for the book’s title was ‘The Body of Others’.
Alongside her writing, Piñeiro has taken part in campaigns for the legalisation of abortion and for the recognition of employment rights for writers. She described the issue of abortion and women’s bodies as ‘one of my obsessions’ when speaking to Southwest Review, and this theme has appeared in many of her fictional works, including All Yours, Thursday Night Widows and Cathedrals. In Argentina, a bill to legalise abortion was finally passed at the end of 2020, 13 years after Elena Knows was originally published.
Elena is the novel’s unconventional, irreverent hero; a woman in her 60s who refers to her Parkinson’s as a ‘fucking whore illness’. Elena’s vision and perspective is limited to other people’s shoes due to her permanent stoop, which also makes it almost impossibly difficult for her to swallow the pills she relies on to keep moving. She does not hold institutions, like the police or the Catholic Church, in high regard and believes she knows her daughter better than anyone. According to Father Juan, her daughter’s priest, she is guilty of the ‘sin of pride and arrogance, to think that you know everything’. This may be partly true, but given how much she is ignored by others, her forceful convictions feel necessary.
Rita, Elena’s daughter, is a complicated character who we can only glimpse through Elena’s memories. She does not want to have children herself but feels strongly about the issue of abortion. Both religious and superstitious, she avoids stepping on part of the pavement outside the abortion clinic. In Elena’s words, Rita was raised by ‘one fervent Catholic and one who only pretended to be’ which is why ‘Rita wore a cross around her neck but skipped mass if it was raining, because she was more afraid of lightning than of the double offence she was committing by lying and not going to mass’. Elena knows Rita cannot have died by suicide because it was raining on the night she was found dead in the church and therefore would not have gone there willingly.
Orbiting the central story are Rita’s boyfriend, the family doctor, the detective inspector, and the priest. Father Juan gives voice to the view that ‘the body is an object that belongs to the Lord and man only has the right to its use’. Inspector Benito Avellaneda, while sympathetic, is part of a force that sees Elena as little more than a charity case. Dr Benegas is the family doctor who examines Rita at 20 years old to check she’s able to have children and is not, in his words, ‘a pod without a seed who won’t be able to fulfil her purpose in the world’.
Isabel, the woman who might provide vital information on Rita’s death, plays a crucial role in the novel’s final act but is a distant figure until then. After a chance encounter with Rita and Elena there is minimal contact between them, apart from the Christmas cards Isabel’s family sends every year, in which she appears to be happy.
In Elena Knows, Piñeiro plays with expectations by placing the mystery of Rita’s death at its centre. However, the story bends the conventions of crime fiction. For starters, Elena can only move slowly, and this pace might seem at odds with a typical mystery novel. However, Elena’s treacherous journey only raises the stakes as her search for answers could be derailed at any moment by the slightest mishap, such as her medication not functioning properly.
Piñeiro is known as the Queen of Crime in Argentina and was described as the ‘the Hitchcock of the River Plate’ by Corriere della Sera. Fiona Mackintosh, a Senior Lecturer in Latin American Literature at the University of Edinburgh, argues in the book’s afterword that ‘pigeonholing [Piñeiro’s] work as crime fiction downplays her critical gaze’. Piñeiro’s focus on pressing social issues adds new elements to her storytelling, which can lead to unexpected developments. Mackintosh references Piñeiro’s acceptance speech at the Pepe Carvalho Prize in 2019 where she declared that ‘crime fiction came into being to denounce injustice’.
A subtle and skilful exploration of how far women have the right to control their own bodies— The Conversation, reviewing Elena Knows
Claudia Piñeiro was born in Buenos Aires in 1960 and is the third most translated Argentinean author after Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. After working as a professional accountant, she became a journalist, playwright, and screenwriter before turning to novels. She has previously spoken about the formative experiences of attending open creative writing workshops in Buenos Aires, outside of academia where she was mentored by Guillermo Saccomanno, which gave her a literary foundation.
Piñeiro is the recipient of numerous national and international prizes. These include the German LiBeraturpreis for Elena Knows, the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Prize for Las grietas de Jara (A Crack in the Wall), the Clarín Prize for Novels for Las viudas de los jueves (Thursday Night Widows). She has been recognised for her body of work by the Pepe Carvalho Prize for crime fiction, XII Rosalía de Castro Prize (both Spain), and the Blue Metropolis Prize (Canada).
Five of her novels have been translated into English by Bitter Lemon Press and Charco Press, as well as adapted into feature films. More recently, Piñeiro has become actively involved in the fight for the legalisation of abortion in Argentina and for the rights of writers.
Frances Riddle has translated numerous Spanish-language authors, including Isabel Allende, Claudia Piñeiro, Leila Guerriero, María Fernanda Ampuero, and Sara Gallardo.
Riddle’s work has appeared in journals such as Granta, Electric Literature, and The White Review, among others. She holds a Bachelor’s in Spanish Literature and a Master’s in Translation Studies. Originally from Houston, Texas, she moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina. It was there that she decided to start exploring Argentinian literature and the first book she read was Elena sabe (Elena Knows). ‘It can be hard to break into being a literary translator,’ Riddle told The Chicago Review of Books. ‘So, ten years later, to translate someone like Claudia Piñeiro and to have it be the first book that kind of inspired the whole journey was really a “full circle” kind of moment.’
Elena Knows (the English translation) was rapturously received on publication, attracting much praise, despite not being covered by all literary broadsheets.
In the New York Times Kathleen Rooney wrote: ‘A piercing commentary on mother-daughter relationships, the indignity of bureaucracy, the burdens of caregiving and the impositions of religious dogma on women.’
The Conversation called the novel ‘a subtle and skilful exploration of how far women have the right to control their own bodies.’
In the Irish Times Ronan Hession called Elena Knows ‘a superb twist on the crime novel’.
The Morning Star described the novel as ‘a remarkable story that deals head-on with some of the most pressing issues in today’s Argentina’.
JacquiWine said, ‘By exploring the specific demands placed on each of the two central characters – Elena and Rita – together with the demands and controls they seek to place on others, Piñeiro successfully highlights some of the injustices in this society.’