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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Gesell Dome

Guillermo Saccomanno

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To purchase Gesell Dome

Title: Gesell Dome
Author: Guillermo Saccomanno
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 624 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Gesell Dome - US
Cámara Gesell - US
Gesell Dome - UK
Gesell Dome - Canada
Basse saison - France
Cámara Gesell - España
  • Spanish title: Cámara Gesell
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Andrea G. Labinger

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Our Assessment:

B+ : impressive but downbeat (and beat, and beat, and beat)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 16/5/2016 .
San Francisco Chronicle . 9/12/2016 Michael Magras

  From the Reviews:
  • "Like Twin Peaks reimagined by Roberto Bolaño, Gesell Dome is a teeming microcosm in which voices combine into a rich, engrossing symphony of human depravity." - Publishers Weekly

  • "(A) bizarro Robert Altman film in book form: hundreds of characters and storylines that paint a portrait of a community, but with events far stranger than anything Altman created. (...) Fans of straightforward narratives aren’t the target audience. And because of the novel’s repetitive elements -- there’s a lot of adultery, bigotry and murder here -- the tension sometimes sags, especially in the book’s midsection. But if you enjoy lyrical depictions of iniquity and a sprinkling of philosophy mixed in with your noir fiction, then you’ll like Gesell Dome." - Michael Magras, San Francisco Chronicle

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Gesell Dome is set in Villa Gesell, commonly called 'the Villa', a resort town on the Argentine coast with some 51,068 residents that blossoms with activity for the short summer season, when there is an influx of tourists -- annually, "nearly a million tourists pass through the Villa" (or, elsewhere: "In summer, between December and March, over two million human beings will pass through here") -- while the rest of the year it festers in its own (human) filth. The Villa is not a happy place: as one of the locals notes: "The Villa is perdition. We're all lost here".
       As explained in the novel -- and also in the translator's Introduction -- the title refers to an invention of American psychologist Arnold Lucius Gesell. As Saccomanno describes it:

The Gesell Dome consists of two rooms with a dividing wall in between in which a large, one-way mirror allows an observer in one room to see what is happening in the other, but not vice-versa.
       This set-up -- familiar from countless police-interrogation-room scenes in movies and on TV -- isn't nearly as creepy as the actual 'Gesell Dome', which was an actual dome-shaped observation room:

A Gesell Dome

       In either case, the idea was to be able to look in and observe essentially unnoticed, and Saccomanno's novel similarly places a dome and one-way mirror over and around the Villa, and records the doings of those trapped inside (and they certainly come across as trapped, even though some do make their escapes or flee ...) -- who themselves are forced to confront their actions in the mirror this book is holding up. (Not that the locals necessarily mind being observed and described like lab rats: One passage of the novel laughs at the suggestion: "You think you're going to get kicked out of town for writing this novel. Like hell you are. [...] [E]ven when the shit splashes on them, nobody will want to be left out".)
       The cast of characters isn't so much colorful as dark -- from gray to pitch-black. The town is under the control of a corrupt triumvirate, and two crime- (or thug-) clans see to it that proerty and life aren't safe. On top of that, all the local juveniles appear to be delinquent. Throw in the fact that (far too) many of the locals have guns and that all of them have short tempers and a sense of honor that demands vengeance -- preferably of the bloodiest sort -- for even the slightest slight, and you have an explosive mix. Adultery and rape are also widespread, and illegitimate children abound.
       The Villa was basically founded by a Nazi who had fled when things went south in Europe, and that legacy lives on, in everything from the general moral corruption to the lingering widespread use of German. Never having escaped the past -- except fugitively (and fugitives, from one thing and another, flock to Villa) -- the townspeople seem condemned to be stuck in that ugly mire to this day.
       Gesell Dome is an off-season novel, the main action covering the dark times between two summer seasons. The off-season is the dead season: of course there's the low-level activity of any town -- school; basic everyday commerce -- but really it's only in the summer season that the town comes to life and everyone tries to grab as much as possible. In between seasons, they can only grab from each other (which, of course, they do -- theft and robbery run rampant, though it's not just property and possessions that they take from each other -- trying, somehow, to last until the next summer).
       While the main action covers less than a year, the novel packs much more in. The story is related in relatively short sections, rarely more than two pages in length, and often only a paragraph or two. The presentation, even the voice, is not uniform: an omniscient narrator presents the majority of the material, but there are also passages in a variety of first-person-voices, as well as brief articles from the town's weekly newspaper, El Vocero, which comes out every Friday, a variety of brief infomercial-type advertising (for forms of self-help therapy and the like, for the most part), and even summaries of chapters from the TV soap opera, My Neighbors' Drama.
       As the year slowly moves forward, Saccomanno weaves a complex tapestry of present-day and back-story, focusing in on -- though often not exclusively -- specific characters and incidents for several sections before these end -- almost invariably in tragedy, often in death. Significant characters play larger roles along the way -- most notably guide Dante, the: "publisher and only reporter for El Vocero" (and: "the editor of our dirty laundry"), who more or less accompanies readers through these circles of the Villa-hell -- but this is also a novel packed with incidental characters from all walks of life (and their life- (and death-)stories) whose fates are typical and representative (and, generally, horrific).
       It takes a while -- maybe even a few hundred pages -- to warm to the novel's odd rhythm, but there's no question that Saccomanno's writing packs a punch. Eventually, the reader rolls with the punches -- necessary, in a novel packed with them, along with beatings, stabbings, shootings.
       What arc the story has begins with two tragedies: an abuse-scandal at the local kindergarten, Nuestra Señora del Mar, where eleven children were supposedly abused, and the suicide of Melina, a student, "barely fifteen and three months pregnant" (not an unusual combination in the Villa ...), who shot herself (and her unborn child) twice in the belly. The kindergarten scandal leads to a hysterical overreaction -- some lynching, and driving out of town -- even as it remains unclear exactly how many (indeed, if any) kids were abused, and by whom. Even as the police investigation doesn't really dig too deep, Dante keeps returning to the subject in his newspaper; so too the girl's suicide won't let him go: even near the very end of the book, and just as the summer season starts, he asks: "Didn't you ever wonder why that girl might've put two bullets into her belly ?"
       The airing of dirty laundry is problematic in the Villa -- they don't want to scare off the tourists, after all. So there's a tendency -- presumably well-learned from their Nazi forefathers -- of sweeping things under the rug. Given what happens over the course of the novel, those are some very big mounds under that rug, eventually.
       There's shocking, numbing violence in Gesell Dome -- numbing, too, because it's pretty much all readers come to expect. There are very few episodes here with anything resembling happy endings. Lives ruined -- and death -- are the expected outcomes, time after time after time. And there are a lot of such ruined-life-stories here.
       This is also a place where the adults shrug:
But you know what kids are like. They never learn till there's a tragedy.
       That doesn't seem to make all that much of an impression either: there are countless tragedies in Gesell Dome, and nobody ever seems to learn anything from them. "We're all mutants from a Philip K. Dick historical novel", one local suggests, and that's as good a summary as any.
       There are hints and suggestions of greater connections -- and sometimes these are even spelled out:
     Everybody shrugs when you ask about the Villa's Nazi past. The same as when you ask about the abuses at Nuestra Señora. And don't you find it suspicious, I ask you. Isn't it possible that the two situations are connected. We ought to analyze the relationship between these two issues.
       Indeed -- but note that the two questions that are posed here don't even merit a question mark, a stark, clear reminder of the futility of the exercise in the Villa.
       Gesell Dome is ultimately a vast, panoramic novel of a place and its people -- a really seedy (at its essence) sort of place -- that disappoints slightly in not building more with all its pieces: as vivid as the picture we get is, it's ultimately just a picture. Piece for piece, Gesell Dome impresses -- Saccomanno writers very well -- but all the impressive, multi-dimensional pieces still don't quite make more than a two-dimensional picture. (Note also that the soon-predictable end of nearly every episode or incident in horrific violence and, generally, death can be very wearing; Saccomanno mixes things up a bit, by mixing other things in, but it's not really enough to keep Gesell Dome from becoming a near-crushing weight).
       Gesell Dome is an often absorbing but ultimately not entirely satisfying read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 August 2016

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Gesell Dome: Reviews: Other books by Guillermo Saccomanno under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Argentine author Guillermo Saccomanno was born in 1948.

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© 2016-2021 the complete review

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