The thriller fits into that narrow subgenre of material rooted in history, but taking place in what may be "the present." At first, all we know is that the doctor is hiding in Argentina, and is obsessed with racial purity and his experiments; he has brought his notebooks and even some samples with him, and he has a particular fondness for examples of how racial interbreeding causes genetic disasters (to his mind). And, oh yes, he's also obsessed with twins.
If you've delved into the dark horrors of the Holocaust, you already know who "José" resembles: the notorious Josef Mengele, a physician whose experiments in the concentration camps ignored scientific method and truth, and instead caused maximum distortion and pain. He's known to have fled Germany in 1945, arrived in Argentina in 1949, and when hunted by those seeking justice, he relocated first to Paraguay and then to Brazil.
In Puenzo's dark and very creepy narrative (Mengele is seducing Lilith, a 12-year-old girl who suffers from dwarfism, and he and she both are thrilled by the process), we meet José at his departure from Buenos Aires, about to cross the desert to a more welcoming and protective community of Nazi German refugees in Paraguay. The rigors of the journey provide entry for him into the not-so-innocent Lilith's family, just in time to assist with the survival of prematurely born twins.
At stake: whether Lilith will resist or encourage the final seduction, which turns out not to be sex but science; what's being perpetrated on the twin babies; how the community will react to recognizing the wicked doctor in its midst; and even a hint of suspense around whether the German doctor has any humanity in him (a Native resident sees his hollowness).
David William Foster's translation is smooth and quirky at the same time, conveying the formality and awkwardness of German into Spanish, upper class to lower, and more. Here's a sample, from the doctor's point of view as he starts to cross the desert:
When he was advised to leave Buenos Aires immediately, they had promised him at the same time that the south of Argentina was as close as he could get to German Switzerland. They spoke to him of trees, lakes, snow-covered mountains. You people were not the only ones who did a good job of cleansing, they said. They told him stories of Indian attacks that had dominated the same arid lands he was now crossing at a snail's pace, with his eyes glued to the three small blonde heads examining him out of the corner of their eyes ... He felt anguish crawling up his legs like spiders.Whether José's sadism will be recognized, along with his unmodified facial features, continues to raise the ante; so does the arrival in the area of a Nazi hunter who knows this doctor all too well.
It's a grim book, admirably paced, and steps into one of the nastiest aspects of Argentine and world history adeptly -- we know how the doctor's story will end (he died in 1979 and was buried under a false name; his remains were verified in 1985), but this crime novel lingers within the potent years of his life in the New World. Puenzo creates Ultimate Creepy effectively, complete with dolls (see the book cover?), and tells a powerful story that, unfortunately, I will probably never forget.