Argentine history and hijinks make Musketeers a thrilling read

Argentinian Jewish journalist Javier Mossen, a yellow-bellied reporter with a sardonic wit and a penchant for vulgarity, is the unlikely hero of Marcelo Birmajer’s latest novel, “Three Musketeers” — not to be confused with the Alexandre Dumas classic.

As the only Jewish reporter for a local newspaper, Mossen is assigned to interview Elias Traum, a former Argentinian Zionist who has returned to Buenos Aires from Israel for a seemingly innocuous homecoming visit.

But events quickly spiral out of control when unknown assailants meet Traum at the Buenos Aires airport and muscle Mossen from his interview subject. Mossen is forced, against his better instincts, to track down Traum by chasing through his old childhood haunts, including the colorful Porteno barrio of Once, famous for its Jewish population, and the beaches of Mar de la Plata. The scenery provides an unassuming backdrop for a tale of political intrigue and teenage lust, rooted in Argentina’s revolutionary past.

Privy to the most intimate details of Traum’s childhood, the journalist discovers that Traum and his old neighborhood buddies (the Three Musketeers) were heavily involved in the Peronist uprisings of the left-wing Montonero guerilla group in the 1970s. Readers familiar with the historical context of Traum’s tale will relish the Three Musketeers’ championing of the Peronist cause, but others may find themselves confused, as Birmajer seems to take for granted a general knowledge of Argentina’s political history.

The boys’ Jewish identity weighs heavily on them as they struggle to be both Argentinian nationalists and Zionists, sometimes finding the two at odds.

A highly engaging account of the boys’ affairs is peppered with graphic, sometimes lewd, recollections of their encounters with the opposite sex, and a heavy machismo sentiment colors the main characters’ take on romance. Nursing hangovers and battered egos, the Zionist revolutionary and his new friend, Mossen, bond over their bizarre sexual fetishes, and the explicit nature of their conversations can be overwhelming at times, and even distract from the plot at hand.

Nevertheless, the story offers a highly entertaining account of young Jews in a tumultuous and interesting decade of Argentinian history that has received little attention to date. The novel is fast-paced, wildly creative and just the right mix of fantasy and historical fiction. Birmajer offers original insights about being a Jew in Argentina, with a generous amount of humor and sarcasm thrown in, and the end result is an unforgettable read.

“Three Musketeers” by Marcelo Birmajer (225 pages, The Toby Press, $24.95)

Marcelo Birmajer will be interviewed by author Ilan Stavans at 2:15 p.m. Nov. 2 during Bookfest 2008 at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. He will also speak at 7 p.m. Nov. 6 at the Foster City Library, 1000 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City, as part of the Peninsula JCC’s Turning Pages literary celebration.

Paging all readers: Bay Area JCCs celebrate Jewish Book Month