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Marcelo Birmajer's suspense novel probes the role of Jews in Argentina's painful history. But it's more likely to make you laugh than grind your teeth in nervous anticipation

Three Musketeers by Marcelo Birmajer (translated from Spanish by Sharon Wood) Toby Press, 211 pages, $24.95

Javier Mossen's most admirable quality may be that he is self-aware enough not to like himself any more than others do. A 32-year-old journalist at a Buenos Aires daily, Mossen has distinguished himself by never attempting anything "that meant taking chances," and is happiest writing feature stories so generically obvious that no one will notice if he makes up all the quotes. After he cheats on Esther, the only woman he's ever loved, she throws him out of their apartment, and he's left with a lot of time to fantasize about (and in some cases actually have) sex with obese women - preferably from the rear, so that he needn't make eye contact with them.

Mossen is Jewish, but lacks even the most basic knowledge of Judaism or its traditions. What he does retain is "an unimpeachable love for the modern state of Israel," as well as the paranoia of "a hypothetical survivor of the Holocaust." When his despair approaches the suicidal, Mossen will often buy a bottle of cheap whisky, and drink until he passes out.

This time, however, drink will not save Mossen, as he has received an assignment he cannot weasel out of. His editor dispatches him to the airport to meet and interview Elias Traum when he arrives on an El Al flight from Israel. Traum is the only surviving member of a trio of 1970s Argentinian revolutionaries who called themselves the "tres mosqueteros." The other two, who belonged to the Peronist Montoneros movement, were killed after the military junta came to power and turned on real and perceived leftists.

The Zionist Traum, however, succeeded in making his way to Israel, where he has lived to the present day (2001?).

The drama begins when Mossen shows up at the airport with a sign bearing Traum's name and is assaulted by a cab driver who's also awaiting the visitor. When Traum emerges, he is spirited away by the cabbie before Javier can regain his senses. The journalist is certain his subject's life is now in danger, and that he's to blame.

"Three Musketeers," by the prolific and popular Argentinean writer Marcelo Birmajer, is nominally a suspense novel, in which the anti-heroic Mossen uncharacteristically throws himself into the mission of finding and then protecting the visitor from Israel, at the same time he attempts to find out why someone would want to hurt him in the first place. But the book, originally published in Spanish in 2001, is far more likely to make you laugh than grind your teeth in nervous anticipation. And although it deals with the fascinating subject of the role played by Jews in the violent and painful history of contemporary Argentina, the non-initiate reader is apt to come away with more questions than answers about the subject.

More like Richler than Allen

None of which is to say that "Three Musketeers" is not recommended. On the contrary - Birmajer's book is a hilarious and touching glimpse into the mind of a neurotic Buenos Aires Jew, who, it turns out, has quite a bit in common with his secular brethren in New York or, say, Montreal. The publisher tells us on the jacket that Birmajer, who is 42 but has already published some 20 volumes of fiction and screenplays (including the one he wrote for Daniel Burman's wonderful "El Embrazo Partido," or "Lost Embrace," from 2004), has been compared to Woody Allen. I found his writing far more reminiscent of Mordecai Richler, whose lusty and driven Jewish men have always seemed more authentic and unapologetic than Allen's.

In an article about Birmajer in Haaretz a year ago, when the author was visiting Israel for the Hebrew publication of "Three Musketeers," Roi Bet-Levi quoted comments the writer had made about the book's background. Birmajer said that he had been fascinated by the role played by Jews in the Montoneros, a left-wing revolutionary organization active in Argentina in the 1960s and '70s that used kidnapping and other acts of violence in its campaign to restore Juan Peron to power. When Peron returned to Buenos Aires, in 1973, he broke with the Montoneros, and after the junta came to power, in 1976, the group's members were among the most common victims of disappearances.

Although the Montoneros were anti-Zionist, and in some cases even cooperated with the Palestine Liberation Organization, they had many Jewish members, many of whom succeeded in avoiding capture and death back home by taking refuge in Israel. "Then, as now," said Birmajer last year, "I didn't understand how young Jews could be members of such a violent and crazy organization. How could Jewish children, who always come from a 'good home,' find themselves with weapons in hand, fighting for the freedom of non-Jews, most of whom hated them to death?"

His eventual conclusion, the writer explained, was that "many Jews have messiah complexes. We think that it's our job to save the world, to show everyone what's wrong." He went on to describe the case of one Jewish Montonero, Ricardo Zucker, who took guerrilla training at a PLO camp in Lebanon, where he "was forced to hide his Jewishness so that his Palestinian mentors, his brothers-in-arms, wouldn't kill him." Though his subterfuge succeeded, Zucker was murdered in 1979 by Argentinean security forces, and his family never received a body to bury. Birmajer explained that Zucker's father had once said "that what he wanted more than anything else was to recite the Kaddish over the grave of his son, the atheist revolutionary."

Traum, too, in "Three Musketeers," wants to say Kaddish for Benjamin and Guidi, the two young men killed nearly a quarter century earlier. Both because he was significantly older than them and for another reason, which he reveals to Javier only toward the end of the book, Traum felt very protective of "the boys," as he has continued to call them. The fact that he remained alive and they were both murdered is a source of constant guilt, even all these years later, and despite their membership in an organization that Traum despised, and had done his best to wrest them from.

Much of the book's narrative is taken up with Mossen and Traum's meanderings on foot around Buenos Aires, as the expatriate attempts to reestablish his bearings in the city. By now, Mossen has been taken off the Traum assignment by his editor, but for once, he feels an actual need to get to the bottom of a story, and Traum, for his part, needs to unburden himself of details of his former life in Argentina, so that he can return to Israel and put Argentina behind him.

While the two walk, stopping frequently to eat and drink, Traum tells his confessor about Guidi, a gifted young mathematician, and the first to join the guerrilla group, and Benja, who gravitated from a Trotskyite organization to the Montoneros after his life was saved by Guidi during a rumble between two groups of labor organizers.

Mossen is struck by Traum's abiding love and admiration for the two dead boys, especially in light of his firm disagreement with their political associations. "I don't know if I've already asked you this," he says to Traum, "but if they were so intelligent and erudite, how come they fell in love with the Montoneros ... ?"

"'I don't know if I've already told you,' he mimicked me, 'but I haven't the foggiest idea. Like I said, Marxist thinking is a virus that gnaws away at your mind. It attracts you, then it swallows you up.'"

Traum describes another element that bound him to Benjamin and Guidi, the relationship that the three of them had with a mesmerizingly beautiful young woman, a convert to Judaism named Cristina, who today is an important political and social figure in Argentina. The menage a quatre included an orgy with Cristina and the three young men as Benjamin was about to head out on his first mission as a Montonero assassin.

Surprisingly, I found myself less interested in all the reminiscences of Traum than in his current-day relationship with Mossen, whose character is the only one in the book that really undergoes any significant development. The others are ghosts, and Birmajer doesn't provide enough detail or background to allow them to come alive. But Javier Mossen, our hapless narrator, though, for all his unpleasant characteristics (or perhaps because of them) is someone the reader can identify with. Mossen is more mouse than man. He shies away from responsibility, risk, commitment - and betrays and pushes away the one woman he truly loves, and who truly loves him, for no obvious reason other than his own self-destructive nature.

A rodent's evolution

But Mossen's creator is romantic as well as cynical. And so he allows for the evolution of his rodent into a more honorable creature, even if no swashbuckling musketeer. We know that something positive is happening to Mossen when he leaves his own apartment while the cleaning woman Olga, who possesses "elephantine buttocks," is there working. He acknowledges that "If I didn't get out of the house as fast as possible I would be heading straight into the kitchen and placing myself right behind Olga," who was recommended to him by his mother. After all, "what if I go ahead and she goes and tells my mother? The whole of Once [a traditionally Jewish Buenos Aires neighborhood] would know I had gone completely mad. My mother would draw the shop curtains and tear her clothes."

Eventually, Mossen learns why someone is trying to get to Traum, a scandalous secret from his past that would make for a juicy newspaper story. So attached has he become to the man, though, that there is no question of his betraying him, and he risks both his own job and personal safety to protect Traum. He comes to understand why Esther was right in breaking up with him - that his error was far more profound than simply spilling the beans about his dalliance - which paves the way for her to be able to take him back (assuming, that is, that he can break off his relationship with Gladis, "an obesely fat schoolteacher I had mistreated a few years before getting together with Esther, and who I had started to mistreat again a few months after splitting up").

Traum tells Mossen at some point "what being a Jew is for me - knowing that life is more important than happiness." Another message of the book, it seems to me, is that behaving with honor is as important as life itself. Accepting those two lessons may in fact be the key to finding a modicum of happiness in life.

David B. Green is the editor of Haaretz Books.