Magnetized: Conversations with a Serial Killer by Carlos Busqued (trans. by Samuel Rutter) — Harry Gallon

After I pulled the body back up, there was a moment of fear, of… terror. Suddenly I looked up and I saw that I was being watched. I didn’t see a person, or a face. I saw two eyes that were watching me…. They were my own eyes, [my] own face, reflected. I didn’t recognize myself. It was like there was a complete stranger right in front of me.

Buenos Aires, 1982. Ricardo Melogno has just murdered a taxi driver. The first of four. He has no recollection of pulling the trigger. No reason for doing so, either.

The killings occurred during the Malvinas Conflict, the result of which signalled the end of Argentina’s military regime: a period of suppression, unemployment and state-sanctioned disappearances. In a world where mental health is still drastically underfunded and misunderstood, Carlos Busqued sits down with Melogno, and delves into the unseen world of a broken system.

It is no surprise that the Argentine prison system of the 80s held no sympathies for the ‘criminally insane’. Mental health issues are stigmatised and misunderstood even today. Resources are still too scarce and institutions still too underfunded across the globe. In an inherently Christian nation, faith in medicine is pushed aside for faith in God. Those with mental health issues are possessed by demons. By darkness. By the Devil. Melogno’s mother was a Spritualist. She was also an abuser. When she wasn’t at home, she locked her son in the house, which he believed was inhabited by harmful spirits. At church, healers told him he was ‘marked for the dark side’ and that there was ‘something very dark inside him.’

At first glance, there exists a romanticisation, in Melogno’s testimony, of whatever possessed him to commit murder. We are forgiven for thinking that the idea he was possessed by something, allows Melogno to relinquish his responsibility for killing: if this was his path, then the murders were out of his control, and either caused by the devil, the darkness inside him, or by external factors, such as the abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother.

Given the link between abuse during childhood and crimes committed in adulthood, this takes the evil out of Melogno the boy, and gives it a body. He says, ‘a psychologist told me, “Ricardo, schizophrenics aren’t born, they’re made. And your mother did everything she possibly could to make sure you ended up with a severe mental disorder.”’

The fault is more nurture than nature, and the problem is both societal, and, given Melongo’s relationship with the church, institutional. We see this more and more, as Melogno, convicted, is passed from institution to institution, forcibly medicated, tortured and held in prison even after his sentence has ended. ‘One of the theories from the forensic medical team,’ says Melogno, ‘was that if I’d killed my mother, I never would have committed the crimes.”

It is not until 2000 that he is diagnosed with a mental health condition, and since then the likelihood that he even has schizophrenia is both attacked and defended by the string of psychologists tasked with dissecting him. Most recently, they have settled on a diagnosis of paraphrenia – a condition similar to but ‘not quite schizophrenia’, where patients live ‘between two poles of fantasy and reality’ – because it accounts for Melogno’s ‘ability to be in this world and another at the same time.’

In the popularization of murder-based media – true crime docs, films like Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, and countless serial killer podcasts – isn’t necessarily glorification, though that does happen. Men have been romanticising Jack the Ripper, and ignoring his victims, for decades. However, with the culprit known, the question isn’t about how Melogno killed those taxi drivers, but why. We read testimonies because they allow us introspection, and to acknowledge our own rationality, as well as our right of choice.

Most people are not going to murder, but we all can, and that is scary. Recognising that potential is like recognising our mortality: the inevitability of the latter proves the former. That is, we can’t stop our own death, but we can prevent ourselves from causing the deaths of others.

The killings in Magnetized attracted notable attention, due to the short time between each one, and the repetitive nature of how they were undertaken. There was a manhunt. False accusations and unreliable witnesses. Taxi drivers formed their own militias, to hunt down their colleagues’ killer. It was almost anti-climactic when Melogno confessed, turned in by his brother and father. He did not resist. There was no dramatic police operation to capture the caricature of evil portrayed by the press. There was a murderer, of course, but there was also an unwell boy.

“I don’t know what’s happening to me,” Melogno said. The fact that he remained ‘consistently mute’ during his interrogation calls to mind 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, and Camus’ The Outsider, in which a murderer is condemned to death less because he murdered someone, and more because he felt no remorse for doing so. Emotion makes us human, but its presence is a tool used against us. Melogno was not sentenced to death, yet the authorities declared him unfit for trial ‘by means of insanity’, despite the fact that he was clearly unwell.

The indifference Melogno felt at the time of the killings is shared across texts that attempt to explore choice and potential. We rationalise heinous acts through the legitimacy of their motives. In Melogno’s case, there is none, and that is distressing: for the newspapers who made up stories about him, for the prosecutors trying to convict him or have him sectioned, and for his victim’s families. Busqued capitalises on this by giving Melogno the space to speak openly, free from the fear, and knowledge, that whatever he says may incriminate him further.

Melogno’s descriptions of the way that psychiatric patients are treated are lucid and comedic. Abused, over-medicated, murdered, disappeared. Deaths filed under suicide, if not natural causes – that is, ‘natural in the sense that it’s natural to die when someone hangs you.’

Compliance is deemed rational, but a wrong answer on a Rorschach test could add years to a sentence.

The focus on drug addiction – both forced and voluntary drug taking – is analytical and explanatory. It is as though Melogno is narrating a guide on the effects of drugs in prison. On Haliperidol, and Artane – how to take one recreationally, and how to survive the one that is forcefully injected. Compliance is deemed rational, but a wrong answer on a Rorschach test could add years to a sentence.

What Busqued has achieved is an honest and impartial exploration of morality, mental health and motive. He goes deeper than simply condemning an already condemned man. His sentence served, Melogno is kept in prison, but what right does the state have to a criminal’s life, when the criminal has served their time? By keeping Melogno incarcerated, are they removing freedoms (to live) like he did his victims? If the state violates their own rule of law and sentencing, what reason does the general population have to adhere to it in the first place? This takes the case back to Melogno’s original sentencing, maybe even as far as the moment he committed the first act: how can the state prosecutors look for a rationale to the killings, if the state does not behave in a rational way with regard to the sentencing? Society and ethics are thrown into quagmire, becoming distorted to the point of illusion.

Busqued melds fiction with fact as he rushes crime writing from left-field, pulling us with him and dumping us at a table opposite Melogno. With the author having removed himself from the narrative, Melongo’s voice is amplified. His introspection is intelligent and compelling, his humility clear. He recalls his childhood, adolescence and early adulthood candidly, without decoration. It might be said that murderers want to be known; that they believe they have value, and by committing newsworthy acts, that value will receive the recognition it deserves. Melogno professes to feeling worthless, so was he committing murders in order to give his life meaning, or to impart that worthlessness onto other people: if I mean nothing, then so do you. What Busqued demonstrates is a clear arc of personal development within Melogno. Had Busqued tried to speak to him a decade or more ago, we may not be getting the same story. The Melogno who committed those murders and the Melogno sitting across the table from Busqued are drastically different people.

Magnetized is a monologue – a one-man play. Busqued prompts with questions, fills space between dialogue with minor fictitious description, and listens to testimony from mental health professionals. He is as much a member of the audience as we are, and has created here a remarkably honest piece of work that is closer to a novel than investigative non-fiction.

Carlos Busqued was born in Presidencia Roque Sáenz Peña, Chaco (Argentina) in 1970 and lives in Buenos Aires. His first novel, Under This Terrible Sun, was a finalist for the 2008 Herralde Prize and later adapted for film (El Otro Hermano, Adrian Caetano, 2017). Magnetized is his second book.

Samuel Rutter is a writer and translator from Melbourne, Australia. A recent graduate of the MFA in fiction from Vanderbilt University, he has translated several novels from authors including Matías Celedón, Cristina Sánchez-Andrade, and Sònia Hernández.

Harry Gallon is a London-based author, editor and ghostwriter, represented by Marjacq Scripts. He is the longlisting reader for The Bridport Prize first novel award, contributing editor for Minor Lit[s] and his work features in numerous publications, including Forward Poetry, Open Pen and The London Magazine. His debut novel, The Shapes of Dogs’ Eyes, was published in 2015, its follow-up, Every Fox is a Rabid Fox, in 2017. His third novel, Small Rivers, is due for release in 2021. @hcagallon