Forget stylish Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires is one of those cities that have been lucky enough to be associated with trendiness. Just close your eyes for a moment and think Buenos Aires. What comes to mind? Carlos Gardel, couples dancing tango in the picturesque barrio de la Boca , a great and juicy steak and even Jorge Luis Borges is there waving at you while walking to the National Library.

Well, if that is your idea of Buenos Aires better not read 7 Ways to Kill a Cat. That sexy and stylish city is nowhere to be seen. It’s too far away from the harsh everyday reality of the characters of this novel by Matías Néspolo.

The story takes place in a shanty town in the outskirts of Buenos Aires,  a place of extreme poverty where violence, drug trafficking and crime affects everybody. This is a place where not even childhood will spare you being dragged into gang warfare. Either you join or you die. As simple as that. But the interesting thing about the setting of the novel is that, in theory, this place could be anywhere in the world during a financial crisis. It could well be a shanty town in the outskirts of Mexico City, Chicago, Paris or Delhi. The way violence affects people and the way it’s inhabitants behave to protect their lives would be exactly the same.

7 Ways to Kill a Cat is not a bubble gum novel. The characters have no way out, no happy endings here, no opportunities for a better life, no success story, no love story that makes you smile either. But through the narration of our protagonist Gringo, we can see sparks of kindness and friendship that makes the whole thing even more tragic.

“I just don’t want any more grief. These guys are vicious bastards. You plan them on their home ground, you lose. Better to give them a wide berth.” (p.74)

For me, the element that I found incredibly clever is the presence of Moby DickGringo after brutally assaulting and stealing a large sum of money from Fat Farias, takes a trip to Buenos Aires deciding to spend as much as possible. Since the story is set in Argentina’s 2001 financial crisis, Gringo finds all the shops in sale and slashing prices. It’s hard to spend money! But surprisingly (for me, the reader) he gets hold of a copy of Henry Mellville’s Moby Dick not knowing exactly why and what to expect. From that point onwards, the “whale book” plays an important role in accompanying Gringo’s life.

“Like Ishmael, I’ve got more than enough to get to hell and back. What do I do? I open the book to look for advise, to see what the guy in the book has to say, and the loco comes out with some shit…” (p. 151)

There are certain moments in the novel, where in a brilliant way the speed of events Gringo’s life run parallel to Moby Dick’s plot, working as a mirror between fiction and reality. In many ways the pages of this classic lead him to reflect and think about the reality around him. For example, when reading about Moby Dick being white as milk, he says:

“The weird thing was the kids with the whitest smocks were usually the ones who were starving. It was like you could eliminate povery with bleach, scrub out stigma with soap.” (p. 109).

I liked the fact that it starts and ends with the same phrase. However, 7 Ways to Kill a Cat is definitely a  stronger novel in the second part. Another slightly weak point is, in my opinion, an excess of characters that distracted me. I think the story is powerful enough with memorable people like Gringo, Chueco, Mamina, Fat Farias and Quique. The presence of others such as El pampita or el negro Sosa  do not add anything crucial to the plot and could even appear as ghostly figures that Néspolo asks us to remember with no apparent reason.

Overall, 7 Ways to Kill a Cat is a pleasant and entertaining read that shares the atmosphere of Fernando Meirelles’ film City of God. I guess that gives you a clue of what to expect.

Ps. I am usually reluctant to read English translations on books written in Spanish, because I rather be exposed directly to the author’s writing. But in this case I had to read it in English. At first, I must confess I found it hard to imagine these characters speaking English and throwing words such as viejo, m’hijo, truco, compañero, mate, etc. It felt artificial and stiff but I guess avoiding that is part of the huge challenge of translating street slang. However, as the story flowed I totally forgot about this and got absolutely immersed in the narrative. I ended up being grateful that these key words were left in Spanish, because it’s the only reference that reminds you the story is taken place in Argentina. I say, if you are a Spanish speaker, give the translator a chance.

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Keeping the faith in short stories

I used to read loads of short stories and prefered them by far over novels. Then I guess my attention went somewhere else and it was no more short stories reading for me, good few years I would say. But the other day I took a thin little yellow book (I’m into thin books at the moment) by the title “Hasta luego, Míster Salinger” by the Venezuelan author Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez. A mystery book because it’s signed by the author and dedicated to someone who, clearly, it’s not me: a guy called Juan Angel Juristo. If someone knows him, please let him know I have his copy…

There a few stories that when reading them you know, you just know, you’ll never forget them. And this book has at least 4 of those. Méndez keeps us glued to the pages with characters that are contradictory and passionate. They live normal lives, they are the next door neighbour and we, as readers, get the chance to get into their minds and live a moment in their lives.

My favourites are “La boda” (The Wedding) and “Hasta luego, míster Salinger”. Especially in these two the author introduces an incredibly well done surprise element that left me with a cheeky smile on my face. In “La boda” the bride gets paranoid about what she considers the odd behaviour of two of her work colleagues, to the point of  firing them right there in the wedding party only to find herself minutes later in a passionate encounter with both in the toilets. (Because things like that do not happen at weddings, right?)

“Hasta luego, míster Salinger” makes us feel so sorry for Edgar, a sad wanna be writer desperately looking for his wife after he was told she had been chatting with him that night. I won’t spoil the story for you but in those pages, our minds work out a story that ended up being totally different to reality. But Edgar remains being a sad, sad character, almost poetic.

I do not know if foreign publishers have come across this absolute master of the short story. I guess the non Spanish-speaking word is missing out on Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez (Barquisimeto, 1967) narrative, full of cheeky characters and those moments in life we have all been through.

With books like this  I’ll definitely keep the faith in short stories.

If you are lucky enough to read Spanish you can get these wonderful stories on http://paginasdeespuma.com/

The art of re-reading

A few years ago I was lucky enough to meet with Mexican author Carlos Fuentes at his London flat. It was part of my job at the time to supervise the picking up of some 200 books from his personal library to be donated to Emmanuel College in Cambridge on the occasion of his 80th birthday.

I’ve met him before in literary events but being at his place gave me the biggest star struck I’ve ever felt. While the books were being packed I found myself eyeing shamelessly all his books (and photographs!), Fuentes was just smiling entertained by my very obvious nosiness. The only thing I could say was: So, do you re-read your books very often?

His answer was simple and perfect. He said he re-reads Don Quixote every year. And that everybody should have one book to go back to over and over again.

I’ve read many times Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and it always feels like it is the first time as I see new meanings in Tómas and Tereza’s relationship. Also Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is another beloved novel. My absolute favourite part of the book are the opening lines. They make me smile.

But what about you? Which books do you tend to re-read?