Madame Mephisto: one really bad girl

Madame Mephisto is being marketed with the following phrase “What would you talk about if you were stuck in a room with a drug dealer for five days?”. Well, forget about this long sentence, I don’t think it makes any justice to the novel. So if you see it and feel like shrugging, think twice.

I read this novel on a pdf format, thinking it would prove a huge challenge to keep me interested while keeping my eyes fixed on my computer screen (yes, I don’t have a Kindle and probably never will). Hour and a half later I was still glued to my chair scrolling down Madame Mephisto’s pages with a smile on my face. Need to say more? Ok here I go.

The great triumph of  A.M Bakalar’s first novel is, in my opinion, the tone of the novel. The story is narrated by Magda, a charismatic, beautiful and successful drug dealer who is incredibly honest (and perhaps cynical) about the way she sees life.

Magda yawns at the never ending social pressure of meeting Mr Right Guy,  getting married, having children and living the so perfect family life as if happiness was all about following that recipe. Her mother is sometimes the most annoying creature on the planet, Christmas family lunch can be the year’s most boring event, the Catholic church sucks, the work environment is full of fake and stiff people. Sounds familiar?

A.M. Bakalar created a memorable anti-heroine, worth adapting to the big screen. The fact that she controls and distribute the capital’s cannabis market makes her even more attractive as a character. She is the Polish-Londoner female drug baroness, that reminded me of Teresa Mendoza, the world famous drug trafficker that inspired Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s to write The Queen of the South. See? Women can be bad, really bad girls too!

The narrative in first person gives the story a natural flow making  the events credible. And as the story develops, we are also witnessing a life confession that will end in an extraordinary and moving way. In a nutshell, thumps up to A.M Bakalar for a fantastic first novel!

Madame Mephisto is published in the UK by Stork Press.

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.

Why you should read Down the Rabbit Hole

I’m sure you have noticed I am very keen on literature that talks about drug trafficking, that obscure genre that some call narcoliteratura and that is truly fascinating. But what is even more fascinating is to come across a novel that touches the subject in a new way: humour.

Juan Pablo Villalobos’ first novel Fiesta en la Madriguera, is available in English by And Other Stories and translated as Down the Rabbit Hole. Worth reading and I’ll give you a few reasons why.

The protagonist of the story is a boy called Tochtli and whose age is uncertain. He could be 8, 9,  or 10 years old but in a very intelligent way, Villalobos leaves that to the reader to figure out. He is the narrator of the story and through the pages of this short novel we have the opportuinity to see the world through his eyes. He is no ordinary boy. He is the son of a drug lord. But as tragic as this may sound, the truth is that Tochtli’s view of the world is rather distorted and therefore funny. Really funny. His everyday reality is surrounded by a violence and cruelty he is incredibly familiar with, but therefore he is not scared. “This is what was in the news today on the TV: the tigers in the zoo in Guadalajara ate a woman all up, apart from her left leg. Maybe her left leg wasn’t a very juicy bit. Or maybe the tigers were already full.” (p.20)

Last week, I had the privilege to chair a panel on literature with Juan Pablo Villalobos at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester and obviously the topic of drug trafficking came into the  picture. It is true that the world of these drug lords give way to never ending possibilities for stories being brought to fiction. And Tochtli is the result of this. He is a little boy who can wish for anything he likes and  in this world asking of a Liberian pygmy hippo makes a lot of sense. It does!

Juan Pablo told me that while writing Down the Rabbit Hole, the only way to justify Tochtli’s whim is by placing him in the narco world. At the end of the day, this is a rite of passage novel that tells us the bitter-sweet story of this boy. This is what this novel different from any other narconovela I’ve read. Because in the words of Nick Hornby it is about a boy.

But at the end of the day, the big winner of this adventure is the reader because Tochtli brings a smile in your  face. It’s the kind of character you’d like to put in your pocket and take home with you. Things like this makes him unique and incredibly charming:

“There’s a scandal on the TV because they showed a photo of the policeman’s severed head. But it’s not because of his hairstyle.” (p.27)

A truly enjoyable read. Don’t be put off by the drug trafficking references in it. On the opposite, share the joy of being a child again, completely innocent and unaware of the harsh world outside. I think we would all like to be Totchli every now and then and I wish I could be his Facebook friend!

To get a copy of this book visit http://www.andotherstories.org