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.

Literature and Violence: let’s talk about it

Writing about violence is not a new topic in literature. But it became a recurrent subject after the Second World War when the writers used it to talk about the horrors of war, to expose the evil in mankind and to set a reminder of the fragility of peace. It became and stayed popular because violence , more than any other topic, has the power to shock.

For many, violence is an unescapable reality, to others it also comes with a window for creative writing that gives way to new legends, myths, heroes and anti-heroes.

As years passed by, Mexican society has been deeply touched and transformed by the increasing violence as a result of conflicts between drug cartels and police. The impact of this situation in every day life has touched the imagination of contemporary authors, perhaps as a natural reaction to cope with the unstable current situation.

 The publication in 1999 of Un asesino solitario  by Élmer Mendoza got the critics’ attention about this fascinating subject.  Few years later the flow continued with El amante de Janis Joplin (2001) and the award-winning Balas de Plata (2008).

But not only Mendoza captured the sometimes bizarre world of drug trafficking in his novels. The younger and upcoming generation did it too with remarkable and original novels such as Los trabajos del reino (2004) by Yuri Herrera, to be published in the UK under the label of Faber and Faber. Also, the famous blogger Bernardo Fernández (aka BEF) won the Otra Vuelta de Tuerca award with the extraordinary Tiempo de alacranes (2005).  Later on, Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez shocked his readers with El hombre sin cabeza(2009) a mesmerizing journalistic essay on violence surrounding Mexican drug cartels. And as recent as 2010 Juan Pablo Villalobos touched this world under the innocent view of a child in Fiesta en la madrigueraa tragic and funny novel also soon to be published in September the UK by And Other Stories.

These are just a few examples of some of the authors who have touched the subject and who provide the reader with a vast range of points of views and unforgettable characters who question their reality perhaps in the same way a nation demands for answers and solutions to stop the violence.

In my opinion these so-called narco novelas are becoming movement of great literature which I hope leave a mark in the nation’s literary history. For that reason they should be read. They matter. Talking about violence in Mexico matters.