Book review - 7 Ways to kill a Cat

When Argentina suffered financial collapse in 2001, demonstrators took to the streets and there were violent confrontations followed by a police crackdown. This is the turbulent backdrop to Matías Néspolo’s debut novel, first published in Spanish in 2009 and fluidly translated by Frank Wynne. It proves particularly topical given the recent global protests.

Instead of focusing on the country’s wider civil unrest, Néspolo hones in on the deprived barrios of Buenos Aires, underlining the fact that in any economic crisis it is always the poor who are the hardest hit. In these outlying slums, hunger is the norm, violent mobsters rule the streets and impoverished children deal in drugs and carry guns.

The story is told from the perspective of twenty-year-old Gringo, who hangs out with his friend Chueco, smokes dope and indulges in petty crime to fund his addiction. The novel opens with Chueco telling Gringo: “There’s seven ways to kill a cat”. When you haven’t eaten for a week a cat’s meat is “a gift from God”. Its subsequent slaughter chillingly conveys the desperation of life in the slums.

When Gringo and Chueco rob and beat up the local barman, Fat Farías, they find themselves drawn into the sinister underworld of local drug lord, El Jetita, who co-opts them as his ‘messengers’ in an escalating conflict with a rival drug gang. Gringo dreams of escape and, after a visit to Buenos Aires, where he bumps into his long lost cousin Toni, he starts thinking of ways he can make a new career as a street vendor. But the boys are already in too deep, caught in an endless round of intimidation, violence and despair. They soon become marked men, embroiled in a bloody gun battle between the rival gangs.

Gringo retains our sympathy because his emotions are not yet dulled by drugs and barbarity, because of his affection for Mamina - who raised him when his mother disappeared - his conflicted feelings for his friend, Chueco, his desire for Farías’s niece, Yanina, his friendship with a young neighbour, Quique, and his attempts to understand Melville’s novel, Moby Dick, which he picks up on his trip to the capital. These are all stark reminders of his humanity in a world where violence is entrenched.

In 2010, Néspolo was selected by the British literary magazine Granta as one of the best young Spanish-language novelists writing today. It's not hard to see why. With echoes of Paolo Lins’ City of God, Néspolo’s street-slang prose cuts like a knife and this taut thriller brilliantly captures the alienation and despair of the dispossessed.

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