7 Ways to Kill a Cat by Matías Néspolo
Matías Néspolo comes highly recommended. He was selected by Granta in 2010 as one of their best young Spanish-language novelists, and the cover of his debut novel carries a quote from Javier Cercas along with a special endorsement from PEN. For the most part, the English edition of 7 Ways to Kill a Cat generously fulfils our expectations. It is poppy and offbeat in a way that will please fans of early Irvine Welsh, with the exotic resonance of Paulo Lins’ City of God – albeit minus the latter’s epic intergenerational swoop.
Set in Buenos Aires at the time of Argentina’s financial crash, 7 Ways follows the adventures of a young slum-dweller named Gringo, chronicling his desperate efforts to escape the crime and deprivation of the barrio. Everyone in Buenos Aires is desperate, not only the slum-dwellers, and Gringo’s struggles are mirrored and magnified by the suffering of those around him.
“There’s seven ways to kill a cat,” announces Chueco, the protagonist’s lively but unstable sidekick. “But when it comes down to it, there’s only two ways … In a civilised fashion, or like a fucking savage.” The cat-killing is literal, and at the beginning of the novel it provides Gringo and Chueco with the first meat they have eaten in over a week. As the novel progresses, however, this initial act of violence comes to symbolise the lengths we will go to in order to ensure our own survival.
Chueco is the dark centre of Néspolo’s novel – the motor for much of the action. Constantly scheming, trying to stay one step ahead of the competition, he’s an enigma to even his closest friends. Gringo, by contrast, is cautious by nature. He doesn’t fully trust Chueco, but despite his misgivings he cannot help being drawn into his friend’s increasingly harebrained schemes. After all, they are socios – mates – and mates stick together, even through the most soul-crushing adversity.
Néspolo wittily sketches the complex ironies of life in crash-era Argentina. In an early chapter, Gringo and Chueco break into the home of a local small-business owner. They hope to hijack his savings account (anyone in late-1990s Argentina lucky enough to have money either smuggles it out of the country or keeps it stashed beneath their mattress), but instead the hapless burglars discover a cash of outdated banknotes:
They’ve all got lots of zeros and they all bear the face of El Libertador. We stand there, staring at them like idiots. I remember notes like this, and I’m sure Chueco does. A brown one used to buy you a bag of popcorn, for a blue one you could get a bottle of Coke … Pesos ley, they were called back in the late 1970s. They haven’t been in circulation for nearly fifteen years.
Later on, Gringo heads into town with the intention of blowing some ill-gotten loot. The money is burning a hole in his pocket, but he finds it damn near impossible to get rid of. The shops are full of bargains and special offers, owners desperately slashing prices in an attempt to keep their businesses afloat.
Harvill Secker is billing 7 Ways as a cross between documentary and thriller. The book covers similar ground, in terms of pacing and historical content, to the gripping Argentinean heist movie Nine Queens, but in comparison with the film Néspolo’s novel is noticeably lacking in tension. His plot twists, which for the most part can be found crammed into the second half of the book, seem rather shoehorned-in, and all too often the stakes just don’t feel convincing. Gringo’s love interest Yanina appears only fleetingly in the early chapters: in a creepy scene we see Gringo nosing around her bedroom, browsing through her underwear drawer. On p. 139 they have brief and unromantic sex, and from that point onwards Gringo is obsessively focused on rescuing his one true love.
Some of the characters, too, are sketchily drawn and somewhat less than three dimensional. The gang leader El Jetita comes across as an uncomplicated thug, and bar owner Fat Farías is a full-on grotesque. Moreover, there are several characters who feature so tangentially in the action that one wonders whether it might not have been simpler for Néspolo’s editor to excise them, rather than giving the reader yet another nickname and back-story to remember.
7 Ways feels very much like a first-time novel – a warts-and-all debut, and one which may have gone to press just a jot prematurely. However, Néspolo’s prose displays more than enough sparkle and exuberance to override these minor qualms. His writing is electric and palpably youthful, with the promise of weightier, more considered works to come. Likewise, Frank Wynne’s translation is snappy and inventive, mixing Porteño and North American slang to create idiosyncratic gems such as “Whatever you’re jonesing for, loco,” and “hijo-de-fucking-puta”.
Ultimately, as a picaresque narrative, 7 Ways is more about setting than plot. The novel is at its best in those chapters where Gringo is wandering aimlessly around Buenos Aires, bumping into hippyish street vendors and pot-banging protesters whilst trying to avoid milicos (armed police) and glue-sniffing kids. The cover blurb notes that Gringo’s barrio “could be any deprived area” where young men are pushed into violence. Nevertheless, as a portrait of a unique and fascinating time and place, Néspolo’s debut is an enjoyably diverting read.