Seven Ways to Kill a Cat, By Matías Néspolo

Harvill Secker, £10.99

Michael Eaude
Wednesday 28 December 2011 01:00 GMT

Set in a shanty-town on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, this fine first novel focuses on Gringo and Chueco, both 20, who live in an eternal present of hustling for food, sex, alcohol and drugs. Neither future nor past bears thinking about, an attitude borne out in the novel's style and structure by Néspolo's rapid, short sentences, use of the historic present and the constant movement of his characters.

In the 1950s, Argentina was one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Ten years ago, its economy collapsed. The currency was worthless, jobs vanished and the poor starved, as Seven Ways to Kill a Cat, set in 2001, shows. In the background, demonstrators fight running battles with the police. In the foreground, drug-selling gangs clash to control the neighbourhood.

Youngsters like Gringo and Chueco are drawn into petty crime and are into the gangs – and more serious crime. The police are absent, except for a corrupt commissioner. The state has disappeared.

The narrator, Gringo, has to find a way to survive. The novel opens brutally with Chueco killing and skinning a cat – the only meat they'll see that week. Chueco is unpleasant, impulsive, deceitful and contradictory and, though Gringo is all of these things, too, he thinks about a future beyond the neighbourhood.

Néspolo draws great characters – the slobby Fat Farías, his daughter Yanina, Gringo's friend Quique – and a series of brilliant scenes. The best, though, is how he expresses feelings and personality through dialogue. Translating a novel like this, full of tough talk, is an enormous challenge. Frank Wynne does it wondrously well, boldly using many Spanish terms, such as nicknames and slang. He doesn't make Argentinean street kids say "mate" or "bro" instead of "socio" or "che".

Néspolo's novel bears comparison with such masters of description of life in the slums as Alexander Baron and Nelson Algren, though the tone falters when Gringo starts to read Moby Dick. Here, Néspolo fails to draw analogies with Ishmael and Captain Ahab but Seven Ways to Kill a Cat is still an excellent adventure story that also documents urban poverty and violence, with faultless dialogue and at breathtaking pace.

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