Matias Nespolo is currently receiving all kinds of plaudits. Granta have selected him as one of the best Spanish language novelists alive today. On the front of his debut novel, Seven Ways to Kill a Cat, we are informed that he comes ‘recommended by PEN’, and the quotations on the sleeve tell us that he is ‘brilliant’, ‘first-rate’, and ‘startling.’ High expectations are raised before the novel is even opened. And, at first, it is easy to see why. From the opening conversation between protagonist Gringo, so named because of his bright blonde hair, and his trouble-making companero Cheuco, we are thrust into a world of high stakes and depravity. Nespolo goes for the throat with his opening, showing Cheuco skinning a cat for its meat and talking about the seven ways to kill such an animal. Although, he decides, there are really just two: ‘in a civilised fashion, or like a fucking savage.’ This conversation sets up the whole tone of the novel, not only in the differences between two warring Buenos Aires gangs, but also in the slowly deteriorating relationship between civilised Gringo and wannabe savage Cheuco.
It’s an intense introduction to a world completely foreign to most English language readers. With punchy, witty, and completely believable dialogue throughout, the novel is carried along by the power of these two characters and the relationship that Nespolo creates between them and the reader in the novel’s first quarter. His pacing, also, is excellent, with very little drop in the action, if you excuse a few failed allegorical comparisons between the novel and Moby Dick, as Gringo struggles through the pages of Melville’s masterpiece. Gringo is, at least at times, a very easy character to relate to. His problems may be of a life-threatening type, but, his problems are also those of teenagers on the verge of adulthood around the world. How does he become the man he needs to be to survive in his environment? It’s impossible not to root for him, but the problem comes in the second half of the novel, when, as much as your attachment to the character remains, the plot, the writing, and dimensional levels of the supporting cast, begin to falter.
The main problem is cliché. There’s cliché in the writing, the characters, in the comparisons, the metaphors, the similes. Most of all, though, there’s cliché in the story. This exact story has been told so many times before. It’s City of God, it’s Boyz in the Hood, Menace 2 Society, it’s every other story in which there’s a good boy and a bad boy and they’re in the wrong crowd but they can’t get out. Without giving too many spoilers, you can probably guess how it ends if you’ve seen any of these films. And, of course, these films are all classics in their own right, and many writers and filmmakers would be proud of such a comparison, but, despite his opening scene, he at no point touches the levels of originality, tension, or emotion that these works do. It’s a shame. Technically, there is so much right with the novel. Emotionally, it doesn’t quite connect.
Any Cop? Some people will probably adore this novel. Maybe those too young to have heard it all before. It’s got guns, girls, drugs, depravity, and a sex scene that should be in next year’s bad sex awards for sure. But it lacks a lot too. It feels forced, as though plot twists and developments are slotted in willy-nilly, and the repetition of a well told story makes even the connection to Gringo fade away by the end. It becomes the equivalent of watching a horror movie and screaming at the heroine as she runs up the stairs into danger instead of getting through the front door and fucking off. But there’s promise here, too. With dialogue and pacing as exceptional as this, readers can expect something much better from Nespolo in the future.