Survival of the fittest

The Buenos Aires of Cecilia Szperling’s intriguing debut novel Selección natural is a food chain in which a failure to evolve can be fatal

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Selección natural
By Cecilia Szperling
2006, Adriana Hidalgo Editora
227 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

IN LATIN AMERICAN fiction, like the constitutions of old, a different settlement between the abstract and the real can reign.

This is sometimes reflected in a readiness to take cognitive risks, eschewed by so much Anglo-Saxon writing that has lost the appetite to indulge in metaphysical reflection or to create art without feeding consumption.

The Argentine psychoanalyst Roberto Neuburger illustrates one manifestation of this dissonance well, telling of an experiment in which a foreigner travelling throughout Latin America – but ending up in Buenos Aires – is invited to ask the taxi driver collecting him at the airport whether he is familiar with Freud or Lacan.

In Buenos Aires, says Neuburger, the taxi driver will promptly deliver – at no extra charge – a full lecture on the three phases of the Oedipus Complex, on the deferred action within the Unconscious, Castration (repression – disavowal – foreclosure), or on the Argentine “minas” (chicks) and their relationship with feminine supplementary jouissance.

Complexity of the Argentine mind

Cecilia Szperling’s Selección natural (Natural Selection) is a novel that, like its title, is the evolutionary product of an environment in which most taxistas porteños know more about psychoanalysis than your average British… well, psychoanalyst. Clever, eccentric, at times disturbing, this tragic yet witty tale is constructed at several levels that repay careful attention and highlight the distance that must be travelled in order to understand the sheer complexity of the Argentine mind.

The book develops the characters of a group of young people, mostly from the provinces, tearing at flesh in the middle-class food chain of Buenos Aires, interacting, competing, envying, loving and fratricidally hating, shooting up, travelling, stealing, encountering madness.

At one level, it is a novel about survival and the imperative to adapt according to the principles of Charles Darwin in an environment inhabited by role models, although the author herself has said that the choice of title was related to the process by which it was written, in which some characters survived their auditions but others did not.

At another level, Selección natural addresses how fate, or rather chance, is the missing factor in Darwin’s model of selection. A powerful tension is created by the love-hate relationship between the characters of Ernestina and her sister Emma, for example, and the differing fates that befall them.

Selección natural paints a picture of a sordid, uncomfortable ecosystem in which norms are forever open to question and in which the appearance of stability cannot mask the hysteria within. One is reminded of Bukovski, himself influenced by the contours and atmosphere of his native city, in how Szperling evokes a sense of auto-marginalisation and self-harm through characters so well constructed that we are left with an eery feeling of déjà vu.

We get a glimpse of this through the eyes of Gabriel Eisemberg, a young psychiatrist whose typical patient is a man who laughs because he cannot cry and whose red-eyed insomnia feeds only dreams of Bohemian diversion. The surface dweller Gabriel falls in with the addict Beppo, and they do drugs in a subterranean cavern more well equipped than his hospital – with catastrophic consequences. Szperling holds up a series of mirrors in which these fascinating urban species each employ different survival strategies as, in a process of inevitable self-destruction, the fragile helix of social DNA spirals ever further down towards its crash-landing until it shatters and only some of the genes are left intact.

With its changing pace and, at times, shifting ambience, there is a mobility about Selección natural that explains why it has been likened to the script of a road movie and why the author refers to Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting when discussing her influences.Szperling intersperses the narrative with illuminating extracts from works by Darwin himself, Freud, and the American Psychiatric Association among others listing the physical changes sparked in response to various stimuli and bizarre instructions on how to meet extraordinary situations. Perhaps this novel is a survival manual in its own right.

Selección natural, Cecilia Szperling’s first novel and a finalist in the Premio Clarín 2003, represents an intriguing debut for an author whose own evolution will be worthy of close Darwinian scrutiny.

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Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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