Darwinian Shenanigans?

Books—particularly novels—often come with such hype (glowing testimonials by other writers, literary awards, the publisher’s promotion) that the reviewer wonders if there is any possibility they can live up to the praise.  Natural Selection isn’t as highly touted as some, but the promotion does it no genuine service.  The publisher’s fact sheet about the book states that “Cecilia Szperling’s awesome Natural Selection applies Darwin’s insights to the ecosystem of modern Buenos Aires, where a group of young people find themselves tearing at the flesh to survive in the city’s psychological food chain.”  The writer is a celebrated Argentinean novelist.

Well, possibly, but I doubt that the typical reader—whoever that is—would make the connection to Darwin without the publisher’s remarks, even though Szperling quotes numerous passages from Darwin’s works to drive her point home. And I certainly wouldn’t call the novel “awesome,” though I admit a certain fascination to the author’s narrative technique.

There’s an inept robbery at the beginning of Szperling’s story.  Ernestina Valdés, along with two of her thuggish friends, decides to rob her sister’s house.  Emma is the older sister, more successful than Ernestina.  Emma is also rich and on an earlier occasion told her sister that she and her husband keep a significant amount of money in their house, just in case thieves break in and demand cash.  The whole intent is to keep a potential robbery at a manageable but not exorbitant amount, and since Ernestina’s two friends are basically penniless, the three of them plot the invasion to acquire the money.

But it fails—not the robbery itself.  Ernestina is great at faking an assault and a break-in so that Emma believes that her sister is as much a victim of the crime as she is.  Problem:  When Emma looks out a window after Ernestina has supposedly been dragged off by the thugs, she observes her sister kissing one of the men.

All of this initial plotting is quite imaginative and paced so quickly that the reader has high hopes for a similarly engaging narrative.  Alas, that doesn’t turn out to be true.  Ernestina is tired of playing “second fiddle” to her more successful sister.  But when Szperling begins inserting the Darwin quotations in her story, one can’t help ask for what reason.  Is Emma the stronger character likely to “survive” in Buenos Aires’ rough-and-tumble environment?  Are Ernestina’s two male companions—high on drugs much of the time–better suited to become successful than their straight-laced counterparts?

The story becomes even murkier when Szperling takes us underground.  Anita (a young girl from the country) latches onto a relationship with a doctor named Beppo, who has decided to live eight stories below ground, under a parking-lot that is below a shopping mall.  Ernestina turns up there for no particularly good reason.  There’s a second doctor, known as Gabriel, who is also attracted to Anita, and to make matters worse, Ernestina decides that one of the two men who were part of the robbery is the man of her life. Another problem.  Cosme, that jaded lover, is much more interested in Fedra, an earlier woman he abandoned temporarily, because of his short-lived infatuation with Ernestina.  So Ernestina attempts to assume Fedra’s persona in order to keep Cosme as her lover.

There’s an attempt to explain all the relationships in the novel by resorting to class issues.  Cosme, for example, thinks of Fedra as follows: “Fedra belonged to another class.  She spoke French and English and had taken movement and expression classes since the age of three.  This last detail pained him above all.  Taking movement and expression classes singled out his orphaned status, because it made clear to him that other parents did take care of their children, not only by providing what was necessary for their physical development but also providing them with the luxury of pleasure.”

All right.  So the problem here is Cosme’s deprived childhood which attracts him to upper-class women.  But sadly, that argument doesn’t exactly work in this novel because the two doctors who court Anita are high on drugs most of the time and depraved as much as the two thugs who are attracted to Ernestina at the beginning of the story.

Except for Emma—who has to begin psychoanalysis after she observes her sister kissing one of the thieves—these are all pretty unsavory characters.  Fortunately, Szperling realizes that because she eliminates most of them by the end of her bizarre narrative.

Natural Selection
Translated by Oscar Luna
Aflame Books, 160 pp., $15.95.

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.




Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.