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Fiction Review Revelatory depiction of life in Buenos Aires slum is a tragi-comic triumph

Slum Virgin
by Gabriela Cabezon Camara
(Charco Press, £9.99)

IN THE El Poso slum of Buenos Aires things are starting to change for the better. Its inhabitants organise in special committees, they create a system of canals filled with large and glistening carp to eat, they grow their own vegetables and they are learning to be self-sufficient.

El Poso (“The Sediment”) is turning into a tiny utopia and all of this is apparently thanks to a strange cement Virgin Mary statuette —  the Slum Virgin — that sends divine messages to the people through a “medium,” the transvestite prostitute Cleo, who renounces life on the game to try to save his shanty-town community from impending destruction.  

The fast-paced prose of Gabriela Cabezon Camara’s virtuoso debut novel takes the reader into a surreal and otherworldly slum that could exist anywhere in Latin America. The socially aware narrative is recounted in parts by the young and ambitious journalist Quity who, while reporting on the strange daily happenings in El Poso, ends up falling in love with Cleo, with whom she has a child.

Following the destruction of the slum by police helicopters and bulldozers and the massacre of most of its inhabitants, Quity and Cleo manage to escape to the Tigre Delta and from there, via Uruguay, to a lurid and artificial Miami. There they plan to promote their next project, a cumbia opera based on their experiences in the slum.

Slum Virgin is a story filled with colourful and hilarious characters from the Buenos Aires underworld, from corrupt policemen and members of the local mafia to prostitutes, thieves, drug dealers, bishop abusers and daytime TV entertainers.

Cabezon Camara, a brilliant social chronicler and an indefatigable activist for the LGTBQ community, employs shanty town slang, colloquial language and references to reggaeton  and popular culture —  all well translated by Frances Riddle — to weave a densely packed postmodern story that is a rich and kaleidoscopic vision of Latin America’s most destitute and marginal. 

The author manages to transform daily tragedies into comedic experience, death into life and the real into the surreal in a revelatory and powerful book that sheds light on the realities of the poor and downtrodden of a “Third-World” shanty town, never trivialising their experiences, desires and  dashed hopes.

And yet, the book manages to be as funny and playful as it is tough. As the narrator Quity explains, “I felt like a castaway who’d barely survived a shipwreck. Although I’ve learnt by now that no-one ever survives a shipwreck.”

 

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