Argentinian author Ana Maria Shua’s novel Death As a Side Effect is set in a near-future dystopia of armed gangs, social disorder and governmental incompetence that vacillates between scary intrusiveness and near-criminal negligence. Despite this Clockwork Orange type of setup, however, the novel’s social milieu is far less compelling than it might be.
For all the emotional power conveyed in certain nightmarish aspects of this future—the treatment of the elderly foremost among them—this book is ultimately a meditation on the bonds between grown-up child and aging parent. This focus has effects both good and bad. While avoiding the contrivances of a cheesy, Logan’s Run-like flight from the authorities, the reader can’t help feeling that an opportunity was missed.
Ernesto is the novel’s narator, a marginally-employed makeup artist whose elderly parents are either batty (Mom) or aggressive (Dad). His sister Cora is ineffectual and his lover Margot seems barely interested in him; the strongest relationship seems to be with Goransky, a grandiose and possibly demented film director who has taken him on for his latest project.
Ernesto lives in a Buenos Aires, which is formed of a patchwork of unsafe neighborhoods, privately barricaded safe zones, and entirely autonomous neighborhoods run by criminal gangs. The government is a minimal presence in this Argentina, and citizens’ encounters with prfessional thieves and amateur marauders are an everyday occurrence. Shua extrapolates from contemporary reality, with its armed guards, private security agencies, and gated communities, to imagine what such an environment might look like 20 years or so in the future. It doesn’t look too good.
Warning: this description makes the book sound more engaging than it actually is. Shua gives these elements relatively little attention in the course of the story. Ernesto, reasonably enough, barely notices them; they are facts of his life, not elements of fiction. Like most of us, he goes through his day thinking about the relationships that define and limit him, not the societal milieu that surrounds him.
So Ernesto concentrates on his father’s failing health. In this dystopia, the elderly are forced into nursing homes whether they wish it or not, and are kept alive as long as possible so the homes can collect their fees. Age has become so repugnant to the population at large that it’s become common practice to call the police on the elderly for the crime of being old. Only the extremely wealthy can avoid this fate, and neither Ernesto nor his father is extremely wealthy.
The bulk of the novel’s action is spent with Ernesto as he wrestles to prevent his father from falling into a similar trap as so many of his countrymen. For this, he calls in favors from nearly every character he comes across.
Shua’s writing, translated by Andrea G. Labinger, keeps things moving along efficiently through the course of the book’s 164 pages. Ernesto is not the most relaxing of narrators, as his social paranoia reinforced as it is by the anxiety about his father. “In my desperation to share everything that’s impossible to share with you, I often told you about my father,” he says early on to the unseen audience that he addresses throughout the novel. “You listened without hearing me, although not impatiently, and I never could quite figure out if you were bored.”
There is engaging writing to be found here, but there is also a certain flatness, a bloodlessness which is surprising considering the potentially powerful material. “Someone must have reported her, because a social worker showed up at Mama’s apartment with two guards from a Convalescent Home. Cora had a long chat with her while Mama stared at them bug-eyed.”
Elsewhere, describing his work, the narrator says that “I enjoy giving people the gratification of seeing themselves look more like their ideal image for a while. The expression of joy on my clients’ faces when they look in the mirror is part pf my own happiness.” But this happiness, like the narrator’s other emotions, feels distant indeed. Maybe it’s the translation, or perhaps Shua is trying to reflect the distant reserve that one might adopt in such a situation. Either way, it makes for less than compelling reading.
Ultimately, this book hinges on the relationship between father and son, and frankly, that’s some mighty familiar territory. Everything from Hamlet to Star Wars is built around that trope—hell, last night I Netflixed the Indian film Such a Long Journey, based on the book by Rohinton Mistry. Guess what it was about?
The dull writing is a real shame given the unique setting, at least for English readers—I dare you to name another dystopian novel set in South America. This flatness is especially puzzling as Shua is no newcomer. She’s written over 40 books, and this novel was chosen as “one of the one hundred best Latin American novels” of the past 25 years.
Readers curious about contemporary trends in South American literature, especially speculative literary fiction, might want to give this a look. But be warned: futuristic or not, the story may feel all too familiar.