Selva Almada, Not a River. Translated by Annie McDermott. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2024. 104 pages.

Argentina’s enduring economic crises make no obvious appearance in the novels of Selva Almada, whose latest, Not A River, is shortlisted for the International Booker Prize. Her portrait of life in the subtropical northeastern region of Argentina, in fictional towns of Corrientes, Entre Ríos and Paraná provinces, is painted on a backdrop of poverty, despair and strangled hopes. Her explicit theme is the lives of men and their violent machismo (chauvinism). The stretched conditions of down-at-heel towns provides the background.

Almada’s stories are reminiscent of Canadian author David Adams Richards’s portrayal of life in New Brunswick’s economically depressed Miramichi region. His characters are often poorly educated, financially insolvent and prone to violence. However, Almada’s men – as much as we are artfully drawn to identify with them – rarely exhibit the redeeming turns of mercy, charity or moral enlightenment of some of Richards’s characters.

Similarities between Almada’s work and Argentina’s literary pantheon are not readily apparent. Her work is a marked departure from what many North American and British readers see as the Argentine canon: the lofty philosophical and speculative work of Jorge Luis Borges, the puzzles and gamesmanship of Julio Cortázar, the historically inspired metafiction of Ricardo Piglia and the frantic experimentalism of César Aira. These men operate at a level of abstraction far from the realism of Almada and Richards.

Following Brickmakers and The Wind That Lays Waste, Not A River is Almada’s third novel in a loosely connected trilogy exploring the theme of male aggression. Arguably feminist, the novels are far from dogmatic preaching. Almada inhabits the minds of her tormented male protagonists. Their destructive and self-destructive comportment is the product of deep impulses and ingrained attitudes. Almada captures the sparks that ignite their actions and propel them toward tragic ends.

In Not A River, Enero, El Negro and Tilo go on a fishing trip. They catch a large stingray and hang the giant fish from a tree. This draws the ire of a local man, Aguirre, as the friends’ trophy begins to rot in the sun. A sense of menace infuses the story, unfolding in a series of violent events. These include the drowning of Tilo’s father, Eusebio, the beating of the three friends at a dance party, and multiple deaths including those of Aguirre’s two nieces in a vehicle accident. All this mayhem, catalyzed by drunkenness, is driven by male pride and sexual jealousy.

The earlier Brickmakers explored similar territory. Two friends, Pájaro and Marciano, are the sons of brickmakers Tamai and Miranda. Their fathers nurture a mutual hatred that explodes when Tamai steals Miranda’s prized greyhound. The dog, suffering from Tamai’s neglect, is euthanized by his wife Celina. The hatred between the men ultimately poisons the sons’ initial friendship, and their animosity careens uncontrollably into a fatal confrontation after Marciano initiates a homosexual liaison with Pájaro’s brother Angel.

The Wind That Lays Waste, the earliest novel of the trilogy, is the only one to put the spotlight – though tangentially – on a contemporary social phenomenon: the rise of Christian evangelicalism in Latin America. Reverend Pearson is a travelling preacher whose car breaks down in an isolated town. The story takes place in a single day during which Pearson succeeds in converting the mechanic, José Emilio, to the faith. Pearson’s sceptical – even atheistic – daughter looks on with clear wonder at her father’s effective proselytizing technique.

Almada underlines the real physical decay so characteristic of many Argentine places suffering years of economic neglect: “The Reverend … said there used to be two swimming pools … It didn’t take long to find them. Bits of iron were visible in the cracked cement … The tile covering the inside walls were smeared with mud, and some were missing here and there, as if the old pools were losing their teeth.” In the timeless instruction of editors, Almada “shows, does not tell” the poverty. Destitution is the ground in which evangelicalism takes root in Argentina. In 2019, 15 per cent of this once strongly Catholic nation’s population considered itself evangelical, up from 9 per cent a decade before. The evangelical percentage is higher in the northeast region, the setting for Almada’s fiction.

Misbehaving men are Almada’s lead characters. The women who are their partners, lovers, mothers, daughters, friends and relations play the supporting roles. All live in an environment offering little to aspire to beyond daily acts of survival. Physical intimacy is one of the few available paths of temporary escape. As might be expected, though, as the men pursue drunkenness and brawling, the women sometimes rise above the moral wasteland to initiate occasional acts of caring and selflessness. For example, in Brickmakers, Celina secures the family’s survival when her husband, Tamai, tires of making bricks. She takes his place at the kilns, in addition to sewing clothes for clients.

Why does Almada not put her female subjects at the central axes of her plots? Is it because she wants to expose and dissect Latin American machismo? Does the path away from the yoke of male chauvinism require exposure of its inner workings and irrational cruelties?

In a recent New York Review of Books article, the Chilean-American writer Ariel Dorfman praised Gabriel García Márquez’s posthumous novel Until August. For the first time in the renowned author’s work, Dorfman noted, “a woman was the uncontested protagonist.” Other writers, such as the prolific Chilean-American Isabel Allende, do put women in the foreground. With her conscious decision to explore men’s flawed and complicated psyches, Almada may do more to make readers ponder the effects of machismo than explicit feminist writers.

The Booker nomination has pegged Almada as a rising literary star. On the subject of her compelling literary style, there is no better advocate than Annie McDermott, the translator of Brickmakers and Not A River. In Brickmakers, the “prose has a visceral, lyrical intensity that matches the harshness of the sunbaked landscapes.” McDermott quotes Almada’s own description of her writing in Not A River: “A murmur, almost like the sound of water.” Almada, says McDermott, captures “the patterns and rhythms of everyday speech (of the northeast region) and turns them into spare, perfectly weighted poetry.”

Almada’s contemporary Mariana Enríquez, who is winning lots of critical and popular attention, works a more attention-seeking literary territory than Almada. Enríquez’s most recent novel, Our Share of Night, is a work of gothic horror exploiting the darkness of the Argentine “dirty war.” She seeds her plot with startling and phantasmagoric incidents. While Enríquez and Almada are both identified with what is called “the new Argentine narrative,” Almada’s work eschews sensational devices of mystical forces, magic spells and supernatural appointments with destiny. Hers is a more grounded project, grappling with unvarnished contemporary realities. She is more Émile Zola than Edgar Allan Poe.

Argentina’s current affairs barely intrude in Almada’s novels. But the impoverished conditions she explores in fiction are a breeding ground for the frustration that brought Javier Milei to the presidency. Milei’s support among the growing population of evangelicals is one of his electoral strengths. It is also a dire indication of the further drift of political dialogue away from platform and policy toward tribalism and identity.

To date, Almada has avoided comment about Milei’s government other than to draw attention to his cutting a small cultural program: financial support for translations of contemporary Argentine literature into foreign languages. That program helped bring Almada’s and others’ work to international attention. Without the resources necessary for translating writers, foreign publishers and the judges of the International Booker may never have discovered her work.