Almost Never by Daniel Sada (trans. Katherine Silver). Graywolf. 320 pp., $16.00.
During his lifetime, the Mexican novelist Daniel Sada was regarded as the most committed avant-gardist of his generation. A native of Sacramento, in the border state of Coahuila—during his youth a town of a thousand people—he countered the urban fiction of Mexico City’s generación del crack with stories set in the ranches and villages of the northern desert. The austerity of his subjects was matched by the extravagance of his forms. He made his reputation with Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe (1999, “No one ever knows the truth because it looks like a lie”), a 650-page chronicle of electoral fraud written entirely in the meters of the Spanish Golden Age. Some called it the most difficult novel ever to come out of Mexico, and compared it to Joyce and Faulkner in its scope. Closer to home, Sada was said to recall Juan Rulfo (a onetime teacher) in his subject matter, and José Lezama Lima in his baroque technique.
Sada died of kidney disease in November 2011, days after receiving Mexico’s National Prize for Arts and Sciences. The best-regarded book of his later years was Casi nunca (2008), now appearing in English as Almost Never. A far more accessible work than its predecessors, it shows considerable relaxing of ambition. The style is still highly worked, but the plot is broad comedy edging onto farce. The Second World War has just ended, and Demetrio Sordo, a young agronomist of inconsistent ambitions and robust appetites, is visiting brothels for the sheer novelty of sex on demand. He develops a passion for the prostitute Mireya, who believes that Demetrio will rescue her from her situation; but a family obligation takes him north to Sacramento, where he conceives an attraction—described in plain carnal terms—for the virginal, green-eyed Renata Melgarejo. Mireya decides to falsely tell Demetrio she is pregnant. Demetrio decides to abandon Mireya on a train. Renata’s mother decides that Demetrio must be put through circuitous sufferings. And so forth, all in a calculatedly playful telling that is less Lezama Lima than Cabrera Infante. Sex appears for the sake of sex, and style for the sake of style.
The novel begins with a catalog—“Sex, as an apt pretext for breaking the monotony; motor-sex; anxiety-sex; the habit of sex”—which winds around to the protagonist, his erotic resolution and his first brothel visit, all casually introduced in the middle of a paragraph as if they had grown out of the opening abstractions rather than the other way round. This is a poetic more than a fictional logic; though Sada no longer writes paragraphs in meter, he is still drawing his forms from distant sources. Much of his singularity lies in a particular mock-epic narrative voice, sardonic but not malevolent, that peppers the book with exclamations, alliterations and internal rhymes, and sometimes generates plot events on the fly. An awkward conversation between Demetrio and his mother, which, the narrator observes, ought to be set in a precarious rowboat, turns out to summon that rowboat by way of a flood. A group of ranch mechanics is inflated to “peons dextrous in the automotive arts,” or in the even more baroque original, peones . . . muy duchos en lo concerniente a las artes de la mecánica automotriz. Katherine Silver’s translation is deft with faux high style; more treacherous is the opposite register of Mexican slang. Órale, vamos a ensartarnos, with its suggestion of physical skewering, isn’t quite “Hey, you, let’s get it on”; nor is una puta llena de mierda simply “a lowdown whore.” Generally the translation balances such difficulties with a spirit of invention much in keeping with Sada’s own. The ubiquitous !Vaya! is once rendered as “Kerplunk!”
The amorous plot, where it is not purely libidinal, ambles its way through a comedy of provincial manners. Its length derives in part from the slowness with which Demetrio must court Renata under the mores of Sacramento, a town the narrator wryly calls “a world cultural center superior to, let us say, Luxembourg.” The material aspects of the place—the dust, the difficulty of bathing—are memorable, and the scenes of hardship in the more remote desert, where Demetrio’s lack of foresight strands him more than once, are among the best things in the book. The comedy of courtship also has well-drawn touches, as when Renata and her mother repeatedly postpone Demetrio’s visits for days at a time because they are “not presentable” at any given hour. For his part, Demetrio is mostly a passive prop in the marriage negotiations. His name combines one of Shakespeare’s comic lovers with the Spanish word for “deaf,” and his perceptions never extend far past his own lust, except to fasten on the substitute desire for material gain. Alongside the courtship comes his erratic, somewhat surprising transformation into a man of means, first by plying his trade of agronomist on ranches and then, more successfully, by sinking family money into a billiards hall. Mexico is industrializing—from time to time the narrator reminds us how backward are the roads, the plumbing, the communications services, compared to what is coming—and a young man with luck and modest resources may go far indeed.
In a late interview, Sada said that he had once wanted to write an epic poem that was also a nineteenth-century novel, but that he later renounced that ambition as impossible. To read Almost Never as a nineteenth-century novel would be to find it ending after the first act. Its goal is not to show the outcome of Demetrio’s striving, as an older realism would have done, nor to provide, in the manner of the Boom, an exemplary origin story for Mexico. The question, then, is what the book is actually about. Most definitely it is about sex. But for all its verve, sex in Almost Never remains a curiously empty signifier. Sada is not especially interested in opposing hedonic nature to repressive society—a brothel, after all, is a highly social institution—nor does he follow the antic combinatorics of Joyce’s obscenity. Some Latin Americans have written machismo upside down, as when 2666 set its hard-boiled exploits against a background of serial rape and murder, but Almost Never is much cooler in its judgments. Its closing pages reduce sex to pure formalism, and having reached this endpoint, one is inclined to think that form has been the point all along. Like the billiard games that make Demetrio’s money, sex is a mechanical operation shot through with the potential for lyric. Only a true lover of language could take such an approach to writing and still make it read like a seduction.
Paul Kerschen’s most recent work of fiction, The Drowned Library, was published in November by Foxhead Books.
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