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Almost Never

In the opening scene of Almost Never, by Mexican writer Daniel Sada, the perturbed protagonist, Demetrio, an “agronomist” in Oaxaca, ponders his humdrum life. What will relieve his tedium? The answer: “Sex, as an apt pretext for breaking the monotony; motor-sex; anxiety-sex; the habit of sex, as any glut that can well become a burden; colossal, headlong, frenzied ambiguous sex … pretense-sex, see-through sex. Pleasure, in the end, as praise that goes against the grain of life.”

In the opening scene of Almost Never, by Mexican writer Daniel Sada, the perturbed protagonist, Demetrio, an “agronomist” in Oaxaca, ponders his humdrum life. What will relieve his tedium? The answer: “Sex, as an apt pretext for breaking the monotony; motor-sex; anxiety-sex; the habit of sex, as any glut that can well become a burden; colossal, headlong, frenzied ambiguous sex … pretense-sex, see-through sex. Pleasure, in the end, as praise that goes against the grain of life.”

Reading this novel is like watching an airplane movie without the sound. Sada creates a unique narrative voice. Imagine a rather arch seatmate providing running commentary on the action complete with exclamations of fictitious shock: “Oh my. What goes on here?” And this voice in your ear does not stint on providing explicit detail that cuts close to “too much information.”

The plot is straightforward: It is 1945. Our young man on the make finds himself in a triangle playing Mireya, the earthy prostitute he meets at the local upscale brothel, against Renata, the beautiful ingénue kept on the short leash of bourgeois respectability by her overbearing Mama. Though tempted by the possibility of endless varieties of erotic fulfillment with Mireya, he abandons her and overcomes obstacles and setbacks toward the goal of respectable connubial security, all the while surrounded by a passel of widowed mothers, spinster aunts, and grasping madams. The fiancées’ encounters take place sporadically one hour at a time over a period of five years. Walls are thin, and boundaries between parents and adult children are thinner.

The just-ended World War and its aftermath seem part of another world. This is also a story of provincial Mexico on the cusp of modernization: not much indoor plumbing, unreliable or nonexistent electricity, potholes and unpaved roads, one radio station, and rain barrel bathtubs. When Demetrio abandons Mireya on a train, he strikes out, hauling a suitcase with his life savings, into that ubiquitous Juan Rulfian desert, empty save for a curious mule driver to carry him to the next town.

He takes a job in northern Coahuila overseeing three livestock ranches, a milieu presented in a collage of brilliant detail: isolation, dust, animal husbandry and butchery, the race against heat to get unrefrigerated meat to small-town markets, masturbatory fantasies vs. the reality of sordid local bordellos, and camposino resignation vs. Demetrio’s middle-class striving: “whatever existed outside this rustic scope of their life was and would be difficult: obstacles like too sharp thorns… Why try to join a society so unforgiving? One could confirm that illiteracy was synonymous with fixed deep rootedness, or merely a roughshod philosophy born and bred and dead in the opacity of a small unpopulated world.”

Sada sends up the sexual mores of the rural bourgeoisie, tongue very much in cheek, but with compassion for both Demetrio’s mama’s boy machismo and Renata’s ambivalent puritanism. What finally convinces Demetrio to succumb to carrot and stick courtship manipulations is careful cost-benefit analysis: marriage will be more economical and less dangerous than purchased sex. And for women, what are the options? Prostitution, repressed virginity, spinsterhood, or submissive wifehood. Only one character, the determinedly unmarried old maid, Cousin Zulema, briefly casts aside constraints, taking up with Abelardo, the now-widowed beloved of her youth: “holed up for three days during which the amusing—and fascinating—part was to watch Abelardo naked and using his cane to move around…of course she couldn’t laugh, for she was ecstatic and he upon seeing her broad hips, her dropping flesh, likewise her breasts, like balls of socks, he had to hold back his urge to let out a giggle.” But he dies in her arms.

Two problems: the snail-paced courtship sometimes starts to feel like it is playing out in real time; one wishes for more compression. Also, the narrative voice makes use of exclamations and slang that are difficult to translate, but North Americanisms like “phooey!” or “the big guy” or “the green-eyed gal” feel labored and distracting. The translator leaves some place names in Spanish, which gives the reader a sense of the way language is used in the original text—for example, a pair of brothels named La Presunsión (the guess) and La Entretenida (the aspirant or the entertaining). But it takes motivation to head for the Spanish/English dictionary.

Sada, born in 1953, has been publishing innovative novels since the ’90s. Almost Never won the 2008 Herralde literary award and is the first of this writer’s work to be translated into English. Despite what is lost in translation, the humanist scope of the novel shines through—just the right antidote to escape our own local solipsism.

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